not lacking motivation, just knowledge
August 11, 2008 4:13 PM   Subscribe

Advise for a 32 yr old amateur who wishes to dedicate the rest of their life to creating art

Sometime soon (over next 15 months or so) I’m going to change careers and begin creating contemporary art full-time. I realize I’m starting way late (I’m already 32), so I want to make the best early decisions that I can and not waste my time. Please give me any advice that you can to help me get started on this path right.

First, I should say that I’ve already looked at other threads on this and similar topics. I’m not interested in creating commercial art (graphic art, design), nor am I interested in creating popular art (art shows, craft pieces, reproductions). I want to create gallery art, seeped in an understanding of art history, criticism, and theory. I have a serious muse itch (I have a binder full of hundreds of ideas), and I don’t think I will be able to stop it any time soon. Plus, I’ve already spent 10 years doing work I’m not fulfilled with; I want to dedicate myself to art 100% (understanding that I may have to spend time networking and communicating).

My technique is not the greatest. All of my technique had been developed in middle school and high school (in the 90s) and various self-training. Over the last year I have been trying to retrain my technique, but I don’t want to waste much time if I don’t have to. Frankly, most of my ideas will end up being mixed media sculpture anyway, so I’m not sure how long I should focus on drawing and painting.

I’m not independently wealthy by far, but I live cheaply enough, and I’ve saved up enough money over the last 10 years to float me for at least another six or so. Plus my spouse is pretty supportive and is willing to subsidize me.

Any advice will be helpful, but here are some things I've been particularly brooding over:

1. Do I spend time and money on a BFA? Or a MFA? There are colleges within range of me that are not fantastic, but probably adequate
2. How do I make connections with other artists?
3. How do I establish my credibility?
4. How do I get my pieces into galleries?
5. How difficult is it to get a piece into a museum (like PS1, for instance)?
6. Who should I try to meet?
7. How do I pay for things? Some of my ideas may require access to some serious machinery and materials. Are there secrets?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
The only part of your question I can address is #7 - access to machinery. I've recently been building art that requires access to machine tools, and here in the SF Bay Area there are a couple of spaces that provide access to them. We rent space in The Shipyard but there are other artists places here with tools and places like the Crucible that teach and also sell access to their equipment.

For some stuff we've bought equipment as necessary. As far as I can tell there aren't any secrets, but I'm pretty much an amateur at this.
posted by pombe at 4:45 PM on August 11, 2008

This is a big question! I'm on the same path as you (over 30, quit a career to work full time at being an artist with an eye to the fine art market), though my medium is different. Here's what I did:

- I started by taking some classes as a continuing-ed student, some in my medium (I needed to learn some specialized technical things and get equipment access), and some classes designed to help elicit, refine and realize particular ideas. To find these classes, go to the websites of every art school and liberal arts school in your area and look for continuing education. If you're in NY, mail me for specific references.

- (An aside: You won't get into an MFA program yet. Not without 10-20 slides of recent work, a fully developed statement about that work and 2-3 letters of recommendation from arts professionals. I'm not trying to be a jerk by saying this; hell, I won't get in yet either. However, I found this out by going to open houses for the local MFA programs. There's a lot of great info to be had there about getting to that level. Regardless, BFAs aren't usually a prerequisite. MFA open houses tend to be in the fall, so keep an eye out.)

- If you have lots you want to learn, you can look into attending a school full-time and either not graduating (make sure you they let you take what you want in the order you want) or seeing if you can get a credit transfer from your previous degree. I know some students educated in other countries who came to the US and then did two extra years at art school.

- Anyway, so I took these classes and started developing my work, and read this book (Taking The Leap). I built a website showing my work by following the layout of artists who've reached the level I am after. I started assisting other artists (teachers at school and listings on so that I could learn from observing the careers of established artists. Also, these artists will write me recommendations for eventual MFA applications, grants, etc. I started applying to and getting into group shows. I skipped showing at cafes because I didn't think it'd add to my resume much and I don't need the pittance that selling my work at this stage would bring. I only apply to shows in major cities or at museums. (Mail me for my list of links of showing opportunities.) When I had 6 or so shows on my resume, I started applying to residencies. (SVA in NYC has a really good one with visiting artists for critical feedback; you will find others at and Residencies are great for meeting other artists, establishing credibility, and making work. Frequently they have woodshops and kilns and print shops and darkrooms for your use.

- You can also intern/work at galleries for more contacts/references/education. I don't because it would bore my head off. I do take classes in art history from time to time (there are some interesting and inexpensive ones at MoMA), and have a folder of contemporary art links that I read once a week.

- Apply for grants based on your medium, your themes, your gender, your background, your state, your disease, what-have-you.

- Check into arts collectives in your area. Sometimes a group of artists will get together and build a space with workshops and machines that you can pay for access to. If there's a school with all the stuff you need access to, check into jobs/internships/workstudy programs there.
posted by xo at 4:48 PM on August 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

I have a professional artist friend who works part time for a local Big Name Artist. Besides giving him a steady income on top of what he makes selling his own art, he also gets to travel with his employer to set up shows and gets the benefit of meeting a lot of gallery owners and art promoters.

Lots of working artists need in studio help, perhaps working for one of them could give you some helpful experience in navigating the pro art world (and if you're lucky, even get you access to useful studio equipment.)
posted by nerdcore at 5:02 PM on August 11, 2008

I hope you understand you are proposing a difficult and quixotic undertaking. There are many millions of ambitious people aspiring to the same goal and the majority of them will fail. This is not at all hyperbole. Comparing this to an ambition to be a successful actor or musician is very appropriate. This is the basis of observing a great many working artists through a family connection, not personal ambition or direct experience.

1. There are a number of potential benefits of education. Learning technical skills, art history and theory, making connections to the art world and getting access to working artists, learning how to present and frame your work to improve your chances of "selling" it to the fine art establishment, connecting to the world of grants, residencies, etc. that can finance the creation of art, increased credibility, and gaining the credentials that would allow you to teach (which many artists require as a stable income to create art on an ongoing basis) are among them. Listen to what xo says and start by getting directly into your art and thinking about what kind of education you really want and require and the various paths you could get there with.
2. Go to local, independent gallery openings and talk to the artists. You will need to make lots of these sorts of shows before you can hope to exhibit at the higher levels anyway so you need to get familiar with this world anyway. Local arts communities tend to have organizations, events, facilitating institutions. Figure out what these are and get involved. This is definitely an area where a lot of people form early connections through school.
3. By building a portfolio of solid work, applying for and getting shows, getting your work in shows written about positively in the arts and conventional press, applying for and getting grants, and being able to present, frame and explain your work in a way that's accessible and appealing to the art establishment.
4. Initially either you form a relationship with a gallery owner or administrator and get invited to participate in a show or apply to a show, you look for shows accepting applications and apply to them, or you get involved in some sort of grant or program that has a show built in. Later you might be making formal proposals to institutions to exhibit your work or be solicited to exhibit pieces or add them to collections but that will be well in future and by that point you will know all about it.
5. It's very difficult. That sort of venue is way ahead of you right now.
6. Artists who are succeeding in similar media to what you want to pursue. Artists who are active and knowledgeable about the local art scene and resources. People who own and run local galleries. People who make decisions and run exhibitions at important local galleries. For starters.
7. If you can't self-fund you will require either grants or institutional support (academic, government, museum). The main accessible support for artists is grants.
posted by nanojath at 6:17 PM on August 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

1. I can tell from the way you talk about your goals that you yourself don't really know what they are. Do you want to make art that fits in with what is contemporarily successful or do you want to advance art? These are very different things. Postmodernism is giving way to stranger things. Art school is a good way to get a sense of what is happening where and to get exposed to art that is moving in different directions. Also, it's a festival of feedback and portfolio building.
2. Talk to them! Get to know their work. School is good for this.
3. Get good. Not everywhere, but in the places that matter, being good is good enough. This isn't 70's New York here.
4. Apply for shows. Submit work for open shows (really, people pay attention there if the venue is groovy). You could even think about preparing a proposal for a show of your own, though this is maybe a little farther down the road. This question s closely related to 2.
5. A museum is somewhat different than a gallery. A lot different I guess. A museum like PS1 is very hard to get into unless you're dead or foreign. Think about galleries more.
6. Whoever you admire, or works in some of the same ways as you do. Gallery owners. Cool people.
7. You're not going to get grants without a good portfolio already. Going to school would help with this, as schools have stuff, and sometimes they even let alum use it. The secret is to be resourceful.

I see that nanojath and I largely agree. I would like to make it apparent, though, that I think that you would benefit greatly from going to school.
And, if it helps, IAAA.
posted by cmoj at 6:59 PM on August 11, 2008

Tons of useful stuff up there, but cmoj, in regards to the first half of your statement #1, to whit "Do you want to make art that fits in with what is contemporarily successful or do you want to advance art?" This presupposes ( and I know that this is a MUCH bigger conversation) that one has a choice, where I hold that (if one is listening) one does not. But that's the romantic in me.

I worked as an artist's assistant. Looong hours. Fantastic and invaluable experience. Made a lot of art, met a lot of people. Still good friends with many of them and it's been 20 years now. Watching someone austere work hard has a directly inspiring effect. Did on me. Submitted my work to EVERY show I could. Invaluable experience to see your stuff out in the open, among people. It informs you, teaches you new things about what you're doing.

Here's the story I have in my quiver:
When I was in my early 20's, and making a lot of art (assemblage sculpture in fact) a girlfriend of mine worked at an upscale gallery in NYC. They had many artists in their roster who made their living making art. When I asked her about what it took to be that successful, and she'd worked with mid-century guys as well as contemporary artists, she gave me a great nugget: that the one single thing that united every successful artist that she came into contact with was obsession. They knew EVERYTHING that was going on in town, around the country, they followed those they liked, they read the trades, and they worked worked worked. To a fault. Every one of them paid an obsessive amount of attention both to their art, and to the world their art went out in.
posted by asavage at 9:20 PM on August 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

IWAA (I was an artist, before I decided to change careers -- in my early 30s!)

First: There are 2 kinds of artist -- you need to decide which one you want to be.

1. Do you want to be a successful artist -- one who gets reviewed in newspapers and magazines, shows work in galleries of repute, travels the world and makes a living (or something like it) from sales of their art?


2. Do you want to be an artist who loves working alone in the studio, who does not care if the world notices -- ever -- and who derives personal fulfillment from the creative process alone?

Number 2 is easy -- go make art. Number 1 is hard... but not impossible. Number 1 means you will lead a life that relies on hard work, luck, and the approbation of others, whether deserved or not. Awesome!

Sounds to me like you want to be Number 1, so to start: nerdcore is on target. If you want to become a successful contemporary artist in the shortest possible time (talent notwithstanding), you need to cut to the chase. Move to New York. Now. Work for a successful artist as a studio assistant, or work in a gallery as a back-room packer/delivery person. Both easy enough jobs to get. Hang out with other young artists (32 is young in the art world!), and see as much art -- good, bad or otherwise, as long as it's new -- as you can. Go to openings (every night, if you can), go to museums to see truly great art (often), and make your own work when and where you can. Sleep when you're dead, eat when you're rich.

Live, eat, and drink with other yearning artists your age. Learning the language of contemporary art is far more important than technique or brains. If you see what is being made in the marketplace, and meet the people making it, you will come to understand what gets shown and what doesn't -- and who gets shown, and who doesn't. Did I mention that the art world, like the real world, isn't fair? It rewards novelty and bravado, connections and physical beauty, exoticism and brown-nosing. And talent. (Not skill.)

Apply what you've learned to your own art. Show it to your friends and ask for their input. Listen -- for real. Fyi, this is the best part of being an artist -- hanging out with other people who share the same insane dream, often because they're constitutionally incapable of doing anything else. (Those who can do something else, eventually do -- myself included.)

Then all you have to do is get your work in group shows that your friends or friends of friends put on in odd spaces. Kiss a lot of ass and get into a "real" gallery group show, then a few more. Cheat on your spouse with a gallery owner and voila -- you've got a solo show, and the world is your oyster.

Oh -- and change your name, if it's something boring. (A friend of mine did this, and it worked wonders.) A German moniker is good, or something surfer-y.

Note: You can try the same thing in L.A. or London, but it won't be the same, your odds will be lower. You want to get pregnant at 40, you go on Clomid. You want to become a famous artist by the time you're 40, you move to NYC.


-- You could go to art school. If you do, go to the most famous one you can (quality notwithstanding -- they all rely on reputations earned in the 1970s, but that's a different topic). CalArts, SVA, ArtCenter, the Whitney Program, whatever. You won't learn a lot about art, but you will learn to talk about art, which is invaluable, and you'll make connections with visiting artists and your fellow students, who will someday become your peers in the art world. You'll also learn how to schmooze and backbite.

MFA or BFA, it doesn't matter -- getting into the right school does. Getting an MFA makes you eligible to teach in art school, but if you want to be a working artist, you shouldn't care: About halfway through school you'll realize that all your MFA-bearing teachers are failed artists themselves; they can't make a living off of their art, so they teach. And they are all miserable fucks, who despise your talent and begrudge your success. Beware.

-- You could stay put. Live where you currently live, and do your thing -- but it's a lot like wanting to be a movie director but refusing to move to L.A. Yes, your great talent may be discovered someday. But it may take a long time -- and may not happen at all.

Fyi, if you follow my advice, there is a 99% chance you will fail. But if you want to be a famous artist, or a wealthy artist, or somewhere in between, don't screw around. Don't insult the people you're asking to sacrifice for your dream. Do it right, or don't do it at all.

Oh -- and good luck!
posted by turducken at 9:20 PM on August 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Read "The Brutality of Fact", interviews with Francis Bacon, by David Sylvester IIRC. Nobody but NOBODY talks about art like Bacon does imho.
posted by asavage at 9:21 PM on August 11, 2008

My 2c: I went to art school and by far, the most valuable thing about it is making connections. What I actually learned about art and what I applied to my work could fit in a thimble. Meeting other artists and having the opportunity to do some collaborative work was well worth the tuition.

As turducken astutely points out - you need to move to NYC (in the US, or London in Europe) if you really want to "make it." Art school is another option, but it definitely needs to be the right school.

If you're thinking about going to art school to enhance your technique - my advice is don't bother. A gallery will be interested in your work, not where you went to school. If you want to enhance your skills, work. Work all the time. Work in your sleep. That's how you get better. Someone else's input is arbitrary since every single person is going to have some different idea of what you should do. You won't get the same feedback from every school, or even every professor. The reason you pay thousands of dollars to hear what someone else thinks is to schmooze with that someone else, not because their opinion is the be all and end all of art.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:52 AM on August 12, 2008

Deep breath... and begin...

I'm hardly supporting myself by being an artist (in fact, very few people do) but if you're going to go for it, I have only one piece of advice: Do it because there is NOTHING else you can do.

Write that down and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Remember it, think on it and if you come to the conclusion that the answer is, "Yes, I can do nothing else," for all possible variations on the question, go for it.

One thing you didn't mention and I'm going to harp on here is when you'll work on your art. If you haven't considered this, stop now. Don't quit your day job, keep the art as a hobby. However, if you want to succeed, you will work on your art like it is a 9 to 5 job. Promise me this. Don't sleep in, don't take months off. You will need to work work work to get your stuff to the level where any of the following numbers even begin to come into play. The art world is paved with talented souls who never worked to make it, you'll have to work, and even this is no guarantee, but you can do it, go out and get it, but remember: is it the only thing you can do?

Now to answer your questions:
1) For your purposes a BFA is good, an MA okay and an MFA only slightly more useful than an MA. In art school, learn techniques. Learn skills. Don't fall into the the "all art is equally valid" trap. There is good and bad art, know where you fall. Learn to view your own art with a critic's eye. Do you want to teach at the university level? That is the only reason to get an MFA. Do not go into debt for an art degree.

2) See 1. Also, go to openings, art festivals, receptions, galleries, shows, anything where artists and their patrons gather. Meet and greet. You can make a living in towns that are not Asheville, NC, LA, NYC and Santa Fe, but you'll be limiting your audience.

3) Never feel like you're not an artist, always describe yourself as such. However, never feel like you're better than anyone. Art is a small world and if you make a bad impression, you'd be surprised how quickly it will spread. Make a website, have business cards, a digital portfolio, act like a business person first, artist second.

4) Drop of the stuff you made in 3. Chat up owners, be prepared to make sacrifices. Do small sell-out jobs on the cheap to get your name out there. Price your stuff way below what you think the value is. Get press, don't be afraid to promote. (see 7)

5) Museums are their own beast. Apply to juried shows, make connections with collectors who might donate your work to museums. Dumb luck will play a big role here.

6) Everyone. People working in parks, professors, pros, students, agency hacks. They all have something to say. It's up to you to figure out how it relates to you.

7) You kind find stuff second-hand for cheap, check Craig's List, bulletin boards in art stores, local newsletters, etc. Meet a few other artists and go in on gang studios, for big stuff. There's probably more sculptors/painters/photographers/etc in your town that you realize. You'll have already met them, organize them, get them into a collective. Go crazy. It's far easier to promote a group than a single artist. This will lead to 4, 5 and 6.

previous bloviation here, here, here, here, here and here. Enjoy!
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:05 AM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Ky at 11:26 AM on August 12, 2008

Some superb advice above. But definitely watch this.
posted by Magnakai at 11:51 PM on August 12, 2008

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