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How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, Sixth Edition, by Caroll Michels

Post #1370 • June 25, 2009, 12:18 PM • 11 Comments

In the course of reviewing Art/Work back in March, I noted that the gold standard for artist career books had been set by Caroll Michels, whose How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist had yet to be surpassed. I lamented only that the most recent edition, the fifth, dated to 2001 and as such had missed out on the phenomenon of the fairs and the explosion of the Internet. A couple of months later I got an e-mail from Michels informing me of the forthcoming sixth edition, with a new chapter on Internet art marketing.

Michels has updated the book throughout with recent examples and quotations. She has rewritten and clarified more than a few passages based on feedback received in response to earlier editions, giving a robust, tested quality to her advice. The few characterizations about the art world in need of reconsideration have received it. It remains as artist-centric as ever, to its credit. Interestingly, it still doesn't address the fairs. Having seen my criticism to that effect in the Art/Work review, she responded:

Like auctions, art fairs effect such a small sliver of the greater artist population, and although I have clients who have participated in the fairs via their respective galleries, I am underwhelmed by the advent of fairs and the importance attached. I just read a refreshing interview with the New York dealer David Zwirner (I refuse to use the title "gallerist") and he seems to share my opinion.

I am now refusing to use the title "gallerist" as well. You're dealers. Deal with it. Speaking of which, I criticized only one aspect of Survive that didn't involve its lack of currency: its treatment of dealers. I still think this chapter has an unfortunate title, "Dealing with Dealers and Psyching Them Out." You should not aspire to psyching out your dealer. You should aspire to a mutually respectful and productive working relationship, preferably on terms delineated in a written contract. By presenting a preponderance of negative examples, Michels makes it difficult to envision what such a thing might look like. True, she has hundreds of data points, and they don't add up to a flattering picture of the profession. Indeed, updated tales of shady practices, new to the sixth edition, indicate that all parties involved still need to consider what dealers can and cannot do, and should and should not do. And as Michels rightly puts it (emphasis hers):

Some of my impressions and characterizations might seem severe, but it is not my intention to throw all of the blame for the ills and injustices in the art world on dealers, curators, and the like. Artists must also accept responsibility for the way things are, mainly because most artists, overtly, covertly, or inadvertently, participate (or try to participate) in the dog-eat-dog system. Few are trying to change it.

If I had my way, I would replace commercial galleries with a system in which artists exhibited work in their studios and sold it directly to the public. But such a system could work only if artists acquired enough self-confidence not to need gallery validations, and if the public, likewise, had the self-confidence necessary to buy work without gallery validation. ... For the time being, since the gallery system is still very much intact and is virtually unregulated, the following opinions, advice, and observations are aimed at helping artists acquire more business savvy, more control over their careers, and more control in their relationships with those who are currently running the show.

Michels calls for regulation in the elided bit, which I don't support for philosophical reasons and because I don't think there's any substitute for understanding your business and forming good contractual relationships with your associates. I don't think she'd disagree with the latter. I absolutely agree that artists have not successfully articulated good alternatives to the gallery system and generally don't demand enough professionalism from the galleries they already have. But the chapter remains more How-Not-To than How-To, leaving the reader to search elsewhere for models of artist-gallery partnerships gone right.

That leaves the new chapter on Internet art marketing. She starts off with a useful admonition—to either put together a fine-art portfolio or a consumer-oriented site, but not both. She talks about how to work with designers (noting that if you can't make your own site look like a professional designed it, hire a professional to design it), how to divide the site into categories, and how to use the site to supplement mailed materials. She makes a good reckoning of blogs, with an eye on what works for the artists producing them, and touches on social networking, podcasting, and third-party online galleries. She talks about effective use of e-mail and print-on-demand, the latter which belongs in a different chapter, but the explanation was cogent.

Most of it is perfectly sensible and all of it up to the high standards of the rest of the book. I only tripped up on a couple of points. One was the suggestion to include a price list on the website. I'm not convinced that this has any place on a fine-art portfolio site, which ought to provide what I think of as scholarly information about you as an artist: images, biography, and creative or intellectual context.

The other is her admonition to include only newer work, presented as a consistent body. Again, if the idea is to show your work and explain yourself to art world professionals, you could do worse than prove that you've been working a long time (if you have) at a productive creative life. I think you should show the older work. I do. Artists are generally not so schizophrenic that viewers can't discern any thread at all between varying bodies of creative output.

There's also an idea called radical transparency, which encourages a maximally open approach to one's professional life for the purpose of gaining audience trust. One could take that to the point of contradicting my earlier statement about price lists. Art is so mysterious to people that I think this attitude has a lot of potential. It could even go some distance towards reforming the relationship between artists, galleries, and buyers in ways longed for by Michels above. But she is concentrating on known solutions from the present, not possible solutions from the future, and I won't fault her for it.

This field of artist consultancy has more or less belonged to Michels for the last quarter-century, and Survive, in many respects, remains the ultimate reference and the most heartfelt, thoroughly-argued call for artist self-empowerment. The appendix of artist resources, now over a hundred pages, in itself makes this a useful and important work. The sixth edition represents a marked improvement of currency, completeness, and rhetoric. In fact, it has taken all this time for another book to appear that compared well enough to make a decision between the two a challenge. That book is the The Artist's Guide by Jackie Battenfield, a review of which is forthcoming.




June 25, 2009, 12:49 PM

I agree with just about all your comments here. The part about dealers (no, not "gallerists", for crying out loud!) is right on target. The anti-dealer cant and the call for regulation are just the usual left-wing knee-jerk let-someone-else-protect-me stuff and tt is bad advice for a young artist who better suck it up and take the hard knocks.

Rule #1 is be SKEPTICAL of dealers; half of them are amateurs and incompetents who don't know what they are doing. Very few are crooks.

But rule #2 is there is ABSOLUTELY NO SUBSTITUTE FOR A GOOD DEALER. You do not want to sell from your studio, unless you like being treated like a shopgirl in Victorian England. There are people who can do this; I am not one of them. Not only that but a good dealer promotes, supports at auction, invites you to things, provides word of mouth etc etc. and, most of all, protects you from collectors.



June 25, 2009, 2:15 PM

Franklin, I, personally, as a potential customer, always prefer knowing the price upfront and NOT having to ask for it. Others may disagree, but that's my position and I'm sticking to it.

The above is especially an issue for me at, say, an art fair, where the dealer or staff person is frequently tied up or distracted when I feel like asking something or, even more frequently, gives off the sort of snotty vibe that distinctly discourages questions. End result: I walk away and don't bother, and nobody gets any.



June 25, 2009, 2:19 PM

i can't imagine anyone who would not want the price upfront.



June 25, 2009, 2:32 PM

Remember the distinction between a fine-art portfolio site and a sales-oriented site. If you're putting together the latter, then absolutely, prices should be listed beside the work. But in the former case, you're largely trying to attract dealers, museum people, maybe panelists of various kinds, and to whom prices will look crass.

Obviously, you can set up a portfolio site at one address and a sales site at another, or at a subdomian.


Chris Rywalt

June 25, 2009, 2:47 PM

I switched to the word "gallerist" because to me that wraps up both the dealer side of the job and the curator side. Because there is a curatorial aspect to the position. It's not just dealing. Galleries aren't simply retail stores; if they were, they wouldn't have opening parties and they wouldn't be open to general public. They'd be more like one of those ground-floor stores on Fifth Avenue with the "By Appointment Only" sign in the window.

Also, there's something old-fashioned sounding about the phrase "picture dealer". It's so Old World. It sounds French, like a translation from French to English. Too continental. Like bumbershoot.

I guess if someone made a good argument for sticking to "dealer" I would. I'm already partway there after reading this.



June 25, 2009, 3:14 PM

In a long run, the people engaged in joint business transactions are not supposed to strive to outsmart each other. On the contrary, the best way to do business seems to be creating win-win-win situations that benefit both business parties and environment/humankind.

A person who owns/runs an art gallery, is a gallerist in my opinion. How they do their business is of course another story. Unfortunately enough, I'm afraid that artists with hateful attitude toward gallerists (even by calling them 'dealers'), are hurting themselves a lot more than any "dealer."



June 25, 2009, 3:18 PM

Michels: "Although the new title is pretentious and a less-than-subtle embellishment of the occupation of 'sales person,' it can also be interpreted that the 'ist' at the end of 'galler-ist' symbolically represents yet another encroachment into an 'art-ist's' territory." Like I said, she doesn't much like dealers.

Obviously, their probity and business acumen are a lot more important than their title.



June 25, 2009, 4:56 PM

A gallery owner who's not doing it to sell anything, but as some sort of hobby or socializing or what have you, can go by "gallerist" if s/he likes. Otherwise, we're talking about an art dealer, at least I am, and if s/he has problems with that, there's always therapy.

There should be absolutely no shame in being called or considered an art dealer, but rather the opposite--assuming, of course, the dealer's worthy of respect based on how s/he operates.



June 25, 2009, 5:16 PM

Franklin, regarding prices, my point was that if an artist wants or expects to sell me something, I do not, repeat, do NOT, want anything even remotely resembling interacting with a car salesman and the attendant little price games. I do not want to be forced to ask for information I have every right to know up front, period. I resent being made to feel awkward or uncomfortable when it's my money that's being sought.

In other words, as long as I'm the customer, I want things made as simple, straightforward and painless as possible. I realize there are artists who enjoy cat and mouse games, especially when they can play cat, like Picasso notoriously did. However, albeit I'm hardly in that price range and it may be a moot point, I don't believe any customer should put up with that kind of shit. I guess that's another reason why I'm not major collector material.



June 25, 2009, 6:11 PM

Daria, ther is certainly nothing hateful about calling a dealer a dealer, but there is something irritating about "gallerist". The first time I heard it I immediately thought "here we go, putting on airs with cutsey words...". It may be just personal, but the term gives me the creeps.

The best dealers like you and your work and tend to business. The bad ones come in many varieties. I've had both. It makes all the difference.



June 28, 2009, 2:34 PM

[I didn't just delete this comment - I tortured it first! Rotten spammers. - F.]



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