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.