How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist by Caroll Michels, Seventh Edition
Post #1832 • February 27, 2019, 10:15 PM • 1 Comment
Last week my laundry got stuck in a washing machine in Paris. The circumstances that brought me to Paris are complicated and confidential, but let's just say that the opportunity came up via one of my private students. A forty-minute wash defaulted around the 25-minute mark. The machine refused to unlock. Neither could I restart it, even with the attempted addition of more euros. The laundromat was one of those automated arrangements, completely unattended. To call my French rudimentary would be too kind, and the little I know has nothing to do with appliances.
Nevertheless, through the powers of pantomime and overly optimistic assumptions about Parisian magnanimity, I enlisted the aid of three different people passing through. There was a phone number posted on the wall, and the manager answering it hung up on two of them. One of them finally prevailed on the manager to send a technician. Studying his example, I now know how to manually unlock and reset one those damn washers with a set of car keys. I freed the laundry, rewashed it, got it dried, got packed, and now I'm at my Fulbright residency in Vienna.
While waiting for the technician to show up, I read a few chapters of How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, a volume of solid advice by the person who arguably invented the profession of art career coach. It has recently come out in its seventh edition. I reviewed the sixth edition ten years ago in these very pages, which prompts me to wonder whether her subject can be taught.
The information in the book is sound and thoughtfully presented. Every practical criticism I made in 2009 has been addressed. Allworth Press has taken up the title, which has benefited from its editorial input. (A new dedication describes the publisher as the book's "real home.") Michels has substantively reorganized it. A chapter that was once titled "Dealing with Dealers and Psyching Them Out" is now simply, and more appropriately, "Dealing with Dealers." She covers art fairs and social media, making enough of them but not too much.
There's a freshly updated and smart section about selling art online. This segment of the art career advice book market has become comically crowded. A search on Amazon turns up How to Sell Your Art Online (Cory Huff, 2016), Selling Art Online (Dave Conrey, 2014), Straight Advice: How to Market Art Online Now (Barney Davey, 2016), The Secrets to Selling Your Art Online (Lucia Livingston, 2017), How to Make Money Online as an Artist (Samuel Nygard, 2017), Sell Online Like a Creative Genius (Brainard Carey, 2019), Sell Your Artwork and Crafts Online (Heidi Rand, 2012), and The Cheap Artist's Quick Guide to Selling Art Online (Zachary Starke, 2017). Instincts incline me to think that every last one of these is garbage. If the germane chapter in Survive and Prosper doesn't do the job for you, feel free to explore further and tell me whether I'm wrong. (I'm so cynical about this that I'm looking at these names and suspecting that Dave Conrey, Barney Davey, and Brainard Carey are all mildly altered pseudonyms for the same person.)
My philosophical differences remain. Michels has, I think, increased since the last edition the number of times that she laments the lack of regulation in the art world. I wish that I could impress upon people who believe in the benevolence of regulations, to which the exceptions can be remedied with more regulations, that this approach has coated large swaths of the economy with barnacles and the drag most effects small entrepreneurs, such as artists. She outlines the attempts to get droit de suite laws passed in America as if hopeful that they one day will. I have written about how, if they do, there will be hell to pay.
And while she has not toned down her invective at dealers as a class of people, and she probably shouldn't, I would like to see some of that scorn for unprofessionalism directed more widely. Survive and Prosper largely gives a pass to the insidious practices in place outside the markets: fifty-dollar application fees and onerous application processes, thousand-dollar-per-week residencies, opaque and capricious hiring in academia, awards in which the revealed preferences in no way match the stated ones. Since criticizing the Georgia Fee residency last summer for describing itself as open to all applicants despite having never been given to a man or an older woman, two more have been awarded, both to younger women. Creative Capital recently sent out a letter announcing its 2019 recipients that noted with evident pride that 60% of the awardees were women and 77% were self-identified people of color. Some congratulations would be in order for this if there had been any indication whatsoever in the award guidelines that they were trying to give them out to as many women and people of color as possible, thus alerting those of us who support such initiatives but will never be selected for them that we should probably look for other opportunities.
But I emphasize that those objections are philosophical. One can apply the vigilance with which Michels recommends approaching the dealers to all other aspects of one's professional existence, and the reward for your cultivated jaundice will be surprises that are mostly pleasant.
Still, what if, in order to make this life in the arts work on some level, you have to be the kind of person who can forcibly extract his laundry out of a recalcitrant Parisian washing machine from the wrong side of a language barrier? Moreover, to be the kind of person for whom that sort of thing comes up? Because I'm wondering if that matters more than following Michels's unimpeachable advice. Maybe you have to have the right combination of moxie, obstinacy, and stupidly good luck for the advice to work. Maybe it requires a quality I often encounter in artists and admit to having myself, to be temperamentally so out of whack with the prevailing order that you wonder how normal people live, not out of condescension, but ingenuous bewilderment. This worries me, that the career moves described in Survive and Prosper are necessary but not sufficient for survival and prosperity. If so, then Michels could be innocently leading people astray.
But temperament is also necessary but not sufficient, so someone might as well put together a volume of sensible career advice for artists. Michels has ably navigated a way between the Scylla of taking no action and hoping for the best, and the Charybdis of mistaking yourself for an upscale consumer brand. The field has long been filled with terrible books on this topic, and as previously mentioned, they have multiplied to the point of forming a subgenre. Thankfully there is a handful of good titles as well, Jackie Battenfield's, Sharon Louden's, and Tad Crawford's coming in for commendation for their respective strengths. But just as it was when it was in its fifth and sixth editions, and likely going all the way back to the first, Survive and Prosper is the place to begin. Michels has distilled decades of hard-won experience into a book that is loaded with both edification and sanity. If her subject can't be taught, it can nevertheless be learned, and her presentation of it remains definitive.