Be Smart About Art

What do you need to be successful in the art world?

written by: Susan Mumford Nov. 23, 2014 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan Mumford + Chris King's Blog 3594 views

What do you need to be successful in the art world?

from our Sunday reading series - a weekly blog post (subscribe here)

Many people moan and groan about what they lack. “If I just had…(x) then I could do what I love full-time” or, “It’s so easy for some people.”

The truth of the matter is that some of the happiest art professionals I’ve come across aren’t wealthy, nor are they industry superstars. They’re enjoying the experiences entailed in getting to where they’re going. Success looks like different things to different people. 

So then, what is really needed to be your version of successful?

Money? No, though it’s tempting to think so. While dosh can certainly be useful, it isn’t necessary.

I’ve seen many people throw money at ventures, figuring that would do the trick. The truth is that it isn’t enough. If someone is unwilling to plug away and do hard work, success is unlikely.

I recall the story of a ‘lady’ (in the English nobility sense) who fancied having a gallery. After blowing a bit of the family fortune on the project, she realised the endeavor required more than financial investment.  Unsurprisingly, the business didn’t last.

Conversely, numerous individuals make great successes from nothing. Consider 20th Century gallerist Edith Halpert, who arrived in New York City as a penniless Russian immigrant in the early 1900s. She created her own success, supported artists throughout the Great Depression, and is credited for practically single-handedly starting the Folk Art movement in the USA.

Talent? It helps, sure. Many people are convinced that one needs to be the best to experience proper success, but like it or not, amazing capability is not essential.

I’m certain you can think of several artists whose talents you don’t rate, but who are mighty successes. Musicians, visual artists and actors alike instantly come to mind in my case! What is it that they get right?

Commitment and determination? Yes 100%. In my role as a mentor, I witness time and time again that people who succeed are the ones who keep at it. While it can be tempting to give up if something isn’t working, such the very action that guarantees failure.

The real-life story of my father perfectly illustrates this notion. He attended the local high school in his West Texas hometown. The story goes that he had immensely intelligent peers who were, to his mind at least, far superior in natural scholarly ability. Yet they would sit in the back row of the class, not paying much attention and only studying a bit, if at all. With such immense natural talent, they managed to do okay, yet didn’t excel.  

Who was given the honour of best student in the graduating class (‘Valedictorian’ for my North American readers)? My dad, of course! He was a committed and determined student, who applied himself, completed projects, did more than the required reading and maximized his natural abilities (of which he has many, later becoming a successful economics professor).

Rather than exist in a ‘have-not’ mindset, think about what you ‘have’. Work to your strengths and be willing to make changes as you pave the way of your journey. By staying on course, you will reap the rewards. 

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Further reading: The Girl with the Gallery by Lindsay Pollock. 
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Photographs © Chris King.

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Hi Susan

Your blog post reminded me about Carmen Herrera who was discovered at age 89 after painting for more than 60 years. I first came across her when the Guardian published an interview she did with Hermione Hoby in 2010 (I think) and she was just showing for the first time at the Lisson Gallery in London.

She's had some great answers to interview questions:

What drove you to continue working for so many years without selling?
I was liberated by being ignored. I was free to do as I wish. Frankly, it never bothered me that much.

Why do you think it took so long?
I do not know. Sometimes I have this theory, or that theory. It just was not my time, I guess.

Are there advantages to not having much recognition for so long?
Yes yes yes ! Because when you're known you want to do the same thing again to please people. And, as nobody wanted what I did, I was pleasing myself - and that's the answer

What advice would you give to young artists today?
Paciencia, querida, paciencia. (Patience, dear, patience.)

Are you still learning now?
Yes I am. I'm more dedicated to my art now and I'm more watchful. I feel much more aware now.

Now at 101 the Whitney Museum in New York are showing more than 50 of her works in an exhibition called Lines of Sight. Just shows - it's never too late !