- This article was first published on Medium in February 2018.
When you’re an art student, you’ll never lack for crits. But what most of your peers won't be able to tell you - because they are also just starting out - is how to make a career from your art practice. The key information, the tips and tricks, that established artists learnt the hard way.
Subject Matter run a successful annual collaboration with London's Royal College of Art, where we aim to equip their students with precisely that knowledge: through workshops, exhibitions, and public lectures. A real high point came in 2018 when we hosted a public lecture with two of our favourite mid-career artists, Rana Begum and Gordon Cheung. They generously gave such useful and practical advice to the students, we wanted to share it as widely as possible, in the hope that all artists can benefit from their experience.
How Do You Find An Audience?
The big issue: visibility. We work with artists every day and we well understand the existential panic, the fear inside, when you feel that no-one is even seeing your work.
As an art student, you would of course have a degree show, attended by gallerists, art consultants, and collectors. Of course you allow yourself to dream that you have the career trajectory of Idris Khan, who was noticed by none other than Victoria Miro at his degree show, but for most artists, you leave art school with no gallery representation and therefore no clear path forward.
You have to keep your work out there, you have to keep creating opportunities for people to see it.
In some ways, this is easy. YouTube and Instagram have opened up a whole new world which means that a show in your friend’s bedroom in London can be seen across the world. You are no longer solely reliant on people actually visiting an exhibition for your work to be seen — but you are still fighting for an audience. You can never just sit back and wait for people to discover you. They won’t, unless you put yourself in the places where they can discover you.
- Gordon Cheung in his studio, courtesy of Edel Assanti
Gordon Cheung’s first experience of putting on his own show was in a disused shop in Exmouth Market in London in 1997. He came together with a large group from his BA course at Central Saint Martins, and they basically learned as they went along: creating a press release, a catalogue, even a broad-brush marketing campaign.
Cheung saw straightaway the importance of his peers, his “network of reliable people that you can work with” and Rana Begum agreed that your contemporaries at art college are your biggest support network, your community. In Cheung’s eyes, “building a show together is a logical step to ensure you build and create opportunities for each other”.
And of course, in the age of the internet, that becomes even more important. Share your contacts, tag each other on Instagram, build your exhibition up virtually so it seems to those outside that it is way bigger than it even is.
Another key piece of advice is to build a guestbook. Spend time researching your favourite gallerists and curators and invite them. Keep a note of every single person who came, or who liked or commented on your posts online. Outside your friends and family, these are your first audience.
I should add at this point, art school contemporaries aren't the only community or potential support network out there. There are plenty of groups for artists, especially those who are self-taught, to join. Most hang out on Instagram (at least to promote what they do) so for once, an afternoon spent on the 'gram might actually result in a meaningful friendship.
- Rana Begum, courtesy of Anahita's Eye
How Do You Make The Early Years Worthwhile?
“If you really believe in it, if you feel it, then you find ways” - Rana Begum
Rana Begum recalled her first year after graduating from her MA in Painting at the Slade, working a series of part-time jobs six days a week and then using that money to rent a cold, damp studio in which to make work on the seventh day. Gordon Cheung’s experience was in a similarly cold, damp studio (this is London, after all!). But both artists believed that their early struggles were a fundamental, and formative, part of the artists they became.
Begum learnt the hard way that she must protect herself, and not be taken advantage of, a principle she still follows religiously in her dealings with galleries and the wider art-world. This is important.
Cheung’s most telling moment happened when he had no money, and his father pushed a job application form in front of him. It made him realise he couldn’t be anything other than an artist, and so he immediately applied for every single award or residency that he could.
He spoke later about building a livelihood exclusively from his art: “it was a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, putting in a lot of time and working pretty much every day. And if nothing was happening you make it happen, you organise your own shows and you reach out, and then eventually sales come bit by bit, all the dots that you are creating start to join up into a bigger dot and then maybe one day you become represented.”
How To Deal With Galleries
The dream for an art student or early-career artist is gallery representation. The gallery will market your work, your production costs will be covered, and your representation as an artist will grow. Yes? Or no…
The art-world is no different to any other industry sector in the modern world: there are honest people, and there are sharks. And you have to protect yourself against those sharks.
Both artists spoke about needing to get to know a gallery fully before committing to them, about having open, transparent discussions about profit shares and whether galleries will pay or contribute to production costs at the very start. Cheung also advocated asking the gallery when they will pay you: an important lesson for someone managing a studio and paying for materials and living costs.
Begum pointed out the importance of clarity: “write everything down. Emails are a good thing. Do not just have phone conversations and make agreements.”
A fundamental point was that when you leave art school, “your priorities change…your priority is about surviving and how do you survive, how many jobs do you have to have?”
They also reiterated something that we always say too: that the relationship is a two-way street, both must work together to make the artist’s career the best it could possibly be.
From Rana Begum’s experience, not taking gallery representation when it was first offered proved to be the perfect strategy. It may seem flattering and exciting to be approached by an established gallery, but you have to be sure of your work, and be sure that it is the right time for it to be seen. She recalled that when the gallerist came for a studio visit, she asked them to wait a year, that she needed “some time to research what I am doing, and just have time to produce a body of work that I was happy to show people”. Producing a strong body of work for your first major show is vital: at an early stage of your career, one good show can make you as an artist, build your reputation and strengthen it. “In this day and age, it has become all about fame, money and all of those things, and those are not necessarily going to last.”
And if success eludes you at this moment, simply keep going.
Work those part-time jobs, push yourself forward for every opportunity you can. But most of all, believe in your art and yourself as an artist. We leave the last words to Gordon Cheung, who summed it up so perfectly:
“one day these cumulative effects of you getting your work out there as well as making the work that you are compelled to make…people start to believe”.