An emerging artist's primer on building a community, navigating the digital world and defining success.
An artist’s career is never linear or straightforward, it’s filled with missteps and successes. A lack of recognition can easily swap places with unexpected notoriety overnight.
It’s how you interpret and deal with that volatility that matters, explains Dr Errol Francis, artistic director and CEO of Culture& , a British arts and education charity that promotes diversity. “I think it was Art Tatum, the pianist who said ‘there’s no such thing as a wrong note’ – it just depends which note you play after that,” says Francis.
Francis’ comments on the unconventionality of the artist’s journey were part of a panel discussion, Deconstructing the Art World for Emerging Artists, at Masterpiece 2022 . He was joined by Corrie Jackson, panel moderator and senior art curator at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Gareth Fletcher, program director, MA Art Logistics at Sotheby’s Institute of Art , and Julie Bentley, owner and director of 163 Gallery and co-founder and director of After, a not-for-profit organisation committed to supporting artist’s practice through exhibition, collaboration, commission, studio visits, artist talks and digital residency.
The panel sought to dispel the myths surrounding what it takes to succeed as an artist and how art is valued, while providing practical advice for emerging artists of all kinds.
It was presented by RBC, which in 2021 alone, supported over 250 organisations globally with nearly C$10 million in funding to help create exposure, networking and training opportunities for more than 6,300 emerging artists from a diverse range of disciplines, backgrounds and age groups.
“From RBC’s perspective, the funding that goes to museums and institutions that support residency programmes or emerging artist’s exhibitions is not tied to age. It’s more about where the artists are in their career and making sure this is an opportunity that will take them to that next level and help them gain a new audience,” says Jackson.
Support for emerging artists has never been more critical than in the uncertain times of today. The convergence of real and virtual worlds, new mediums like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and nascent platforms used to sell artists’ work are creating both opportunity and complexity for artists looking to find their voice. The panel discussed how to proceed in this new reality.
Perhaps the most critical element for emerging artists is finding their artistic community. “It’s impossible for you to build an artistic career without support – you can’t do it on your own,” says Bentley. But it has to be about more than just a community of customers. “When you think about networking, focus not on selling, but on connecting. The selling aspect will come as a byproduct of all the connections you make.”
It’s within your community that you’re going to refine the way you talk about your work. “You get very good at being concise and becoming an expert on your own practice,” she says. “Networking is a great way to sound out your ideas too.”
Francis is quick to point out that while there may be this idea of an established “art world” or “art community” – there’s also fluidity to that definition. Artists have an opportunity to define their own community. “If you are from a diverse background, you are likely to be underrepresented in that you need support and to perhaps reconceptualise what you mean by the art world outside of the market,” says Francis. “You can create your own network and art world.”
It’s something that is enabled by the emergence of digital art communities and mediums like social media. They drastically increase an artist’s ability to get their work out into the world and interact with artists they may not otherwise meet.
Fletcher says emerging artists should strive to balance their digital presence with the physicality of their personal network. “You turn up to your friend or associate’s opening because they’ll turn up to yours and eventually those dynamic discussions will start to filter through to other ears,” he says. Fletcher recommends taking the same approach online by “making sure you follow the right people and your posts, comments and digital presence is well-targeted and thoughtful.”
It’s easy to lose focus and get overwhelmed by all the different digital platforms and social media tools. Setting goals for yourself and curating what you put out in the world can be a more effective approach.
Bentley agrees. “If you’re tending to your media presence more than your actual practice, then you’re doing something completely wrong.”
For all its benefits, the digital world also carries unique risks and should be approached with caution, says Fletcher. “If you’re uploading or disseminating your cultural output via a JPEG or wave file or similar, think about what the potential knock-on effects or connotations of that might be.” He recommends thoroughly reviewing terms and conditions and being aware of any rights that may be surrendered by uploading art to a digital platform.
The panel agrees the emergence of new forms of creation like NFTs does answer some questions surrounding how to protect the credibility of original works of digital art. But it’s a medium still in its infancy. “I think it’s just beginning,” says Bentley. “I don’t see it as something that’s just going to fade out.”
Value and pricing is one of the most challenging parts of an emerging artist’s career. Bentley tells the story of going to a graduating artist’s show and expressing interest in one of their works that was valued at £6,000. “I thought it was amazing and I was looking at it and I was thinking, well, I can’t actually afford to buy it, but if I could, I would,” says Bentley. A few minutes into the conversation with the artist, she says he offered it to her for half the price. “Consistency is the most important thing because what you are trying to do is install confidence in anyone that is going to invest in your work,” she says. “I would suggest you start at a price (and) incrementally increase it, maybe like 10 percent over a year, or after a big show or a solo show.”
She recommends artists track their pricing for pieces. “Also keep track of where it goes,” adds Jackson. “Young or mid-career artists who I’ve talked to who are looking back on their career might not always know where pieces have ended up.”
There’s also a case to be made for valuing your time as an artist and the social impact of your work, says Francis, pointing to the oft-forgotten metrics of valuing art. “There’s this sort of notion that, especially early career, you’re going to give something away for free or less than it’s worth, just to get your name out there or to get a certain opportunity,” he says. But undervaluing work and its social relevance can stunt an artist’s growth.
Fletcher brings it back to what Bentley said about consistency and how it adds a certain sense of credibility. “That emanates the sense of professionalism from an emerging artist, which I think a lot of galleries and dealers find quite attractive,” says Fletcher. “If you’re going to sign someone on or represent them for their career, you don’t want them to be subverting their price point or their market – acting as professionally as possible as an artist coming out of art college, for instance, sets you on a really good trajectory towards attracting some eyeballs and ears.”
Ultimately, being an artist is a lifestyle choice which means it’s up to the artist to define what success means to them. “One could argue that just being a creative practitioner able to sustain yourself is success in and of itself,” says Fletcher. “You may not quite get to Venice in your career, that’s absolutely fine, but you may create a sculpture that has an impact that you’ve got no idea the ramifications of at another point in your career.”
The point is to keep momentum, adds Bentley. “If I had to give any advice from what I’ve seen from artists’ practices, it’s [to be] constantly moving forward, engaging, collaborating, exploring, creating a sort of energy around your practice,” she says. “Learn from everything – everything that is a disaster, everything that works, everything that doesn’t work … I think success is knowing how to move on.”
Access the full recording of the RBC Emerging Artists panel discussion from Masterpiece 2022 here.
Read more insight into how the art world is evolving and how emerging artists can navigate the industry.