I met this one visual artist in New York whose work was amazing. I was excited for his artistic future. His paintings were a smart combination of street art and refined illustration skills, and I just knew in my gut he was onto something hot. So naturally I asked, “Where are you showing? What publications are you submitting your work to?” among other typical questions. He looked at me blankly. “How do you do that stuff?” The guy wanted to but hadn’t any plan to venture his art beyond his home studio. My immediate thought – Aw, what a waste. Crazy thing is – this story is way beyond common. It’s the dominant norm.
I was subject to this ignorance myself when I graduated with my BFA, living by default, succeeding or stagnating at random. Art school is wholly focused on craft and rarely, if ever, on the practical application of this craft in the outside world: in finding gainful employment, developing partnerships and apprenticeships, securing grants and residencies, and strategically promoting, marketing, and showing your work. Instead of giving instruction on this all-important grind, professors enable a lot of damaging fairytales around starving artistry, getting discovered by wealthy benefactors or adopted by the guards of high art, and most harmful, that there is any career to be had in the arts. There isn’t.
(*Gasp* How can that be?) I’ll explain. After all, I am myself an artist, having pursued a calling in virtually every discipline over the past eleven years – in visual art, literature, theater, film, and I even had a band. These experiences allowed me the blessed fortune to travel, to meet numerous heavyweights and to uncover some essential facts about pursuing the arts – any arts. I’m going to elaborate on these findings and on the aforementioned falsehoods. Then I’ll speak about how we artists may recapture our personal and collective narratives from disaster. Or worse, irrelevance. (Dun dun dun!) Ready? Ok, let’s get to myth busting!
#1. The Starving Artist. “Artists don’t get paid, artists do it for the love, money is evil, and art should be free, blah, blah, blah, blah.” This one pains me to address. If we were to simply replace the word ‘artist’ with another job title or any social group for that matter, it would be instantly clear how wrong it is that a people would be relegated by others and themselves! to poverty and starvation. Funk that. And I’m not advocating for artists to drive sharp and unfair bargains – I’m a strong believer in ethical exchange – but neither should they work for nothing. After all, as the Intro to Economics rule goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Even seemingly free art is still paid for by the maker in materials, labor and intellectual properties. Could you imagine this nonsense flying in other sectors?
#2. Getting Discovered. People do praise genius. Additionally however, in an artist’s life, those talents ought to extend to one’s ability to represent his or her own work. Despite our sincerest of wishes, art really cannot speak for itself – even if it’s some catchy lyric or a good short story. Art will not submit itself for consideration for an award. It will not pen a letter of agreement. Nor will it deposit your checks and balance your accounts for you. That would be cool though if you could kick your feet up and let your art manage you instead of the other way around. Pssshhh, yeah right! I blame the movies and magazines. The public loves a good rags-to-riches overnight success story where great art hits the earth like some brilliant accidental cosmic happening. No one, for instance, is interested in hearing that the book that Time Magazine hailed as “publishing phenomenon of the decade,” Chicken Soup for the Soul, was submitted to and rejected by a whopping 144 publishers before one small company gave any willingness to the authors. No matter what your genre, there is no getting around having to market and stand by your own work. As the saying goes, you can’t hire people to do your push-ups for you.
#3. Your Career in the Arts. This is a misnomer. People say ‘career’ like we’re doctors or accountants. But we don’t have time sheets, get benefits, receive semi-monthly checks and work our way up a ladder. I remember talking to one veteran designer in the theater field who told me she had just come back from work in Hong Kong. As a wide-eyed youth, I might’ve gone, “Wow, what an awesome life!” But as an adult, I understand that she didn’t travel abroad for the glamor. She did so to pursue employment, same as any migrant worker would. There just aren’t enough positions available at institutions to support the number of artists in the field. Consequently, artists are either multi-employed, having many on-call or part-time jobs, or they are self-employed, mini-CEOs having created their own small businesses. Let’s call this ‘career’ what it is – a life in the arts. A life that is unpredictable, adventurous, and each ingeniously and deliberately carved out by and for its protagonist.
Let’s allow these lessons to sink in. They’ll become the basis for valuable habits of mind and manifest what I like to call ‘actionchoices’. It’s this way of thinking – these shared principles among the champions – that allow you to manage situations and to maximize on opportunities as they emerge. It’s about applying your guts and knack for innovation toward new solutions in the art of business and in the business of art. It’s about seeking to learn a new skill (e.g. writing a press release) and even better, seeking to learn to finesse that skill (e.g. writing one that actually gets picked up). This is it. This is the art of hustle.
My goal for ART OF HUSTLE, the training program, is to be different and better than traditional career lectures and tired teacher rhetoric, from the first word to the last. You’ll not find empty concepts in my classes or supposed short-cuts to success. This brand of skills-building is straight from the trenches. ART OF HUSTLE is about taking charge, dispelling the naysayers and equipping you with the appropriate tools to achieve your goals. In my ideal reality, the world abounds with eclecticism and diversity, and every person of every creative endeavor has the fair chance and the wherewithal to make their dreams each come true.