Friday, November 18, 2011

The Definition of a Successful Art Career

A familiar acquaintance spots you across the room at an event and three minutes into a conversation, has told you of every dollar, every contract, every achievement made since the last time you chatted? This person has been there, done that with a mention of another friend’s accomplishments. I am always very happy for this person’s success - I honestly am - but I always seem to walk away questioning my own success, comparing apples to apples and dollars to dollars and not quite measuring up. Another art friend approaches you at an event - an artist that is successful on every level. This artist has been invited to the finest galleries, the best shows, his work is impeccable and you would never hear about a single achievement unless he was prodded into telling. The first thing out of his mouth is “How are YOU doing?”. I realize that these are both extreme hypothetical examples of a successful artist and most of us fall into a middle ground somewhere - confident and enthusiastic about what we do, yet maybe looking for a bit of validation and/or approval to guide us on our path to a successful art career and making our mark!

How does one define a successful art career? Can we simply break it down to a few black and white areas - the quality of our work and respect of our peers, the financial success attained or lack of, and the quality of our whole life. The grey areas are much larger though, and a combination of all the above.

No doubt, everyone has heard the admonishment that an artist should NEVER paint for money, that financial gain corrupts the integrity of the art. While I have a personal list of things that I have vowed I won’t do with my art, I also have the harsh reality that if I want to keep doing what I love to do, I have to pay a few bills (a mortgage) along the way or get a job that takes me away from painting and I get less and less time to pursue my creative passion. How can I truly achieve my potential as an artist without devoting myself to painting? And if I’m making buckets of money (I remain optimistic ☺ LOL) selling my art, does that mean my work is “there” and the struggle goes away? Which brings me to the next grey area - how do I attain my potential and quality in art and what/who defines that quality?

I think we all have a distinguishable innate sense of quality and we have certainly all seen that great art does not always mean great money and vice-versa and all of the combinations. The art world is made of so many genres and it seems divisive at times - contemporary vs traditional, cerebral vs beautiful, self taught vs academically trained, etc. How do we define our personal vision of quality and who are our peers for that particular arena- who we listen to and accept critique from? Is it in awards, shows, articles, recognition from artists we admire? Then what happens when we don’t get in the shows, a critic disses our work, we don’t sell a painting? Does that mean our quality has diminished or suddenly isn’t there after it already was before? If we are staying in our artistic integrity, but the rewards aren’t coming - do we give it all up as a failure? Which again, brings me to the final grey area of living a whole life and finding perspective with our art and career.

How does our art career fit in perspective with our lives? Does it define us as a person? Is it what we do and how well we do it that defines us or is it our spirit, who we are, who we love, how we combine our passion with our relationships that truly make us successful? We are so fortunate to be doing what we love to do, but if the money isn’t flowing or the rewards aren’t coming as quickly as we want, how do we come to terms with these disappointments without allowing them to jeopardize our ‘whole’ life?

Our families, our friendships, our spirituality, our experiences all contribute to the breadth of our art. It is crucial that we balance all of these things in order to attain success. It is equally important that we have our own very individual barometer to gauge what that success is, not based on someone else’s idea. We have no idea of another’s needs, situations, difficulties, talents and strengths. Happiness is not over-rated, it is the goal! Living every day in the moment and being fully present with whatever we do! It is only our job to show up at that easel and do the best work we can do at the time that we do it. Embrace the rest of your life, your “whole” life and define success as all of it’s parts. Its a day to day thing, always learning, re-evaluating, and growing, and best of all - enjoying the journey along the way!

May we all have success in whatever that definition might be!


  1. I ask myself these same questions, sometimes I think I might go insane in trying to answer them. It's a difficult balance, it can be confusing and grey. You wrote about it very well, Shanna. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for posting Rob! I write to sort through issues going on in this head of mine at the risk of exposing my vulnerabilities, but I hope and I'm pretty sure that all my dear artist friends ask themselves the same questions and work through the same things that I do. I do believe we're all on this same boat together!

  3. Eloquently put Shanna! I have also heard those "don't do it for money" but many very sucessful artists, past and present, had to do exactly that.