Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Art/work


“[ART/WORK]... guides artists effectively in taming the beast that is the contemporary art world.”

For the past week or so on my commute, I have been reading ART/WORK by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber (Free Press, 2009), which I learned about through Facebook from Toronto artist Barbara Gilbert. Having taken an excellent workshop with her a year-and-a-half ago through CARFAC (Canadian Artists' Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens) Ontario, I was anxious to follow up on the tip.

Because the book is dense with quotations from members of the art world, I chose to pace myself and ended up retaining more when I took a break after reading each chapter. Even though ART/WORK is nice and compact, I suggest approaching it like a box of good truffles: don't consume it all at once.

Starting with the title, there is an absence of sugar coating. The message is clear: being an artist is work. It is a job, not a hobby, at least if you want to build a career as an artist. Bhandari and Melber’s tendency to be straight with the reader persists throughout the entire book, which guides artists effectively in taming the beast that is the contemporary art world.

As practical as the book is, addressing topics like writing an artist statement and tracking inventory, the authors have a sense of humour. Cartoons by Kammy Roulner are featured throughout; my favourite shows a young girl who asks, “Mommy…can you explain post-colonial identity politics to me?” Also enjoyable for its tongue-in-cheek approach to the arts is the chapter called The Gallery Courtship, which uses the analogy of dating to discuss commercial gallery representation.

The authors’ complement of skills is noteworthy. Bhandari is a gallery director and Melber is an arts lawyer. Bhandari is on the inside, so she can draw the reader’s attention to the way galleries actually operate. Melber, meanwhile, instills confidence in the reader about tackling legal issues like copyright and contract negotiation because of his background in representing artists.

ART/WORK is presented as a book that picks up where art school leaves off. From talking to artists, I gather that some instructors are more inclined than others to talk about life after the safety net of art school. Some schools even have courses in managing a career as an artist, like the Professional Practice course in the Art and Art History program at Sheridan College/University of Toronto at Mississauga. When I was a student there, they had not yet introduced that course. A few years after graduation, I remember sitting down with a former classmate to answer the kinds of questions that are addressed in artist career guides, because I was lucky enough to land a series of jobs that allowed me to pick up on some of the intricacies of the art world. Now, as a librarian instead of an arts administrator, I look back at that conversation and I see an information need—or is ‘information gap’ the current lingo?

If you are a studio instructor reading this post, I urge you to promote artist career guides to your students, or send them to this blog post or my other posts about artist career guides here or here.

I realize that with good reason, the emphasis in the classroom is on ‘finding the artist’s voice’ and making quality work, but eventually students will stop focusing solely on artwork and will need to turn their attention to the combination of art/work. Please, mind the gap between 'art' and 'work'.

2 comments:

  1. I am enjoying your posts. Would you recommend this book for someone who did not go to art school, but who is thinking about pursing a career in the art world as an artist?

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  2. The good news is that there are are multiple entry points into the art world, and you needn't go to art school necessarily. I recommend chapter 7 in particular. This chapter discusses not-for-profit galleries, which can be accepting of artists who aren't professionally trained (tapping into a community of artists can be like getting an education if you make a point of absorbing as much information as possible). The same chapter also talks about unconventional exhibition venues like restaurants. Best of luck!

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