I have an MFA, I’ve worked as an assistant to many successful artists, and my friends have modest careers. But after thirteen years of trying, I still can’t get a show. Admittedly, I wasn’t always happy with my work, but I’ve reached a point where I feel more than ready to exhibit it. I invite people over, visit other studios, apply to every relevant grant, go to openings, etc. But no one can be bothered. Maybe once or twice a year someone with influence asks me if I make art, but they never follow up. I don’t expect to be handed anything, but I am still shocked at how closed off the art world is. Once a very kind artist I worked for told her gallerist to check out my work and he laughed at us. Why isn’t nepotism working for me? Isn’t this how the art world works?
Ouch. It seems like you’ve been in the right place at the wrong time. You thought you said the right thing, but you must have used the wrong line. You’ve been on the right trip, but you must have used the wrong car. Now your head is in a bad place and you are wondering: What am I good for? Feels familiar, right? Of course it does, we just paraphrased the bayou koans of Dr. John to drive home a fundamental point: proximity isn’t the same as participation.
Thirteen years is an awfully long time to fan the aspirational flames of a nonstarter career. You’ve stuck around long enough to witness the abhorrence of the art world’s inner operations, and yet you haven’t run screaming. This is either a sign of true stamina or deep stubbornness. Nepotism is a definite advantage, though hardly a guarantee, especially at a job that doesn’t come with health insurance. Many blue-chip artists who started out just like you benefited from a smattering of luck and a proclivity for socially aggressive behavior. Getting all up in people’s faces may just not be your style.
While having connections hasn’t worked in your favor, you should still appreciate the perspective gained from your job experience. Your foot has been wedged in the door for thirteen years and there are many people who would aspire to wear your unfulfilled shoes. More than anything else, you should be thrilled to have finally reached a place where you are happy with your art. Some artists never achieve this level of satisfaction in their lifetime, including the professional artists you have assisted.
Since nepotism is so clearly unreliable, why not consider rebranding? Instead of keeping a close distance and observing without attracting attention, try presenting yourself as a confident artist to the power brokers of the art world. People are constantly reinventing themselves in this industry: there’s always an eighth chance for a twelfth impression, especially under the art world’s darting eyes.
I’m addicted to buying figurative paintings. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of second-rate work flooding the market—paintings of brooms, pickles, dogs, clowns, and buttholes in dopey, trippy situations—and it concerns me. I got burned collecting process-based abstraction a few years back. The value of my pieces went way up at one point, but today I’m left holding a bunch of dated interior decorations by artists whose names have vanished from auction houses and the collective memory. I’m getting déjà vu! Will the market collapse on me a second time?
Sounds like you are hankering for freaky figuration precisely because you failed to capitalize on splotchy crapstraction. You have a gambler’s spirit and are consistently bringing it to the art world’s $5 blackjack table. You are looking for a card so high and wild that you’ll never need to be dealt another, and you want to trade the holy game you play for shelter. We are purposefully misquoting Leonard Cohen because he too recognized that, for all the fun and free cocktails at the casino, the house always wins. Buying art as an investment is chancy, and you strike us as the sort of person who loves playing Russian roulette. Why not embrace your love of risk? You may get stuck with clown butthole paintings and tie-dyed bedsheets, but they will forever be cherished mementos of the thrills you had losing your shirt.
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