Here at WomenArts, we’re working toward a world in which women artists receive the same pay, opportunities, and recognition as their male counterparts. We’re also working to change public policy so that artists will be valued and rewarded for our vital contributions to society. For the moment, however, the path to success as an artist is challenging. We often have to be our own managers, agents, and publicists, at least at the beginning of our careers.
What follows are some general guidelines to starting a career as an artist. They are particularly tailored to writers, visual artists, and musicians (since many of our resources are for filmmakers and playwrights, we thought we’d address the other creative disciplines here). There are a few overarching themes to the advice that follows, which you should keep in mind as you embark upon your career as an artist: believe in yourself and your work; dream big but start small; have patience and perseverance; and be connected to other artists and your supporters. Good luck!
Be true to your vision and your work
Remember that your unique voice and perspective make your art special. Unless you are an artist marketing your skills commercially to carry out projects that other people or companies pay you to do, you must trust your inner voice. If you start making art with an eye to what sells, rather than trusting your inner vision, chances are no one will be interested in your art because it will not ring true.
Get involved in your local art scene
Attend concerts, readings, or exhibits of artists whose work you like. Introduce yourself to other artists. When people start seeing you around at arts events, they will start thinking of you as part of the local scene. They will appreciate that you show interest in their work, and when you have shows or events, they will return that interest. Cultivate relationships with people who run local venues (bookstores, galleries, clubs) that feature emerging artists. By getting to know people in your “scene,” not only will you make connections that will open up opportunities to get your art out there, but you will also meet potential collaborators for future projects – yours or theirs.
Apply for opportunities that fit your experience
Don’t burn bridges by shooting for the moon too soon. A writer should start by sending stories to magazines and building a list of publications before trying to get a novel published. A musical artist won’t get very far if she’s never had a show and tries to play at a 500-person venue. But a local coffeehouse that has a weekly singer/songwriter night would probably be open to putting her on the bill one week along with more veteran performers. After a few months, she may be a regular at the singer/songwriter night, and she will have made connections with other musicians in her situation with whom she can team up to play bigger concerts, record a demo, or just share her experiences.
Make connections with other artists
Get together with other artists in your area regularly to share thoughts, advice, etc. Seek out people whose work you appreciate (though you don’t have to love it unconditionally – a critical friend can be a good friend), and to whom you relate in some way. Friendships with other women artists can be particularly rewarding because they provide an opportunity not only to discuss the challenges and frustrations we face as women artists, but also to work together to overcome these challenges.
Try to make connections both with artists at the same stage in their careers and with those who are more experienced. Find mentors and cultivate relationships with them. Artists who have had more experience in your field are invaluable resources. As you gain more experience, remember the mentors who helped you, and befriend artists who are just starting out. There are not a lot of institutional structures that foster artists, so we need to create our own communities to support each other.
Find your target audience
This will take some time, and you may be surprised by who “gets” your art. Think about the themes you explore, or the symbols you work with. If your art deals with women’s issues, festivals or publications that celebrate the work of women would be a good place to start. If your art deals with the body or medical issues, maybe a local hospital, survivor’s group, or medical association would be interested in setting up a reading or hosting an auction of your work.
Does your work speak to children? Approach summer camps, day care centers and elementary schools. Whatever your themes or subjects are, try to think about the different types of people who might appreciate or relate to your art. Where do those people gather? How can you market to them?
Set clear goals
These may change over time, but it’s good to have an idea of where you’d like to go with your art. If your five-year goal is to finish your novel and get it published, a good one-year goal would be to get one short story or novel excerpt published in a magazine. Try to break big goals down into small, manageable steps. If you’re a musician who’s never recorded, it’s more feasible to start by recording a 4-song demo than by tackling a full album.
Whether you say to yourself, “I’m going to send my finished film to as many festivals as I have to until it gets accepted,” or “I’m going to sit down and write once a week and attend a writing workshop once a month,” setting clear, realistic goals allows you to feel in control of your career. Small accomplishments will give you the confidence to work toward larger goals.
Don’t quit your day job
Unless you have made enough money to live on comfortably for at least a year. If you do quit your day job, be prepared to go back to work at some point when the buzz about your art dies down. While we all dream of earning a living by making art, the dream can turn into a nightmare if you find yourself unemployed and struggling to pay for rent and health insurance – a situation that is far from conducive to fostering creativity.
Try to find a day job that does not sap all your energy, then set aside a regular time to work on your art. Maybe it’s Saturday morning, or late one night when your family’s asleep. Maybe you have to hire a baby sitter or find a generous friend or family member who can watch your kids for a few hours during the week so you can have uninterrupted time to create.
This means explaining to the people you are close to that you need time to work on your art. Women are often raised with the idea that we should put others’ needs before our own, and it can be difficult to assert your need for creative time. People might try to tell you you’re being selfish. Try as hard as you can to ignore them.
Get prepared for rejection and indifference. Worse than rejection, most of the time you will get no response at all. That can feel horrible – “My work was so bad that it’s not even worth their time to tell me they didn’t like it” – but keep going. Keep putting your work out there and keep making new work. The average short story that ends up published in a literary magazine has been submitted and rejected around 20 times before being accepted for publication; in other words, it pays to not give up. Always be courteous and polite, even when the people rejecting you are mean. They might still help you in the future.
Network, network, network
Keep an up-to-date mailing list and keep your contacts informed about what’s going on. Any time you have a show, a release, or a publication, send out a professional-looking release to your contacts. Be sure to thank your friends and professional contacts for supporting you by coming to your shows, helping you find opportunities, or giving you feedback. If you don’t have a website, look into setting one up. People who are interested in your art want to be able to find information about you and your current work and events. Make use of online social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to stay connected to and broaden your network of colleagues, supporters, and fans.
Make business cards
Make business cards with your full name, contact information, and website address, and always have some on you. Whenever you meet someone who expresses interest in your art, give that person a card.
Present yourself professionally
In the quick-changing, instant-response climate of the wonderful virtual world we call the internet, it sometimes feels like the formal conventions of correspondence – from stating who you are to correct grammar and spelling – are obsolete. However, this is not the case! (Trust us – we receive many e-mails from talented women artists every day, and we get frustrated when we can’t understand what someone is asking because her e-mail is so vague, or we don’t know who has written because she hasn’t included her full name).
While you don’t always need to write a formal cover letter, it’s important to follow a few basic guidelines when writing to people regarding your art:
- Any piece of correspondence or publicity you send out that is related to your art should have your full name and contact information on it. Set your e-mail account so that the “signature” at the bottom includes your full name and contact information.
- You should send all your professional correspondence from an e-mail address that clearly identifies you or your nonprofit/business (good: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org; bad: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Having a professional-looking e-mail address will help prevent your e-mail from joining millions of other unopened e-mails in a spam folder.
- Always include a subject heading on e-mails, and if you are including attachments, be sure to specify in the body of the e-mail what the attachments are. Never leave the body of an e-mail blank; this, too, will get it tossed into the spam folder.
- Be specific – Whether you’re writing to a foundation you’re hoping will give you a grant or to a person you’re hoping to talk with about industry contacts, people are far more likely to want to help you if you clearly explain who you are, why you are writing to them, and what you are asking for. Whether the occasion necessitates a professional cover letter or a more informal e-mail, it is crucial to briefly introduce yourself and state what type of work you do (i.e. “I am a documentary filmmaker”) and any major accomplishments you have had (i.e. “My last film, “Women Artists Rock,” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009”), as well as your reason for writing.
Being specific about what you want from them can be intimidating because it opens the door to rejection, but the person reading your e-mail doesn’t have the time to infer what you’re asking for based on open-ended invitations to check out your website or vague suggestions of “a partnership” or “working together.”
Good: “My band, Cool Chicks, would love to play a show at Your Awesome Venue sometime in the coming months. We are a 3-piece (vocals, guitar, drums) with fairly simple sound requirements. You can hear 4 of our songs and find out more about the project on our myspace page: www.myspace.com/coolchicks3. Please let us know if you are interested in booking us, or if you need any additional information about our set-up.”
Bad: “Hey we are the next big thing that will change the face of the music industry forever, check out our awesome tunes on our website and let me know if your interested in helping us out.”
Did you catch the grammatical error in that last sentence? Any written correspondence or publicity materials should be proofread for grammar and spelling. Have someone else (preferably a friend who is good at writing) proofread and correct whatever you write, especially if it is a press release or a grant proposal. Having correct grammar and spelling reflects well on you; if there are mistakes or if your writing is difficult to understand, people will be less likely to help you or take you seriously.
For more information on writing cover letters
About.com has an extensive section on writing cover letters, with many different sample cover letters for different circumstances (none is tailored specifically to artists, though the basics apply): http://jobsearch.about.com/od/coverletters/Cover_Letters.htm.
For more in-depth articles about the topics covered above, visit the New York Foundation for the Arts “Business of Art” archive at: http://www.nyfa.org/level2.asp?id=51&fid=1. Of particular interest is Susan Myers’ article, “Portfolio Development for Artists Working in All Disciplines,” which addresses artist resumes and bios, artist statements, work samples, cover letters, and more: http://www.nyfa.org/level4.asp?id=255&fid=1&sid=51&tid=197.
Alison Stanfield’s ArtBizBlog is a great resource that covers many topics related to the business side of art. Stanfeld is a visual artist and former museum curator turned art consultant, so her advice is tailored toward visual artists, but her well-written, upbeat blog posts on everything from the proper format for an artist resume to “branding” your name are applicable to other disciplines. http://www.artbizblog.com/.