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Art/Work: New Book on Artists and Their Careers

The lives of artists and art students have become increasingly professionalized, for better or worse, and the business of being an artist is often just that: a business. Preparing taxes, writing grant proposals, and revising résumés—an artist could spend as much time on these tasks as they do in their studio. Over the past decade, a cottage industry of professional-development programs and workshops has flourished in and outside the university, including those hosted by the College Art Association, offering artists the kind of nuts-and-bolts information that was once passed by word-of-mouth but usually learned through hair-raising trial-and-error experiences.

With this sea change in professionalism for artists comes a new book, Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career (New York: Free Press, 2009), that addresses the growing need for knowing how to inventory your work, prepare a “standard package,” approach a gallery, set up an open studio, and more. The authors, Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber, have interviewed dozens of artists, curators, dealers, critics, and arts administrators for the project. Combined with their own experience—she’s a curator and director at Mixed Greens Gallery, and he practiced art and entertainment law while also working for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts—they have compiled a compendium of incredibly useful information on nearly every aspect of being an artist apart from making work.

“In the last decade, younger and younger artists have had to know these things a lot quicker,” Bhandari says. “Many artists we spoke to—such as Fred Tomaselli and Charles Long—talked about how they learned all this through experience. They made mistakes, they learned from those mistakes, and they moved on. Artists who teach sometimes pass on the information in graduate school.” Now with the book’s publication, “More people can have access to it than just the people in Charles Long’s class.”

Art/Work doesn’t contain a recipe for gallery success but instead provides the reader with the right tools to make that happen. Bhandari says, “There are different options for artists now, more than there were in the past,” so the book also offers advice about pursuing not only mainstream success through commercial galleries but also achievement through other avenues, whether that’s working with nonprofit and alternative art spaces, selling work directly from your studio, or creating your own community through do-it-yourself activities.

One unique aspect of the book is the quotes in the margin—from high-profile artists and well-known professionals who’ve been around the block. Shamim Momin from the Whitney Museum and Peter Eleey of the Walker Art Center talk about how they meet new artists and visit their studios, and the Seattle gallerist James Harris underscores the importance artists’ websites have when he looks for new work to show.

In the main body text, Bhandari and Melber offer good ideas for artists—even for those who have been exhibiting for years—such as getting together with other artists who live outside New York to set up a “studio” in that city to store and show work to curators and gallerists. They also recommend registering the copyright of a body of work all at once instead of individually to stretch the amount of art you can catalogue for the $35 online fee.

The readership for Art/Work goes beyond artists. Emerging curators, along with established curators who work with living artists, would do well to read it, as would art dealers and workers at nonprofit spaces or organizations. Established museum professionals might benefit from it too, even if they’re just reminded what it’s like on the up-and-coming side.

Navigating the vast amount of material in Art/Work is crucial, and the book has been structured thoughtfully. Melber says, “It’s written conceptually, starting from the self, to the studio, to the outside world, etc. But depending on where an artist is in his or her career, the chapters are self-contained. If an artist is having a show, then go straight to that part for advice and guidance. Or if a studio visit is pending, reread that chapter.” The amount of information, though, is tremendous, even daunting. “It’s not a novel, that’s for sure,” Bhandari says. “We don’t expect anyone to do every single thing that’s in the book, or read it cover to cover, but instead to skim the chapters and go back to the parts that they feel are important.”

Art/Work is noteworthy for having just as many don’ts as it has dos. The authors wish to steer artists clear from blunders that irk many art professionals—impersonal mass emails, for one. (The book says, “The idea is to grow your list organically, starting with friends and family and slowly expanding as you meet more people.”) Also, it’s always bad form to bring your work, or images of your work, unsolicited to galleries. At her gallery Bhandari notes, “It happens at least once a day.” That’s why she’s included a chapter called “Rejection: It’s Not You, It’s Them.”

She also notes that artists who carelessly package their work for shipping reflects badly on them. “Artists forget they need to pack their art well. They need to treat it well after it’s made. A lot of the curators and gallerists we interviewed talked about this being their one big pet peeve.” About eighteen pages, with detailed illustrations, are dedicated to packing, shipping, and installing all kinds of work.

Art/Work is full of helpful suggestions, especially those dealing with paperwork and legal issues. While researching the book, Bhandari and Melber asked gallerists for their consignment forms, invoices, and contracts. They compiled everything together. “Some galleries and artists were very concerned with shipping, for example,” Bhandari says. “Others had been burned in the past by certain things. We tried to create a comprehensive consignment form that included all the different things you could think about, but we’re not necessarily saying you need to include every single one of them on your form. As an artist you need to pick and choose which topics are most important to you or actually apply to your work.”

Nearly all galleries use consignment forms for artists, but sometimes, for example, an artist participates in a short-term exhibition that a friend organizes in a temporary space. “Even though it feels weird to have something written down,” Melber says, “there should be some paper trail, and it’s okay if it’s just an email.”

He continues, “Most of the stories that I’ve heard over the years are of an artist who didn’t think about that in advance. Something happens during the show, and then after they’re upset, because their piece was damaged and the person who put together the show—even if it was a friend—doesn’t feel responsible for it. Talk about it in advance. If there’s no problem, there’s no problem. If there is a problem, it’s a different problem than what would have been without documentation.

Art/Work contains a few examples each of inventory lists, invoices, loan agreements, and public-art contracts. Melber says, “There are other books out there that are good, and that cover some of these issues, but the samples that are available are ones that I understand because I went to law school. An artist would have trouble with some of the provisions because the form or contract isn’t written in a most user-friendly way.” The book’s examples of contracts thankfully lack stilted legalese: “No heretofore’s, none of that,” Bhandari laughs.

A crucial role the book plays is empowering artists, especially in the gallery world. Bhandari says, “Many artists don’t necessarily stand up for themselves because of the power dynamic, or they’re afraid to ask for certain things because they don’t want to be a pain.” Artists, though, “need to remember they have power also. Many still think the gallery is choosing them, and that the gallery has more power than you do, when in actuality you’re choosing the gallery as well. The gallery is nothing without artwork, which is what you make.”

Melber adds, “Some of the book is about what the unwritten rules and customs are. Some of it is about where there aren’t rules and customs, where there’s space and flexibility. It’s natural for someone who doesn’t necessarily know, or it’s their first time in the situation, to assume there’s a right way that things are done and not know what it is, when in fact there is a process. We’re demystifying the areas where you totally can’t go wrong unless you’re second guessing yourself.”

Originally published in CAA News in July 2009.