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Good Business Is the Best Art: Artist in the Marketplace

In 1980, the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York established its Artist in the Marketplace (AIM), a unique program that provides professional opportunities and career management to artists based in the greater New York area. Twice a year, the museum offers twelve-week seminars during the fall and spring to eighteen postgraduate artist applicants. Rather than deal with theoretical and teaching issues, or artists’ materials and processes—the core of many academic BFA and MFA programs—AIM engages artists in the practical, nuts-and-bolts side of the profession. As a community, artists examine their own career-building activities and seek ways to improve them.

Led by the painter Jackie Battenfield, seminar director since 1992, AIM provides valuable information on how to present and promote work to galleries and insight into copyright law, contracts, and tax issues. The group also meets curators, critics, dealers, lawyers, accountants, and established artists to discuss contemporary art-world issues. The AIM program ends with an exhibition and accompanying catalogue of the participants’ work at the Bronx Museum. (The images illustrating this article are by artists in the AIM 25 program.)

In September, Christopher Howard, editor of CAA News, spoke with Battenfield about the AIM program.

The program is twenty-five years old. Why was it started?

AIM began with funds from the Creative Artists in Public Service (CAPS) program, then administered by the New York State Council on the Arts. Founded in 1971, the Bronx Museum was still a new institution. I can’t speak to everything the program’s founders were thinking, but I do know that some felt that artists could use opportunities to get together and exchange practical information about the business of art. To its credit, the Bronx Museum stayed with this program for twenty-five years despite not always having the best funding—AIM is not a program that is easily funded.

Do you find that most artists who come to the AIM program haven’t had any experience with the business side of art: for example, approaching a gallery, writing an artist statement, or filing for tax deductions?

Some artists have and some haven’t. Some artists have had disastrous incidents with these issues, while others work or have worked in the New York gallery world and know parts of the system. But everyone is ready for this information.

The AIM program accepts a range of artists, from those fresh out of school with BFAs or MFAs through artists in their early forties. Some are self-taught, and others have been knocking around for years struggling with the New York art scene. Every spring and fall, we select eighteen artists with diverse ethnicities, ages, and experiences, and who work in different media, and let them start talking to each other and share what they’ve learned. I think that oftentimes the best way to learn is to make one big fat mistake. As I say to the artists, “It’s okay to make a mistake. It’s just not okay to keep repeating it over and over again.” The AIM program exists to help artists not repeat their mistakes.

Do you find that many academic programs, whether BFA or MFA, are not teaching the practical side of being an artist?

The schools aren’t doing it because many feel that it’s not an appropriate subject, that it’s not academic. I teach straightforward, potentially boring stuff: copyright, contracts, taxes, gallery relationships, consignments, and writing artist statements. Schools sometimes present a workshop or two, but attendance can be spotty. And I find that students don’t always get it all in one sitting.

In AIM, I provide information in a systematic way, so that one week’s information builds on what we discussed the week before. This is a different way of receiving information, which the once-in-while workshop doesn’t provide. The generation of artists that we’re educating right now is demanding—they want this kind of information. I don’t think that professional-practices classes were in such demand when I graduated with my MFA from Syracuse University in the mid-1970s. I did take such a class there, taught by an academic who had spent his whole career at the university, but it was unsatisfactory. He basically attempted to get us to write a résumé and to prepare us for a job search at the CAA conference, with the unspoken idea that we earned our MFAs to get teaching jobs. And to get a teaching job you had to figure out CAA. This class didn’t address the nuts and bolts of taking an art practice out of the academic environment, where people are somewhat sheltered.

MFA programs are really exciting: students have a community around them that is ready to respond to their artwork and is constantly challenging them. But when students graduate, it’s easy to become isolated. An artist’s studio may be in the bedroom of an apartment shared with four other people. How can he or she host a studio visit in a bedroom? What kind of materials does an artist need to get their work out there? Writing an artist statement that academia might like for a thesis statement isn’t necessarily the best way to help a nonacademic audience understand and appreciate the work more fully.

I’m always interested in how information is delivered to artists. I’m fascinated by new approaches. And certainly I’m always challenging myself to think about how to better deliver the information I give. What works in the year 2005 can be different than what worked in 2004.

Can you describe the general curriculum for the twelve-week program?

We first introduce ourselves and our work. Then I give two very important assignments. The first obliges the artists to respond to a hypothetical opportunity, that is, somebody has dropped their name to a person who is opening a new gallery and is currently looking at artists’ work—the best time to get the attention of a gallery is usually during the early days, when a stable of artists hasn’t yet solidified. AIM artists have two weeks to assemble a package of their artwork and supporting materials and mail it to another AIM artist. The people on the receiving end answer a list of questions. For example, what do they look at first? Do the visuals make sense? Did they read the artist statement, and did it provide insight into the art? Everyone brings those packages to the next AIM session, where we deconstruct their contents. When putting a package together so quickly, artists realize that they may not have slides or digital images of their best or most recent work, or have an updated résumé. They learn how to deal with technical problems such as burning a CD. AIM artists then get feedback on how others perceive their materials—you may not see problems with your own package, but you can fix problems in somebody else’s very quickly.

Next, the artists research nonprofit art spaces. Where do many artists get their start? Nonprofits. Who is constantly looking for fresh meat? Nonprofits. The artist who has lived in New York for more than two months and hasn’t explored every nonprofit opportunity isn’t doing their job. I send them on a scavenger hunt to research places such as White Columns, Artists Space, and the Drawing Center. What are their mission statements, and does your work fit within them? What kind of services do these nonprofits offer, and how do you apply to get your work in an exhibition or a slide registry? We want to know these things.

Later we meet with a gallerist, who tells us about what happens behind the scenes. How do prices for an artist’s work get set? How should an emerging artist start to think about pricing their work? Do dealers and gallery directors take artists without an introduction? Most gallerists say no, and that curators, critics, or other artists often make recommendations to them. AIM artists begin to understand how important building relationships within their community is for the development of their careers.

We then talk about managing the day-to-day operations of an artist’s life, such as health insurance, freelancing, taxes, negotiation skills, contracts, and copyright. We look at examples of simple consignment forms that anybody should be able to sign if they’re legitimately doing business. We discuss the importance of keeping a paper trail, and about how to negotiate getting help with a show or receiving payments. Artists often feel vulnerable because they don’t have the skills to change what feels like a powerless situation into something better suited to them.

We’ll talk to a museum curator about how shows are created and organized. We’ll talk to a critic about how they decide to review a show, and about how well they get paid providing that criticism. It’s a real eye opener for artists to realize that there is someone below them on the pay scale. For critics getting, say, seventy-five dollars for a review—if anything at all—a well-written artist statement that illuminates the work is immensely helpful. Most artists really don’t understand the purpose of an artist statement, which was likely something they wrote under duress while they were in school because a professor told them to do it. An artist statement doesn’t need footnotes or highfalutin language. An artist statement is a tool that helps viewers while they’re looking at your art, either in an exhibition or when holding up slides to bad fluorescent light. If potential questions about your work can be addressed in your artist statement, then you have provided viewers a more intimate viewing relationship with your work. And intimacy is a good thing.

What kinds of things do you recommend that artists include in their statement: information about the work’s formal elements, process, or conceptual approach?

It depends on the art. If there’s a really interesting process that isn’t obvious but that really informs the work, then absolutely include this information. If there are specifics about the materials, the form or content, or the artist’s intentions, then include that as well. Sometimes simply the scale is important to address in an artist statement. I once had an AIM artist who painted these amazing works that look like Hudson River School landscapes, and not one of then was bigger than four inches wide. If someone looks at that image in a slide and didn’t realize that the painting is only four inches of landscape, then an important element of the art is lost. This is exactly the kind of information that should be addressed up front in an artist statement.

We then talk about grants and fundraising. After writing artist statements, we morph them into proposals with budgets. We work with real-life experiences, finding things artists will actually apply to.

What are some major issues that emerging artists must struggle with?

One of the biggest things the program deals with is rejection— how not to take rejection personally. I give an assignment to the artists over the twelve weeks of the program: each one must do studio visits with six other artists alphabetically ahead of them on the class list, so they don’t pick the people they’re doing studio visits with. They spend weeks scrambling to negotiate, schedule, and conduct these studio visits. Often artists don’t appreciate what it takes for a curator or dealer to make the time to see their work. Many other problems can arise, for example, if your studio is entirely on your laptop computer, or if your studio is located in, say, New Haven, Connecticut. If a curator can’t come to you, what can you bring to them? This assignment doesn’t just deal with scheduling and presenting work: each artist must “curate” a two-person show. Through having to make judgments about their peers, AIM artists realize that rejection isn’t personal. If they can get a handle on rejection, they’ll be in this game a lot longer. On the flip side, artists shouldn’t take success too personally either, because the New York art scene has a nasty habit of kicking you in the butt just when you’re feeling best about yourself.

We start every weekly session with what I call “News You Can Use.” I want AIM artists to bring me stuff they find that everyone should know about: Is there a great show happening? Is there a curator looking for artists? Who is accepting slides or email submissions for a group show? Is there a grant deadline coming soon? Can someone talk about residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture? Does somebody know about a great studio for rent? Tell us about it.

How do you measure an artist’s success in the program at the end of the twelve weeks?

It’s my challenge to help them develop lifelong skills that stay with them, capitalizing on the immediate afterglow of the AIM program. Artists initially say they feel much more confident about what they’re doing and have a flurry of activity; they feel that they really understand what their materials should look like and what steps they should take to further their career. They also feel confident to negotiate issues that might come up in the art world because they know the kinds of questions they can ask.

In the long run, artists who figure out how to continue living their lives with art in them become the true successes. My barometers of success are not necessarily artists who show in big-name Chelsea galleries or exhibit in major exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial or Greater New York—although many AIM artists do so. Others take the plunge to start a family, have a baby, and figure out how to continue making art. There’s no single way to build a career: some shoot off quickly and end in a few years, and others move slow and steady. People have their ups and downs. My work with the AIM artists prepares them to negotiate the ups and downs.

Sometimes AIM artists wonder if they should leave New York? I emphasize that artists must go where they can make work and feel nurtured. And if all you’re doing in New York is working to pay rent—and you’re not creating art—then what good is it? Artists can build and nurture contacts here in New York but should go anywhere they need to make their art: go where studios are cheap, where housing is cheap, where a part-time job allows you to support yourself while still making art. The AIM artists who figure out how to be productive making work they love—those are the success stories. Their names may not be on the tips of everyone’s tongues, but for me, these artists are the true success stories—they’re the ones I’m most proud of.

Originally published in CAA News in November 2005.