How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul

Early on in the newly released seventh edition of her How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul (Allworth Press), Caroll Michels notes that artists may spend lavishly on supplies, equipment and studio space but not so much on what might help develop their careers, “such as travel, presentation tools, software, publicity and press relations, mailing lists, and such preventive medicine as engaging the services of professionals, such as lawyers, accountants, and career coaches.” Michels herself is a long-time artist career coach, and this book does far more than just explain the need to spend money on travel, presentation tools, lawyers, accountants and career coaches. It describes the narrow view of their own possibilities that many artists have at the outset of their careers (“their market is limited to their town or city of residence,” on the one hand, or only equating “success with having a show in New York”) and fears of what the larger world thinks of them (Is age 30 too old to start an art career? If my work sells, am I a sellout?) and offers a broader perspective. At $24.99, this book costs considerably less than a single hour of a career coach’s time, which is the point.

How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist is written in bit-sized portions, offering introductory remarks about specific topics – for instance, estate planning, healthcare, legal resources, software business programs for artists, sources of free or discounted materials and equipment for artists, bartering, affordable live-work spaces and copyright – and concluding with referrals to Web sites, organizations and other publications where readers may obtain additional information.

Obviously, artists have their own needs and concerns that cannot all be addressed in a single book with a lot of territory to cover. Michels looks broadly at the working lives of artists, identifying key issues in the development of their careers and pointing them in the direction of answers to their particular questions. Among those issues is the value of people like herself, career coaches who work individually with artists in order to guide them in the direction of, if not success then at least fewer obstacles.

“An artist’s career coach should serve as a backseat driver to help artists confidentially negotiate with art dealers, art consultants, and other members of the art world and suggest ways to resolve problems that might arise,” she writes. An obvious question that may arise for readers is whether or not this book is a 356-page advertisement for her own career coaching business. It is not, and Michels describes how to evaluate if a particular artist career coach is appropriate and when it might make sense to change coaches as one’s needs and careers evolve. It might have been helpful to include source information on where artists might find career coaches – is there an association? Do you just Google “artist career coach”? And what they charge for their services. There only are so many of these career coaches around the country, and it might occur to readers to wonder if it matters that a desired coach lives in another state and one’s only contact with that person is over or the phone or through email.

Readers also might appreciate specific stories she could tell from her own experience, of an artist who came to her claiming to need or want this or that, how she identified the artist’s essential problem in realizing career goals and led that person through various steps to achieving success – however success is defined. It isn’t giving away the store to let prospective clients know what is in store for them, because of all the services Michels describes (legal, accounting, medical, estate planning, software, governmental) her own is probably the one about which people have the least understanding.

Michels reveals her deep understanding of what artists at the outset of their careers – the principal audience for this book – are looking to find out by identifying and answering questions they may have: Where can I show my work? Do I need a gallery or dealer, or can I do that job myself? How can I find buyers, art consultants or organizations that might commission me? What should I include on my Web site/resume/blog/artist statement? How do artists and dealers find each other, and how might an artist approach a dealer intelligently?

She favors artists being in control of their own careers and sales, approaching the subject of dealers and galleries with a bunch of warnings. “Being an art dealer requires no qualifications or certification,” she writes, moving on to dealers’ “martyr syndrome” and “sales hanky-panky,” before offering practical advice on how to proceed. Gallery owners often want to direct the careers of the artists whose work they represent, which may bring them into conflict with a career coach. Perhaps, that isn’t what informs the cautions that Michels is signaling to readers, but certainly this cat can show her claws.

As opposed to when the first edition of this book appeared 30-plus years ago, the realm of suggestions and information in seventh edition of How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul has grown significantly. Every chapter now concludes with a list of resources for where to find out more about what was just discussed. There is a lot to learn, and Michels offers a good starting point.

By Daniel Grant

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