There is a lot of expectation these days. In the arts it seems to be growing. There is an expectation that one will study, exhibit, get a grant, undertake a residency, be written about, one will sell. These are all points of achievement facilitated/structured by the dollar – mostly by government, sometimes patrons, often by the individual artist themselves. The quality of practice counts too, but too often it relies on how it is couched in an application, artist statement or press release.
The expectation of a career trajectory that encompasses these milestones seems to have become the norm, especially for younger artists. Once these achievements could be seen documented over a life-long practice, today they seem to be achieved at an accelerated rate that leaves me wondering what happens next. With so much emphasise placed on the ‘new’ and ‘emerging’ what are the realistic expectations for artists between this developmental period and the long stretch to ‘established’?
Professional development programs, such as Shotgun, are firmly established in the era of the professionalised artist. They are important structures in which artists can become empowered through knowledge - learning about the wider art world, become informed about financial and creative opportunities, meet peers and form networks, and importantly, receive direct critical feedback on their work. But why not extend this opportunity to artists throughout their careers, especially during that critical time when the shine of the new has passed onto the nitty gritty of sustaining a practice amongst competing priorities, increasing responsibilities and the growing sea of practicing artists?(1) Most artists benefit from being brought into direct contact with other artists and arts workers at regular intervals throughout their careers. Curators and writers also benefit from being kept abreast of what artists of a range of generations, locations and activity are interested in.
As part of this year’s Shotgun program a lot of interesting questions were raised within a workshop that involved both current and alumni program participants. Artists were keen to know how to find people interested in their work, how to secure places to exhibit and people to write on their exhibitions; essentially how to bring a visibility to their hard work and labour. Further, the question of how to balance making with career building, without sacrificing the art itself, was foremost on people’s minds. Three curators, including myself, sat with these artists and talked through various textbook approaches to developing and sustaining a career as an artist in Australia. The session was informative and useful, and significantly it revealed an important truth: if one is to establish a career as an artist one must move beyond a sense of entitlement and expectation into a position of self-organisation and action; modes that can only be reliably established and sustained through a sense of empowerment served by knowledge and a sense of community. Essentially the buck stops with the artist.
This first means asking hard questions. Is the practice suited to a career? In this I mean is the practice of suitable quality, relevance and format to operate with currency within the art market (if one is seeking financial reward) and/or the art scene (if one is seeking opportunity and exposure). For indeed sometimes a practice is just that, and doesn’t need to be opened up to the structures of career making at all. A practice can be pursued throughout a lifetime by drawing validation and motivation from within the practice itself. It has no need for career or professional expectation. But for those seeking to bring career and practice together this sense of self-reliance is also important. A small number of artists settle under the wing of commercial representation that navigates the career path for them. For most career artists, however, it is the artist themself who needs to find a way to establish a satisfying practice while finding the wherewithal to negotiate a path through the various professional development opportunities.
This takes determination and tenacity but is also aided by being armed with information and feeling connected to a larger community that shares a professional reality – people working with the same commitment, making similar sacrifices, dealing with the same precarity, experiencing common challenges, and apprehending the same information and systems. Community is not a fixed concept, it is an enacted one and has to be formed or at least recognised by its members in order to exist proactively. The enduring ones tend to form organically and subsist in a self-organised manner characteristic of artists. They function informally as a resource for artists to draw on as needed, to return to as required, all without application. Feeling part of a community, be it big or small, can empower artists with a sense of autonomy, of being able to navigate the system as needed rather than being reliant on it, of being able to self-generate outside of the conventional set of expectations and condoned avenues.
If one has community one can survive the long haul of career making as an artist; moving in and between institutional opportunity and self-generated projects, sharing resources and networks, drawing support and feedback from professionals and peers, creating paths ahead as opportunity ebbs and flows. An understanding of pace is essential for sustaining a life-long practice and/or career. Community and self-determination enables a sense of belonging and autonomy within an art world at once in perpetual reinvention and somehow moored to convention. This is not news to older artists. But it is a wisdom that the now generation could heed.
(1) The Shotgun program stands alone in being the only professional development program, that I’m aware of, that is open to artists of all stages of their careers.