I have had a lot of successful artist-clients over the course of my career, and one thing I can say for certain is that not one of them looks like the other.
Each artist’s path is unique to them.
is something you have to define on your own terms.
I’ve been wanting to do another episode on this topic for quite some time now. The last one I did that addresses the subject specifically is way back in episode 32: Success Is Complicated.
I’ve been putting this one off because I haven’t been able to tie it up in a nice bow. But then I thought … Neatly packaged articles and podcast don’t really interest me. I’m more drawn in by questions. By messy thinking.
So maybe you and I together can think this through. We won’t have all of the answers at the end, but that’s okay. At the end, I’ll reveal my best advice for feeling like a successful artist.
Listen to this on The Art Biz
Success. It’s a loaded word. Single, simple, 1 word. As if it had a simple definition, which led me to look it up. The definition I came up with, after looking at what’s out there, is this:
Success is achieving a desired outcome. You can say “goal” if you want.
Success is achieving your goal.
If that’s the case, …
What is your goal?
Your definition of success might be defined in any combination of the following ways.
What I’m not including here and I hesitate to even mention is the impulse to consider a certain number of followers or likes on social media as success. That might be a fun achievement to recognize (and I’ve been there myself) but it’s fleeting. And it doesn’t always translate to what really matters.
If success is achieving a desired outcome, that means you must have a specific result in mind. Very few artists have a specific outcome in mind when I first start working with them.
Or they have a specific outcome that seems to have been tailor made for someone else. It has nothing to do with what they really want for themselves and everything to do with what they think they should want. Or what they’ve seen other artists achieve.
Successful Artists on The Art Biz
I consider every artist-guest of The Art Biz podcast to be successful, but … Wow! Each one of them measured success differently. Some were on the show to talk about short-term successes while others had lessons for the long-term.
In episode 109, Mai Wyn Schantz revealed how she pulled together a lucrative pop-up art gallery near the end of the pandemic.
In episode 160, Heather Beardsley admitted to overcoming anxiety about making art world connections that led to a solo museum exhibition.
In episode 157, Sarah Becktel shared how she increased her self-sales 400% by focusing on certain shows.
And I must mention episode 121 when Eve Jacobs-Carnahan gave 5 indicators to measure the effectiveness (i.e. success) of any project.
I could go on, but don’t need to. Pick any interview with an artist and you can find lessons about success.
For example, you might call Heather’s solo museum exhibition the pinnacle of success, but Heather was also successful by overcoming her anxiety. She had to pass that milestone before moving forward.
These artists’ big successes couldn’t have happened without the so-called smaller successes along the way.
And, undoubtedly, numerous failures that were never mentioned.
My point is this: The artist success stories you hear aren’t yours. You have to write your own story.
It Starts With a Vision for Yourself and Your Life
I will never forget one of my clients telling me that she held on to a particular image of the artist Agnes Martin in later life as a beacon for her journey. I loved that vision. And I could picture the photo.
But what does it mean if that’s your vision?
Does it mean you seek a similar path to the famous abstract artist? It’s impossible, of course, to go back into time and hang out at Coenties Slip with the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, and Robert Indiana. But you might be able to nurture a similar feeling of community wherever you are.
You may look at that photo of Agnes Martin and write in your journal about what it means to you. What feelings are present when you look at her and her surroundings? What is in her life that you can aspire to 65 years later?
Again, her story is her story. You have to write your own. And it’s okay if you don’t have the same clear vision as my client had when recalling the Agnes Martin photo.
You can get there and maybe this will help. These are the two big questions I ask new clients:
If—after hearing their responses—I need more specifics, I might drill down on the question of what they want from their art.
What Do You Want From Your Art?
What do you want FROM YOUR ART?
I’ve discovered that this question isn’t easy to answer. Most artists haven’t taken the time to consider it, and it’s understandable if you don’t have the answer on the tip of your tongue. There are other ways to ask this question.
Why are you making all of this art? What do you want to happen with it? Where should it end up?
Is making it—getting it out of you—enough? Or do you need more in order to be fulfilled as an artist?
Asking tough questions are what coaches are for. To help you uncover answers that may be buried deep inside.
Additional questions that are related to the traditional definitions of success might be:
- Do you want or need your art to provide you with more income?
- Is it important that, through your art, you’re seen as a leader or innovator in a particular area?
- Is it vital that your art convey moral, social, or political positions?
- If recognition is important to you, recognition by whom? Your peers? Your family? Your community?
Forces We Can't Control
Here’s the thing. You might think of art as a form of self-expression, and it certainly is. But meaningful art doesn’t remain in the realm of expression.
Self-expression is only the first phase, and the word expression implies that someone is on the receiving end—watching and ready to engage.
Art, I strongly believe, is, in the end, a form of communication. It requires someone else (the viewer) to complete it.
Most definitions of success depend on forces outside of our control.
Personalities and actions that are out of our purview.
People will respond or they won’t. They’ll buy our art or they won’t. They’ll give us a show or they won’t. They’ll sign up for a class or they won’t.
Of course, it’s never that simple. You can—and must—do everything you can to position yourself so that those things can happen for you.
If self-expression is only the first phase of your art and requires others to complete it, what does the completion look like for you? Who is part of your loop?
Armed with these answers, you can then ask …
Is Your Vision Aligned With How You Want Your Life to Be?
I listen to hear if what my clients say they want from their art is aligned with how they say they want their life to be.
For example, I coach a lot of people over 50, especially women. And many of them are new grandmothers. They want to spend time with their grandchildren, and I wouldn’t blame them.
Some even want to be available on-call as babysitters. It’s fine if you want these things, but it’s not conducive to a structured business routine. If you want to be available 24/7 as a babysitter, your life as an artist is going to be impacted. Your goals and expectations may need to be adjusted.
Same if you need to be on call for your own kids. Or for an elderly parent.
If you’re in one of these situations, think about these questions.
- What are the things in your life that you embrace wholeheartedly and unapologetically that might be out of step with your goals as an artist?
- Where do you need to make adjustments?
- And …
Do you need to have different expectations about how much you can take on?
The answer to this last question is, by the way, almost always Yes, regardless of the circumstances. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with my desire to take on too much. This from someone who leads the Artist Planning Sessions!
The answers to what you want from your art and how you want your life to be will guide your direction. And, your direction might have to change.
Success Is a Moving Target
If you want to write up a 10-year business plan, knock yourself out. Me? I can’t imagine planning more than 12 months out. Too many things change too quickly these days.
Think of all the 10-year plans that were thrown out in April of 2020. It doesn’t mean the plans didn’t provide useful guidance or that those who wrote them didn’t reap benefit from them. It just means that … Holy cats! Nobody saw that coming.
We have to be able to adapt to new technology, world events, natural disasters, and social situations. And we never know what crazy curveball is going to be lobbed our way by a loved one.
You must stay tuned in to your life and unique circumstances—knowing yourself well enough to constantly massage your definition of success.
You have to be okay with changing directions, which means you must also be okay with taking risks and failing. You won’t grow until you do.
These are all part of a well-lived life, and also key to being an astute artist in charge of their business.
You may not currently have a clear vision of what success with your art looks like, but don’t let that stop you. Keep showing up for yourself and your art and your vision will appear.
I’ll leave you with this advice, which I am passionate about.
My Best Advice for Success
Define your success in terms of building momentum. Seeing forward motion—one step at a time.
What was good this week? What did you accomplish? What are you celebrating?
When my first coaches had me do this on my check-ins, I thought it was a waste of time and silly. “Who cares what I did,” I thought. “I am focused on what’s next and what’s in my way of that goal.” I wanted to talk about strategies and solutions, not about some task or result that happened in the recent past.
I was wrong. Way wrong.
Seeing progress keeps us motivated to continue the journey.
From my private clients, I ask for more details. I want to see many more accomplishments. I’m looking for a long list. Every client who takes the time to write down their progress since the last time we talked admits proudly, “I did more than I thought I did!”
I did more than I thought I did. You do more than you think you do or are capable of. I promise.
Every task you complete and every project you wrap up makes you a success.
To feel successful as an artist you must acknowledge the progress you're making.
I urge you to break down your success into smaller increments that are achievable, stay tuned in to your life circumstances, embrace failures that allow you to course correct toward a direction that’s more aligned with who you are now, and celebrate—even for a brief moment—your accomplishments, regardless of how big or small.
I’m not talking about scheduling a mani-pedi or massage for every accomplishment. Taking a deep breath, smiling, and writing it down is enough.
Of course, it’s more meaningful when someone is on the receiving end of your celebrations—a coach or another artist who understands.
Who is there to listen and cheer you on?
If this is missing for you, I invite you to join our community.
This conversation is ongoing and I’d love to hear your thoughts on success in a comment.