A New Portrait for the Contemporary Artist
by RJ Harrington
For the past three hours I’ve been sitting in my studio staring at this painting. I am unable to decide if I’m done with it. I think it needs something more, a bold streak of cadmium yellow along the side? Too harsh. Perhaps I should add a light wash of ochre? I don’t know. What am I trying to say with this work? It’s eluding me, compounding my struggle.
I’ve worked on this piece for what feels like forever. My body fights with my brain, reminding me of my hunger. Has it been a few days since I’ve last eaten? I can’t remember. I attribute my poor nutrition to an anemic bank account, but I also blame my focus. My art consumes me. It is all I do. It is all I know how to do.
his romantic, yet outdated portrait of an artist is one that many people believe still holds true. The singularly driven starving artist struggling to feed himself, holed up in a cold, dark studio waiting to be discovered. In reality, today’s average artist juggles many tasks. Pragmatically stated, an artist runs a business that creates its own inventory.
For many artists, a large amount of time is spent not on creating their next great masterpiece; instead they allocate time for other duties that could easily be applied to various occupations. From writing artist statements and grant proposals to networking at exhibition openings, scheduling studio visits, keeping up to date via social media, documenting work and self-promotion, the many hats an artist wears can be overwhelming.
The question then becomes where does the artist learn and develop all the other skills required to be a successful artist? While art schools do an amazing job of teaching their students the ins and outs of making art, appreciating art and talking about art, tragically most schools completely fail to foster or even touch upon all the other skills that an artist needs to be successful. There is no Networking 101 for artists or a class on how to price your work. Graduates from art school must learn how to
navigate the art world via the sink-or-swim method, leaving most to sink.
“Crit Group was an excellent exercise in stepping outside of myself to see how others interpret my artist statemnet, images, etc. It’s beneficial, in a non-competitive setting to sit down with an artist in a different discipline, sometimes with a different level of education or exhibition experience on their CV than you and find that you are both asking the same question or confused by the same funding essay.” -Rebecca Rothfus Harrell, Crit Group alumnus
Fortunately, for the Austin artist there is an opportunity available to address this deficiency. It’s called Crit Group, a six-month-long course developed in the fall of 2014 and hosted by The Contemporary Austin. The course sets out to address the knowledge and experience gap by providing artists with information, advice, guidance and criticism. Participating artists gain professional development, with monthly sessions dedicated to the “paperwork” of art, including writing an effective artist’s bio and statement; photographing work; applying for grants, residencies, and public art projects; what to expect from curators and galleries; understanding copyright law; and more.
An application must be submitted for consideration of acceptance into Crit Group. The application includes images of artwork, an artist statement or bio and curriculum vitae for review by the curators and art historians that direct Crit Group: Andrea Mellard, senior curator of public programs and community engagement at The Contemporary; Andy Campbell, art historian, independent curator and current Museum of Fine Arts Houston CORE fellow; and curator Sarah Celeste Bancroft, who previously worked at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Orange County Museum of Art and is currently the assistant director of Austin’s own TestSite.
For artists in the program, there lies an opportunity to apply the concepts and information gained through the process with real-world experience. The course concludes with an exhibition hosted by Jill Schroeder’s grayDUCK gallery in conjunction with The Contemporary. Jill offers knowledge about pricing work, submitting proper label information for artwork, selecting images for promotion and even legal contracts including terms of sales and rights and responsibilities for both artist and gallery. The Contemporary provides staff for installation and a professional photographer to document it all.
Art making can be expressive, cathartic or even a great way to pass the time, but getting artwork off the easel and sharing it with others is not as simple as learning how to paint. An artist must take on the role of entrepreneur, handling paperwork, networking, advertising and many other jobs. The advantage for Austin is that The Contemporary has provided an opportunity with Crit Group for artists in our community to learn those skills and hopefully create a new portrait of the present-day artist.