Thursday, December 17, 2009

ART/WORK: A Book Review

by Danielle Mund

There’s no doubt in my mind that the art world is a treacherous place. On the one hand, it’s a cranky old establishment with a severe hierarchy of reputations and tastes; on the other, it’s a fickle young thing that claims no hard-and-fast rules.

But although the art world could not exist without the artist, it is somehow the artist who often seems most lost in this tangled-up web. As an artist, you have beans to your name until you’re on your deathbed, other people’s crap gets hooked up at David Zwirner while you can’t get a lazy eye to look at your masterpieces, and there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything you have to do. Then, of course, there’s the reputational hazard.

Luckily, ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career, a new book by power duo Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber, provides a ton of valuable information for the artist who, for lack of a better expression, hasn’t yet “made it” in his or her career. Neither Heather nor Jonathan are artists themselves—but that’s precisely what makes their advice both valuable and unique. Heather is a director and curator at Mixed Greens Gallery in Chelsea, and Jonathan has practiced art law at a prominent New York law firm and has also represented artists on a pro bono basis for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Plus, they’ve each secured teaching positions at SVA next term on account of the book. It’s a pretty safe bet they know what they’re talking about.

I got my hands on a copy and honestly couldn’t put it down. It’s not only easy reading but is laid out extremely efficiently and takes a very well rounded approach to providing advice for artists and their careers. One of the most striking aspects of the book—and importantly, an aspect that separates it from what’s already on the market—is that it isn’t a one-sided how-to manual. Whereas most other books are “inspirational” and try to “get the artist in the studio,” in ART/WORK, the authors assume as much about their readers and instead aim to explain the practicalities beyond simply creating the work. They interviewed dozens of people in the art world, from artists and curators to gallerist-dealers and arts lawyers, in order to get a diversity of opinions on how to be successful. In my own interview with Heather and Jonathan, Heather admitted they were actually surprised by how little conflict of opinion there was on how to do things successfully in the art world. Turns out being an artist isn’t the free-for-all you may have thought it was when you applied to art school—at least, if you’re serious about making it a viable career. There really are rights and wrongs (or betters and worses).

roughout, ART/WORK assumes its reader is a serious and practical artist who already devotes the necessary time to doing his or her work; obviously, that’s the single most important thing an artist can do for his or her own career. Given that, Heather and Jonathan agree that the next most important things for an artist to do are be organized (keep written track of your inventory and images), do his/her research (figure out where you fit in within the art world), and do more research (apply for grants, residencies, etc.). Be focused with your applications, though: one of the biggest mistakes artists make is applying indiscriminately, which will only get you a higher rejection rate and takes you away from working on your art. If you do your research first and know where you stand, you’ll have a higher chance of succeeding not only in getting grants and residencies, but also in securing gallery representation and the right kinds of clients.

Heather noted that Jonathan is “great at putting legal documents into very easily understood sentences and paragraphs that anyone can use.” I very much agree. He even includes sample agreements (more wretchedly known as contracts) in relevant chapters, which can be tweaked by readers for their own purposes, and used for artist-gallery relationships as well as direct artist-client relationships. Jonathan smartly remarked in our interview that “just the process itself of writing stuff down helps you think through what the issues are; it brings out issues you didn’t necessarily know were there, because it’s only when you start to write something out that you realize ‘Oh, I’ve been assuming this all along, maybe the person I’m doing this arrangement with is assuming something else.’ So the exercise [of writing an agreement] in and of itself is worthwhile for that alone. And then, the idea is to be as clear as possible, and to have fewer things to argue about later.” While his sample contracts are helpful, they don’t replace having a lawyer to make sure everything with your legal document is kosher. If nothing else, have your friend’s-cousin’s-sister-in-law—who’s also a lawyer—look at it.

ART/WORK’s strongest underlying point is that you, the artist, are and should be in full control of your career, and should think of yourself as an entrepreneur—even if you have gallery representation. Will the artist-as-entrepreneur ever take over the need for gallery representation, I wondered? Not likely, but things have certainly changed over the past decade or so to make an artist more accessible to a wider audience. Interestingly, the Internet has certainly played a large part in opening up the once very closed art world network. Only ten years ago, Heather noted, it was unthinkable for a gallery to sell works online. Now it’s absolutely necessary for galleries—and artists!—to have websites, and selling art online is becoming increasingly common. “As a gallerist,” says Heather, “while looking for new artists—for both representation and group exhibitions—it’s really frustrating when an artist doesn’t have a website. It’s difficult to actually figure out if I want to do a studio visit with them, or if I can put them in a show. So I think an artist is doing him or herself a huge disservice by not having a website. It’s just making it that much harder for someone to find you or contemplate your work for different opportunities.” (Might I suggest

Chapters on how to stay organized, submit your materials productively, get business cards and a website, show your work, work on consignment, pack your art, deal with loans, commissions, galleries, and clients, and more are all packed into this 281-page reader. It keeps its textbook format fun with droll little cartoons and lots of quotes. If you have any questions at all about your career as an artist, whether still in school or mid-career, invest in a copy or two of ART/WORK. I swear, it’s worth its weight in gold.

Check out ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career on

This review was previously posted by Danielle on Artlog. I bumped into Danielle about 30 seconds before her interview with Bhandari and Melber. With my interests already piqued and then inspired by Danielle's comments, I went out and got my own copy of ART/WORK (a staff pick at the Strand, $13.56) and am thoroughly enjoying it. When I am finished, I will interview/have a conversation with Danielle to discuss what this book means in a larger context for artists and art today. This will be the next posting here...coming soon...

Danielle Mund holds a BA in Art History from Wellesley College and an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialized in Post-War and Contemporary Art. >>> view her website