Friday, December 25, 2009

ART/WORK: An Interview with Danielle Mund

Danielle Mund is an art dealer and writer. She regularly contributes to Artlog and also represents emerging artists "whose work not only keenly reflects and comments on our cultural time and place, but also conveys that perception through skilled execution."

Danielle wrote the recent posting ART/WORK: A Book Review, which takes a close look at ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber. In keeping with my interests for a deeper contemplation of art and media, I have asked Danielle (pictured below) for this email interview to further comment on the setting for the book.


Drew:
Well I certainly had some nerve asking you to rethink/repurpose your review of ART/WORK without having read either your review or the book. Thank you for putting me in my place (fortunately I lost your scolding reply with my recently hacked/lost email account).

Danielle:
You’re welcome.

Drew:
I just finished reading ART/WORK and I have read your review a half a dozen times: an excellent review of a fascinating book. Both give new meaning to the word "thorough". I felt like I just took a whole course at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). It's a very committed book for artists serious about their careers, which can be confirmed by reading it front to back. I read it, first and foremost, as an artist starting to get back into showing work in spaces. But I also looked at it in context with my current reading of David Sweetman's Paul Gauguin: A Life and it seems that what we consider as the bustle and workings of today's art world are not a far cry from Gauguin's environment. Your background is in art history. When you read ART/WORK were you ever thinking about the careers of artists in the past or is it purely a book of contemporary advice for you? What did you take away from it?

Danielle:
First of all, congratulations on quite literally getting back to the drawing board; it is certainly a great—and quite necessary—step for an artist. Second, and to answer your main question, no, I was not thinking of any specific careers of artists in the past while reading ART/WORK. This is not to say that I didn’t think about the ways in which the advice contained in this book might differ from what it would have been had it been written 50 or 100 years ago; it is a book about how to enter the art market, which is no doubt very different today than it was even a decade ago. But it’s essentially a how-to book, not an historical manual, and so the information contained between its covers is necessarily meant for the contemporary artist. It emphasized the fact that “making it,” or being successful, in the art world means being a professional and selling your work and developing relationships with galleries and/or clients. Being an artist is not (just) about being lucky.

Drew:
One of the statistics I found fascinating was that there are more than 200,000 fine artists in the United States with an additional 8,000 graduating from art programs each year. This is measured against roughly 1,000 galleries in New York. These numbers are boiled down to make a point about representation and the market place, but what do these figures mean to you regarding the pursuits of the artists you know and in general, about our culture?

Danielle:
It is incredibly difficult to “make it” as an artist unless you’re living off a well-endowed trust fund or an exceptionally understanding spouse. That said, people do it. The artists I know are level-headed and know that in order to have any chance at being successful—which I would define as being able to live comfortably off your art-making—the most important thing you can do is to keep doing it. If you’re wishy-washy about making art your career, people won’t take you seriously, collectors won’t buy your work (because, let’s face it, many “collectors” are in fact investors and buy not only for love), and you won’t bring in any income. It’s a vicious cycle. Yes, it’s hard to get those first few collectors. It’s hard to expand your network. (This is where gallery representation helps a great deal.) As an artist, you’re essentially an entrepreneur, as the book rightly starts out by saying. But, as it is for any other small business owner, sticking to your product, being serious about your work, and working hard at it do pay off. Our country is built on small business owners, and so these are the qualities our culture rewards.

Drew:
What do you think the shelf-life is for ART/WORK? In your review you wrote "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." Do you think this book, due to the changing art world, is going to be irrelevant in five to ten years or is it simply a matter of revising the differences and a diligence of the co-authors to maintain it?

Danielle:
I think this book will be relevant for awhile. Whether that’s two years or 20 I don’t know, but it hardly matters. (As a paperback selling at less than $12 on Amazon, it’s not exactly meant to be a life-long investment!) I asked a similar question in my interview with Jonathan and Heather, and they mentioned there is always room for a second—and third, fourth, and fifth—edition, a point to which you also allude. Sure, specific laws will change, certain business practices will become obsolete and perhaps the Internet will play an even larger role in the art market. Pretty much all advice books become antiquated at some point. Still, there is advice in here that is basic and everlasting: do your work, show it as much and as well as you can, and apply for relevant grants and prizes, etc. It really works the same way with any profession, in that you want to make yourself known and liked; it’s just that this book is tailored to the artist.

Drew:
When I bumped into you, literally seconds before you met with Heather and Jonathan, I did a double-take because I initially thought you had a Miranda July book. So first I must apologize formally for being nosey and inquiring about it. I want to say something about the book itself. You mention its efficient layout and the drawings and quotes, which keep it "fun". If you step back and examine it further you see both an arresting, shock-orange cover and pulpy-newsprint text pages. That combination reads as “sell quickly and profit”. Sometimes I even felt like the newsprint was more about marketing than cutting costs, to give it a very immediate feel. In the introductory chapter, “The Big Picture,” they comment on the cover: "And it has a slash in the title, so it will look cool on your shelf."

Can you comment a bit on this book as a book? You used term "textbook" at one point in your review and mention that Heather and Jonathan secured teaching positions at SVA. I can see this even turned into a documentary; certainly the quotes would be interesting filmed. Do you think, in terms of empowering and guiding artists, that this material works best in book form, as a kind of textbook or a field guide?

Danielle:
I like your visual analysis of the book itself, and I agree with your reading of it. If that’s what the authors were going for (“sell quickly and profit”), it only makes sense, as it reflects a large portion of the art market itself; obviously, many artists over the past half century have created artwork about money, commercialism, and the like, from the Pop artists to Damien Hirst. Yes, I think it is best kept in book form. Turning it into a documentary film would give it a linearity and narrative that it isn’t necessarily meant to have. It is a book precisely because its reader can flip to what he or she wants to know, like a reference manual. Want to know about lawyers? Check pages X-Y. Gallery representation? Page Z. It’s not didactic in the same way a film might be. That’s why it’s not a film, it’s a book.

Drew:
What was your thesis on at the Courtauld Institute of Art? Does ART/WORK spark a personal interest in writing a book? If so, what would it be on?

Danielle:
My thesis (or “dissertation,” as they call an MA-level thesis in Britain) was about the nationalization of memory through art, specifically relating to September 11th. Sure, I’d love to write a book some day—wouldn’t we all? Though it would probably not be what I wrote my thesis on. No, it would be The Great American Novel. Maybe I’ll write a vampire story where only artists are vampires and there’s a young girl who wants to be an artist but she can’t because she’d have to get her neck sucked first, but that’s bad, because being an artist is very taxing and she’s too pure. What do you think? It would certainly be more of a money-maker than the nationalization of memory regarding 9/11. I’d have to write it in the next minute and a half, though, before the whole vampire theme falls from everyone’s good graces.

Drew:
My first art form, and the one I am still most comfortable with, is drawing. I am, before anything else, a cartoonist. ART/WORK is interesting for me because of how the cartoons are used. Kammy Roulner provided the "illustrations". You call them "droll little cartoons". In one, a bespectacled and turtlenecked woman says to a phased, balding man "If you took the time to read my blog you'd know that my work is about multi-ethnic cultures and not about global diversity."

The cartoons are used for levity. They are a device, like the numerous quotes. They are great and they add to the book, but they also feel like token appearances, the way a flamboyant gay guy might be thrown into a TV or movie scene for laughs...thus perpetuating a stereotype. I have spent a lot of my artistic life trying elevate cartoons to a highly conceptual art form. Where do you think they fit into the art world?

Danielle:
I’m assuming you mean that the content of cartoons reinforces existing cultural stereotypes, rather than that cartoons as a genre have been stereotyped as something that should be funny. Either way, I don’t really understand this question. “Cartoons” are meant to be humorous drawings, often satirical, and thus ironically reinforce stereotypes by definition. That is the purpose of these drawings in the book. “Illustrations” may or may not be humorous, satirical, or stereotypical, so if you’d like a “highly conceptual art form” forget about the word “cartoon”. I recommend you see the Tim Burton exhibit currently on show at MoMA. His work is exceptional, but it isn’t “high art.” When the subject matter is popular, it isn’t going to be high art, ever. How would you make a cartoon conceptual? Cartoons already presuppose a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer, very often dealing with contemporary cultural issues (politics and leadership, celebrities, popular entertainment) and that is precisely why they are effective; they present material in a way that challenges but also rewards the reader. Strip them of their comedy, and they become tedious—well-executed illustrations, perhaps, but not cartoons. Perhaps I simply need to see an example of what you mean.

Drew:
What I really like about ART/WORK is that it's not a success-story book that makes you jealous, or worse—feeling incompetent and disadvantaged. The message seems to be: be happy where you are at this point, appreciate what you have, and if you want more of this or that get your act together, take what you want from this sound advice and keep doing what you do best. In that sense it's not a delusional self-help book and it's not na├»ve and optimistic. It's like hearing interviewers talking about a candidate's responses before you go in to sit with them. You point out that neither Heather nor Jonathan are artists. Have you gotten any feedback from artists who have read this book or to whom you may have recommended it?

Danielle:
I haven’t gotten any feedback from artists (other than yourself)—sorry I can’t comment on this one! All I can say about this is that there are other books on the bookshelves regarding how to be a professional artist, but that they are written by artists who simply give their experiences, and so they end up being one-sided views of what to do and are therefore not really all that helpful. I think I hint at this in the review.

Drew:
Towards the end (page 237) there is a side bar comment "It's Just An Analogy, People!" which reads "Every gallerist we interviewed made some kind of analogy to courtship and marriage when describing what it's like to bring a new artist into their program..." There are no shortages of these comments throughout ART/WORK: everything from breaking someone's heart to one night stands to the commitment of marriage. Can you shed some light on this phenomenon? It seems more than just an analogy. Is there something to the emotional relationship of an artist and his or her work and a kind of rearing that the gallerist shares? Or are we dealing with a lot of people who put their careers over relationships and so the professional relationship substitutes as something more intimate, the same way people without children speak about their cats and dogs as kids? Why the constant comparisons to romantic relationships? Do you think artists and gallerists reverse the analogy and project the artist-gallerist relationship on friendships and their partners?

Danielle:
The marriage analogy emphasizes the artist-gallery relationship as one that is supportive, legally verifiable, and takes work over the years. More than simply a business relationship, artists and gallerists “date” around in order to find a good fit before “settling down” to work with each other over the long-term. Sure, there’s an emotional investment, but it’s probably not all that different from finding a business partner. Certainly, the marriage analogy is more memorable, perhaps catchier, than simply saying it’s a professional, business relationship. I don’t think it’s an analogy to be extrapolated to some general statement about how we’re all workaholics, and that we’re “married” to our work (though that very well may be true!).

Drew:
Thank you Danielle for your time. What's on your plate for 2010?

Danielle:
Thanks for putting so much time and effort into this, Drew—it’s been a great experience and I truly look forward to our next encounter! As for me, 2010 promises to be a big year: I’m planning a big show to be exhibited some time in the next few months or perhaps next Fall on the LES, and in the meantime continuing to expand the number of talented artists I represent. (Presently, I’m taking submissions from artists and conducting studio visits, so if you are an artist who is looking for representation or would like a chance to be part of this show, please do contact me through my website, http://www.daniellemund.com/) I’m also continuing to write for Artlog and freelance PR services to existing galleries, so it’s all work, work, work. It’s almost like I’m married to it! It’s going to be a fun year. Happy holidays!