by Heidi F. Beal
A trend I’ve been seeing is that students new to the world of art (young and old) are publicly showing their works earlier than ever before. I do not think this is a good thing.
Until recently, an emerging artist had to painstakingly pierce through a web of fair and unfair critiques, public opinions, and slave labor to achieve the opportunity to show their work. This took years, usually a decade or two. As a result, only the most dedicated and focused artists got to that level. The rest unfortunately quit or were content to show at county fairs and in their living rooms. But things are different and more equalized now. New art makers (young and old, good and bad) are showing everywhere before they have vetted themselves, before they really know what they are saying with their work, before they have discovered how their work fits within the global art community, before they deeply know who they are as artists, before they are confident enough to endure the kind of critique that a mature art community will and should evoke.
Many new art makers are doing so at a later age, perhaps as a second career. Because they are more mature, they are usually more confident, have more life experience, more discretionary time, and often more money to do with what they want. At the same time, because many vanity and co-op galleries, alternative exhibit spaces, art organizations, and art centers are eager to make money any way they can, they are not always discriminating and can take whatever they get from whomever will pay the price. While there are exhibition spaces that are dedicated to show the best of the best, it’s often difficult to distinguish them from those who have more monetary goals. The accessibility and equalizer of the internet makes all this possible!
Ok, so what’s wrong with this picture?
Well, for starters, it’s a disservice to the new artist because these vanity exhibiting opportunities (aka easy-to-get-into-shows) reinforce complacency in the new art maker’s work. Rarely will new artists get real feedback from the people whom they desperately need to hear from. Experienced art voices rarely invest their time and eyeballs on these vanity kinds of events. Instead, they are working in their studios/galleries and critiquing the work of private students/apprentices who are actually taking the slow and steady route. Sadly, because new artists have not yet learned to detach themselves personally from their art, the sometimes harsh professional feedback and critique within the context of a more mature art world can be debilitating.
I’m reminded of a friend of mine who had a tree planted in her front yard. It grew to have a lovely canopy. A time came when a few of the surface roots had to be cut to accommodate a concrete pad around the tree and beautiful new patio furniture. Within a week with the concrete poured and furniture being delivered, the tree fell over and died! After investing so much time and money she was horrified, blaming the workers who cut the small side roots. She later learned that the tree had not been planted correctly and never developed a core stem root required to support itself over time. Like this tree, art makers who show too early get the emotional goodies they want without earning it over time, thereby reinforcing a low standard of creative discipline and stability.
But having so much immature art out for the world to see also diminishes the best of the best, teaching an uneducated public that it’s all the same. Instead of showcasing the best examples, the community has now cultivated gallery owners, curators, and jurors who don’t know better. Yes, there are credible galleries and museums. Many exhibition spaces, however, drive their profits not from the sales of great works, but rather from entry fees and rents from artists who simply want to show their work. I’m disheartened when I enter galleries and even museums, only to see examples of immature work. I’m also tired of established great galleries closing their doors in this climate of mediocrity. It’s exploitive and disappointing on so many levels.
So what’s the solution, I ask?
How can the internet help elevate all of our work instead of dilute it? Should art exhibitions be clearly categorized, identified, or rated so a predetermined hierarchy is labeled as such? Should new art makers show less? Should exhibitors be more discriminating? How can new art makers show their work, get the goodies they need to keep going, and get critical feedback within a supportive environment? As artists, when are we ready to show our work? Does anyone really care? Or should we just wait it out and see what spits out the other end of the art history timeline?
I don’t have any grand solutions to offer but will share with you some of the guidelines I’ve set for myself within my art practice. (I use the word “guidelines” to underscore that this is a working framework, not a list of hard cast rules.)
- I rarely submit work to juried shows unless I have a specific and strategic reason for doing so. I would prefer a solo show every couple of years to being accepted into juried shows all year long. Am I showing less? Yes. I’m also working in the studio more, living more, paying less in shipping and entry fees, and eating less finger foods
- I only want to show work in places that are dedicated to showing and selling art. This could mean a pop up show in an alternative space, but it does not include cafes and offices
- I will be patient and seek out the right exhibition opportunities, at the right time for me and my work
- I know my work is ready to show when it finds its context in a well-developed series or collection. It might seem like a “one off,” but there is some reference and authentic content that gives it meaning and a purpose to it being made. “An experiment” in technique remains in the studio and is not reason enough to be publicly shown
- Despite my work being very personal, I must be able to detach from it before showing it to others
- People and relationships are paramount. I deeply respect those who are ahead of me on this journey, and I take every practical opportunity to assist those who have just begun. When I need critical feedback, I will invite key persons with critical judgment into the studio for this purpose.
- When I need emotional support and encouragement, I seek it from loved ones but understand they are primarily helping my heart and ego, not necessarily my art.
- I will be at the helm of my practice, not the whim of art circles that tangle around me.
What are your guidelines for showing your work? If you are a new student, have you thought about the consequences of showing too soon? If you are a seasoned artist, what are your strategies for knowing when and how to show your work?