Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Recognition - Gwendolyn A. Magee

Recognition is the flip side of rejection.

The following was originally printed as a commentary piece for the January 2005 issue of Artist Quarterly, the Alabama, Arkansas & Mississippi Regional e-mail newsletter of SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates).
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Recognition – Acknowledgement – Approval – Commendations – Admiration – Honors
High Regard – Acceptance – Affirmation – Acclaim – Prominence – Esteem – Renown – Accolades – Awards

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For most of us as artists, recognition is the yardstick we use to measure the extent to which we have achieved success. However defined, and that certainly varies from individual to individual, to some extent we all want it, crave it, need it, feed on it and strive to achieve it. No matter how secure we think we are within our own psyches about the quality and merit of our work, there is no getting around the fact that outside corroboration feels good. It also is human nature to become dismayed and to feel overlooked when colleagues receive awards and have exhibit opportunities that were somehow outside of our grasp. We may find ourselves torn between being genuinely happy that Jane Doe’s work was juried into Quilt National or into the American Craft Council Show, but as we watch her enjoy her “moment in the sun” we also may wonder, sometimes bitterly, “why not me?”; especially if entries have been submitted to no avail year after year after year and enough rejection letters with which to paper a room have accumulated. ...
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Unfortunately for some, it is at this point that their own accomplishments, even if they have been many, may seem not to shine as bright. Frustration seethes, becoming a bubbling cauldron of discontent, rancor and resentment sometimes metamorphosing into a mission to denigrate the significance of that other person’s achievements in the mistaken belief that it somehow will increase the significance of their own. We’ve all seen this happen – the snide and catty remarks, the little jabs here and there. More pitifully though, is that the person’s own art often is affected – it is very difficult for creativity to truly flourish in a miasma of negativity or, as many of our grandmothers use to say, “Sour grapes can only yield a harvest of bitter fruit”.
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The big question becomes one of “How can I avoid falling into this type of self-destructive trap?” “How”, indeed. If we can somehow remain focused on what it is that we individually want to accomplish, another person’s success becomes irrelevant and non-threatening. It brings us to the question of – “What is it that I can or need to do to increase the opportunities for ‘my’ success?”
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First of all, we have to recognize that there is no cookie cutter recipe that will work equally effectively for all; primarily because how “success” is defined is different for each and every one of us. For example, many will say that being able to sell their art is how they define success. All well and good on the face of it, but for one person it may mean being able to sell their art in the $1,000 price range and for another, anything less than $10,000 is insulting. Still another person may be thrilled to sell a small piece for $250.
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Digging a little deeper, you may find it’s not that the artist selling for $250 thinks that is the true value of his or her work, but for that individual, success is not primarily defined by the amount of a single sale, but by the recognition that comes when many value the work enough to purchase and showcase it in their homes; and subsequently by the reputation that a number of sales helps build for them in their home community. This artist therefore is willing to sell at a price point that most people can afford – and that is more important to him or her than the mere dollar amount. I have been guilty of pressuring someone to raise their prices without taking this into account. Different markets command different prices. So, if the person places a $1,500 price tag on their work and no one buys, how successful will he or she then feel?
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For others, success is not at all correlated with the selling of their work. Instead, for them it may be more closely associated with the number and prestige of the venues in which their work is exhibited, or having their work archived in museum collections, or featured in newspapers, books and magazines. This approach certainly makes these individuals no less “a professional artist” than anyone else.
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All of this is to reiterate that there is no “one size fits all” formula for success. However, no matter how success is defined, throughout all of its variations a person’s ability to attain it appears to be linked closely with a few basic elements and/or factors:
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Goal Identification: What are your goals? What is it that you want to happen in the best of all possible worlds? Think about it. Write them down and be as specific as possible. Review them often. You have to define for yourself what success looks like.
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This is critical whether you are an established studio artist or just beginning to dip your toe into the water. If your primary goal is recognition by your peers – you have to decide and identify which group of peers is most important to you – those on a community, state or national level? Peers in the general quilting community, in the art quilt community, in the art community? The strategy devised by someone who primarily desires recognition by the national art quilt community will be significantly different than that planned by someone who is seeking broader based recognition, or for whom being well known and respected in their home community is paramount.
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Is your primary goal to exhibit your art (and to what end), to gain recognition (and from whom), or to earn money (quick money or big money)? Are you willing to sacrifice one goal to achieve another and if so, for how long and at what cost? What are your personal circumstances and how do they affect your goal? If selling your art determines whether and how well you are fed, clothed and housed, this has to be taken into serious consideration.
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Whatever your circumstances, do not put limitations on your goals. Do not put limitations on what you want for yourself and for your art based on what you think is “reasonable”. Don’t be cowed into thinking that your goals are too lofty – they are yours and you do not have to justify them to anyone but yourself. You are under no obligation to ever share or discuss them so you don’t have to cringe with concern about what others might think. So, for example, your goals may read something like this:
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I want to be exhibited at the Smithsonian
I want to be invited to participate in a national, state or regional Invitational Exhibit
I want my art to sell for a minimum of $xxxxx
I want to my work to be published in XYZ book, magazine or journal
I want to earn a minimum of $xxxxx a year as an artist
I want to win “Best of Show” at Paducah / Houston
I want a feature article about me to appear in Hometown USA newspaper
I want to have my work juried into Quilt National
I want to have a solo exhibit at ABC Museum or Gallery
I want to command $xxxxx for workshops
I want to command $xxxxx for lectures
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I want…you get the drift. But these goals must be what that person residing deep down inside of you really wants. Of course it would be great to have your work reviewed by the New York Times, but think long and hard about what would truly be the most meaningful to you – a two sentence mention in the NYT, or having a four column, half-page feature article written about you in your local newspaper. This type decision then determines how you go about creating or putting yourself into the circumstances that can make it happen.
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For example, if more than anything you someday want to have a solo exhibit at a major venue, its probably not going to happen if you’re concentrating on selling your work as fast as you make it. To have a solo exhibit, you have to have a comprehensive body of work, and it may have to be available for an extended length of time. People who have bought your art may be willing to lend it for a one or two month period, but are they willing to let it go without compensation for 2 years or more if you’re fortunate enough to have your exhibit travel?
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If you deeply desire to have your work sell for $5000 or more, that’s not likely to happen if your current focus is on making money as fast as you can and are primarily exhibiting your work at venues where the average purchase price is $50. All venues are not equal and all venues are not appropriate depending upon your goals. People coming by your booth at an outdoor art fair may ooh and ah about your work, but move on to the next one to buy a pottery casserole dish or teapot. Someone may contact you later, but don’t count on it. Of course you can decide to make items that can be sold within the primary price point for a particular venue, but at what cost in terms of the standards you set for yourself as artist? At what cost in terms of the quality of the work? At what cost in terms of your reputation as a serious artist? At what cost in terms of time allotment (i.e., to what extent does it erode the time available to focus on what you consider to be your serious work; the work that feeds your soul)? At the end, the decisions made should relate back to your definition of success – and if being able to support yourself is primary, these other considerations may become secondary or irrelevant; no justification or explanation needs to be made to anyone not residing inside your skin. But you need to feel good about it and comfortable with your decision.
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Prioritization: Which of your goals do you think and feel are the most significant – and why? Put it into words and write it out. In terms of meaningfulness to you, what follows second, third, etc. Identify the ones that fall into the “would be nice, but so what if it never happens” category. This will to a large extent determine how you think about and approach achieving your goals, and remember that your goals need not be static and carved in stone. Rethink your goals and how they are prioritized at minimum every six months; sooner if your circumstances change. It’s easy to lose sight of what is your big picture. You have to retain your focus as well as have the ability to incorporate new thoughts, ideas, information and/or opportunities into your strategic plan. Remember also that this is not a “to do” list.
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Timeframe: Are you or are you not willing to take a long-term route to achieving your goals (this of course takes you back to the question of “…for what are you willing to settle…” and which are your priority).
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Mindset: You have to have an open mind in order to (1) recognize when you’re being presented with an opportunity that may help you attain one or more of your goals – and keep aware that they don’t always present themselves in a format that “looks like” what you think one should; and (2) you have to be willing to receive or take advantage of it. Otherwise, many “chance” opportunities will be forever lost to you.
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Do not discount the contacts you make in non-fiber related places or situations. For example, at some event you find yourself talking with a potter who invites you to an open house at his studio. You think to yourself, for what? I have no interest in clay and my plate is already so full that I don’t have time to deal with anything not fiber related. But, if you had gone, there may have been someone there looking at his wares who also has a gallery, or knows someone who might be interested in your work, or is aware of an exhibit you should be part of, or discover that the potter belongs to a prestigious art group to which he may invite you to join – there are an infinite number of possible iterations. Obviously you have to allocate your time judiciously, but the point is, don’t be insular in your thinking. Attend exhibits or performances of other artists no matter what is their preferred medium. The people who buy their work and attend their concerts also are potential buyers of yours. Cast your net widely.
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Recognition in the greater art community, even at the local level, is not going to happen if you make little or no attempt to become involved with it. This means attending art events of all disciplines; becoming involved with art organizations; taking advantage of the programs offered by your state, regional and local Arts Commissions or Councils. At the very least, attend museum and gallery openings (and other events held in these facilities) whether they are textile related or not – that’s where a lot of people with expendable funds and contacts are going to show up. Assuming you make the effort to interact with them, it won’t take long for people to begin to remember you and to keep you in mind.
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follow-up, Follow-Up, FOLLOW-UP: This is just basic common sense. Follow-up on every possible lead you receive even if it seems obscure. People are so interconnected that you can never predict with certainty from which direction a break may come. More opportunities are probably lost by the failure to follow-up than by anything else. And:
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Never forget the power of a simple but personal thank-you note.
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Marketing: Who comprises your primary audience and/or market? They are not necessarily one and the same and the degree to which you recognize this and strategize appropriately will definitely affect your success. How effectively you use available tools for marketing yourself is important.

For an excellent article that addresses many of the points
mentioned above, read Sylvia White’s
“Coping with the Post-Exhibition Blues”:

2 comments:

Sonji Hunt said...

Once again, great advice. I know you always ask me "what do you want for your work?" and I never have a formed answer because I'm not sure yet. A lot of it comes from not hearing myself and listening to everyone else around me. Reading your words over and over help to clarify things (albeit slowly)in my head and heart. Thanks, Gwen.

Gwen Magee (Gwendolyn Magee) said...

Remember also that it's not necessary to have a complete game plan formulated, but we all need some target toward which to aim.