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Wisdom

Recently, we published a study on the financial state of visual artists sharing information collected from 1,016 respondents via an anonymous survey. As part of the survey, we asked artists if there was one piece of advice they wished they could go back and give to their past self. We received hundreds of responses, and while the answers were varied, we noticed some common themes. For starters, many wished they’d learned basic business practices earlier, and had taken ownership over their career from a younger age. Many also wished they’d had more realistic expectations about what being a professional artist would mean in the long run. Click through to read a selection of the insightful responses we received.

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Seek progress, not perfection.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Ask for more money than you think you deserve.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Learn how to write a grant. Apply to everything that you can.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know that it’s okay to say no to projects that don’t interest you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Skip grad school until you know exactly what you want to pursue.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Start your own thing. Don’t wait for power-holders to embrace you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Raise your prices. Don’t hold yourself back just to stay with your friends.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know that institutional approval is not enough to achieve financial stability.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Stop taking rejection so personally. Just stop. It’s a huge waste of resources.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Talk to others. Fight your inner introvert and know that it’s okay to ask for help.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Be open to a creative life that looks different than the way you may have pictured it.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Be brave and send out pitches to companies instead of just waiting for them to contact you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Realize that money is a tool the way a hammer is a tool, and I can’t make my work without it.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Stretch and take breaks. It’s not healthy to work 10-14 hours a day—you will wreck your body.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Open a Roth IRA now, even while you’re making no money, and put a few dollars in every month.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

Begin selling sooner—but without the fear of breaking out of the system. The DIY ethos is great.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Find someone whose career you want to emulate and ask them to mentor you. They’ll probably say yes.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish it hadn’t taken me 40 years to understand that I have to be my own business manager and marketer.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Keep in touch with everyone who has helped you, and don’t stop reminding them of what that help meant to you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Go to all the social gatherings. That’s how artists build social and cultural capital, and gain access to resources.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know that taking freelance work that’s not directly related to your work doesn’t make you any less valid as an artist.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Get on the social media trend earlier, and research competitive rates so you’re not underselling yourself or your work.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I had also known that we are all just figuring it out as we go, and there is no point where everything is perfect.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

Build up a savings buffer for slower months. Get in the habit of putting tax money aside with each payment received.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“If you don’t know, ask! There are many who have come before you, and so many willing to share what they’ve learned.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I could tell my younger self not to reinvest all of the money I made back into the studio. I should have saved some.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I’d known earlier that since I’ll always need to keep some kind of a day job, I should have focused more on finding one that pays well.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“A lifetime of art making is actually a very long time. You have to pace yourself and build structures to sustain your practice over the years.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Be easy to work with and dependable. 99% of the time, an art director or editor wants an artist that is easy to work with, not an unreliable genius.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know that it’s never too late to begin. I started my creative practice in my 40s, with no degree and no background in the arts. I’m glad I finally did.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know that for people who do not want to be business owners in addition to being artists, having a day job can be the key to a healthy artistic practice.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Trust yourself. If you get a bad feeling about someone, don’t work with them. If you get a good feeling about someone, work your hardest. It pays off.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

Galleries and institutions need us as artists just as much (if not more) than we need them. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the illusion of grandeur.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

Help each other out when you’re able. It comes back in spades, but more importantly, it helps build a strong community and that’s really all we’ve got.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I’d tell my younger self to focus on my own self-imposed work ethic, rather than waiting for external motivation from deadlines, gallerists, or professors.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Make connections with your peers, and with those who share your interests. Even if the wider world ignores you, that immediate community will sustain you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Recognize that pursuing collaborations with the right people can extend your work and reach, and help you build an important community and support system.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I’d known that every time you move locations, it breaks your local connections and you have to start that process all over again, which can be a setback.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Everyone is trying to figure out the meaning of being an artist—not just you. Don’t wait to fully understand your work before you start trying to show it; just start.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Start keeping a sketchbook earlier. Cherish the moments in school that were available for pure experimentation, because those moments are fleeting in adulthood.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I want young people to know that they don’t have to conform to a specific genre or type of medium to be an artist. Create what you want to create. Don’t self edit.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Define your own metrics for judging success. It’s useful to learn from more established artists, to see how they “did it,” but it’s important to define success for yourself.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Get better teaching credentials in case you need them. Twice I’ve been offered a teaching job, but I didn’t take any grad-level pedagogy classes, so the offers were withdrawn.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I had bet on myself sooner. I played it safe and went corporate as long as possible because I was terrified that I would fail. Now I realize that I was never going to fail.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“If you want to find an audience for your work, you have to actually post the work you want an audience for. No one can find you if you don’t put anything out in to the world to find.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Don’t be such a pushover, and stop feeling like you have to grovel with gratitude at people’s feet. You don’t. You are doing them the favor by making your work available to them.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I knew that the dream of being an artist who lives off of their work is not realistic, so that I could have set myself up for a life that sustainably supports my practice from the start.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

Stop letting your own mind be your enemy. A lot of artists confuse integrity with ego, which is paralyzing. Ask for help and critique from trusted sources, and worry less about failure.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know your rights as an artist. Copyright protects artists, so you should understand it. Register any work that you’ve put a sizeable amount of time and resources into. It’s actually easy.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Be kind to yourself. You’re going to feel bad sometimes, you’re going to miss deadlines, and you’re not going to be able to produce good work every day. It’s okay. Forgive yourself and move on.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I had know that making money through your artwork does not equal success, and finding another way to make money that is meaningful in its own way can offer a lot of creative freedom.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Don’t stress about the success of others around you, especially those who are your age. Some of the greatest artists/thinkers of all time didn’t achieve recognition until after their 40s, 50s, or even 60s.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I think it would have been important to know that the system is set up to work against those of us who don’t come from money. If you don’t have financial support early on, it will be a constant struggle just to get by.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Commit to your practice. Set x hours aside each week for it, and share x amount of it per week. There is a lot other people can help with, but it’s true that nobody else can do the work of making your art for you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Know that people aren’t joking when they say it takes 10 years to build a sustainable career in any field—particularly the arts. It’s going to seem like a long time, but things add up and time goes quicker than you think.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“It would have been useful to know that, even though I felt like a small-time artist who should jump at every opportunity, my work already had value and I should have been defending it as the resource and livelihood that it is.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Find business mentorship of some sort. We’re not taught as artists to run our careers like a small business, and the money side of art-making is stupidly looked at as dirty. Because of this, we are taken advantage of all the time.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Everyone will try to tell you that the art world is a handshake business, and that contracts aren’t necessary. As a young artist, I tried to play it cool and didn’t demand consignment forms. This ended up costing me thousands of dollars.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Sales and support of your work will come from your network. There is no golden ticket or golden connection; it takes hustle, leg work, and trial and error. Value every connection you make, because you never know where it may lead you.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“You are a creative person, and you will be your whole life. Sometimes styling your house makes you feel more creative than your art practice ever did. Cooking is art, too. Focus on fueling your creative happiness, not solely on your artistic success.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I had waited longer to attend my MFA program (I went one year out of undergraduate school, and knew very little about what it meant to have an art practice). There is a lot you can teach yourself, and I wish I had the confidence to take that on earlier.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I’d known how smart it is to find a balance between my own creative vision and making marketable work. All artists should consider having two complementary lines of work—one that feeds your creativity, and one that can consistently put food on the table.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“The art world is just as racist and sexist as the rest of the world. Don’t waste your time chasing success in the art world. Instead, bloom and grow outside of elite art spaces. That shit will come in time, and the more you learn about it, the more you’ll realize it is not what you want.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Live your life with the lowest overhead possible. Make friends with bartenders. I’ve gotten more help from friends who can give me a cheap meal, a free drink, left-over materials, sample clothing, or a couch to crash on than from any sale a collector has afforded me. Make your own opportunities.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“Think carefully about the goals for your work. If you just want to reach as many people as possible, how can you do that? Or if you want to be in the Venice Biennial, you will need gallery representation and have to make work people will want to buy. These two things typically require very different practices.”

Is there one piece of art-career advice you wish you could give your past self?

“I wish I’d understood that people really do care about themselves first and foremost. Doing good in the world does not mean you will be rewarded in return. Instead of blaming the world for not being the way you want it to be, accept the way it is right now and work your way around it.”

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