How to Make the Leap to Professional Artist

Are you an artist at the point when they are making the leap to professional artist. Do you want to turn your hobby into as profession. Are you no longer in the sampling phase of artistic growth, no longer flitting from technique to technique, from workshop to workshop, from style to style? Are you beginning to see you have a personal unique style that is evident in your work? Have you made it a goal to work towards a cohesive body of original work? Do you have some exhibitions or publications to put on your resume.

Now what?

The professional artist will have to commit to time out of the studio to have a chance of competing in the art world. This is the first pitfall: thinking the art world will come to you and discover you if you just do the work. Not likely!

The first thing you must do is start to document your work. Have your best pieces professionally photographed or learn to do the photography yourself. Barter your services for photography if you can’t afford equipment. Many artists balk at the cost of photography, but think of how much money you spent on materials, classes and sewing machines and how much of your time has gone into the creation of this work. It deserves to be well photographed and documented with the date created, size, materials, techniques and inspirations all noted somewhere for your reference. Good photos and good documentation to go along with it are a must to enter juried shows, or for gaining booth space at fairs, for publicity and for all the other things an emerging artist does to create a name and resume.

You will most likely begin to at this point to enter shows and it is important to read and understand the rules of every show you enter. Deadlines can sometimes be hard for emerging artists to understand. “Received by” or “Submission Deadline” means the entry form must arrive at the specified address by that date. “Postmark by” means you must mail it by that day. Some shows have both a postmark by and receive by date. In that case, you must meet BOTH criteria.

Keep good records when scheduling entries. Never ever submit the same work to exhibitions which have overlapping time frames. Remember to include the time the work will need to be at the exhibition and add on travel time to both the beginning and end. Don’t cut it too short between exhibitions and never ask for special treatment by the organizers like asking to send your work after the deadline or asking them to let you substitute the accepted piece with another piece. Always track your work to the door of the exhibition. Don’t rely on the organizers to notify you if it goes astray in shipping. They may be so busy that by the time they notify you, it is too late to rectify the problem. Stay on top of it and make sure it arrives on time.

Good record keeping also means keeping track of when your work was created. Many juried exhibitions have time constraints and also size restraints. Finding out after you have been accepted into an important show that your work is not eligible is an embarrassment for you and a hassle for the organizers. It also means that some other artist misses out on an opportunity because you are taking up one of the “spots” and you can’t fill it. Most organizers don’t have a pool of alternates. They expect those accepted to follow through and get their work to the venue on time.

Now that you have something to crow about, you will need to commit to creating and maintaining a portfolio. A portfolio can serve many purposes: to shop for gallery representation or entry into a co-op gallery, for applying to shows and to publications for media coverage, to show credentials for teaching or writing articles. A portfolio consists of a resume, an artist’s biography and artist’s statement, and 10 or more professional pictures of you work. Today with standards changing this can be a little bewildering but the most important thing is that a good portfolio is a good representation of you. The resume should be correct in all details, the artist bio should be interesting and the artist statement should be authentic. The pictures should be great but honest representations of your work.

While you are at it, get a good head shot for your artist bio and maybe some shots of you working as an artist. Learn to write a compelling press release, gather up those head shots and pictures in your studio and now you also have a press package to go along with your portfolio.

Creating the portfolio is not enough. You must send it out into the world, either in the form of a printed portfolio (or as a CD or DVD portfolio) for galleries and museums, a blog or a website for your clients and students. Be ready for opportunity. When my mother called to tell me the quilt shop in Santa Fe was closing and someone was opening a quilt gallery instead, I had my portfolio out the door that day. Thirteen Moons Gallery became my first exposure to the gallery scene because I was prepared. I wasn’t a well known artist but I had a unique style and a portfolio to support it.

Join organizations that fit your vision and volunteer when you can. Get involved on a local level. Approach your local art center and offer to curate a show of art quilts or whatever turns you on. Get involved! As a volunteer you will gain so much knowledge you would otherwise miss out on. I was the volunteer coordinator for “America: From the Heart” where I was introduced to Karey Bresenhan who has inspired me to be professional. I have volunteered for my local fiber group, served on the board of the International Quilt Association and volunteered extensively for SAQA. All of these activities have been free education for me. It is also important to realize when to pull back from volunteering and get back into the studio. Learning to say “no” can be as important as learning to get involved.

Networking is an important part of the time artists spend outside the studio. Join on-line art quilt discussions and participate. Believe it or not, people important to your career are also lurking, so remember to be polite. I know of several talented artists who have ruined potential careers by forgetting this basic tenet. When the web was first created, many of us did not realize its power and made mistakes because of it. There is no excuse now for it.
One thing that helped me was when I stumbled into my critique group. Started at a SAQA meeting in Houston, our group consisted of Judy Dales, Susan Ennis, Darcy Young, Sabrina Zarcos, Jane Damico, and I. We met once a month for many years. We critiqued each other’s work, helped each other when we struggled over an artist statement or what shows to enter, or how to handle a mistake we had made. Without this group I would have missed out on a lot that enriched my art and on a lot that helped me make that leap to professional. Today Susan Ennis, Ginny Eckley, Darcy Young, Ann Eckley and I meet times or more times a year to carry on the tradition and the support. Find supportive people to share your work and struggles.

A collaborative project “Women of Influence”, which was created and curated by Lesley Riley and Christine Adams, had a similar effect of helping move to the next level with my artwork. Much of the new work I am doing was inspired by that collaborative effort. Art Quilters Susan Shie, Sue Pierce and Jean Ray Laury were participants but Lesley and Christine also chose artists from other mediums to work on the project, which was later featured in Quilting Arts Magazine and serialized by Cloth Paper Scissors Magazine. The project culminated in an exhibition at the Fresno Museum of Art. I did the project because I admired many of the people involved and knew I would gain inspiration from the project. The publicity and exhibition were unforeseen benefits. Don’t sit by waiting to be invited. Creating your own collaborative project and inviting people to join you can have lots of benefits.

Now, time to follow my own advice and update my portfolio and get pictures of my studio!

4 Responses to “How to Make the Leap to Professional Artist”

  1. Carey Manninen Says:

    Thank you for the wonderful articles. I found a lot of useful information in them. I look forward to viewing and possibly working alongside you one day. Carey-quilter 🙂

  2. Sharyn Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. A good article, thank you & more please! 🙂

  3. Werner Says:

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  4. Kim Says:

    Hey Leni…just saw this
    of course if it is still relevant

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