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Letters to a Young Artist

A year ago, I graduated from art school and moved to New York City from the West Coast. I was excited about the prospect of living and making art in what many say is still the heart of the contemporary art world. The museums. The galleries and nonprofit spaces. The music clubs. A community of peers. I remember the exhilaration I felt when I arrived, sleeping on a friend’s couch while I looked for my first apartment and studio. That seems like a long time ago. The past twelve months have been harder than I expected. I’ve been overwhelmed by the challenges of trying to make ends meet while finding time to visit exhibitions and make my own art. Some of my peers have already been exhibiting and selling their work, but I have decided not to show yet, which has often left me feeling isolated and alone. I struggle with many aspects of the art system: Is it possible to maintain one’s integrity and freedom of thought and still participate in the art world?

In March, I decided to write a letter to an established artist whose work I deeply admire. I was reluctant to do so at first, as I did not want to burden someone I did not know with my troubles. I wrote it anyway. Several weeks later, I received a reply. Reading it, I felt buoyed, energized, and heartened by the engagement.

I decided to write to other artists. I selected people who seem to me to have approached their careers with passion and integrity, and asked them to write me back c/o Art on Paper, where I was working. Over the next few weeks, I received responses from artists in the United States and two in Europe. Some are encouraging, others cautionary or stern. At least one has forced me to take a good look in the mirror. 
I realize that their usefulness to me might not be of interest to you. Nevertheless, I am hoping that they be of some value to other young artists like myself. I share them with you exactly as I received them; I have not included the letters I wrote, for lack of space.

—Young Artist

April 24, 2005
Dear Young Artist,
I received your letter and felt sad that is it so very hard now for the young artist in New York. It is also difficult for the older artists who, although started at an easier time, are struggling with the usual enormous expense of living in New York, and additionally face all of the problems of aging and having elderly family to also support. I think New York is always a problem unless you are a billionaire. I feel you are correct in seeing as much art as you can as well as meeting other artists and sharing your experiences. One thing I would warn you about is to be careful of who you let into your studio as I remember there were two artists who lived near one another and often visited each other’s studios. One had an earlier and better chance to show than the other one and took her friends idea and showed it first. So you need to be very self-protective and shrewd. Also, as best as you can be aware of the art world’s foibles and how it is constructed. Try to get a sense of the galleries, museums, and auction houses as they are very intertwined to the point where one wonders about insider trading among the most elite members of the artworld hierarchy. One of the things I did was to use statistics to try to analyze the situation, especially for artists of color (Latino, African American, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, etc.). There are of course the usual tokens and collaborators. I wanted the knowledge to understand what I was and was not seeing. I did not want to be a “good German,” so to speak. I also did a lot of reading and self searching to try to understand my strong points and my weaknesses. I tried to be aware of other people’s behavior and motivation so I would not take it all so personally. My findings were that there was definite bias throughout the artworld against people of color and often women. To this day I am still dealing with this issue and hope that you prefer to become aware of some of the underpinnings of the art world so that you are fully aware. Some prefer to show in this environment, taking advantage of the restricted opportunities to push themselves forward with what is called white privilege. One of the things that I find very helpful is if you open your studio or have a show and you get a verbal or published criticism which is not positive, write it down or talk it into a tape. I find that that gets it off my mind and out of my worrying about it, as I do not need to bother to remember it because it is captured somewhere for me in writing or on tape including my reactions to it. Once you have distance from it, you can decide what is useful. Other things I feel you should do are try to be aware of archival practices so that your work will physically survive. Also be sure to keep track of where your work is and who owns it, as records that I kept or did not keep years ago have a profound consequences for me now, positive or negative. Try not to lose track of your work, and also try to select your representatives carefully. Do they pay the artist, and how quickly, when a work is sold? Will they tell you who bought it and for how much? Is this person representing your work truly honest? One big caution is showing abroad. Be very cautious here, as there can be economic losses. The best way is to have a reliable dealer take on that headache for you if you can trust them. We all isolate ourselves. Try to get together with people you trust. Also keep your mind fresh. I try to read everyday from about sometimes 11 pm to 1 or 2 am . . . or I try to read first thing in the morning. The hard part is finding enough work (a job) to pay the bills so that you can afford to work and, in some cases, pay off student loans. I worked for a museum for 12 years (5 days a week or more) before I could find a teaching job. Some artists work in construction, some work on Wall Street, some waiter or work for other artists. Some teach and some are librarians. Whatever works for you. Try not to get overly discouraged. Isolation can also cause this. One thing that helps is reading about the lives of other artists. I wish you all the best. Be true to your work and try not to take the pits and valleys of the artworld personally.

Howardena (Pindell)
New York City

Excerpted from “Letters to a Young Artist,” Art on Paper 9, no. 6 (July/August 2005).