Advice for Artists

If you’ve been to one of my talks in the last few years, you may have heard me answer a question with this advice:

If you want fame, find community

If you want ideas, collaborate

If you want money, find a way to help.

I came up with this after finding myself in many, many Q&A sessions at talks, and noticing that the questions tend to fall into one of a few categories: How do I get famous? How do you get your ideas? How do I make more money as an artist? How do I get more, have more, do more, be more?

Once, someone said to me “I think everything that I want is inside you,” which made me feel like I was over at a zombie’s house for dinner. But creepiness aside, that is why we give artist talks and do lecture in each others classes. It’s why we go to film festivals and art openings, why we sit on panels, why we spend so much of our time on activities beside making art. We do it to try to see if the road we’ve walked can be of use to others, whether they be new artists or veteran of this weird wild creative head space.

Let me break this down.

Me in a pool, hanging out, keeping cool.

If you want fame, find community.

A lot of people in the art world want fame, but what does fame mean for an artist? Usually this has to do with who your peers are, what “scene” you’re working in (or trying to break out of), in other words, who your community is. It doesn’t make much of a difference whether you want fame for its own sake (a little egotistical), or whether you see it as a means to a nobler end (ego maniac reasons), fame is just a byproduct of the fact that a community carried you for a long time and you got to where you are.

It may feel like someone goes around with a big flashlight that says “FAME” on the side, and randomly shines it on people for fifteen minutes at a time. This might happen sometimes, but when most people find themselves in the spotlight it’s usually because they have a friend, family member, business connection, all working together behind the scenes. People become famous because they have value to a community. Fame is about being something to someone, and usually that starts locally.

The great news for people like me, who don’t super care about fame, is that if you aim for fame with the community route you end up with, yes, the friends you made along the way. If someone is treating you poorly, abusing you, exploiting you, etc., good news, they are not your community. You can, and will, succeed elsewhere.

If you want ideas, collaborate

If you ever feel like you’ve run out of ideas, or the river of inspiration has run dry, call up a friend. Collaborate with them on something they’re working on, or generate something together. One of my favorite things to do is think of someone I deeply admire, but for whatever reason haven’t made a project with them. I reach out and say “Hey would you like to make something with me?” If they say yes, then I try to do some of the organizational legwork (“OK how about October, with the deadline of December?”)

I find this works well when it is very clearly time boxed. I also like to try and find someone with a different skillset from my own. I ask them “ If you could make anything in this medium what would YOU make?” Then I start to make the work for them. As we continue it becomes an equal collaboration, we both generate something uniquely us.

This works between two people or two hundred. In my forthcoming book Collective Wisdom, we co-authors outline the many diverse ways you can co-create with others. Ideas don’t belong to one person — they’re products of a network of interconnected minds thinking the same questions together. The old phrase “Art is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” applies here. With a collaboration, you share both the ideas and the work. If you are ever out of ideas, want to give up, collaborate! The worst case is the other person will push all of your buttons and annoy you enough that when you go back into your lane and get back to work, you’ll realize you grass was plenty green and you are perfectly capable of thinking of another idea.

If you want money, find a way to help.

In the startup world, you fundraise from venture capital based on the idea that people will want to buy your product, because your app or service or platform solves a problem people have. In the art world it works a little bit differently. It’s often the case that people want validation for money, and money for validation.

The startup world has a version of this, but it comes in stages. You need to test out a market, you need to have people buy in, you need to find an audience (these are not all the same people) and you need to figure out where you have something to offer. You need to have something that is not just unique, but uniquely helpful. To translate this back into an arts context: there are people who will need the type of art, creative service, performance, writing you have to offer (and I’m not talking about commercial services, which is sort of a different topic).

I used to be on the Nashville Public Art Board. We needed to give artists money every year, based on criteria that we helped to shape and develop. The rest of the Board were artists too, and also understood how important it was for artist to help one another. The way to help in this situation was to show up, create something that fit into a program other artists had designed, and to be a good member of the community. Your way to help could be paying attention, or asking questions about your application, making easy for gatekeepers (who may not be so different from you) to say “Yes.”

If you want something more tangible, how about working in an artist studio? Find yourself a way to make yourself valuable in another artist’s system, while learning tricks of the trade and having a mentor. I’ve done this with artists who were well-established and much more famous than I was. I’ve also asked for those much younger than me to be my mentor. They help me think like the next generation, and become helpful to new demographics and new audiences.

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Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Banks Endowed Chair AI and the Arts, Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida | USDAC: Honor Native Land | studioamelia.com | She/Her | Artist