Know Art: Observations on What Makes for Successful Careers

Once in a while I have startled audiences at lectures with the provocative suggestion that I’ve met many artists who don’t like art.  Sure, they like their own art, but they don’t seem to be that interested in art that’s done by anyone else, either now or in the past.

If someone likes baseball, they read about it every day (at least in season).  People who like an activity behave in certain ways.   For example, baseball fans go to baseball games or watch them on television or listen to them on the radio.  They do this several times a week, if not every day.  They know who is hot and who is not; who is setting records and who is having a slump;  who is up and coming and who is over the hill.  If someone likes art, they read books about art; they read magazines about art (whether Juxtopoz, Artforum, American Craft, BOMB Magazine, or Esopus); they check out  what’s featured in the New York Times; they follow an art blog or newsletter (,  they go to art shows.

And it is much more than that.   Successful artists know who influenced them and know about other artists who have the same influences.  The most successful artists are hungry to know what new ideas are in the ether, even if their work willfully ignores or vigorously opposes those ideas.

Eva Kwong told me a story about her husband, Kirk Mangus and  one of his ceramics students.   The student was an advocate for woman artists and Kirk, perhaps sensing a blindness in her advocacy or perhaps just curious, asked her who she thought were the most important women working in ceramics today.   After a pause, the student looked up and asked where she could find that information.  She had no favorites, no role models.  Unless an artist knows the artists and context in which their work is created, the artists work and advocacy is poorly informed.  In a way, it is setting yourself up to fail.

Kirk Mangus was the first artist who brought this context home to me.  When you mentioned a ceramic artist to him, his eyes would brighten, and then, after a pause in thought, he would begin:  “Well, you know he was a student of  . . . .”  And then Kirk would continue, recollecting who else was a student of the same artist, before, during, and after.   Then he’d talk about who was the teacher of that teacher before returning to the artist that started the rumination.  He’d then talk about that artists students.   To Kirk, it was crucial for him to know that artists were part of a dynamic set of relationships.

While I operated a gallery, I was approached by artists several times a week, asking me to look at their art or images of their art.  Some weeks the number of inquiries from artists exceeded the number of interactions with potential buyers.  I always either took the time to look at the art, or, if I was busy, arranged a time.

One of the things I learned to look for in a gallery inquiry was whether the artist took the time to look at the art that was being exhibited.  For at least one artist out of five, the gallery inquiry was the first time that the artist had been to the gallery and the artist took no time to look at the art on the walls either before or after we talked.  Early on it became clear to me that the less that the artist was interested in what was being shown, the less likely I was to have any interest in their work.

Eventually, I could tell by looking at an artist’s work how much they were aware of the art that was being made today.   I confirmed my guesses by seemingly innocent questions, such as: “Which contemporary artists do you admire?” (too often, “Picasso and Van Gogh”)  or “Which other artists who are working in northeast Ohio do you like?” (much much too often, “I don’t know.”) The best artists always seemed to be the artists who were most interested in what other artists were doing.

To many, the work of Dexter Davis at first glance might seem to be naive, mostly informed by  “street” or “outsider” art.  When I opened his solo show at the gallery on Murray Hill Road, the librarian at the Cleveland Museum of Art said:  “I always wondered who that guard was who was always in the library.”  A thoughtful look at Davis’ work reveals all the influences  – from his teachers such as William Martin Jean and H.C. Cassill to monumental figures of 20th century art such as Mauricio Lasansky, or Philip Guston.  When I went to New York last fall, he asked me to bring him back a catalog of Kerry James Marshall’s solo show at the Met Breuer.

by Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson

by Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson

What I expected from artists was also something that I expected from myself, in my role as gallerist and curator.  I always wanted to be fully aware of the art that was being created here, and I first encountered artists that I championed in a variety of ways: I first saw the work of Derek Hess leaning against the wall of a frame shop, waiting to be picked  up; I first saw the work of Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson after being asked by her husband (a sometime patron) to see  her mid-MFA show; the work of Jason Milburn in a Cleveland Museum of Art staff art show; the work of Douglas Max Utter on the wall at Tommy’s restaurant; and the work of Christi Birchfield in her BFA review show at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

I chided myself when I felt it had been too long since I had been to New York to check out what was happening in the galleries there.   Every fall, I went on the internet and checked out if there were new faculty at colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio of which I was not aware.  I initiated the first contact with most of the artists that I invited to exhibit at my gallery, having seen their work in exhibitions and publications.  Of the artists that contacted me and that I eventually exhibited, I was already familiar with their work prior to that contact.

The best artists that I know also seem to know a lot more than art.  They always seemed to be aware of the current conversation of ideas in other art forms.  They read critical essays.  They had a working knowledge of contemporary classical music.  They had opinions about the most important novelists of our day.   They paid attention to architecture.  They saw films at the Cinemateque, the Cleveland International Film Festival and the Cedar-Lee Theatre.  They listened to “Science Friday”  on NPR and read the Science section in the Tuesday New York Times.  In our conversations we might talk about when Wim Wenders films started to go bad or what was interesting about the latest album produced by T-Bone Pickens.

Nobody knows everything, of course, but all the best artists that I know have a breadth of knowledge that extends beyond their immediate field to know about ideas that affect their field, and then some other things that add sparkle and zest to the content of their work.  Michael Loderstedt has created bodies of work about birds;  Don Harvey created bodies of work that associated with contemporary Music performance;  Kate Budd’s work is responsive to the anthropological collections of natural history museums; Douglas Sanderson’s recent work is grounded in Hindu and Buddhist religious belief; Julie Langsam’s work used the work of contemporary architects as a focal point in paintings that were also investigations of color theory.

Finally, knowing art is also knowing artists.  The best artists always seem to know each other.   And as you read art history texts, they always seemed to know each other from a time when none of them were famous.  Of the thousands of unknown or unsuccessful (or both) artists who were working in Paris in the mid 19th century, most of those  that exhibited together as part of the impressionist group were the ones who later achieved international fame.  Famously (and as related in Just Kids) the first person that college dropout Patti Smith met when she fled to New York City was Robert Mapplethorpe, an art student who liked to make necklaces.   The beat generation was born at Columbia University where football scholarship student Jack Kerouac became friends with sometime merchant marine sailor Alan Ginsberg and accumulated a set of interesting  characters into their circle.

The way that it seems to work is not by networking and finding a way to associate with someone who is already famous, but by finding the most interesting people of your own generation and your own place, feeding on each other’s inspirations and discoveries, then with friendship (and sometimes jealousy) competing to be best.



Know Art is the second in a series of articles based on lectures William Busta presented at art schools and universities in northeast Ohio over the past 25 years.  Busta says “The series is not so much advice, as what I observed that most successful artists did.” Other titles in the series are: Make Art (Spring, 2017), Show Up (Fall, 2017)  and Stay in Touch (Winter, 2017-2018).