Almost all of the artists that I know who have been successful in our region have been full participants in its art life. They show up at art openings, participate in activities like the Monster Drawing Rally at SPACES or Monothon at Zygote, visit each other’s studios, and populate the boards of art organizations.
When their careers were new, it was important to show up because just being there made them more likely to be invited to be in exhibitions. When their careers were established they’d often agree to be in a number of group shows to lend credibility to the younger artists that have been invited (and, not so incidentally, identify their work in continuity with new trends). As part of how I imagine and define success as an artist, they are part of a community.
On the other hand some of the best artists I know sometimes wonder why they don’t get the attention they think they deserve. And, actually, they do deserve it. But they don’t show up. People who do know their work don’t have as much occasion to think about it. It is ongoing involvement in one way or another that commits an audience to an artist.
What do you do when you show up at an opening or art event? If possible, you talk about the work in the show – at least a little. Or you talk about bodies of work that other artists that you know are doing. Or, you can just show up. Being there is more important than not being there. I know artists who show up and hardly talk at all. Still, in the long term it seems to work. It is important just to be there.
Its possible, I guess, to build a regional, national, or international career while working in isolation. Some people do. But when it does happen it most often means that someone else – gallerist, spouse, agent – is showing up for the artist, doing the legwork and making the connections. Most often, it is much more difficult for someone else to do this than for the artist to do it themselves.
And there’s also the question of whether it is really possible to be a contemporary artist without showing up. Artwork is fertilized and invigorated by the geographic, intellectual and social context in which it is created. Isolated, there’s the real and debilitating danger of an artist’s work being brilliant from their own perspective, but unintelligible to others. I’ve done this in my own life – when much younger I spent years of work on an ambitious and grand poetic epic that contained forms, allusions, and internal references which were only possible for me to understand. Reflectively, I can still go back and enjoy, and phrases from it occasionally run through my head; objectively, I regret that I spent so much work writing for an audience of one.
As I selected artists for my gallery and curated outside exhibitions, I always made a point of looking through the list of Ohio Arts Council Fellowship recipients (now, Individual Excellence Awards) when they were announced, as well as yearly checking out new art faculty that were hired to teach at the colleges and universities in northeast Ohio. In a way, this is part of how a gallerist shows up. I expected not to know the new hires, and I did know most of the awardees, but there were always a few surprises. Most of the surprises were recent graduates, new to the area, or newly motivated to create a body of work. But there were also artists that won fellowships that did not fit these categories. These were the artists that did not show up.
Because I wanted to know everyone, from time to time I contacted them and scheduled a studio visit which, a few times, resulted in scheduling an exhibition. And I learned something. If an artist does not show up for other artists’ exhibitions, the other artists do not show up for theirs. After the exhibition it happened that these same artists might not show up at the gallery for a year or so, then contact me about scheduling another exhibition. There was not much point, really.Once someone (whether artist, patron or curator) meets an artist and finds some interest in their work, they are reminded of the work when they see the artist (or their work) again. This maintains and invigorates interest. Absent reminders, audiences find new artists for their affection.
While it is important to show up, it is not so important to be articulate, or to network, or to strategize. It is important to be there. It is important to know what other artists are doing. I’ve known artists who attended openings and did not talk much, even when approached and prodded. They stood by the edges. You might think that they were invisible. But they were not. They showed up.
In any workplace, the most important meetings don’t take place in the conference room or meeting hall. They occur at the water cooler, in the lunch room, in the elevator lobby – happenstance meetings in which people made connections, build and maintain alliances, share and solve problems. But what do you do if you work in a field in which you mostly work alone? Other than waiting for an e-mail or phone call? For artists, openings are the water cooler and elevator lobby.
I know that some accomplished artists consider the Northeast Ohio art scene too parochial to bother. But, when northeast Ohio artists do get a break and a one-person show in New York, part of the necessary attention for that show (and a number of purchases) come from patrons who already know the work, as a way of wishing them well (and identifying with success). New York is an international art center not because people who live in New York buy (proportionately) that much more art; it is an international art center because people come from places like Milwaukee and Memphis and Cleveland to buy art.
It is also possible for an artist to expand their audience by showing up in more than one place – which does not need to be an international art capital. I knew an artist who had more success in northeast Ohio because he had a gallery (and an audience) in Boulder, Colorado. Kirk Mangus had a presence in Pittsburgh as well as Cleveland. Charles Basham sold well at a gallery in North Carolina. Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson exhibits in Reykjavik, Iceland. This does not happen automatically. It is hard work. You need to show up often enough that people can identify you as part of their art scene.
From my perspective, it is especially important to show up at a gallery in which you have an interest. I frequently received inquiries from artists who sought representation. My usual practice was to make an appointment to meet in the gallery – studio visits followed when it seemed important. During too many of these interviews it became apparent that the artist had never visited the gallery before, and that they had no interest in the art that was being exhibited in the gallery. It was apparent because I had not seen them before and because they did not look at the art in the gallery either before or after the interview. I’d think, “Why would anyone want to show in a gallery if they did not like the work of the gallery’s artists?”
So, if you want to show at a gallery, it is important to show up at the gallery. If the gallerist is not attracted to your work, it rarely helps to show up repeatedly, but if there is some interest, it does diminish your chances if the gallerist sees you rarely, if ever, again. And if the gallery chooses to represent you, it is, perhaps, even more important to show up. The William Busta Gallery focused upon 15 to 20 artist and showed another 15 to 20 every once in a while. Artists who showed up at the gallery to show me new work (note: never do this at an opening or during an opening week) helped keep me aware and interested. In the 1990s, at the Gallery on Murray Hill Road, Michael Loderstedt (who I represented from the start) would show up unannounced every month or so with a group of new work – puppets, books, photographs – and then offer to help me install them in the gallery. So we did.
When working with artists, I rarely advised any that it was important to show up, unless they asked if there was anything else that they could do to advance their careers. Every artist has their own necessary approach and for some it might be important not to show up. There might be some appeal to being mysterious. But I noticed that artists like Don Harvey, Audra Skuodas, Michael Loderstedt, Douglas Utter, and Eva Kwong always seemed to be present at our region’s art events. And they did much more than just be there – they collaborated with other artists; organized exhibitions; talked to writers; and their artistic practice reached out to people outside the immediate art community to invigorate their work.
Very early in the career of Derek Hess, he mentioned to me (with minor irritation) that while he was receiving a lot of attention in the popular press – locally and nationally – he had never been contacted by curators from MOCA Cleveland. We talked about how there are a lot of different art worlds and they don’t necessarily intersect. I suggested that if he wanted their attention, it would help if he went to openings at MOCA. He looked at me. I understood: Derek worked hard at his art but could not imagine presenting himself in that way. We then talked about his credibility with his hardcore rock audience and I guessed it would suffer if he never attended a performance. Derek looked at me again in that way of his and it was, like, okay, we did not have to talk about this again. He did show up – pivotally in the local scene – for his core audience.
Ed Mieczkowski and Julian Stanczak, were two titans of 20th century art that we were graced to have present in our community. Mieczkowski was everywhere. He was loud, opinionated, friendly, incisive and always promoting his new work and somewhat dismissive of what he had done earlier. Julian was present for his students, but not so much in the community. When Mieczkowski moved to California at the turn of the twenty-first century, no longer “showing up” in Cleveland as much, interest here in his art faded somewhat even as it gained in stature nationally. Stanczak, as well (and perhaps more so) enjoyed renewed national interest in his work – but there was a marked difference locally. Still present here in his own way, he became an iconic figure.
Show up and be spectacular. Show up and be surly. But do show up.
Show Up! 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), Know Art (Summer, 2017) and Stay in Touch (Winter, 2017-2018).