MAKE ART: Observations on what makes for successful careers

It is typical at art schools, colleges, and universities to offer some guidance to art students as they approach graduation. There are classes with titles like “Professional Practices” and, as an art dealer or gallerist, I have often been asked to give a visiting lecture. Over 25 years I have done this at Cleveland State University, Cleveland Institute of Art, Kent State University, Youngstown State, and University of Akron.

I approached these lectures in any number of ways, wandering from the widely theoretical to things that were sometimes silly, but true (such as horizontal pictures tend to sell better than vertical pictures, or that landscapes tend to sell better than pictures of people).

After about 10 years I changed my approach, and I stopped giving advice. Instead I started by admitting that artists become successful in all sorts of ways; then I described the things that I observed that most successful artists do. Over time I simplified this to three and then later, four things: make art; know art; show up; stay in touch. Over the next few issues of CAN, I’ll discuss my observations. I’ll wander a bit, but promise to eventually come back to the point.

I caution that what I consider to be success is not necessarily what you might consider to be success. To me a successful artists is one who has an identity as an artist, who produces bodies of work on an on-going basis; who has a consistent studio practice; who has connected with an audience or audiences over time, enriching their lives and contributing to the cultural conversation of our time; and who engages with the critical response of curators, critics, gallerists, collectors and other artists.   For me, success is not measured by making money. It is measured by making art and connecting with an audience.

Laurence Channing, Regards to Carl Gaertner

Laurence Channing, Regards to Carl Gaertner


It might seem obvious that artists make art – but many people who identify as artists don’t make much. It becomes an occasional thing, sandwiched between other obligations. This is true of all artistic pursuits.   There are writers who don’t write; actors who don’t act; musicians who don’t make music. They talk about art, about writing, about acting, about music but there are always obstacles that get in the way. There’s no place or time; they can’t find an audience; they need equipment and supplies. Mostly, though, it is really that there’s a lot about making art that is hard. And it is especially hard to work through it when what you make does not seem to be successful. The successful artists that I know keep making art anyway

In my experience, the best artists are mostly those who make art all the time. Some days they make great art; some weeks or months they make work that they throw away or shove into deep storage. But they work. All the time. I know a few exceptions, who can take long periods of time off and then still perform at their highest levels, but for most everyone else, if you don’t make art for weeks, you might be incapable of making art at all.

Much of the best things in art-making happen when you are not pushing, when practice and muscle memory, and conceptual intuition take over and things just seem to happen. If an artist makes work in fits and starts, there can be something startling about this, a nagging doubt that making art should not be so easy. But again, I advise to make art anyway, gratefully accepting the gift of the muses.

Among musicians there is a saying – credited to everyone from Franz Liszt to Louis Armstrong – “If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; it I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, everyone knows it.”

And then there’s talk of writer’s block, which in some cases is all too real, but most of the time it just is a way of describing the difficulty of writing at the level at which you know you are capable when you have not written at all for a while.   It’s often difficult to get started again after a period away from the studio. For some artists it may take months to get back in shape after a few weeks off. (And, if not in shape, it is possible to strain intellectual muscle trying too hard, too fast.)

In my early days at my first gallery, I visited the studio of Laurence Channing, at the time an artist who had not, to my knowledge, exhibited before except at the annual SPACES benefit auction. As I looked at an extraordinary body of work, I talked to him about his intent, his technique and his studio practice. He spoke about how it had been a life ambition to be accomplished as a fine artist. He already had a distinguished career in graphic design and a demanding position as Head of Publications at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The problem, understandably, was that he was too tired at the end of his work day. Determined, he went to bed early and woke up early, drawing in the studio when he was fresh. He worked for more than five years before he felt he was ready to present his work to an audience. As he explained: “First I needed to develop a style and then I needed to develop a proficiency in that style.” First look went to the Ohio Arts Council, which awarded him an Individual Artist Fellowship. And then I was invited to his studio. He had his first one-person show when he was 49.

To make art you do need time and space. One of the reasons that Cleveland is such a nurturing place for young artists is its low cost of living and availability of space. In 1993 I was part of a curatorial team at SPACES for an exhibition called Cleveland X, which was an assembly of promising younger artists. A number of the artists in the show moved to New York afterwards, ambitiously approaching the center of gravity of the art world. We sort of thought that they would be the ones who would become art stars. But, reviewing in retrospect, the artists who had the most successful careers – locally, nationally, and internationally – were artists who chose to be based here or in other mid-sized cities. The time and economic pressures of New York did not allow much opportunity for making art.

When I first encountered the work of Derek Hess, he was creating complex stone lithographs – often 7 or more colors. He could produce maybe 3 or so prints a year, in small editions. We’d sell a few a year. And then he started booking bands for the Euclid Tavern on Monday nights and creating Xerox fliers to promote the shows. The first fliers were serviceable, but as time went on they became better and then , amazing. After two-and-a-half years and 45 fliers, Marty Garamita (since, and for many years now, his manager) suggested that he could make silk-screen posters based on the fliers. The next year Derek created and Marty published 33 posters. Derek’s first one-person show was at the Busta Gallery in January (usually a very slow sales month) 1995, and the show was the most successful the gallery had had to that date.

Later, a teacher at a local University called me and asked how someone could get “into” making posters for rock shows. I explained about the two-and-a-half years and the 45 fliers, but he wanted to brush past and just get to the result.   Simply, it took that much time and that many fliers to be ready to do the posters – which were just the start – and to receive international acclaim.

Occasionally, when I was in the gallery, talking to a patron, I would be asked if all the work in the gallery was mine. I would say “no,” then would continue by explaining that I was not an artist. But then, many times the patron would persist, almost demanding (in a nice, but perplexed way) why I was not an artist, why I did not make art. Eventually, I figured out a response that that was short, clear, and explained something of the commitment that it takes.   So, I would tell them: “I’ve thought about becoming a painter, but then I decided that I did not want to work eight hours a day, five or six days a week for ten years to find out if I was any good.”   Then there was a hesitation while the patron searched for words. “Yes. I said, that is what it takes.”


Make Art is the first 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.” Forthcoming titles in the series are: Know Art, Show Up and Stay in Touch.