I heard recently about the furore surrounding an enterprise called Debut Contemporary. This is an outfit that runs a kind of finishing school for art graduates. Appropriately it’s in Notting Hill, location of I Saw You Coming.* Appropriately it’s very expensive to go. It purports to prepare art grads to “enter the art world.” The furore is that some of their participants have publicly said that they were deeply unhappy with the finishing school’s service. Because, I’m sure, they did not realise it was just a finishing school. I don’t need to say anything more about them since they are not the subject of this article; I want to talk now about why no art graduate needs a “finishing school.”
- because there is no one way to “enter the art world.” This is highly individual and is part of your path in life, and you need to tramp that path yourself.. You cannot hire someone to get you there. It helps to have famous parents, yes. But most of the great artists did not have famous parents. Picasso’s dad was an art teacher, but Rembrandt’s was a miller. Peter Greenaway’s dad was a builder’s merchant and Jeff Koon’s parents were a furniture dealer / interior decorator and a seamstress. Warhol’s father worked in a coal mine.
- A “finishing school” (or “charm school” – love that!) as defined by Wikipedia is “a school for young people, mostly women, that focuses on teaching social skills and cultural norms as a preparation for entry into adult society. The name reflects that it follows on from ordinary school and is intended to complete the educational experience, with classes primarily on etiquette. It may consist of an intensive course, or a one-year programme.” Replace the term “into adult society” with “into the art world” and you have got Debut nailed. But come on, this is the 21st century. We laugh at the idea of going to school to learn to cut muffins and to simper appropriately. So you don’t need to do it to “get ahead in the art world.”
Unless you are rich and don’t really know what to do you with yourself, and fancy dabbling a bit in art. Then it is a good idea to go and you will have fun and then go off and get a proper job, or just relax with your feet up. But for the rest of us, not useful.
- You cannot learn to “get ahead in the art world.” Your art practice is yours alone and your work plus luck / Fortuna will propel you forward. Success has many definitions. It might be about selling, but it might be about having a fantastically interesting life. It might be about making a difference to others, touching them by what you do. It might be about striving to be in the history books, whatever the art world may think of you today you have got your eye on posterity. All of these things could be success. Only you determine what your success is. Charm School cannot do that for you.
- Attending a charm school in itself cannot help you to “get ahead in the art world.” However influential the school purports to be, and however influential its patrons (and there is no actual evidence for this in the case of the school referred to earlier) you know your heart that the work is the main thing. If you spent the money you could spend on the charm school on your work, you will have a much better chance of progressing. In any case, you have already been to an art school, so that is all the institutional kudos you need at this stage.
- Be very careful of wolves in sheep’s clothing. There are armies of charlatans out there ready to fleece new artists. They know you are insecure about your work. They know that flattering you with one hand while digging into your pocket with another will be easy and sweet for them. I wrote about this recently: https://blog.gillianmciver.org/2013/11/28/follow-up-to-my-post-on-film-festivals/
These experiences sound ludicrous but they are real and I have more of them in my repertoire of anecdotes about Horrific Art World Delusions and Rip Offs. You will not be able to go through your life avoiding all of them but you could avoid signing up a year of your life and thousands of pounds of your money.
What can you do to avoid this? Well, research! And more research. Be wary of wild claims on the part of the offering. Find others who have been involved with the offering, what kind of experiences did they have? I just read an online interview with the creator of the offering mentioned above and it is clear straight away this is highly embroidered. Further research proved my hunch correct. Research! One HUGE clue, as we all know from spam emails – is if the offering promotes themselves with faulty grammar or spelling. This means they get interns to do the work for them and cannot be bothered even to check. If they are so careless with their own marketing what kind of care will they have for YOU?
- Following on from that, if an offering has already accrued a reputation of being a bit dodgy, this will stick on to you. The very kudos you seek will be denied to you.
- You already have all the knowledge you need to “enter the art world.” You have a direction for your work and you – hopefully – have some friends and a work ethic. There is a reason why, traditionally, art courses don’t teach business skills as part of the curriculum. Although there is a pressure on them to do so now, it is misguided.
Industry knowledge, and “powerful art and business networks” are things that accrue over time. They can’t be bought. Anyway, as I said above, one man’s meat is another’s poison. The “industry knowledge and powerful art and business networks” useful for one artist are not going to be the same for another. The “art world” is diverse!
Doing short courses, seeking mentors, and building your own networks to create events and exhibitions will serve you better as a graduate. There is so much support out there for emerging artists! But YOU have to do the work.
So, what to do?
You have decided not to go to an art finishing school. OK, so far so good. So what DO you need to get on?
- A massive reality check. A copy of Alastair Gentry’s book Career Suicide [http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/alistairgentry] It’s funny and entertaining but gives you a lot of useful information. It might burst your bubble, but better to let a book do it than you having it burst all over you!
- Some basic self marketing skills. Learn to make a simple attractive website using free tools such a Picasia and Blogger, put up the best photos of your best work, and your contact details. Eschew the desire to put the hideous statement they made you write at art school. Keep everything as real as possible.
- Find some like minded people. You could start with ones you went to art school with, or you could join a studio. Remember all the £ you are saving by not going to charm school? Use that to fund a space no matter how small, in a lively studio.
- Club together and put on your own shows. Publish a zine. Make videos of your show and interview your fellow artists and put it on YouTube.
- Seek a mentor. There are artists out there who are willing to work with new artists without a fee! They will help you in exchange for studio assistance and so on. At Studio75 we have been doing an informal mentorship programme. Young artists work with us as assistants and in exchange they get all kinds of tuition, from learning to Photoshop their pictures to drawing techniques. How did we find them? They found us. We do not take everybody. The chemistry has to be right. And they have to work like the devil.
- Join group shows, but avoid things with hefty entrance fees. You are not experienced enough and you will just lose your money. If you want to join these things (e.g. Jerwood prize etc.) go and see the shows for a few years till you get a measure of what they actually want, and if it fits with what you want to do, go for it. Open exhibitions have clearly-visible yet never-mentioned agendas of what they like, no matter who’s on the jury. See Emily Speed’s blog Getting Paid [http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/497389]
- Keep working. Whatever else you might be doing to make money, art is your full time job.
- Do your fellow artists a favour and make this post viral!
*I Saw You Coming is a comedy sketch in the Harry and Paul show, about a Notting Hill antiques shop salesman (Harry Enfield) who sells junk to gullible wealthy women (usually portrayed by Sophie Winkleman) for extortionately large quantities of money. In the second series, he also owns a store called ‘Modern Wank’ claiming to his customers that it is considered retro to mix old items with modern furniture.