Artists for Artists: Finding Success and the Steps to make it Happen

On September 20th, I attended the CARFAC National Conference for Visual Artists, “Artists for Artists: Art, Activism and Adaptation” at the incredible Artscape Youngplace in Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood. It’s a former school turned community cultural hub – a fitting place to learn.

There were several panels, presentations and discussions but what stuck with me was poignant advice that came from the minds and mouths of three young artists, Kirsten McCrea, Johnson Ngo and Jessica Karuhanga during the Emerging Arts Practices segment facilitated by Ella Cooper. This session was cleverly structured to focus on learning from the successes of emerging professional artists rather than dissecting the hardships that all of us so easily get caught up in.

Before I delve into more on the above, it’s important to understand the context of this event, mainly who CARFAC is and what they do.  As outlined on the organization’s website, “Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) is incorporated federally as a non-profit corporation that is the national voice of Canada’s professional visual artists. As a non-profit association and a National Art Service Organization, our mandate is to promote the visual arts in Canada, to promote a socio-economic climate that is conducive to the production of visual arts in Canada, and to conduct research and engage in public education for these purposes.

CARFAC was established by artists in 1968 and has been recognized by the Status of the Artist legislation. CARFAC is guided by an active Board, elected by the membership.

We believe that artists, like professionals in other fields, should be paid for their work and share equitably in profits from their work. As the national voice of Canada’s professional visual artists, CARFAC defends artists’ economic and legal rights and educates the public on fair dealing with artists. In doing so, CARFAC promotes a socio-economic climate conducive to the production of visual arts. CARFAC engages actively in advocacy, lobbying, research and public education on behalf of artists in Canada.”

After a mini PechaKucha and a guided exercise to loosen everyone up, the first question Ella posed to the panelists was “can you talk about finding success and the steps you took to make it happen?” Kirsten’s responses (paraphrased, of course) are as follows:

1. Using social media and the Internet as a means to connect with artists around the world.
2. Acknowledging that it’s a slow process.
3. Experiment, experiment, experiment.
4. Jumping in head first and learning along the way.
5. Making collaborative work: you become connected to so many more people, which creates more opportunities.
6. Recognize what’s missing in the world and find a way to fill the gap: “I was in a place away from contemporary art and wanted to make it accessible so decided to make and mail out prints.”
7. Papirmass started as an art project and now exists as a well-oiled business with several contributors. It can be looked at as existing between an art project and a business.
8. Using my own work in the beginning (that’s what was available at the time!) then branching out to include other artists.
9. Taking advantage of the reemergence of the self-publishing movement in the art scene to get work in the hands of people that otherwise would not be able to access it.
10. Have a few things always going on for your own financial sustainability.

Kirsten then mentioned perhaps the most important step: paying attention and being open to opportunities that present themselves to you.  She repeated what David Lynch said, “sometimes you might think you want to do something, but nature–or whatever is out there–doesn't think that's a good idea and you get red lights. Sometimes you get a green light or a series of green lights.” The path you walk down may not be exactly what you planned, expected or thought you would do but it is essential that you embrace it. Johnson Ngo echoed this when he discussed his period of performance art burnout and divergence into curatorial practice.

It’s not about giving up, it’s about embracing something new and understanding that what has influenced you in the past will contribute, at times very fruitfully, to different aspects of your career and life as an artist. As I mentioned earlier, the underlying tone to this dialogue was positioned to help attendees learn from the successes of others. It is important to learn from failures and failing is an integral part of growing as an artist, though focusing on negative outcomes will hijack your creativity and cause you to freeze.

First, define what success is to you. Think about what you want to achieve and the steps necessary to get there. WRITE THEM DOWN. Align yourself with service/resource organizations like CARFAC that can guide you and introduce you to a network of like-minded individuals. Ask questions – most artists would be flattered to know they mentored you in some small way. Above all, pay attention to those green lights.

Samantha Rodin
Visual Arts Editor, LaVaLab
visualarts@lavalab.ca

 

 


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