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Careers, Challenges, and Opportunities in Today’s Art World - RevArt Mar Career Panel


Patti: Could you introduce a little bit about yourself and your professional background? How did you start your career as an artist?


Michelle: I have always been interested in art, but I started my professional art career seriously 20 years ago. I made a portfolio with a consistent body of work and entered it into every competition I could find. I have a folder that was full of rejections, but I developed myself and my character. I grew a thick skin, and with every rejection, I learned something. Once I got the first “yes,” that was when things changed; I first got into a Santa Fe gallery and then one in New Orleans. From there, my career developed, but it took quite a bit of fortitude to get my foot in the door with the first gallery. I applied to every competition to develop a resume to show to galleries because it is important to have an exhibition history to show galleries what you have to offer. 

Randall: I was always interested in art, but I did not start taking it seriously until I was at UVA; I started taking classes there, and I fell in love. It was not until the junior year that I declared an art major, so I had to scramble to complete all the classes necessary. I went from there to do a summer program, which was a stepping stone for me to enroll in graduate school and fellowship at American University in Washington DC. After graduate school, I moved to New York with a lot of my classmates. Two really important things happened when I got to New York: I got a day job at a mural studio with a large team of artists, and I started doing gorilla (pop-up) art shows with those teammates to do our shows and meet more people in the art world. I set up a studio practice in New York in 1996, but in 2000, I got a random studio visit that led to my first commercial gallery exhibit in San Francisco. I did my sixteenth gallery show in the fall of 2019 in New York City at a gallery called Blank Space. Along the way, I have tried some experiments, including a licensing project with Target. The most recent project I have done like that was a record album cover for a musician.  

Lauchlan: I am an oil painter based in Charlottesville and South Carolina. I graduated from UVA in 2018 and pursued an art career for the past three years. I took a gap year for my third year of college to decide what I wanted my major to be. It was a big leap of faith, but I realized art requires time, and I could take myself out of the academic rush and spend hours creating art. Spending this time at the easel opened my eyes to how much I loved making art, and I saw the opportunities come before. Art started just as a hobby, but people started paying attention at the end of my 4th year at UVA. The coffee shop I worked at had their first art exhibition the shop, and they used me as their guinea pig for this show. I had a month to put together the show, but of course, I said “yes.” I spent a month creating this show during my fourth year, trying to make as many paintings as possible. It was during this process that I realized this was something I wanted to do. Since then, I have been creating a portfolio and taking commissions. 


Patti: What makes you go to the studio every day? What makes you stick with creating art even in the face of hardships and rejection?


Michelle: Early on, when I decided this would be my career, I decided to treat my art as a job. When I started doing art full time, I had young children, but once they went to school, I would take time to make my art. I still try to create a schedule today, and I make myself go to the studio as a job. For me, it also helps psychologically just to go right in and make it my space. The minute I walked into the studio, I was able just to release the creative energy and started creating. 

Lauchlan: It essentially is your job if art is the way you are generating your income. It helps me to create deadlines. I primarily do this by doing commissions for clients because it is like having an assignment from a stranger. These commissions challenge you in a way you might not normally create and pushes you outside of your comfort zone; they force you to show up and put in the work because someone depends on you for it. The other way is to sign up for exhibitions and find spaces to show your work; this gives you a specific date to have work completed. The first one I did, I had a month to create a group of works, but art does not allow you to procrastinate because it takes time and hours. If you don’t show up in the beginning, it is just really unpleasant. 

Randall: The most important deadlines for me are exhibitions. It took me a long time to get used to and get good at was to give myself breaks. I learned to show up early on, but sometimes I think I overdid it. You need breaks for your mind and your eyes; the breaks make you a more efficient artist when you are in the studio.


Patti: How do you find your resources and supporters? Where do you find them? Which ones are the most helpful for your career as an artist?


Randall: I heard somewhere that someone wrote that graduate school for artists is debatable on whether that is worth it for art because of how expensive it is. This person said, and I’m not sure if I agree with it, instead of going to graduate school, spend that money by going to New York and throwing a huge party - and make sure they remember you. I’m not sure I completely agree with this, but one of the most important parts of an art career is relationships - getting to know people and trust people. The people who you can work with more than once are the people that can sustain and support your career.  

Michelle: “Finding your tribe” in the art world is so important. Charlottesville has such a nice artist support system and community that was nice to find because they can be so supportive - all the galleries and mentors. I have been with a few of my galleries for many years, and they have become my family and support system. 

Lauchlan: For me, social media and Instagram have really affected the way I move forward with my career. Instagram, especially, played a huge role in putting my portfolio out there and as a way of communication. However, there is a lot of pressure to present yourself in a certain way, constantly present yourself, and constantly post new material. That can be overwhelming, and it can sometimes distract from the message you want to convey to people. On the other hand, social media is a great way to connect with people and show off your art development. You can see how much I have improved my skill and developed as an artist through my Instagram. Artists are a one-person business, which allows you to learn so many skills and apply them to your own business. I have appreciated the opportunity to continue to learn and develop so many different skills on the job. 


Patti: The introduction of new technology and COVID-19 have fostered many changes in the art world. Do you view these changes as a challenge or an opportunity for your career?


Lauchlan: I see them as a huge opportunity. When I first moved to Charleston, I worked for an older gallery; seeing the behind gallery world’s scenes is so important for an artist because it shows what sells, what collectors are looking for, and how the gallery is making money. However, there is definitely a divide between the old and new art worlds. The art market is definitely moving towards directly selling from artists to consumers instead of utilizing a middle man - I think there are many opportunities there. It is hard because there is not necessarily a filter of what kind of work to look at. It can be exhausting and tough because you need to figure out how you should put your work out there when everybody else is putting their artwork out there as well. 

Michelle: Because I am more gallery-based, and I am with a few galleries where the gallery owners are younger, They really know how to leverage the whole social media environment. I am so old-school that I came from the galleries where you would go in with slides. I have seen the change from going from only showing on gallery media, but now have moved to going to having my own website and social media. It is time-consuming and difficult running the social media and website by yourself; I am fortunate to have help with this from gallerists. Curators look at Instagram, but I think the younger generation is going to have a much easier time with it. 

Randall: I wish we had a lot of the tools we have now. It has gotten so much better and easier to send images to people, which is one of the most important things to an artist. Even though the slides are more tactile, which is helpful, the technology is more efficient. I struggle with the idea of if you are working for yourself or Instagram, as well. I like to put my focus on something I can own for myself. I really like having my own website, but Lauchlan’s point about Instagram showing your (RevArt) development is useful, but having that central point of reference through your website is pretty important - having something that centers and owns your artworks and career is super important. 


Patti: How do you embrace new technology and changes?


Randall: Coming out of school, I found the transition from grad school to the working world really tricky because I think I was taught things like worrying about overexposure or being too commercial. For myself, the very useful thing was that I spent about a year working in Charlottesville as an apprentice to a goldsmith; through this, I got to see a small creative business and everything that went into that. Working in the mural studio, I saw everything I learned about painting and making it completely commercialized. That was really important to me because I feel like I could have gone into a spiral trying to fulfill everything I was taught.

Michelle: It is really interesting how I started to see how the mindset is changing to that whole process from the time I started to see how the mindset is changing. I have three different styles of galleries. One is about selling a lot and is a commercial-based gallery; I had to step back from this gallery because I wanted my art to grow and not make the same thing over and over again. The other one more caters to building private collections and helping collectors build their collections. The third gallery is about building private collections but also having museum exhibitions to let artists develop in that way. This last one wants to do merchandising and wants to do these different aspects that 20 years ago were frowned upon as a fine artist; however that is really changing and has helped me decide what path to take. 

Lauchlan: It is interesting because when I first started, I had this vision that being an artist was about putting forward a glossy version of yourself and your work that is curated and almost perfect to some extent. It was paralyzing when I started out, so now I have to think about putting forth the person that is still improving. If I continue to put myself in front of the easel and make art, that improvement will come over time, and hopefully, there will be an audience that witnesses and admires that development. I think this is a shift in the new generation in that I feel like we are fine being a little messier because there is not necessarily a huge separation between the artist and the collector. The artist has become more readily available and present to show the development and behind-the-scenes of a piece and show those weak spots. It is amazing to be able to show how you get to the finished product. 


Patti: Michelle, you have a museum exhibition coming up, which can sometimes be a final goal for an artist. Can you share a bit and give some tips about how an artist can get into the museum world?


Michelle: I took the opportunity of COVID to take the time to go in the directions that I wanted to go. I called it my “Someday” projects - all of those projects that you are going to get to someday. I did them during the lockdown. I focused on moving to have more museum exhibitions. I still do my work that I am passionate about, but I have so many different interests that I just needed another outlet. I was able to obtain a few exhibitions, and my gallery in Rome is very proactive in getting museum exhibitions for their artists. I just showed up every day and tried to really be present in my work, write about it, and take it in a different direction. I expected to be told “no,” but the museum said “yes,” and that was really exciting. 


Patti: Randall, you have made international artwork sales and have collaborated with big companies about licensing. What advice do you have for other artists who are interested in pursuing these opportunities?


Randall: Doing things overseas is a lot of fun, but you need to travel to make friends and connections in other places. The other thing you can do is find places that will get you an international group of peers. The graduate school helps with this and connects you with this group of people. The galleries definitely help with creating connections as well. The licensing - I still have more to learn about how to do that well. Someone who had seen my work at my show approached the gallery initially and then asked me next about that. It is difficult to work as an individual artist with a large company because you need a lot of help and allies when working with big companies. That is why it was nice to meet Patti (RevArt Founder) because she helps a lot with that. It is worth doing it because people really respond to the brand name, and having that attached to your name is very commercial and exciting. 


Patti: Lauchlan, you run an Instagram with many followers and sell most of your paintings through that platform. How do you manage that, and do you have any tips? 


Lauchlan: I rely on trying to do one project at a time really well. When someone reaches out to me, I focus on the only thing until the next project comes. A lot of my commissions come from a network of connections from past clients and friends. It is amazing how many connections we have that we do not realize we have. I am still at the beginning of this thing, and there is so much room to grow and improve. I can see how far I have come since I started, but I also just started. I would really just recommend taking it one project at a time and putting your best effort into that project. You need to realize that the project will never be perfect, but continue to put yourself in front of the easel, and make sure the client is smiling in the end because that will lead to more clients down the line. 


Patti: What is the biggest mistake you have ever made in your career?


Michelle: I did not back up any of my art files, and I lost over 900 images and files. Big mistake. Ever since then, I always make sure to back my files up. 

Randall: I think I should have made more mistakes. I am a little cautious for an artist sometimes, and if I could go back, I would have told myself to make more mistakes and take more risks. A lot of things I thought were important really weren’t, and it prevented me from taking risks. 

Lauchlan: There is a huge aversion in the creative community to talking about the business side of things. I think it is really important when you are first starting out to understand what you are working with financially. When I was starting out, I was not confident that I was making the right decisions financially. Make sure you are following the correct rules a small business needs to follow. You need to think about how much profit is in each sale, saving money for taxes, and making sure to know the rules of sales tax—putting in the time to do the research to understand the rules. The other mistake is shipping because it is so expensive, so ensure that shipping is included. Getting the quote beforehand from a few shipping companies to have at a price and knowing that it will be expensive if it is a large painting. 

Randall: You make the mistakes and find the places that take extra work. When you take the time to understand and learn from those mistakes, discover weak spots, get help, or ask for help from people. It took me a long time to realize that I needed a bookkeeper. 

Michelle: It took me way too long to learn that I needed to fire myself from doing a few roles. 


Patti: Do you guys have mentors in your career? How and where can you find them?


Randall: I often think of the small business I worked for in Charlottesville between undergraduate and graduate school. I was there with someone that was doing everything. I would have worked for an artist when I started to learn from someone who is doing it as a business. That definitely would have shortened my path a little bit.  


Patti: Do you have one final tip for the audience?


Michelle: Treat everyone as you want to be treated. You are working with so many people, and everybody should be treated with respect. There are a lot of egos that get in the way, but that can destroy a career quickly.

Randall: Relationships with people are going to matter over time. Treat people as you want to be treated because you are looking for it to come back around. To that end, stay in touch with people and stay connected with them - it is worth more of your time than you might realize upfront to maintain relationships over time. Instagram and Facebook are amazing tools to stay in touch with people - use the tools available.

Lauchlan: it takes so many bad paintings to get to the good ones. You have to be willing to put yourself in front of it and make bad art. We are always beginners in some way, and that is ok. Keep trying, and continue to have the humility to make bad art. Having the humility to make bad art is helpful to get it out of your system to get to the good art. 

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