Ok, I’ll take you up on your call for advice. I’ve recently moved to a new city, finished school, and I am trying to make it in the world as a practicing artist. I think I’m doing ok–going to residencies and being in group shows all around the country–but how do I break into my new community here without looking like a douchebag? How do I get curators in my small city to think I’m cool without tooting my own horn so hardcore?
Well first of all, congratulations on these exciting new life changes! Moving to a new city, finishing school, and starting your grownup artist life, it all sounds very exciting and I congratulate you on being such a go-getter. It’s not necessarily easy to stick your neck out and take risks and be proactive/productive, so no matter what you’re already halfway there!
In terms of the actual Biz and how to Do That, I have no idea. My Biz is quite different than the one you’re trying to get all bizzed up in. However, I do think generally it’s probably a good rule of thumb to just remember what it’s like to break into any new scene, right? Which is to say, be kind of authentically yourself, and go do stuff that speaks to your interests, and slowly you will make friends/make connections, etc. I guess I don’t really believe there is some magic formula that makes curators suddenly give you your own show (? is this a thing (me = not an art dude)). One thing I’ve noticed in my own biz is that there is this impression that there’s this thing called “networking” and that some people are “good at it” and some people suck at it. Those who are “good at it” are what Dale Cooper would call glad-handing dandies. They’re the ones with the business cards; the ones going up to Mr. Famous Fancy Scholarpants and introducing themselves and discoursing cogently on some recent article of Fancy Scholarpants, somehow. And you’re standing in the background going “!!!!!” and “I could never!” and “I’ve never even heard of that journal!” Then you feel dreadful about yourself, because obviously everyone wants to hire Mr. Network and nobody wants to hire Mr. Never-Heard-Of-That-Journal / Standing-By-The-Free-Coffee-Wearing-The-Wrong-Shirt.
But I have a question for you, which is: do they? I am starting to think that the gladdest-handing dandies may not be the ones who get the hottest biz action. I am starting to think that actually the people who get the biz are the ones who are just cool and nice, and normal, and who you don’t mind talking to. I’m starting to think that “networking” is for douchebags, and what the rest of us are doing is just “meeting people and being normal.” After you’ve met enough people and been normal with them, you suddenly realize, hey, you actually know some big shots, or else hey, these people you befriended a year ago are going to do this cool project and they want you on board because you’re part of their gang now, or hey, somebody needed an extra person to do something for some gig and they thought of you, because they like you. I think this is what networking really is, and that the people who do it intentionally and with business cards and glad-handing are maybe not doing it right. Although I’m sure they often get the hot biz, don’t get me wrong, especially if they’re a looker (not sure what voice I’m going for in this entry, sorry about that).
I mean, I’m someone who has not yet landed my dream hot biz, so what do I know? Maybe the glad-handers do have all the luck and I’ll end up out on my ass. However, I do have a pretty great job currently. And you know why I got this job? Because the person who was going to do the job had something come up last minute, and she needed a replacement, and she named me as the replacement, amongst all the possibilities in the whole world. Did she do this because I said “HEY GREAT TO SEE YOU” and flashed her my big toothy grin at some function and complimented her on her article? No, she did it because we’ve known each other forever, and she likes me, and she trusts me, and she knows I’ll do a good job, and she wants to help me. I think that’s what networking really is. It’s just making friends and doing solids for each other. And the more you live, the more friends you make, and the more you try to help each other out and do cool things together.
I think the reason we maybe believe this isn’t the case is we think “networking” happens FAST. You meet somebody at a conference and they’re like “son I like the cut of your jib” and then the next day they make a phone call and boom, you’re hired at some badass job. But I don’t think it happens fast. I think you’re networking all the time, and it’s just called Living.
So, I guess my advice is, just go to stuff, and meet people, and talk about their work and your work, and stuff aside from work. Apply to everything you can apply to. When appropriate, put your foot in (like, if you’re an artist, do you ask a curator if you can show a piece in an upcoming show or something? I literally have no idea, but when I say “put your foot in” just know I mean “whatever your world’s version of ‘applying for a job’ or ‘doing an edited volume’ or ‘planning a conference’ is”), but don’t be overbearing. Remember that everyone in this scene has been making the scene together for a long time, and you just got there. Get the lay of the land. Talk to people who interest you, and be real with them. This means no horn-tooting. But then again, saying “I’m excited because I just found out I got this cool residency” is not necessarily the same thing as horn-tooting, unless you’re doing it constantly. But like, for example, go to a cool show, then find the curator and talk to them about the show, telling them what you liked about it and how you liked the colors of paint you saw or whatever artists say when they talk intelligently to one another about art. Don’t tell them about your own horn you can toot! Ask them about the show you just saw, ask them questions about it, and art, and curating, etc. Talk to them artist to artist, two experts plying their trade! What a delight! After awhile, you become part of the scene, and it’s great. I do not think this is douchebaggy. This is what you’re supposed to do when you move to a new place! This is how you make friends! etc.
I’m probably too idealistic but I just think this is the only real way to get it done in any biz, except probably actual Business, which I assume is full of douchebags constantly glad-handing.
It’s also possibly I have no idea how the Art World works and this advice is terrible. But this is the only way I’d know, to move to a new city and try to become part of a scene there, so this is what I told you.
Also, friend of the show Dr. Pizza recently wrote a guest column about some similar stuff, maybe you will find it helpful? He’s a practicing artist (musician) so perhaps his words will hit a bit closer to home for you? Dr. Pizza Ruminates