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Marketing Mondays: Giving and Taking
It’s a poetic truism that as we climb up the career ladder we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. So what happens when the metaphorical shoulders belong to people who are still climbing themselves?
Clip art image from clickr.com
I’ve been hearing a lot lately from art-world folks who feel ripped off by their colleagues or students. Maybe coveting is just the human condition, but I suspect there’s something more at work: the desperation so many have for attention, for success, for a little piece of a shrunken art pie. You know, “I’ll have what he’s having, even if I have to take it out of his mouth.” I’ve been affected by some of the actions I describe but make no mistake, this post is not a rant. The examples I’m sharing come from all corners of the various art worlds. Today I’d like to consider how we give and take.
This first one comes from Independent Curator X. He says, “In conversation at an opening I discussed a few ideas with [Y, another independent curator] about a show I was beginning to put together. He [Y] asked some questions, and I answered; I offered some observations and he responded. It was a brief but interesting exchange. The next thing I knew, he’d announced plans for a show suspiciously like the one we’d discussed.” Curator X’s voice rose as he told the story. “I guess I don’t need to tell you that I’m not sharing much with my colleagues these days.”
Don’t I know it. I helped an artist who was writing a book on the same topic as one I’d published. There should be room on an artist’s bookshelf for more than one volume on a topic, so I said, “I’ll help you, if you promise you won’t take your book to the same publisher.” We had a verbal agreement. To be honest, the little voice within me kept emitting a warning beep, but I answered her questions, made referrals for her and more. Some time later I got an email telling me she’d sold the book. Where do you think she took it?
Artists who teach independently, particularly classes focused on technique and process, see this kind of behavior all the time from the adults they teach. I have heard some version of this story over and over again: Someone takes a workshop. Suddenly that student starts offering the same workshop—with the same outline, the same tips, and in one instance recounted to me, even the same conversational patter of the original workshop teacher, who had developed her engaging style, to say nothing of an original syllabus, over decades of teaching. One come-lately instructor started teaching almost literally down the street from her teacher and for a lower fee. You can call this Capitalism. I call it cannibalism.
“I had a private student who didn’t even know what the primary colors were. The next thing I know, she’s teaching!” says a longtime artist well versed in color theory and much more.
Of course teaching is not just techniques. It’s concept, information, inspiration, and it’s the instructor’s history of experience as well as her experience with art history that is brought to bear in each class. Independent teachers are typically working artists who have found an entrepreneurial way to pay the bills by opening their studios and sharing some of what they know. Theirs is a very different situation from career educators who, working within an institution, are protected either by tenure or by institutional policies that don’t typically allow the hiring of recent students. (Adjunct instructors are more vulnerable, alas.)
Artists who open their studios, whether to students or to friends, leave themselves open to another kind of cannibalism. An artist with a significant exhibition history recounts this story: “Every time I let a particular artist into my studio, I felt like she was casing the joint. She would pick things up and ask a lot of questions about materials and techniques. It felt so odd that after a few visits, if I saw her through the peephole, I didn’t answer her knock.” Some time later the artist understood what that feeling was: “When I passed by her open door one day, I looked in and saw what appeared to be my work! She’d been ripping off my ideas. Not only that, I learned she’d been sending submission packages to the same galleries I’d shown at.” Eww, isn’t this the plot line of All About Eve?
A community art center, around which a sizeable number of artists gathered, was known for its annual juried show, an event that brought in a lot of entries, made money for the center’s projects, and provided great visibility via advertising and outreach to its exhibiting artists. The community became factionalized when a second juried exhibition, with a slightly lower entry fee but none of the cachet, sprang into existence at the exact same time. The ersatz entrepreneurs drafted behind the art center’s advertising and visibility. We’re not talking David and Goliath, here. These were two Davids, each of which suffered as a result. (The come-lately exhibiton ceased after a couple of years, leaving divided loyalties in its wake.)
“There is lots of room in the world for artists to be successful,” says one artist. Fair enough. But what is that pathological need you have to occupy the very spot where a teacher, mentor or colleague is standing and then whine, “Why can’t you be happy for my success?”
On the other side of the coin, there are those who know of exhibitions, grants and other opportunities who never share that information, as if by hoarding they will secure one of the coveted prizes. I remember this from art school, when there were fewer opportunities and the (male) teachers clung ferociously to their art-world crumbs. You’d think that kind of mindset would be outdated, but just recently I learned of a colleague who intentionally gave an artist peer the wrong grant deadline, even as the real deadline was fast approaching. I called him on it (as did several others). “Less competition,” he said with a smirk. What an arrogant a-hole.
The Mini-Me Mentality
It’s my observation that the folks who have the least to offer are the ones who are most vocal in crying, Nothing is original. We should all share. Art is for everyone.Tell me, show me, give me everything you know. You can try to limit the drain by sticking with colleagues at your own professional level, but as Exhibit A suggests, that doesn’t always work. Retreating into a tower isn’t a viable option, especially given the ubiquity of cyberspace.
So . . . How can we share without being ripped off? And how can we take without ripping off? This post offers no answers, just examples and questions. I realize the irony here, but I hope you will share your own experiences with regard to giving and taking–and the dangers of doing too much of either.
A reminder: Anonymous comments are OK if they add to the conversation. But if you have something negative to say—to me, about the topic, to a commenter—have the courage of your convictions and identify yourself. I’m not providing a forum to cowards.
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Categories: Random interesting art stuff