Thursday, March 13, 2014

Confidence versus Arrogance as an Artist.

Today's blog is for the artists. For those of us who have caught ourselves apologizing or diminishing the fruits of our creativity.

I have been taking a life-changing seminar called the Public Art Academy run by the amazing Karen Bubb and sponsored by the City of Boise Department of Arts and History. I'd like to first say how lucky I am to have these resources. Karen is a unique and precious ally to artists. An artist herself, she understands what it means to pull new creations out of oneself day in and day out while also navigating the mystifying business world of art. And, as an administrator of public arts, she knows what logistical and financial challenges a city finds itself faced with each day in commissioning public art. So first, thank you Karen and Boise.

All this was preface to explain the source of my following musings about how we artists can empower ourselves by changing the way we talk about our work. Recently it was kindly suggested to me that I can be arrogant about my work. I accepted this as true. But it still bugged me to have it pointed out. After a few days I realized that the reason it bothered me was that I've spent years cultivating the confidence needed to put my work in front of people without apologizing for prices or trying to appear modest. The work we do as artists is all too often considered fluffy and easy, and it's assumed that we don't face the same realities of other business owners trying to get by.

Here's an example. I recently went to the bank to apply for a loan for a business vehicle. Here's how my conversation began with the loan officer:

Loan officer: "Hi Rachel, I'm John (not really his name). How's your day going?"
Me: "Hi John, good, how about yours?"
Loan officer: "Oh, busy, you know? But...I guess as an artist that's not your reality."
Me: (seething within the first 30 seconds of what continued to be a degrading conversation where I was compared to his grandmother who did watercolors and told that I must be supported by a boyfriend or father, or must exaggerate my expenses because my declared income couldn't possibly support me alone.) I bit my tongue not to tell "John" about my grandmother who liked to play monopoly, grouchy as his comment made me after having been up since 6am working on my website.

This sort of situation happens to artists every day. And I am becoming more and more aware and sensitive to it. And more determined to speak boldly and confidently about my work even if it means being accused of arrogance. Who would hire a contractor to renovate their home if they qualified their work - "Oh, I just kind of dabble with construction…I'm so happy someone appreciates my work even though there are so many better contractors out there". Sounds crazy right? But this is how artists are taught to speak about their work from childhood onward! As kids and throughout college we are taught that one can't judge art, that everyone's work is beautiful. But as math or science or even English students, there are measurable levels of quality and right and wrong answers. So too in art - some art IS better than other art. And if we as artists we can't stand up for the quality and value of our work, who are we to sell it?

From a client's perspective, I think it's important to know this reality. And also the reality of where prices are coming from. I put 50% of what I earn directly back into my work. And a price of a piece of art can't be broken into a simple time + materials equation. Besides the costly materials of the actual piece, I pay for my studio, equipment, insurance, travel expenses, photography, website, health insurance, promotional materials, 50-70% (yes, 50-70%) commission fees at galleries, and on and on. I am lucky to spend 20% of my time painting and 80% developing my business or preparing materials. These challenges are true for any business owner - the product in front of you represents a host of chores that might not be obvious. I can complete a Plein Air painting in 45 minutes. The faster I paint, the more accurately I capture light and the better the painting. But it can take me 10 hours of driving, $100 in gas, 2 days of preparation of canvases and gear, and an additional full day of waiting for the optimal lighting to complete this work. And, the experience of creating countless prior works of art that never sold but were necessary to develop the skill I employ today. Just as what you pay for the 20 minutes you spend with a doctor can't be calculated at an hourly rate, neither can the time you spend with an actual paintbrush in hand accurately represent the price of a finished work of art.

And then I am asked for discounts or donations of my work - because I'm so lucky to spend all day painting (playing), right?

I find myself hesitating to even hit publish for this post. Another moment of insecurity in being confident in what I do. But here I go.

Artists - own what it takes to do what you do. Be responsible for the quality of your work. And help your clients understand - they will love your work even more for it.


  1. Working Artist to Working Artist....THANK YOU! Well said.

  2. Very well said. Sometimes, as artists, we start to believe that which has been said to us over and over.... "arrogant" maybe not, "experienced" YES. Thank you

  3. wow, what a great post. I hesitated about applying to the Public Art Academy and then missed the deadline! I hope to be able to attend one day. Sounds like something I could really use. Thank you.