In 2006, Annie moved to New York. She had been working as an artist for a few years after graduating from a respectable BFA program and this was the next “logical” step. Annie kept hearing about how her friends were “making it.”
They were posting their pictures of the Chrysler building in the fog, and SoHo on a sunny afternoon. Others were regularly visiting, “taking in” a show here, an exhibit there, while showing their own work in Chelsea. She just wanted to be a part of it. New York, New York.
Annie packed her bags at the ripe old age of 27, and made her move. She landed in New York City on a Sunday afternoon, with enough savings and a place to stay until she got a job and her own place. Within a few months, she'd managed to get a gig as an admin at a Wall Street firm.
Before moving up to the city, Annie had already figured it would be a good idea to make one small painting a week—a habit that was disrupted when she moved. Now with money coming in, she could exhale a little, and get back on track with making art. She'd cleared a small studio space in her one-bedroom and set it up with art supplies. In those first months, she hustled. Annie made one painting a week. She also made friends, and found a boyfriend who wasn't clingy but wasn't aloof either—he had his own ideas and dreams. Between them, they had friends who knew people in the arts, and gallery owners who might take a look at her work.
I met Annie for the first time in 2013, she lived in my building. Her apartment was clean, everything was in its rightful place. Her painting studio area was immaculate. It was late in the afternoon and she had a new piece drying on the wall. She had a system, she'd make a few bold decisions about what direction she was going to go for the next few months. Then she would make the work. Her investment in time management and the work she'd gotten working on Wall Street had paid off.
She had changed galleries a couple of times, and by the time we met she had three galleries showing her work—New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Occasionally there'd be an international show but that was always an expense in shipping and insurance and her work didn't command enough to justify it, so it didn't happen too often. But Annie had managed to get out of her one-horse town and move to New York. She was making art here and it was getting seen. In “proper” galleries. For Annie, this was exactly what she'd wanted, it's what she'd dreamed of ever doing—making art. She had made it possible. But did she have success?
By the time I met Annie for the first time, she was getting ready to move in with the man she was about to marry. They had been together for about three years, and it was time. They were going to move to Tennessee—he had just signed up for a good engineering gig there. But as a reason for her departure from New York, that was a far second to what she felt about her own career. In her own words, her career had gone “nowhere special” for almost ten years while other artist friends were sending their work off to museums and galleries in Europe and Dubai. They were showing up to talk about their work and guest-lecturing regularly. They were being pulled in to discuss trends. They were active, and seemingly everywhere. Annie had no similar traction, despite the fact that she'd been at it for a while. She loved it here but didn't like the idea of cranking out a painting a week, year after year, anymore. Ten years into it there just wasn't enough reward to stay in New York. She could paint in Tennessee.
Annie is one of the many Annies I've met. She is a type, a personality and mentality I come across from time to time among people who make art: annie is very clear about what to do, but confuses doing with any actual indicator of success in conventional terms. Making something actually isn't necessarily an indicator of success.
When Annie mapped out what she would do in New York, she had all the right action items on the list—up to a point—from developing the right habits and managing her time, to earning enough in rent money to make her art at a regular pace. She had to learn how to do all these things on her own. Figure it all out by herself.
But after she'd established her day job and routine, Annie might have asked herself questions that would bring her closer to her art career, and away from her day job because making art is a wonderful, meditative, life-changing, gratifying endeavor but it is not guaranteed to be a self-sustaining endeavor.
Because at the end of the day, the day job on which you depend on inevitably takes up more cognitive space than the things in your life. When an artist gets that, a path to becoming self-sufficient with making (or not) becomes that much clearer. Annie didn't develop that clarity. If she had, she'd have seen how making the art is a milestone to success, but it is not a measure for success.
Ten years into it, Annie was ten years older. But unlike the thousands of people who move to New York City believing that the move is important enough, Annie had none of these delusions. She was not lazy, nor was she distracted. She wasn't someone who had been so infatuated with the artist lifestyle that she had neglected the work. She was actually the rare example of the artist that had persevered. She had done things just right.
But Annie felt another birthday coming, and figured she just “ran out of runway”. After ten years in it, she reasoned with herself she had so little to show in comparison to her peers. She wondered that maybe she was not as passionate as they were. So consequently maybe it was too late for her to make any bold stride in a different direction.
But we know is it actually never too late. In fact it's a pretty straightforward distinction:
A milestone to success is making 1 picture a week, or 52 a year.
A measure is getting clear on what you're bringing in, to exchange for what you're putting out.
In other words, it's important to get clear about how you will bring collectors, patrons, and clients to actually pick up what you're putting down. Looking isn't enough, currency has to change hands in a plan that sustains and improves an artist's life year over year, either quantitatively or qualitatively.
This decision, this impetus to improve, has to originate from the artist. It begins by owning the problem, being ready to confront it with a sense of urgency. Engaging with other artists who have worked on their own version of the same problem is helpful, and a good place to start on your journey to defining what success means to you.
Your next decade will be just as before, filled with habits and consequences, some more usable than others, accumulated both consciously and unconsciously. Your job is to sift through your methods and mentalities to find the things that work, things that will get you to your own definition of success.
Ten years is a long stretch, but now is as good a time as any to start knowing that every moment is a defining moment—either you define it, or it defines you.
PHOTO: "Summer sunset", East village, New York City, 2012