Last month, I had lunch with Newark-based artist Joseph O’Neal. Over artisanal pizza and flavorful pasta, we covered a glut of topics: my recent marriage, his recent engagement, the pains and pleasures of wedding planning, the fall of historic architecture to rising lease prices and O’Neal’s sell-out show, A Sunday in Soho II, in Basel, Switzerland. II because he had an equally successful exhibition of the same name in Basel in 2011.
I have known O’Neal for just over a year and have been consistently struck by his humility, gratitude and compassion. His stock as an artist is rising exponentially but, as far as I can see, he has stayed true to himself and his craft. I recall an interview he did earlier this year with Erik Noonan for Sensitive Skin. One of the questions was about O’Neal’s painting, Ezra Pound. Noonan’s question was filled with all kinds of hypotheses about the piece. O’Neal honesty, candor and lack of pretension in his response, particularly the words below, thrilled me:
“Again I can’t stress enough about the piece not being about Ezra Pound. If a painting has a speck of blue on it, would one consider the work to be about the color blue? Or any other color that may be present? My works are about nothing, certainly not anything tangible. There’s nothing to “get,” there is no puzzle to solve. Turn your brain off and be in the moment. If anything they are opportunities. The ocean isn’t about swimming but it provides the opportunity to swim.”
In an age where art has become a commodity and success has less and less to do with the art itself, a number of questions have been on my mind since my lunch with Joseph O’Neal. What makes a great artist? What does it take for an artist to become successful today? Do the characteristics associated with success in the business world apply to the art world?
I am not going to dwell on the actual art when considering greatness or success because (a) it would be too obvious, (b) there are people much more qualified than me who can comment on that and (c) being a gifted artist is no longer enough. Rather, my reflections focus on the importance of personality characteristics to succeed in today’s art environment.
I know from interviews I have conducted with artists, definitions of success vary tremendously. For some, it’s about making a primary living from their art, for others it’s about gallery representation, wider recognition and critical acclaim. Then there are those artists for whom success has nothing to do with the number of pieces they sell or the fame (or infamy) they achieve. Rather, for them being an artist fulfills higher-order needs such as: serving a calling or purpose, personal expression, providing commentary, documenting events, creating dialogue or positively impacting communities. The countless explanations of success given by artists tend to fall into one or more of the following categories: commercial, social, psychological, political, and even religious. No doubt, an artist’s goals and aspirations are tied to her or his own traits, beliefs and values.
Accepting that coming up with a single definition for success or greatness is futile, let’s turn our attention to the business world and the connection to artists, beginning with founders of start-ups. Without taking the analogy too far, there are parallels between emerging artists and entrepreneurs. Both are at the start of their journeys and looking to establish themselves, build their brands and grow. An April 2015 article for Inc. magazine by Jayson Demers, Founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, described five characteristics that define successful entrepreneurs:
Resilience: Founders of start-ups and entrepreneurs face numerous challenges and roadblocks and are also responsible for driving their businesses forward. Keeping going, especially when you are in the eye of the storm, is critical for success.
Agility: Being nimble and agile is both a benefit and requirement for start-ups. Activating change, and hopefully improvement, is a way to grow and move forward.
Patience: The bombardment of stories we hear about start-up millionaires, billionaires and gazillionaires creates the false expectation that success happens over night. It doesn’t. It takes years of hard work.
Trust: Rarely is success achieved alone; all kinds of partnerships are necessary. With relationships comes the need for mutual trust. Employees, investors and partners need to trust the entrepreneur and founders need to trust the people working for them and the people to whom they open up their businesses.
Passion: While not every task or day is a walk in the rose garden, entrepreneurs need to be satisfied and exhilarated by what they are doing.
The correlations with emerging artists are clear when it comes to resilience, patience and passion, but what about agility and trust? An artist’s ability to evolve is important for their personal and professional growth. As such, there is certainly a connection with agility. While the act of creation is often a solitary endeavor for artists, in a world of hyper-connectivity where judgements about people are made quickly and with limited data, giving and establishing trust is a requirement for artists. Whether it’s receiving the feedback and guidance of a mentor or teacher, forming a partnership with a gallery or engaging directly with a collector, trust, and more broadly relationships, really matter.
But what about established artists? The analogy from the business world is senior managers and executives. To what extent do the characteristics associated with their success apply to those artists who have made it? A recent review I conducted of the current literature on essential executive qualities reveals a plethora of attributes including:
– Strategic and visionary thinking
– Driving execution
– Clarity of purpose
– Global mindedness
– Determination to succeed
– Confidence and self-assurance
– Motivating and inspiring others
– Creativity and innovation
– Problem solving
– Business acumen
– Financial acumen
The association of this list with established artists is less pronounced, particularly for those characteristics that are more about the mechanics of running a business or leading people. Sure, there is an argument to be made that established artists need to be financially savvy, business minded and globally aware but other capabilities would likely take precedence over these.
On top of the inventory above, we are in an era of leadership that’s all about authenticity, empathy, vulnerability, self-insight and understanding others. More so than many of the characteristics in the last list, these attributes are of great significance to artists, emerging or established.
The point is, being a technically gifted artist or the most original, provocative, groundbreaking conceptual thinker isn’t enough in an art world that now operates like a business. In a recent interview I did with artist Kelly Neidig, an established Portland-based artist with years of experience navigating the art world, we talked about what it takes to be successful. The last question I asked Neidig was about her advice to other artists just starting out. This excerpt from her response captures the premise of this article perfectly.
“Read as many books as you can about art marketing. They won’t teach you that in school. If you want to make a living as an artist, you have to know how to market yourself. Just because you are an artist doesn’t mean you can be flaky and lazy. If you say you are going to hang your work somewhere, you have to do it. If you don’t, people will drop you very quickly. If you are a jerk, no matter how good you are, people won’t put up with it, unless you have a lot of money in the first place. There are too many other good artists. We have to be nice to the gallery owners and coffee shop owners. You have to be nice. Maybe 10, 15 years ago you could have been a jerk and got away with it, but not now. There is so much good art out there now, people don’t need you if you are a jerk.”
Neidig’s wise words bring back a memory of an emerging artist who submitted her work in the early days of The Road Gallery. I thought she was talented and, conceptually, her work was interesting. After seeing her paintings and meeting her in person, I gave her the artist-gallery agreement to review. I am always happy to answer questions but this individual sent me a list of obnoxious demands longer than my arm. At first I tried patiently to explain why I couldn’t and wouldn’t meet the demands, only to be greeted by another long email full of “but….”, essentially negating everything I had said and reasserting her stipulations. Rather than trying to provide reason again, I wrote back with the following:
“While I remain a fan of your work, experience and instinct tells me this isn’t going to work out. I wish you all the best.”
So yes, personal characteristics really matter for artists to be successful.