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Inside Out: Success?


One of the most satisfying projects I've done was Yardsale. The viewers were a cab driver, a couple of good hagglers and a collection of friends and family. I have a few colleagues that consider it their favorite of my projects, and no gallery, reviewer, or institution gave it a grade.

One big myth for me about making art is that success is a Thing: A brass ring of some sort we're all striving for and should be jumping through flaming hoops to make happen. Who exactly are we hoping to impress? Everyone? The ubiquitous peanut gallery that sits on our shoulders?

The most fulfilled artists I know are clear on what they value or specific in what they want. Being in a gorgeous catalogue or getting X amount of funding for the project they're developing are two examples. When an opportunity comes along, they choose to engage it or pass because of this clarity.

I used to think that I should apply to residencies because that would somehow be impressive, but I have the space to make my work already, and often the time to make it. Add on to this that many residencies require payment, and you may have to travel there on your own dime. I've seen colleagues with a run of residencies come away depleted, disoriented and in debt.* It may have been worth it, but it's never quite the sparkly, sound-track inspired experience that we anticipate.

Here are some possible successes. One could:

make scads of cash as an artist
change peoples lives
be left alone to make art
collaborate with people in other specific fields
sell velvet paintings at every mall in America
have your own studio space
hone specific technical skills
create a scandal
participate regularly in a community of other makers
make art in the woods in a little cabin
get gallery representation
have an assistant
benefit a community with your art
be in mutually respectful relationships with people you deal with
have a show in New York
bring communities together with your art
have your first a solo show
have time to make art
get a graduate degree
get your work into certain collections
have a patron
have a fulfilling job and an art practice that work well together
have a family and an art practice
get paid to make art
make the tiniest art possible
have access to free and available materials to realize a project
teach or have tenure as an artist
generate a profit from a project
sustain a functional, vibrant creative practice
show in a particular venue
travel to exhibit your work
attend a particular residency
have a show every couple of years
make fantastic new friends through your work
be useful and make a difference in the world
make people laugh
get great reviews
delight yourself
move people
develop a widely used innovation through your work

Would you want all of that?

You might say Yeah! All of that stuff. But really?

If all the glorious sounding things from that list fell on you like a mountain, you'd likely suffer significantly - You might experience huge pressure, weird BS from people, have no time or find yourself suddenly mired in activities that you don't care about at all because someone told you you should. If these 'successes' happen before you have a stable art practice or can set clear professional boundaries or know what you want or need, it can make a big mess out of the quality of your life and loves.**

As for me, right now I'm satisfied
-showing a new body of work every couple of years give or take
-working with people who are not insane wherever possible
-being inspired and having reasons to be in my studio
-having a means of making tea and always a snack while there

More broadly,
-contributing some to conversations happening in contemporary art in the guise of projects, collaborations and exhibitions while being useful and myself.

Here is a collection of images of friends and family enjoying the process of making or sharing their work.

Here you see Anne Emerson (my mom), Andi Sutton, Rabih Dow, Josephine Burr (my sis), and Mazie (my niece). All with their work, (or in Mazie's case, really proud, excited and a little disturbed all at once about the sheep lamp she's holding).

Ships Passing in the Night
I know artists in Boston who haven't ever shown here but show internationally at Museums, that few in my art community have heard of; I also know Boston artists that few have heard of outside of Boston, but here are widely known and celebrated. Ergo, success is endlessly varied and personal, mostly people are obscure to each other, and many different conversations happen all over the place. Many points of crossover include museum circuits, private galleries, self funded grassroots projects, educational settings, online forums like this one.

In other words - there is no jury to decide your inherent value as an artist, and if there is, it's fleeting and arbitrary at best.

Annual Stock Taking
What I've wanted out of a given year or stretch of time has also changed considerably. Clear interests emerge by spending a little time annually in July (don't ask me why July), to think through what I loved in the year that just passed, and what I'd love to see come about.

Newer artists often have the notion that you've just got to hustle all the time, and if someone in the art world pays you the slightest attention, you have to do whatever it takes...many for profit enterprises in the art world really take advantage of this idea. If you don't know what's right for you, you can be sure someone's going to decide in their own interest for you. So, I suppose all I'm saying is, DISCERN, it's your life, your work and your energy.

*I've also had profound life-changing experiences in a residency setting.

** I also believe in times to go all out, to jump in with both feet, take big risks and have done, but pause a moment first...I'm just sayin'

About Author

Hannah Burr is our November-December Inside Out artist-in-residence.

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