My partner Dave having a moment with Richard Diebenkorn at the Cantor Center, Stanford University
When asked for advice about how to navigate the visual art space, I increasingly say that for most of us, it is just DIY. The old atelier model of “I make the art and someone else sells it” is gone for all but the .01% of us. As one friend—a full time artist who has been successful at exhibiting and selling her work through multiple channels—tells her art students, “I have 15 different jobs in addition to being an artist, from marketing manager to bookkeeper, from carpenter to project manager.”
It isn’t just visual arts marketing that has changed over the last 10 years. Many of my friends who write and compose also talk that way. The creative arts promotional support systems that were once de rigeur have morphed into something else or have disappeared altogether, like the once ubiquitous publisher-sponsored author book launch and media tour.
As a result, creatives have to learn new skills, many of them business-oriented. When younger artists ask me for career advice I encourage them to see themselves as an artist and an entrepreneur. You make art, that’s first and foremost. But you also run a business. It’s a start up. And like most start ups, it is probably underfunded.
Many books have appeared recently with a similar message. The advice now is plentiful about the practical aspects of art making, going well beyond just studio techniques or gallery representation.
What has also emerged from this increased blending of business and the arts is the other side of that same coin. Business practices increasingly incorporate art making skills to improve product development, increase corporate creativity and stimulate innovation strategies. Along that same trajectory, a number of business schools have partnered recently with art and design schools to increase creative thinking in MBA students.
Two books released this year speak to that “art informs business” side of the coin. Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life is by Amy E. Herman. An art history graduate who went on to become an attorney, Herman returned to her primal love of visual art by creating a course that uses fine art to help first responders, doctors and other professionals increase their skills of perception. Offered through the Frick Museum in New York, her course became so successful that she captured her course content in a thoughtful and useful book.
It is sometimes easy for artists to forget that a visual orientation is similar to being born with musical talent: Some just have it, and others have to learn it from the beginning. Herman’s book brings those valuable artist-centric perceptual skills closer to people whose work lies outside the creative fields. She makes useful distinctions, like the difference between observation and perception. (Observation is the auditing of detail and is objective. Perception is how we interpret what we observe and therefore subjective. It is easy to confuse the two, and our observation skills improve when we know what alters our perceptions.) Her reliance on art to build visual acuity is a valuable aspect of her transformative work.
Another book is Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses, by Amy Whitaker. Whitaker is an exceptionally credentialed go between. With an MBA as well as an MFA in painting, she speaks fluently in the languages of both business and art.
Whitaker’s book is essentially a business book, peppered with the business case studies that business book readers expect. But her ideas and approach are different from the many books on corporate innovation and creativity that I have read. Her aim is more personal, providing a set of constructs that can assist anyone—inside a corporate setting or on their own—as they embark on a new project. She advocates for many of the skills and approaches that artists will recognize. However as familiar as these approaches are to artists like me, I was inspired by how she codified her content into useful form. Her chapter titles give you a sense: From a Wide Angle; In the Weeds; To the Lighthouse; Make a Boat; To Be in the Fray; To Build a House; To See the Whole.
Here are a few samples of her ability to speak to both audiences.
To adapt a definition from Heidegger:
A work of art is something new in the world that changes the world to allow itself to exist.
Traditionally defined, art itself has a long history of scrambling the idea of efficiency. Ever since the invention of photography, making a painting at all is an act of willful inefficiency.
You need to develop habits of what I will call “studio time”—ways of setting aside empty space in the landscape of your life. Paradoxically, in order to fully access these advantages, you may need to relax your hold on goal completion and efficiency enough to even feel like you’re wasting time.
Creativity as a process only has traction with the present moment.
When I teach business to artists, I often tell them that they are asked to be generous, to put something out there before they get something back. Creative work in any field asks you to risk offering something first.
That moment of pause represents the act of being and not doing. It represents seeing and accepting things as they are, even if the reality isn’t great. That pause creates a stability and openness from which creative flexibility can develop, helping you to access your fuller capacity while not yet knowing exactly where you are going.
We create our lives, we build our workplaces, we design our society, we make our world. Art thinking is the process and business is the medium.
On a more personal level, I have seen a similar blending of business and art making when I look at my relationship with my partner Dave. He was a fresh MBA grad when I met him 37 years ago. We have spent those years teaching each other what we each know how to do, and his practices are now so much closer to mine in the studio than what they were all those years ago. I think we both do our work better for mixing things up, and Whitaker’s book is a good reminder of how valuable that cross pollination can be.