I recently interviewed emerging Philadelphia-based designer and digital artist, Jeff Manning, who told me that his advice to his younger self would have been to focus more on competing against himself rather than his peers. This idea really connected with me and got me thinking to the bigger idea of how often we compare ourselves to others - today, in so many more aspects of our lives than our careers. It can be detrimental when taken to the extreme, but sometimes, it can actually be not only useful, but important to do so. When it seems like everyone else is making more sales, having bigger exhibitions, or getting better exposure, it feels difficult to not unfairly or unnecessarily judge ourselves against others and even more significantly, to not let self-doubt or jealousy get the best of us. So instead, let’s take a moment to identify the productive ways we can use comparison to keep us moving forward!
Perhaps you’ve already read Kat’s article about how to price artwork. If so, you’ll remember that looking at other artists who are in the same stage as you and making similar work (in terms of size, materials, and time spent per piece) is a great way to estimate what you can be selling your art for. Pricing has been kept such a mystery in our industry for so long, a trend fostered by perceived competition and scarcity between galleries and artists. But luckily, attitudes on this are finally beginning to shift. Whereas collectors of the past might have been intimidated to make an inquiry at a traditional gallery, today, potential buyers can see prices listed online or even contact artists directly via their websites and social media channels. I encourage you to not only be aware of how your peers are pricing their work, but to also be open to sharing this with other artists if they reach out to you and finally, of keeping tabs on larger trends in the industry.
Along the same lines, if you are working in the arts either in a full-time role or in addition to your studio practice, get to know your what your colleagues are being paid. Hopefully, you saw the recent salary spreadsheet that was initiated by a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (yay Philly!). It went viral online, with thousands of people who work in museum, gallery, arts administration, and education positions adding their wages to list. Knowing what others make will help you better negotiate your pay and ensure that you are being compensated fairly within your company. This can, of course, be an awkward conversation at first, but again, the more transparent we all are with each other the better off everyone will be in the long run.
Are you looking to start working with a gallery? I talk more in depth about this in my article “The Do’s and Don’ts of Applying to Galleries”, but one of the tips that I discuss is that part of your research should always include checking out the artists who are already represented by a gallery you’re interested in. Don’t skimp on this one! Compare notes on their resumes and websites to make sure that you’re really a strong fit. It can actually come in handy when it comes time to putting together your application. Through this research, you may notice similarities between the gallery artists and you that you can then mention as evidence to support you joining their roster.
Let’s say that things have been going well for a while. You’re making sales and showing in quality exhibitions and now you’re wondering what to do in order to take the next step in your career. You might be thinking: ‘How do I show in museums and art fairs? Is an artist residency right for me? What can I do to successfully apply for grant funding? or What’s next?’ This is another time when checking in with other artists is a good idea. It is likely that you may already follow or know someone at the next level and can simply ask, but if you don’t, there are lots of additional resources to tap into like podcasts, books, blogs, workshops, and more. A little bit of networking at the next gallery opening or art event also might help you meet artists who can provide this type of advice.
Finally, comparing can be a simple way to learn something new to add to your art practice. Whether it is a new technique, medium, scale, or material, if something in another artist’s work caught your attention in a way that made you wonder ‘How did they do that?’ it’s probably worth trying to figure it out (or asking them)! It could really bring an interesting perspective or value to your work. Even if it isn’t directly related to what you are making, I’d still encourage you to pursue it as creative experimentation. When you let yourself explore freely, it can spark your imagination in different ways and that could lead to new ideas for your work.
The same holds true with business or marketing as an artist. Don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. If you see another artist’s resume or website that is formatted nicely and looks professional, definitely use that as a template. This is especially useful when you’re starting out on social media. We’ve spoken before about how followers really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. They can help, yes, depending on the kind of work you make and what your goals are as an artist. However, what is more important is honing your voice online, showing great images of your art, and being consistent with your posts. Find some examples of artists who you think are doing this well so that you can use them as a model for your own profiles. Please note that none of the above is recommending that you copy anyone directly! Borrowing from Austin Kleon, who I recently interviewed for Issue 15, you can and should ‘steal like an artist’ but when you use others’ ideas always turn them into something that is your own and give credit where it is due.
I hope that these tips will help you recognize when comparison can be a beneficial tool, but if you ever find yourself getting negatively affected by looking at what others are doing then please stop. Unfollow or mute those on social media that aren’t serving you or take a break from it completely. Step back from relationships in person that may be putting added stress or pressure on you. Sometimes we don’t realize how profoundly we are being affected and it can grow into unhealthy feelings of anxiety that are hard to manage. Try to spot the signs early and proactively separate yourself from what is causing it. Don’t let anyone else dictate where you should be or make you feel bad about where you currently are in your journey. Always remember that it is exactly that, a journey. Something that takes time, effort, and consistent work!
I have definitely gotten sucked into these ideas on occasion, thinking that I should be further along in my career than I am, earning a higher salary, or doing more. But then I remember - what is the rush? I think of those who found success later in life, like Jerry Saltz and Lisa Congdon, and realize that I’m exactly where I need to be. I wholeheartedly agree with the artist who I interviewed that I’m the only person that I should be comparing myself to in that regard and if I’ve grown or progressed or learned something new since last year, last month, or even last week then I’m definitely on the right track. If you’re in this creative life for the long haul (like Kat talked about in a recent Art & Cocktails episode!), this is the type of mindset to maintain in order to ensure that you’ll remain focused on your own path for years to come.