How to be an artist

Last March, just before the pandemic became real in Canada, we went to hear Jerry Saltz speak before a large crowd in Toronto about How to Be an Artist. This entertaining talk provided an advance peek at some of the ideas in his new book of the same title. Jerry Saltz is the senior art critic at New York magazine and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. You may have seen him in documentary films such as The Price of Everything.

How to Be an Artist is a bestselling book for a reason. It’s short, readable and full of practical tips that apply to visual arts and many other creative endeavours. We particularly relate to the chapter titled: Finish the Damn Thing! So often, whatever the task, we get stuck close to the finish line. Jerry’s advice is that perfect doesn’t exist. “Nothing is ever really just right,” he writes. “There’s always more you can do. Too bad. It’s as good as it can be right now, and that’s probably more than good enough.” Just finish the damn thing!

Afraid of failure? He’s got advice for that too.
During the live event, one audience member in Toronto asked how Saltz defines success as an artist.
Saltz said the best definition of success was time—having time to do your work. Many artists don’t have time to make their art because they have to work full time to pay the bills. Finding a way to make time to create art is one of the biggest hurdles for artists. When considering how to be commercially successful, Saltz had a different take.

He says an artist needs four things to be financially successful: a few collectors who will buy your work; the support of two or three art critics who “seem to get what you are doing”; the support of one or two curators who will show your work in their galleries; and a good dealer/gallerist who believes in you, supports you, and will be honest about your best and worst work.

“It only takes a few people to make a career,” he says.
Listening to Jerry Saltz makes us think about the arts community we enjoy in the Yukon. The Yukon is blessed with many art lovers. Some are serious collectors who purchase Yukon art, which supports artists financially. They may spread the word about the artists they collect through their personal networks. But there is a large pool of talented Yukon artists producing more art than can be purchased by a small population.

Some of the people who Saltz says are needed to enable artists to “make a career” are in short supply in the Yukon. We have no art critics. The people who look carefully at art, try to understand the artist’s intention, situate the work alongside art that is being made across Canada and internationally, and share their opinions in newspapers and magazines. There are a few galleries we love, but it is hard for them to operate in the way Outside dealers do in guiding an artist over the long term and developing a market for their art.

Some Yukon artists are going beyond our borders to find a larger audience. Increasingly they are making their work available online, a good choice in COVID times. Marketing tools like the new YFN Arts Brand and online store are a great step forward. We would love to see some Yukon artists have a chance to participate in Art Vancouver or Art Toronto, which sees 22,000 art collectors and curators visit over four days. We also hope there will be ways to bring Outside collectors, curators, gallerists and critics into the Yukon to get to know Yukon artists. Listening to Jerry Saltz gives us many ideas about how to make Yukon artists as well-known as they deserve to be.

A conversation with Ron and Kip Veale

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