Relationships in the arts are complicated. You may be very friendly with a fellow painter and also quite envious of her. You may actively dislike a gallery owner or a collector but decide that he is too valuable to cast aside, maybe because he is your only advocate or your only customer. There may be no such thing as a genuinely straightforward relationship anywhere in life but relationships in the arts are that much more complicated and shadowy.
Let’s try to tease out fifteen sensible rules for marketplace relating:
1. You can’t succeed in the marketplace without the help of others. You can do whatever you like in your mind and you can do whatever you like in the studio but if you want your creative products to have an audience you need help in the marketplace. Likewise, you still need audience members if you want to feel successful. So, the first rule is, you can create as if you were on an island but as soon as you want to share your creative efforts with others then you are embroiled in a world of others—there is no getting around that.
2. Your side of the relationship equation is up to you. You get to decide how you want to be in your relationships, even if there is a lot of pressure on you to be someone else. You get to decide if you want to be honest and straightforward even if others aren’t, if you want to be polite and diplomatic even if others aren’t, if you want to be quiet and calm even if others are stirring the pot and making dramas. It may not prove easy to be the person you want to be at all times and in all situations, as the marketplace has a way of throwing us off our game, but you can nevertheless hold the intention of trying your darnedest to be the “you” you would most like to be.
3. You may need to upgrade your personality. You can’t be the “you” you want to be in relationships if you’re an addict, if you’re running too scared, if your unhealthy narcissism has outstripped your healthy narcissism, if you approach life too defensively, and so on. You need to create a powerful, upgraded “you” that is equal to the challenges that a life in the arts bring. This is especially true as you begin to deal with the high-pressure dynamics of interviews, appearances, and the other publicity features of relating in the marketplace. Try not to make those already-tense interactions tenser by showing up as a weaker version of yourself.
4. You do not have to be real in all of your relationship dealings. You can make calculated decisions that in your marketplace relating you will act friendlier than you actually feel, put on a more optimistic, positive face than the one you wear at home, not let people know about your secret reservations about your work or your secret doubts about their expertise—in short, you can and should create a persona that serves you.
5. Know your intentions and choose them wisely. Do you want to blow up your relationship with your gallery owner because you’re embarrassed to tell him that you don’t have paintings ready for your show or do you want to do the strategic and smart thing, which might be to buy yourself more time and turn the negative into a positive by gushing about how wonderful your paintings will be, albeit a little late? If you come from your shadowy place, from a defensive place, from an unaware place, you’re likely to ruin marketplace relationships that may be fragile to begin with. Be aware and try to arrive at smart decisions about your intentions.
6. Expect people to come with shadows. Everybody you’ll be dealing with is a human being who comes with all of the baggage that human beings come with, including hidden agendas, thin skins, passive-aggressive tendencies, self-interestedness, and so on. These everyday shadows do not disqualify them—if they did, no one would be able to deal with anyone. People come with light and shadows—try to enjoy the light even as you stay very aware of the shadows. If a person proves to be too shadowy and difficult, that’s one thing; but if he remains in the wide middle-range that most people occupy, just learn to deal with his troublesome but ordinary shadowiness.
7. Be strong when you need to be strong. It may be smart and strategic to be pleasant, easy-going and low maintenance in most of your marketplace interactions. But you also need to be strong when strength is required. If a certain moment calls for assertiveness, find that iron inside of you. If your gallery owner unilaterally decides to change the title of your solo show at the last minute to a title you just can’t tolerate, speak up. You have no real control regarding that change, but by standing up and speaking your mind there’s a decent chance you can positively affect the outcome. You may have to shift from genial and agreeable to hard-nosed in a split second—get mentally ready for such eventualities.
8. Make conscious decisions about who should get more of your time and who should get less of your time. That is, be strategic about the importance of people in your networks and universe. If somebody is pestering you with question after question for a print interview and you find yourself spending more time on responding to those questions than to chatting with your gallery owner about your upcoming show, you are letting a squeaky wheel derail you. Decide on how you want to relate to people not on the basis on their aggressive demands but rather according to what strategically serves you.
9. Ask questions. Marketplace players have plenty of reasons for not always being clear. Imagine for a second that you’re a poet as well as a painter and that a publisher has taken an interest in your collection of poems. They may offer you a publishing contract but prefer that you didn’t know that their small press is on its last legs and that your book might never be published. Therefore they leave out of the conversation any mention of your book’s publication date. If you notice that omission, your choices are to act like the omission must have been an oversight and nothing to worry about or you can judge the omission a red flag and ask, “When will the book be published?” If you take the first route you may be setting yourself up for big trouble, trouble like the publishing house holding your book for a year or two and then announcing that it can’t publish it. If, on the other hand, you ask, you may not be happy with the answer but you will be in a better position to judge whether or not to proceed with this publisher. Ask questions, even if you feel one-down, even if you feel embarrassed to ask, even if you’re not sure that the question really needs asking. Err on the side of clarity.
10. Ask for help. If you want to make contact with a journalist but you think that the contact ought to be made by your gallery, ask your gallery owner to reach out to the journalist. If you’re a musician as well as a visual artist and want to perform with someone and you have a friend who knows that someone, ask your friend to introduce you. If a deadline is approaching on a residency application and one of your referrers hasn’t gotten around to writing a letter of recommendation yet, ask the person directly for the help you need, namely a timely recommendation. Ask for help and ask for what you need.
11. Negotiate. It is part of our repertoire of relationship skills to negotiate but we tend not to use that skill with marketplace players because they intimidate us and because we fear that if we ask for anything the deal will vanish. But if you’re polite, careful in how much you ask for, and not attached to the outcome, you will discover that in virtually every case you will get more than you were first offered. By negotiating you might get a slightly better cut on your split with your gallery owner or maybe just more needed time to finish up your current suite of paintings. Get used to negotiating: politely, carefully, and matter-of-factly.
12. Do not give yourself away. If someone you know in an arts organization asks you to volunteer your time and energy in support of something they are doing, think twice and three times before agreeing. Of course it is great to be of service and being of service is one of our prime meaning-making opportunities. But it one thing to serve by supplying a guest blog post in support of an event and another thing to serve by spending a full year organizing a conference. Be very clear in your own mind what the commitment would amount to, check to see if you are tempted to agree just because so little else of interest in going on in your life, and make sure that you don’t cavalierly give away your time and your energy.
13. Try to make your personal relationships support your art intentions. Let everybody in your house know that you are an artist, in case they somehow don’t know that already, and that you need a certain amount of time and space in which to work and a certain amount of unconditional support from them. Let them know, for example, that for those first two hours of the day they can make their own waffles and pick out their own clothes. Smile as you say these things—but get them said.
14. Prepare simple answers to difficult questions. It is much easier to relate, both to friends and family members and to marketplace players, if you’ve prepared answers to the common questions you’ll be asked, questions like “Why are your paintings so violent?” or “Why can’t I hear your music on the radio?” Say that you’re an independent filmmaker as well as a visual artist. What are you naturally going to be asked? “What’s your film about?” “Who’s in it?” “When will it be coming out?” “Did you have to use your own money to make it?” “How did your last film do?” “Can I get any of your films on Netflix?” And so on. These are obvious questions and, whether their intent is benign or malicious, they really should not surprise you. Just prepare simple answers and use them.
15. Do not unnecessarily burn bridges. If a gallery owner rejects your advances, thank her politely and keep her in mind for the future. She is already one of those important people in your life, a marketplace player who actually bothered to look at something of yours, and it is not at all outside the realm of possibility that she will accept something from you down the road. Even if you have to sever a relationship, sever it but try not to burn it down to the ground. You may well be seeing that face again!
You want to protect yourself in your relationships but you also want to be open to relationships, because without them you can’t have the life in the arts that you want. You want to learn how to forge relationships, maintain relationships, and, when necessary, get out of them with as little drama as possible. You might want to continue this investigation of right relating by trying your hand at answering the following questions. What are the key relationships in your life? What are the key relationships in your creative life? What additional relationships would you like to cultivate for the sake of your creative life? How will you go about finding advocates and supporters of your creative work? Where would you like to improve in your relating? Most crucially, how will you go about making those improvements?