To what extent ought you to be your “real self” in your public interactions in the art marketplace? Think of the elementary school teacher who would love to smile but who has learned that to maintain order in her classroom she must adopt a certain stern attitude until Christmas. She would love to smile; but she knows better. Like the elementary school teacher, do you have good reasons to adopt a public persona that is different from your everyday persona or studio persona?
Quite possibly you do. There are two ways to think about your public persona. One is that adopting a public persona is a way to practice “doing better” in public than you typically do in private. You might craft a public persona that allows you to exhibit more confidence than you actually feel, be clear when in your own mind you feel fuzzy, ask pointed questions that you might let slip if you were only having a conversation with yourself, and so on. In this sense your public persona reflects the changes that you would like to make to your personality: you would actually like to be this more assertive, clearer person.
On the other hand, maybe you are happy with who you are but recognize that your irony does not play well in public, that your frankness tends to be received as brusqueness, and that the qualities you take pride in have to be modulated or moderated in a public setting. In that case, you might create a strategic public persona that matches “what the world wants” and that allows you to interact effectively with customers, collectors, framers, gallery owners, media representatives, and the other people with whom you must interact. In the first instance you are using your public persona both strategically and also to improve yourself; in the second instance, improvement may not be a goal but strategic self-presentation certainly is.
If you are not paying attention to the difference between what is required of you in public and what you can permit yourself in private, you are likely to present yourself ineffectively in the marketplace. Indeed, these dynamics are often played out right in an artist’s “artist statement.” Many artist statements are abrupt and downright rude, demanding that if the viewer doesn’t “get” the painting she should immediately take herself to a remedial “What is art?” class. The artist’s resentments, disappointments, and grandiosity spill right out into his statement, making for a missive that the artist would call frank but that a viewer knows is combative and defensive.
Just as unfortunately, many artists’ statements have that vague, mind-numbingly abstract quality, such that the artist could be talking about any work of art. A reader of such a statement can’t help but presume mirrors the artist’s woolly-headed, indecisive, unconfident inner reality. The artist’s intelligence, wit, and humanity do not show through and all the viewer is left with—irrespective of the actual imagery—is a stifled yawn.
In both cases the artist has not made a sufficient effort to do the inner work that would result in personality growth, on the one hand, and the creation of an appropriate public persona, on the other.
Janet, a painter, explained, “Whether by nature or nurture, I am a shy person who prefers to spend her time in the studio and who will do almost anything to avoid marketplace interactions. This way of being suited me better when I was learning my craft, as I really did need to focus on what was going on in the studio. But now that I have a body of work—an overflowing body of work at that—I need to step out into the world in ways that I find strange and uncomfortable. I have to make myself do it—it does not come naturally. I actually have a checklist of the qualities that I want to manifest that I keep by the computer, so that every e-mail I send out is coming from my public persona and not my shy studio personality.”
Jack, a sculptor, explained, “I’ve been in recovery for eight years now. Before that, when I was actively drinking, I always led with my feverish temper. I had an attacking style—I would interrupt you, contradict you, fight you over every detail and the smallest perceived grievance, and always get in the last word. I was angry all the time, which was maybe a good thing with respect to my sculptures, as they have a lot of angry energy to them, but which was not good anywhere else in my life. Over these eight years of recovery I’ve cultivated a way of being that is more temperate, centered, and essentially gentle. Actually, I’m really still as hard as nails and people really ought not to cross me; but that part of me is kept under lock-and-key and almost never appears in public.”
At its best, public art is a thoughtful, measured presentation by the artist of her art vision geared to public spaces. She ought to make her public persona exactly the same thing: a thoughtful, measured presentation by the artist of herself, as she puts forward those qualities that she has identified as serving her best in the public arena. What qualities would you like to lead with in your public interactions? How would you like to be perceived? What public persona would allow you to advocate for your work most effectively? Build that persona and try it out—in public, naturally.
Two Steps to Building Your Public Persona:
1. Describe how you would like to be in your art marketplace interactions.
2. Practice your just-described public persona in some real-life art marketplace situations.