The Business of Art: Amy Kisch + Heather Zises

Robert Saywitz, Music Was My First Love, 2014, Artist books, Vinyl covers Variable sizes

Amy Kisch and Heather Zises are the art editors of Pregame Magazine. As experts, curators, and advocates, they help artists navigate the art world and support emerging talent.

Amy Kisch is the Founder of AKArt, where she is an independent art consultant, curator, and strategic specialist. Her expertise includes fine arts marketing, programming, development, publishing, and collection management. She previously ran Sotheby’s worldwide VIP program for the auction house’s top clients. Kisch has served as a strategist, contributing writer, editor, presenter, curator, and producer of numerous successful initiatives, including collaborations and partnerships with: ABC TV, ARTnews, Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Markit, AT&T, Brooklyn Tourism, and Canvas Magazine.

Heather Zises is a Brooklyn based writer, curator and Founder of READart, an independent platform for contemporary art and culture. With a background at Pace and Phillips, Heather collaborates with companies and nonprofits on various art initiatives. Heather’s essays, reviews, and interviews have been published in books, magazines, and exhibition catalogues, including Whitehot, Fjords Review and The Excellent People. Raised in Boston as a ballerina, Heather has a BA in English and Dance from Cornell University, and an MA in Art History and Connoisseurship from Christie’s Education.

Here, they share their valuable perspectives on the unique challenges artists face, and how their creativity can help them take a fresh approach to an artistic career.

When does art become a business rather than a hobby / professional vs enthusiast? Is there a line of “legitimacy?”

HZ: Art becomes a business when the artist realizes they are the creative director, marketing director, accountant and administrator of their own, one-person company. Being an artist is a profession, and with any profession, it takes time, space and money to maintain a skill set. To sustain their professional life, many artists embrace the entrepreneurial spirit by working day jobs or multiple freelance gigs so they can keep making art.

AK: I don’t believe there is a line of “legitimacy.” Like all professional decisions, if one is counting on their career in art to pay their bills, it’s a profession, not a hobby. That being said, being able to financially build one’s life around being an artist is almost as common as an eclipse, so many “true artists” also hold day jobs, to support their art. This doesn’t make them any less “professional” as an artist, but makes them realistic human beings.

HZ: Given the broad scope of the art industry and its participants, there is no hard and fast line of “legitimacy” when it comes to being an artist – in the end, we all just want to be taken seriously for what we love to do, right? Art careers are very personal, and are often tailored to the artist’s lifestyle. For example, many young artists pursue an MFA to deepen their practice with hopes of gaining attention in the art world right after graduation. Other artists elect to skip graduate school and participate in residencies and workshops to augment their studio practice. Some artists work with an art advisor or dealer to facilitate sales and interest on their behalf.

Why do artists resist categorizing their art as business?

AK: For a long time, the art world seems to have been set up to purposefully intimidate artists—perhaps as a way to reinforce a hierarchy or power structure such that traditional dealers, gallerists, etc. would have the upper hand financially and professionally. This, combined with the fact that most artists create, not because of the result or finished product, but because it’s as basic a need to them as breathing, as is the process of creating it, are somewhat anathema to proclaiming oneself a businessperson.

HZ: I think basic business skills are hard to incorporate into an artist’s daily practice because they tend to clash. However, there is no reason they should! The balance between business (administrative responsibilities) and production (studio time) might seem at odds, but isn’t necessarily so. It is very easy for an artist to become overwhelmed if they don’t know what tools and to use when managing opportunities and pitfalls.

In a perfect world, most artists could spend all their time in their studios making art and have someone else take care of the business side. Unfortunately, reality requires most artists to wear both hats, therefore they must learn to do both jobs. Many of the most successful artists in history were equally as good at business as making art, such as Warhol, Picasso and Cindy Sherman.

AK: There also seems to exist this bizarre cultural unwritten rule that should financial success be the motivating force behind an artist, it inherently makes them a ‘sellout’ or a businessperson instead of an artist. Of course, you have your outliers like Jeff Koons, who—love or hate his artwork, and beside the notion of whether he is actually an artist vs. a designer—whose model has been specifically to invoke the business of art.

Do art schools prepare artists for managing their careers?

AK: In my experience, art schools have historically not prepared artists for the business side of their careers. As such, other entities have stepped in, such as artists’ residencies, organizations like Creative Capital and NYFA, galleries and coops like AIR Gallery, and institutions like Bronx Museum’s The Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program. Or artists have sought out the information or enlisted aid from art advisors and agents to manage the myriad components that are now part and parcel of being an artist—such as strategy, marketing, PR, partnerships, and social media.

HZ: Most artists do not go to art school to learn the business of art, so unless a course on professional practices is offered, it may not be a practical concern. Since the 90’s many art schools have included career management as part of their programming, such as Columbia University’s School of the Arts course Full-Time Artist, developed and taught by artist Jackie Battenfield.

Do artists need representatives to be successful?

HZ: An “artist representative” can mean different things: a dealer, a gallery, an advisor or a consultant, to name a few. Considering the time and needs of each artist is different, there are many routes an artist can choose to explore.

Whether you are an artist or not, being one’s own manager requires lots of self-discipline, and while some people are very good at it, others are not. Over the years, I have met hundreds of artists and each one has a slightly different approach when it comes to career opportunities.

AK: Artists don’t need reps to be successful, but in this day and age, having a rep allows artists to focus on making the work, rather than spending having their bandwidth consumed by the multi-pronged marketing, sales, and PR needs of their careers.

HZ: A successful artist I know–who works with a few independent advisors and one gallery–believes that he largely makes his own luck by putting himself “out there.” More specifically, he believes his odds of cultivating a career opportunity instantly increases just by leaving the house to attend an opening, a talk or a party rather than being a studio hermit. How else would we know if we weren’t there? Just like any business, networking is key.

Where do artists sabotage themselves in their businesses?

HZ: Self-promotion! So many artists forget that they are their own best publicist. Think of it this way: who knows their work better than they do?! Many artists feel it can be a turn off to talk about their work, but there is a fine line between confidence and self-aggrandizement.

Self-promotion can be an art unto itself, if done tastefully and well! I address this topic in my recent artist workshop, How to Prepare for A Studio Visit, which was created for Equity Gallery in New York City this season. I believe that the part-time job of being an artist is reminding people that you are an artist (and perhaps a darn good one, at that!), and that the full-time job of an artist is making work that allows them to grow.

AK: I think there’s still a good amount of magical thinking that if someone’s art is “good enough” they’ll be recognized as talent, and instantaneously be turned into an art superstar overnight. The reality is that—like many other businesses—you have to be not only good enough (or sadly, sometimes not), but also have to possess the savvy and relationships to leverage all your assets strategically in order to be “successful.”

Has the Internet made it easier or harder for artists to find their audience?

HZ: I have mixed feelings about the Internet as a platform for artists. While access to art communities and beyond is huge (think social media sites, news sites, gallery sites, blogs etc.), the quality of who is looking at art is still largely up for debate. I know a few artists who have made sales through their Instagram accounts, but the odds of being picked up by a top gallery or collector are less likely.

Some artists’ overemphasis on social media creates a risk that they begin catering their work to ephemeral media on a more superficial level, like getting more followers and likes, rather than spending their energy on the quality of the art as experienced in person! For instance, as a curator, I would never place an artist in a show when I’ve only seen their work on social media and not experienced it in person.

AK: The Internet, in many ways, has freed artists from having to be dependent on ‘traditional’ gallery or dealer models in order to find new audiences. Artists can post content, which may or may not go viral, as well as seek out opportunities globally (open calls, residencies, etc.) and access markets that previously there would have been no way to tap, without tremendous expense.

HZ: I think a huge benefit of the Internet for artists is the fact that they can share a digital portfolio (aka their website) of their work with ease to galleries, dealers, curators or collectors and see where the conversation leads.

To you, what’s the line between making money and selling out?

HZ: That is so personal. If you are making money doing what you love, shouldn’t that be something to be incredibly grateful for? There are a lot of perceptions and ideas on what “making a living” should be, and like an art career, each one is different.

AK: When an artist alters their artwork to be more commercially appealing, that is selling out. For example, several years ago, having Farsi or calligraphy in artwork seemed to be a marketplace trend, and artists who had never previously used script in their pieces, suddenly started adding it. To me, this seemed to be a sellout.

HZ: I think what it really boils down to is if you feel satisfied with your professional self, odds are you sleep peacefully with your personal self at night.

Where can artists turn for solid advice on running their business?

AK: Artists can turn to respected organizations and institutions such as Creative Capital, NYFA, the Bronx Museum’s The Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program, Headlands Center for the Arts, Stochastic Labs, etc. and/or enlist the help of reputable art advisors and agents.

HZ: If the artist is savvy, they will look to business models outside of the art world like tech or law, and seek out valuable resources on professional practices. One book that should be on every artist’s shelf (and non-artists too!) is Jackie Battenfield’s The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love. As a talented artist and professor at Columbia University, Battenfield shares her years of experience as a self-supporting artist and makes the overwhelming task of sustaining an art career seem manageable. I should note that the predecessor of Battenfield’s book was her series of art seminars, Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Through the AIM program, Battenfield had the privilege of mentoring over five hundred artists.

How do you define success in the art world?

HZ: Each artist is different and has a different perspective on success: For some it is sales, for others it is exhibitions, and for many it can be as simple as feeling satisfied after they leave the studio for the day.

AK: For me, a successful artist is one who would be making the work regardless of whether anyone ever liked or bought it.

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