The Biggest Challenges Artists Face During Their Career

October 2019

Artwork Archive

The Biggest Challenges Artists Face During Their Career

By Artwork Archive

Artist Jaq Chartier with her work at Dolby Chadwick Gallery’s opening

Most artists who pursue a serious career in the arts know that there will be challenges. 

Regardless of the career stage, there are similar roadblocks that can occur for all artists. Most of those traps that we fall into are self-imposed as well. And while there are definite external challenges that will test your grit and perseverance, many of these challenges are internal.

We spoke with artist Jaq Chartier on how she navigates the struggle with money, doing things for exposure, people-pleasing, time and rejection.

Chartier answers our questions about the problems artists face as they enter and grow a career in this field.

Sometimes we hear from artists who think that selling their work is selling out. Is this something you ever struggled with? 

I've never thought of selling art as “selling out.” It's easy to say those words if you’re independently wealthy. But for people who are working-class, I think the struggle with money is more of a sour grapes struggle. It's more likely that you're not having the opportunities that you want, rather than having too many and then selling out in a true sense. Selling out might happen at higher levels (if it happens at all). But in general, I think sales are good. Artists deserve to make a living.

But I do think there's a struggle with money for artists.

I would ask if the person saying that is actually selling their work or not. My experience has been that that idea comes from people who are not selling their work, not those who are. It can be a way of protecting your ego, but it sets up a negative relationship with money that can be self-defeating.

And if someone is not an artist and they talk about selling out, they are not respecting that artists need to make a living like everybody else.

What about when someone asks you to do something for exposure? 

Artist Jaq Chartier's artwork featured in the show "Billions".

It’s not black and white. Sometimes doing something for little or no compensation is worth it. I had two things happen this year that were both really good for my career but didn't make me much money. One was the project for Billions. I didn't make much from that but it was a great opportunity. If I had charged more I probably wouldn't have gotten it.

This other project I did was a commission for a Merck media wall for a new headquarters in San Francisco. A motion graphics company contracted me and a few other artists—we were commissioned to make artwork that was then animated on this media wall in the lobby. I really wanted that opportunity, as I was just starting a project that it was perfect for. But I knew that if I charged a lot—what it was going to really take me in time—I wouldn't have gotten it.

I suppose what I'm asking is when artists are asked to do things for free for the potential of exposure - is there ever a time when you should?

I would also say it's always a choice. Artists don't have to do anything for free and they can say no. Somebody who doesn't have much exposure might be willing to do it simply for the exposure.

You can say yes or no. If you say yes, you need to have your eyes wide open as to why,  and what you're expecting. And don’t change up later and say “well I should have gotten paid” and be cranky about it.

Sometimes artists don't think things through and then they complain later. But it is a business, and if you don't think through what you are committing to later, it's on you. It really is.

Of course, I hear what you’re saying about artists needing to get paid for things. The bottom line is it’s a capitalist market.

If somebody says “here's an unpaid opportunity” and some artist is willing to go for it, then they'll get the art for free. When artists refuse to do things for free, the money shows up.

What are some other challenges with selling work that artists face?

One problem is when artists sell things out of their studios for half price. I've heard so many stories of this from art dealers. They are working with an artist and the artist is in their studio selling stuff out the back door for half price. Then when they have a show, nothing sells. Then the artist gets mad at the gallery, “Why aren't you selling my work? Why aren't my prices going up?” Because you’re undermining everything your gallery is trying to do for you.

I’m sure the main reason artist do that is because they need the money. At least it's a sale! But it's short-sighted.

There’s sometimes an aspect of entitlement, that somehow an artist is special and they are entitled to things that other people don't get. Not every artist is like that. But there is a chunk that creates this attitude.

Artists are people. I’ve taught a lot of non-artists how to make art and everybody has some spark of creativity in them—it's not that special. The special part is when they stick with it long enough to turn it into an actual career.

The persistence to turn it into a serious art practice is what's unusual, not the creative spark or talent. So, to go around thinking you're entitled to things that other people aren't, or that you're entitled to sell something simply because you made it? No, Someone has to want to buy it.

Jaq Chartier, Sun Test #7

Is there ever a trap in starting to make the same thing over and over when that is the thing that sells?

To me, at that point, you would become more of what I would call a craftsperson, which isn’t bad.

You are a master at making this particular thing over and over again. If you were a ceramic artist, we wouldn't have any problem with it. There are a lot of painters that I would consider more craftspeople than painters with a big "P".

I hate to put a value judgment on it because I think it's really apples and oranges.

Craftspeople are just as important to the art world as people making different things from one show to the next. This idea that one's better than the other is partly where this idea comes from that you shouldn't get too good at anything.

I think if you are making something that you love to make and you want to keep making it, then that's your business and you can do it. If you are feeling trapped into it, like a real trap that you can't get out of it—I don't think that's even real—it's a choice again, you can choose to keep making it or not.

It's a trap of your own making, you are choosing to stay in it.

What are the biggest challenges you have experienced in your art career?

To me, the bigger trap comes when trying to please people, in doing something you don't really want to do because you’re afraid you’re going to lose your gallery or lose your collector base, fan base, etc. If you’re doing it for that reason, as opposed to because you love to do it—I think that fear is a bigger trap to worry about.

Fear and boredom to me are the two bumpers on the road. If you’re doing something and you start falling off the road because you’re in fear or bored to death, those are signs that you need to get back in the game.

I think pleasing people is a big one—but, rebelling is equally as big. They are different but kind of the same. Rebelling or pleasing in both cases, you're kind of taking your cue from somebody else. And then you decide to either do what they want or reject what they want, but either way, it’s not coming from what you want. It's human nature, people do it all the time. But in the studio, it blocks you from making your own work if you are consumed with what someone else thinks about your work.

When you are in a gallery situation, even if the dealer is the nicest person in the world, you can tell what is selling and what isn't. Unless you are completely unaware, you can see the pattern. So you start to notice: If I make this work, it sells; If I make that work, it doesn't sell. Then, you decide. But again, it's a choice. Do you want to make the work you want to make? Or do you want to make the work you need to make in order to make a living? Or do you want to do a little bit of both? No matter how you play it, it's always a choice.

Jaq Chartier, 8 Lanes Plum Flamingo

How can time work as a trap or as a motivator?

Not having enough time can create a trap. It creates this vicious circle where you are so busy with deadlines, too many deadlines, too many tasks, that you don't have time to play. All that busy stuff can generate more opportunities, but it can also choke the fun out of being in the studio.

The flip side, not having any deadlines can also create a trap. For me, when I'm not busy enough, I would think I’d get stuff done because I have all this time, but I actually start to wallow. My brain slows down, I start wondering, "Is this work any good?" It can become a droopy existential crisis.

When I’m busy I don't have time for that crap. But if I’m too busy, I don’t have time to reflect and play and experiment and try new things. It's about finding the right balance—how busy is the right balance for you?

Even if you don't have a deadline, you can create deadlines for yourself. You can say “I’m going to have a show of my work in my studio in two months” and start inviting your friends in advance. Or decide that you're going to apply for something. When you know it's a couple of months out, you can create work to get ready for the application. You can always come up with deadlines for yourself. I think deadlines are really motivating.

 Rejection ... can that act as a motivator instead of a trap?

My thinking about rejection is that if you aren't getting rejected, you aren't putting yourself out there. You are just waiting for things to fall into your lap.

I have a friend that this has happened for … she has a lot of things happening … and then she applied for something and got rejected (something I have applied for 20 years in a row and got rejected 20 times). She was devastated because she is so used to just having things happen. I think I was surprised, because she is so far along in her career, how much that made her afraid to apply for anything else.

I didn't realize that rejection was an issue for her because she's so successful. We were talking about it and it's that idea that if you get rejected from something that somehow that means something about you, as opposed to it just being a lottery.

Creative Capital is a pretty big deal now. I applied to Creative Capital fairly early on, in the first five years maybe, and I made it to the very last finalist stage—but didn't get it. I've applied a number of times since then and haven't even gotten close again. But the thing that happened for me was that I really had a project I wanted to do for that grant and I just decided to scale it down to a size I could do on my own, and I did it. The latest body of work I'm doing now actually comes out of that first seed of an idea from all those years ago.

I think for me, I just don't let rejection stop me.

It hurts every single time you apply for something and you don’t get it. With public art stuff—usually just the request for qualifications goes in and you get rejected and you're not even allowed to present an idea yet.

You just have to keep applying. It's a numbers game. The more times you apply, the more likely you are to hit someone at the right moment.

There's another thing that happens when you apply to a lot of shows. There are usually lots of people on these selection panels; it’s not just one person making the decision. You just don't know what's going to happen down the road because somebody saw your work. Later on, they could be on a different panel and you end up getting it. Or, they have the opportunity to invite you to apply for something else or to be part of a group project or whatever. They’ve made a mental note of your artwork because they saw it in some application process.

I look at it as part of advertising. Every time you apply for something, it's like putting an ad out there for the art world. But it's a very targeted ad. Just because you get rejected doesn't mean they aren't noticing and remembering your name. So I think the more things you apply to, the better.

 Some artists who start to gain traction have talked about "imposter syndrome". How do you deal with that?

I've never had that problem, but I do see where it comes from. This idea of the self-critical. Again, artists have all these dualities—there's a strong ego and a strong critical side. Maybe it's the critical side taking over for one reason or another.

You need to be able to look at your work with some sort of criticism, but you have to keep it in balance so you don't hobble yourself from creating any work. I think having a healthy ego is a part of making art, but if you aren't critical at all, that's not good either.

I think going to art school gets you in a better position to deal with that because they’re sort of building you up and tearing you down at the same time and you start to get a handle on it.

What is it that kicks you over the line so that even if you are scared of rejection, you just do it anyway?

It can be a real fear. For example, you would never get me to sing in public, but other people have no problem with it whatsoever. That fear of singing in public might be just like the fear of applying to things and getting rejected. You almost can't overcome it.

But what do they always say about it? You overcome it by doing it. You do it, and you do it, and you do it until you get over it. You really do get used to rejection. Plus, once you do get a taste of success, you get hooked on it.

Jaq Chartier, 27 Formulas

Can trying to make something "beautiful" become a trap?

I think that idea comes from a black and white way of looking at things—that if you’re focused on making something beautiful it's not going to be creative, it's going to be craft.

I hate saying that because a lot of craftspeople out there are going to say, there you go again putting fine art above craft. I don't really mean to say it that way, they are just different. I do a lot of craft in my own process, so I know the difference, and they are both valuable and important in my studio. It feels like the “art world” has this philosophy right now at this point in our history that beauty will somehow sidetrack you from making art with a capital "A".

For my whole adult life as a creative person, the "beauty" thing has been in question—especially in the New York art world. But I think it's mostly just fashion.

Not using our tools to create beauty is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It's easy to make an ugly painting. It's not easy to make a beautiful painting that has resonance, and that doesn't just feel like decoration. It’s easy to say “just don’t make it pretty,” but I think that’s lazy. I really do.

I also think that following a trend is really not what artists should be doing. You should be leading your own trend, not trying to figure out how to be in fashion.

You seem to really buck taking cues from others which I think is really helpful advice. I think a lot of artists might not even know that they are doing it.

Well, I had something happen in grad school that kind of brought that to a head for me.

I've always been a pleaser type, a straight-A student type. When I was in grad school, maybe four or five months before our MFA show, I was just completely unsure of what I thought anymore. I couldn't tell my own opinion. There had been a lot of visiting teachers coming through the studio. I was getting so much feedback that I couldn't hear my own voice anymore. Even a simple yes or no—is this my yes or no? Or someone else's yes or no?

At a certain point, I just said I don't want anyone else in my studio for the next couple of months. I want to go in there with nobody else's voice until I can get back to hearing my own. Do I like this or do I not like this—just that simple. And stripping that other stuff out was really, really hard. It's like an echo chamber.

Anyone who has ever said anything to you is somewhere in your memory. And it’s like, am I making this brushstroke for me or for them? Or in rejection of them? But I realized that is the point where you stop being a student. You realize that your own opinion is the one you want to hear, not someone else's. And until that point, you are learning what all the opinions could be.

But there's a point where you really want and need to hear your own voice.

It doesn't mean you don't listen to what other people say, It just means you take the feedback in a neutral way, as a tool that you can choose to take or not take. But you don't have to take it, and you certainly are not going to be bullied by it.

It comes back to the creative process in general.

The creative process will always guide you. If you are really listening, it will guide you and keep you on the path. If you find yourself bored or depressed or angry or afraid, that for me is always a sign that you are not actually in the creative process, you are off on the sidelines observing it, but you are not in it. So you have to get back in it.