This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...." For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.
The last few weeks, I’ve been feeling old. Really, really old.
Oddly, it’s because I’ve been talking to, and about, younger people.
I agreed to run an informal inquiry for an art organization, to figure out how we can get more young artists involved. I took part in a discussion about whether younger people are “doing it wrong” when they take professional training seminars. And now our son has joined our household and struggles with his very first class in his life/career reboot.
The insights are jaw-dropping.
On one hand, most of us have been around awhile. We know how we got through school, and college. We know how we found our careers, our callings, how we learned to use our skill sets to move forward in life. As artists, we have a pretty good idea what achieving success looks like, even when we’re not sure “how”, and we’re pretty sure we’re doing it wrong if we can’t rack up those sales.
But being full of knowing can mean nothing new can come in. Knowing what worked for us may not work for younger people, today. And holding them personally accountable for gaps and lapses in knowledge is like blaming the victim of someone else’s idea of “accountability.”
Some clarity: Education moved from rote memory skills, to more hands-on, all-in methods in our lifetime. What I didn’t realize is how constant testing and assessment inadvertently flung many of our schools back to “rote memory”-based learning. Students now “succeed” by knowing exactly how to answer only the questions that will actually appear on the test. Their good grades were “proof” they were doing it right—until they are out in the real world and discover things don’t work that way.
One example: When I learned Latin in high school, I had a teacher who taught outside the box. I was horrible at memorizing words and phrases. But that teacher placed us in teams for our assignments. (Another change: When I was in high school, “no homework” was a thing. If you didn’t know it, how could you learn it at home? And if you did learn it, why keep doing it? That outlook changes over time, too.) Others were better at memorizing, but I was better at putting the pieces together into a compelling narrative. We all worked together to do the work.
A similar approach to sciences existed then. My husband’s father and uncle were huge fans of botany. But they acquired their skills and knowledge after college. They took field trips, did hands-on work with flowers, shrubs, and trees, memorized the flora as they discovered them in situ, even drawing and painting what they saw.
Not so organic in our local college. A family member’s very first class in their very first effort to start a new career is solely based on memorizing hundreds of Latin plant names. Overwhelmed and discouraged (like me, memorization is not their forte), they believe the experience they already have from their own projects, and more hands-on high school “trades” classes, count for nothing. They are discouraged from moving forward.
Younger artists sometimes start with traditional art training: Sketching, painting, focusing on 2D work skills. But now creativity has exploded into “maker movements”, including creative work many of us scoff at: Soap making, bee keeping, t-shirt printing. Studios are more likely to be “maker spaces” (more for one-off projects rather than sustained usage.) Computer-aided design skills rule the roost for many artists today.
All this has changed how they approach their own art careers.
One young artist has set theirs aside. “I wanted to be a success, and I worked at it every single day, every chance I could. I’m not that person anymore. Now I do it just for myself, I don’t want to share it with others, and there are other ways I am a force for good in the world.”
Another hardly uses their studio. They get an idea, buy a bulk lot of clothing (t-shirts, for example), create their designs, post it on Instagram, and sell out in a few days. “Open studios doesn’t work for me,” they told me. That age group isn’t my audience. They aren’t interested in what I do or how I do it, and I hate trying to sell my work to people at art events. I just want to make it, post it, and sell it to people who love it and want it NOW.”
Some of the best national fairs and shows are seeing slight upticks in attendance, but sales are still down. Not only are we getting older, so is our audience. I’ve lost some of my major patrons in the last decade, and moving to California didn’t help, either. Downsizing is a thing. This is the smallest living space we’ve lived in over 30 years. So even in my own house, there isn’t room for any more art, not even mine.
Finally, one well-known artist visited my open studio last month, and told me they were packing up their work, selling it off, and “retiring”. From now on, they were only going to make the work that they loved, for themselves, and not to make a living.
New dogs, new tricks. Old dogs, done with the old tricks.
This really brought me down a while back. To see people I cared about stepping back, or moving in a different direction, or acquiring a new mindset. To see people I respect, denigrating how young people are “doing it wrong”, when it’s not those young people’s fault that all they’ve been taught is how to game the system if they want to get ahead. To realize that first time someone said they purchased a piece of my work at a yard sale, I felt a little sadder than I wanted to admit.
I get that team learning and experience-based learning, have their own downfalls. At some point, you simply have to memorize stuff. Now I can’t “read” Latin anymore.
But here’s the thing:
Things are ALWAYS changing.
And somethings NEVER do.
Some of those strategies we learned stayed with us, and served us well. Others won’t stand the test of time.
That Latin team-building approach kept me interested and engaged in Latin for four years, far longer than most people would have pursued it strictly on their own. No, I did not go on to become a Latin teacher. But that experience is part of my life, and deepens my understanding and interest in the place Latin has in our everyday life.
Those two artists? They have found a balance in their life/art/work that works for them. It may not work for me, it may not work for you, and they may change it all up in the future. But right now, I applaud their decisions, because they have found what’s right for them.
The folks who complained about “young people today” could reconsider what skills they could teach these younger folks. I have no idea what. I just know that complaining about young people doesn’t solve the problem. That’s what our current system taught them, and they didn’t create that system.
That retiring artist may simply need a change right now. It’s possible they will return to their creative work with new inspiration, targeting a new audience. Or perhaps they find something totally different that fills their heart and lifts their spirit.
We may never attract a “younger audience” with our fairs and shows and open studio tours. I am determined to be at peace with that. After all, arts and craft movements have waxed and waned over time, thriving for some periods, disappearing (or going underground, or losing respect as “real art”) and then re-surging with new ideas, new techniques, new strategies.
Much as we can be “offended” about these changes, remember that our most famous and most-recognizable art today came from game-changers and rule-breakers, people who were considered as “doing it wrong”: The Salon des Refuses. Picasso. Van Gogh. There are some who broke even bigger rules (“women can’t make real art”) who are only being discovered and included today, like these famous women artists I’d never heard of in my own art history classes.
Here are the tricks we can all learn, regardless of our age:
The only thing for certain in the world is....change.
One way or another, making our art makes us happier. Keep doing it!
Sharing it with the world creates connection, between us and our audience, whether we choose to do that in person, in our studio, at shows, through a gallery, or with social media.
In an age where young people seek careers that won’t be replaced by automation and robotics, diverse income streams can help keep them afloat til they perfect their own path forward. And their agility may keep them hopping for years to come.
Once again, all we can do is this:
Embrace who we are.
Be open to change.
Stay in touch with our audience.
Make the work of our heart, and share it.
Respect the work of others.
Learn from those younger than us, rather than judge them. They live in a different world than we grew up in!
And give thanks we have today, the perfect day to do what we love, and breaking rules all the way.
Do you have a story about something that opened your eyes about things you were sure were “true”? Have you found something new on your path that is changing the way you think about things? (In a good way, I hope!)
Take the next step in your art journey, join FASO today and start displaying your artwork with a gorgeous artist website. We make it easy to build (even for non-techies) and maintain, we include SSL for all of our websites at no additional cost and we provide you with some great art marketing tools that automate many common marketing tasks for you. So what are you waiting for join our art community today! Sign up today for a free, no obligation 30-day trial.
THE THING ABOUT OPEN STUDIOS: Art Events Aren't About Making Money TODAY
TIMES CHANGE. Do We Have To??
WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It's All Good!
WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Be Inspired, But Be Yourself
WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: There's More Than Just One Kind of Artist