12/04/2006: "Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word" 


by Barney Davey 

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” If you examine any professional artist who paid the bills from their creative output in his or her lifetime, you’ll find each of them made peace with making commerce. Most were or are salespeople in their own right. A few may have had family or management to take on the task for them, but even then they were implicitly, if not directly involved in getting the art to market.

If there is a shame in embracing commerce, it is only that it violates the quaint overrated sappy notion of the starving artist. To my mind, starving is a bleak situation that cannot possibly help the creative process… lead eating mad genius’ aside. That doesn’t mean a well-fed artist can’t be hungry. Virtually every “known” artist got that way in part by being hungry. But it was hunger for food; their hunger was for recognition and validation. What fuels that hunger was ambition.

Someone emailed me recently to say they had seen a quote from my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market, posted on blog penned by artist, EC (Lisa) Stewart, aka Creative Goddess. It is apropos for this blog as well:

Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word

If you lack this, get a publisher. It's that simple. Either you possess it like you possess artistic talent, or you don't. Ambition is not a technique you can study to improve upon. It's either or it's not - simple as that. It's an innate trait built into your DNA. Yes, we all have it to some extent, but you know what I'm talking about - the burning desire to enjoy success and be somebody come hell or high water. – Barney Davey

I swear this guy took the words straight from my mouth. "Come Hell or high water" is my trademark. :) – EC Stewart

There will always be a line between what is considered “fine art” and what is not and what is considered “museum quality” and what is not. I previously blogged here about posterity versus prosperity and the difficulties encountered by artists who dare to have it all. It’s interesting how some artists are seen as greedy and too commercial when others who are baldly and openly ambitious are celebrated. Fame is fickle, there is no denying that. One thing those “museum bound” artists and those who are stuck doing shows like ArtExpo New York have is they are all ambitious.

To a degree, ambition helps some artists separate themselves from the pack when talent alone would not. How often do we witness artists with far less talent and far more ambition than most climb to the top of the heap? That is not to say some of the most talented haven’t received appropriate accolades; they have. Still worthy others lacking good fortune or ambition or both remain in the grey abyss of the unknown artist.

There is no scientific method measuring talent or ambition. Yet, even casual observers have no trouble recognizing either attribute. When you find ample quantities of both in the same person, likely only bad luck or adversity keeps that person from enjoying great success. Find someone lacking in either, especially ambition and they may be living the life of the starving artist, or hobbyist artist.
Speaking of ArtExpo, it was recently announced by show management that the Decor Expo component was moving out of the Javits Center in Manhattan to the Baltimore Convention Center. Further, the dates for the latter show are now slated for April. This is not a good development for the art tradeshow scene.

The synergy of having the two shows running concurrently in New York was what helped make both shows successful for nearly 30 years. I wrote about this in detail on my Amazon blog. I mention it here because I was reminded recently when I saw the Picture Framing and Art Industry Event Calendar published by Vivian Kistler.

Vivian is a dynamo who has been conducting educational workshops and seminars for galleries and picture framers since the 1980s. If you haven’t seen her speak, you’ve missed a great opportunity to learn valuable information about running a gallery or picture framing shop. Go to her site www.columbapublishing.com for an idea of what she does.

What strikes me when I view the Event Planner is the lack of tradeshow opportunities for fledgling artists and art publishers. The tradeshow circuit is where most of the successful artists and publishers in the print business learned the tricks of the trade. They learned from their customers and each other.

At one point, not that long ago, there were eight Decor Expo, nee ABC shows, two PPFA shows, two or three ArtExpo shows available to help promote the wholesale art and picture framing business to the retail base. That dynamic is gone. What is left is a question mark. Getting one’s art to market has always been difficult, but at least the roadmap was fairly well defined. These days, it takes more pioneering than ever to figure out how to make a go of it.

Imports, the Internet and big boxes are roiling the retail base. How an artist navigates the current situation is the subject of another blog, or book for that matter. But one thing will be constant regardless of the terrain needed to travel to destination success and that is ambition.

Replies: 7 Comments

on Tuesday, December 5th, Gabriella said

Barney - it is interesting to me how much of your blog is spent in discussion of ancillary trades to the production of art - the frame and reproduction market. But then, that should come as no surprise since you are not a primary producer, but a middleman.

Ambition comes in a lot of varieties and levels.
Not all aspirants aim for the top of the ladder, but are content to attain certain rungs and are satisfied with their accoplishment.

I would like to see new conventions in place for what is considered success in the arts, and I think they will evolve as the mass culture inevitably changes. I expect that in the near future our ambition to provide sustenance for our families won't leave much energy for the seeking after varying levels of fame as are possible now, and that the mass marketing of art will be much reduced to immediate community levels of trade and barter.

on Tuesday, December 5th, mark said

We all (artists) have ambition, the issue is where does that ambition dwell? Is it to make money? Is it to be a great artist? Is it both? Both is the best of all, to be a great artist and to be making money at it. I can not speake for others but the business side of art, a very important side, is one I struggle with, I hate it. I try, I realy do, but since it is not in me it doesn't help much. Trouble is putting your business side of the art in some one elses hands isn't always good either. I work with galleries and dealers and they (whom you would think would be in it for the money as well as the love of art) are often no better at it then I am. AAAAGGGGGHHHHH! I have no solution, just my opinion.

As far as trade shows, well I think they are more fantasy then reality. Some artists do well, some do not. But as I said about art fairs and such you got to try.

on Tuesday, December 5th, walterking said


Interesting that we have two blogs in a row on the subject of trade shows. I’m sure this will be helpful to some. As I said on the other blog of the same subject, an artist has got to make the rounds and pay their dues if only to find out if what they have to say is worth listening to. Ambition is a valuable sin. It keeps us alive when we are on the bottom and gets us ahead when we can see blue sky. It was Michelangelo’s ambition that spurred him to carve the giant David from a blemished discarded stone and to change the plan of the Pope‘s 12 disciples to the magnificent Sistine Chapel ceiling that has mesmerized us for so long. And he paid a huge price for that challenge. He both caught the Popes’s fancy and suffered his control from that time on. But one can have ambition and still not be a great artist. And so many of us settle for being mediocre as artists but ambitious as business people. And that mindset has gotten us into a pickle.

Prior to the Renaissance artists were relegated to the guild system and seen as craftsmen. Their patrons or employers really, told them how much gilded gold leaf and lapis lazuli to use in each painting. They told us the subject matter they wanted to see and refused to pay for a work that reached for something higher or that might be seen as critical to their power. The guild sought to work either for the church or the king…at least for the wealthy business men and landowner/aristocrats of the day. Little is different today other than the fact that the church doesn’t buy anything of much importance anymore.

During the Renaissance we elevated ourselves to the level of intelligencia equal to philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, scientists and statesmen. The same kind of change took place after WWII. During the 30’s and 40’s the arts seemed to languish in the States. But something happened after the GI’s came home. You couldn’t keep ‘em down on the farm anymore. They’d seen the art of Paris and Rome, something only the wealthy really had access to before the war, and the whole nation developed a hunger for something new and modern and great!

I think we’ve fallen again to the level of the guilds during our current political difficulties with a war going on. Instead of the artist as philosopher we are back to the corporate guilds creating what the general public can stomach. They are not up to the challenge. We don’t seem to want to see ourselves for what we have become…a nation of money grubbers who will do what ever it takes to get our oil to lubricate a system for selling our products at a staggering profit short of actually thinking about the long term and making the changes required to rethink a world that is slowly depleting itself. And to be someone who thinks otherwise is to become a traitor to our values, a pariah, a poor romantic wishing for an art that once was.

The trade shows are a great example of corporate mentality. If you know much about what is going on with the proposed changes in the Congress about intellectual property laws you’ll see the creepy corporate ant hill mentality at work. The corporate mind set sees every product as if it were a natural resource, like corn, selling for pennies on the bushel or like widgets mass produced (these days made overseas for pennies on the dollar.) When corporations own all copyrights (as they do mineral and oil rights) by virtue of commissioning a work of art or forcing the rights into the public domain, as they once did in medieval Europe, then those of us ambitious and fortunate enough to make our way into corporate employment will have a salary, insurance benefits and a retirement account….oops! I’ve forgotten the times in which we’re living…maybe we’ll be lucky enough to have a salary equal to the minimum wage. And there is more money to be made herding all the wannabe amateurs into a market so they can sell us the same products purchased at half the price at the lumber yard for twice the profit in an art supply store. Or the self help market which teaches us how to get into the corporate corral. And as long as we make pretty pictures about subjects that do not challenge or question they might buy one. But then there are so many cows in the herd that to choose one over another is simply done by a toss of the coin. “Honey you know how I love cows. Can we buy one? I‘d like a brown one please to match the couch.” Ouch!

Yes, ambition is important to an artist, as it is to all who have something to give to the world. Yes, survival is important to everyone. We must be ambitious and survive. And being financially flush is a luxurious life. But we must also reach for something higher than just stuffing food into our mouths. I know that most who read these blogs don’t want to hear about much other than how to establish a financially successful career as an artist. But like Jose I yearn, perhaps romantically, for a time when we slip this medieval veil, this stifling burka, this black and white habit. I yearn for a new Renaissance, a new spirit. Somehow I don’t think we’re going to find it at the trade shows as useful as they may seem to be for some. Maybe the Art Expo changing from Manhattan to Baltimore is a good sign. Maybe something higher is already at work. Meanwhile I’m not quitting my day job. It allows me to paint what I my spirit feels and yearns for, what I see, what challenges me. Maybe the market will catch up one day. I suppose my attitude seems to exemplify the idea of the romantic artist pining away waiting for someone to discover them. But I’m not sitting at home on the couch am I? I’m out here with you all plugging away getting my message out . And I have found a way to make the art I can believe in without catering to the freak show or the vegetable market. And not all cows are Limousines.

on Tuesday, December 5th, diane sanborn said

Barney, good ideas here about promotion.

Artists: No one knows and cares about your work more than you. When someone asks, "Tell me about your work," don't look down at your shoes and shrug, start talking about it......

on Monday, December 4th, Brad Greek said

Hello Barney, I've learned a very long time ago that the competition is very tough in the art world. Skills beyond belief, by tens of thousand artists around the world. I knew also that I wasn't all that unique in my style or skill level that would take me where I want to go. I had to do something that most wouldn't and that was marketing myself. The drive to succeed in the art world is in every thought I have. I also know about burnout, so it has to be an ambitious balance. Like a distance runner, he has to pace himself during the race, with countless hours of work behind the scenes that prepares you for the race. I'm not sure where or when that next big break will come. You just have to keep after it come hell or high water. (I've used that saying for years myself) LOL

Thanks Barney for your insights.

on Monday, December 4th, josé said

I agree Barney, without ambition [and given that you are an able and productive person] you may as well get your tv dinner out of the microwave and hurry back to the couch lest you miss out on an episode of the soap 'the life that could have been yours'. Opportunities don't just fall on your lap. But I am growing increasingly sceptical about tradeshows and the promises they hold but never keep... mostly at our expense. Times have changed, the economy is functioning in new ways and I think we have to look for, or come up with other, new, models that place less of a burden on the artist while allowing him to attract the attention of private, corporate and public investors. I know, it sounds like the impossible dream but surely something positive has to come out of the mess we are in right now.

on Monday, December 4th, Andrew said

Yes Barney, it's not enough to wish for better circumstances, you have to DO something to make it happen. Every chance you get.