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The Artist’s Guide: An Interview with Jackie Battenfield

Jackie Battenfield, a painter and printmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, is the author of the recently published book, The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love (New York: Da Capo Press, 2009).

After nearly fifteen years as program director of the Artists in the Marketplace (AIM) program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York, she is currently teaching professional practices for artists in the MFA program at Columbia University. She also holds workshops nationwide through Creative Capital.

CAA News met with Battenfield over the summer to talk about her new book.

How do you think an awareness of the kind of material in the book has grown?

Artists are definitely more interested in acquiring career-management skills at all levels of their development. In higher education, students, parents, and alumni are also asking for this information. The movement has grown incredibly since I started teaching at Columbia five years ago. Professional-practices classes are popping up in curricula, and that’s really healthy. Teachers of these classes are searching for good information to use in them. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. I wanted to collect and disseminate solid material that could be accessible to both emerging and midcareer artists and students in a college program. I’m hoping The Artist’s Guide will be added to syllabi, curricula, or assigned readings.

Two years before the book’s publication, I began posting information on a website, The site includes marvelous interviews with gallerists, curators, public-art administrators, artists, and art lawyers that I conducted while writing the book. I posted the interview transcripts online as PDFs, so that they could be used as assigned reading for classes on professional development for artists. There’s a lot of good supplementary material in those interviews that everyone can use.

You’ve been teaching career-development workshops and classes for some time. Why did it take so long to come out with a book?

Ever since I began teaching career-development seminars, in 1992, artists would often ask, “Why don’t you put this in a book?” And years after completing the AIM program, many artists would tell me, “I kept that notebook from AIM, and I still refer to all those handouts.” So I felt my community was urging me to do a book, and certainly when I started teaching at Columbia I realized it would be helpful to have a text support what I was doing in class.

My workshops and teaching, however, are only a small fraction of my art practice. The majority of the time I’m a painter and printmaker, and that’s where I make most of my income. Knowing that writing a book would take energy away from that practice, from my daily engagement in making art, kept me from committing to this project. Three years ago I finally felt that things had come to a place with my studio work that I could turn my attention to the book project. I thought, this would be a good time to write, and I had the idea I could juggle writing the book with my art practice. But that didn’t happen. Once I was drawn into the creative energy needed to write the book, I couldn’t maintain serious studio work. All my attention was consumed by this project.

How long did the writing take? It seems like you already have all this information in your head.

Yes, much of the information was right in my head, but I didn’t have that much experience as an author. I didn’t want the book to be just a collection of handouts I had developed over the years. I wanted it to feel like a conversation, one artist talking to another.

I did notice right away that your book is very personal. The examples you use are things that happened to you—you seem to put more of yourself into the book.

That voice was hard to establish, and to moderate it in a way that would work in text. That’s what was so exciting about the writing process, and that’s what made it creative and interesting for me—turning the book into a work of art in a way. (I have so much respect now for the challenges literary artists face.) A lot of other publications contain advice for artists, and when reviewing them for my book proposal, I noticed that most of them are not written by a practicing artist. Those books outline what to do but didn’t fully explain to their readers why they need to manage all aspects of their career, and how it will benefit them in the long run.

That’s what makes The Artist’s Guide a little different. As a practicing artist, I know what it’s like to be going full steam in the studio. Who wants to stop and update records, or worry about an artist statement, when you’re in this zone of creativity? Who feels they have enough time left over to do networking and promotion? It’s hard to make those activities part of your life. So I discuss their importance and give some guidance on how to insert them into your practice without ruining that very precious creative place you desperately want to maintain. In the book I talk about how I learned to put those activities that support art making into use for myself. This way I hope to encourage more artists to follow through themselves.

I accompany all my information with quotes from other artists and art professionals to help stress the point that I’m not the only one doing these things or thinking this way. Many art professionals in my book have hybrid careers. They too are working as artists, but they also practice law, work in nonprofits, or even have developed a successful art fair in Miami Beach. They understand the kind of juggling that 99 percent of artists have to do to maintain an art practice for the rest of their lives.

The book also addresses issues that come up when trying to develop your career while managing other responsibilities of your life. Why would anyone not want to have as full a life as possible, because it only adds to who you are as a person and the work that you make? So I discuss juggling a job, a life partner, children, multiple schedules, and all that daily-living stuff. My job in this book is to show artists ways they can build a life to protect and nurture their art practice. It’s so easy to be torn away from making art, or to have it fade away bit by bit, until suddenly you wake up one day and realize that you haven’t done anything that year—you haven’t been in the studio because you’ve been so obsessed with paying off your credit cards, or with that day job, or with taking care of the baby—whatever it is. I’m hoping to give some guidance so that’s less likely to happen. As an artist, I create because it’s an integral part of who I am. I feel most alive when my work is going well in the studio.

The beginning of the book surprised me because you write about goal setting way before things like approaching galleries. And later you write about an artist’s spending habits before talking about managing taxes.

Yes, I feel identifying some goals is a very important activity, because goals point you in a direction. They get you to take action that you might otherwise put off indefinitely. They make you more productive. Once you leave school there are no assignments or end-of-semester crits to keep you productive. Nobody is telling you what to do. You have to establish your own structure to continue creating work and to develop other aspects of your professional life. How do you motivate yourself to move forward? Establishing a plan to get started and revising it as you go along is a great way to maintain momentum.

Secondly, I talk about setting goals first because there is no one kind of art career. There are hundreds of ways you can have a satisfying life as an artist, and you’ve got to start with the question, “What is it that you want to achieve with your life?” Eliminate what others think you should be doing. Start with “What is it that I want?” and assess who you are, where you are at this moment, and what you need to get started. Your plans will change as you go along. The goals you choose to pursue will influence how you design the rest of your practice. Life has a way of throwing curve balls. What you first envision may not be the end result, but having goals will help you to develop a strategy to move forward. Believe me, Julian Schnabel knew what he wanted to achieve from very early in his career, and he set out to do it.

Have you thought of The Artist’s Guide as being something of a self-help book for artists?

It’s absolutely a self-help book for artists! It’s also a resource book. I wrote it so you can sit down, start with the first page, and read it cover to cover. Or you can approach the book by looking up a topic or keyword in the index and diving in there. I’m also happy that it’s so inexpensive so that it’s accessible to everyone.

How has your approach to doing workshops changed? For example, if you’re going to do a workshop in St. Louis and people already have this book and read it, what else can you tell them?

I really haven’t experienced that yet. I can’t wait to teach my Columbia class this fall and assign the book as reading, because it will serve as a starting point for class discussions. In my workshops, I hope that we can move the conversation to a higher level, so the first question posed isn’t “How do I get into a gallery?” but instead might be “How can I establish more productive relationships with art professionals?” We can do better troubleshooting for the difficult issues artists are facing in these difficult economic times. A book, no matter how good, is a static instrument. Life moves forward. New resources, technologies, and the art market are constantly changing, and in a workshop or seminar I can update and respond to those changes more easily.

Originally published in CAA News in September 2009.