The following post is part of a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Crista Cloutier is a working contemporary artist and entrepreneur. She has spent the majority of her career as a fine art print publisher and has sold work to galleries, museums, and collectors throughout the world including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum and the Chicago Art Institute. She has also collaborated with some of the most influential contemporary artists working today, such asJames Turrell, Vik Muniz, Judy Chicago, Carrie Mae Weems and WilliamWegman. Photo credit: Antonio Bartczak
Crista founded TheWorkingArtist.com to share how successful artists manage their careers and where aspiring artists often stumble. She’s now based in London and we wanted to get her advice on building a career that is applicable to both artists and working professionals.
Brett Wallace: How do you define success as an artist?
Crista Cloutier: Artists are meaning-makers. So I believe that if an artist is finding meaning in work and in life, that’s success. And if they can share it with others, that’s even greater success.
Yet too often, when I ask other artists to define success, they tell me they want to be rock stars. They list Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol as role models.
But wealth and fame are about receiving validation from outside of yourself, allowing your values to be formed by others. I believe that it’s far better to be known for your work; and that comes out of integrity, craft, and commitment.
What’s the best leadership advice you have ever received? For most of my career, I worked as director of Segura Publishing, a fine art print publishing company. This company was founded by Joe Segura with nothing more than $100 and a dream to bring minority artists into the fold of the greater cultural conversation.
When I left the company a few years ago, we’d just celebrated our 25th anniversary. During those 25 years, we at Segura Publishing had collaborated with hundreds of minority artists. We’d placed thousands of works into museums and public collections throughout the world. Our 25th anniversary was marked with museum retrospectives and a catalogue, as well as a fabulous party in New York City.
The point is that we all agree that $100 won’t get you very far. But a dream can open any door. Through the example of Joe Segura, I learned that the best leadersstay true to their vision, dedicate themselves to serving others, are passionate about their work, and take pride in craft. I can’t think of better advice.
BW: What is your favorite project that you’ve collaborated on?
CC: One of the perks of leading Segura Publishing Company was getting to know the incredible artists whom we collaborated with. I learned so much from each of them. But working with James Turrell, the renowned American artist primarily concerned with light and space, for so many years was a special honor, and we became close friends.
It was James Turrell who first taught me how to look at his work and spoke to me about light. It was he who introduced me to the Quaker religion to which he belonged, and he’d sometimes invited me to silent worship at his meetinghouse.
One day, I told Jim about a magazine I’d subscribed to called “Quakers in the Arts.” He laughed as I explained how it was more of a xeroxed newsletter then a magazine. But the editors made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in budget.
I showed Jim an article they’d published about his work and how it related to Quakerism. The writer mused on her desire to see Turrell’s masterpiece, The Roden Crater, an extinct volcanic crater in the middle of the desert that he’s made his life’s work.
So Jim and I invited the very surprised author and her Quaker readers to visit the Roden Crater for a picnic.
They were thrilled! From all over the states watercolorists, quilters, and poets descended upon Jim’s ranch. We fed them, took them on hayrides, had long discussions about art, and we even sat in silent Quaker worship together.
Then we piled into cars to make the arduous journey from the ranch through the rough terrain to the Roden Crater itself. I drove in front with Jim and a long line of Quakers followed. We were a little concerned about their small cars on the gravel road as it twisted and bumped for miles and miles, but everyone arrived in one piece. At the gate of the Roden Crater, Jim got out of the truck only to come back right away, panicked.
I forgot the keys.” What? “I forgot the keys."
James Turrell had forgotten the keys to the Roden Crater and there were 20 carloads of Quakers idling expectantly behind us. There was only one thing to do. We broke in. I won’t tell you how we did it, just that we did. So my favorite collaboration was planning a community picnic for Quaker artists with James Turrell, because not many people can say “I broke into the Roden Crater.” But I can.
In 1977, James Turrell (pictured above) arranged the purchase of Roden Crater supported by the Dia Art Foundation. The Roden Crater is an extinct volcanic crater in the middle of the desert that he’s made his life’s work. Turrell, known for his explorations of light and space, dreamed of a project for a natural setting that would bring his work from the studio into the western landscape.
BW: How are artists mission-oriented?
CC: Like I said, artists are meaning-makers. We strive to master our craft but we also work toward bringing meaning into our life and work. It’s not enough to paint pretty pictures, there’s an underlying why to what we do. And this spills out of the studio and into real-life too.
Artists are interested in all aspects of creativity including communication, contemplation and innovation. That’s why I believe that some of our culture’s best thought-leaders are artists. And it’s also why I feel that artists are poised to lead, because artists are challenging the status quo at a time when the world really needs that quo challenged. Now, more than ever, artists can change the world.
BW: How could thinking through a mission statement help artists and working professionals?
CC: Everyone needs to understand how to talk about their work in a unique way, whether it’s an artist statement, a mission statement, a press release or even an introduction at a dinner party. This is how we connect other people to what we do.
We all assume that people understand our work; because we’re so wrapped up in it, it’s completely evident to us. We think viewers can see into our souls and find our motivation and influences, understand what it is we do.
But I’ve learned that it’s far better to assume nothing and to use your words, a statement if you will, to connect others with what it is you do and why you do it. In my experience, that’s the best sales tool there is.
BW: What are the fundamentals to crafting a well thought-out artist or mission statement?
CC: I believe the statement itself clarifies what you do and why you do it. And, ultimately it should be measurable.
Writing a statement is like anything else; start small and you’ll get there. Begin by just writing words. Any words. Phrases are even better.
Get a cool notebook, a small one that you can tuck in a pocket. Keep it with you always. Even when you work, especially when you work. Capture your thoughts! Words, phrases, songs, poems, what ever runs through your mind or inspires you when thinking of your practice.
When it’s time to write the statement, start by moving these captive ideas together in different ways until they best express your thoughts. It’s a beautiful mess but you can bring order to it. It just takes time and patience. Ask yourself “why” questions and answer them as honestly and simply as possible. Use this language to tell a story, we all love stories.
Then start to strip it away. Be ruthless. Do you repeat yourself? Cut it back. Are you going on and on and on? Streamline it. Is each idea supported? Make sure every thought is grounded. And cross out all the words that smack of academic art-speak. They won’t serve you.
When you’ve finished, someone else to read it for you. Does it make sense? Is it clear? Ask them to point out any grammatical problems. And then repeat.
Because in doing it this way, writing statements will become part of your practice. And you’ll become more comfortable talking about your work in a way that’s compelling to others yet feels comfortable and authentic.
Here is an example of our Vision and Mission Statements from Segura –
Vision - To ensure that artists from traditionally underrepresented groups are fully recognized by the greater art world.
Mission - Through the production of significant fine art, collaborate with important artists to make works accessible to the market and influential collections.
BW: Where do see most artists stumble?
CC: There are many places where artists stumble, but the biggest obstacle I see artists place between themselves and success is business. Too many artists simply close the door to marketing and professional practices because they prefer to wait to be discovered or believe someone else will do it for them.
Artists tell me that they plan on getting a gallery, so they don’t have to worry about that stuff. Or they ask me to find an agent, because they are too busy being creative to deal with their career.
But galleries and agents want to work with professionals and good business partners who understand the marketplace as well as professional and ethical practices.
Building an audience and developing a marketing strategy will attract people who can help you, but don’t expect that your talent alone will get you very far. For every opportunity that exists, for every gallerist or agent looking to represent an artist, there are hundreds of other talented artists standing in line behind you. The best way to stand out is to stand up and take responsibility.
BW: What is the most gratifying part of your current professional role?
CC: I’ve worked with other artists throughout my career, and I love it. Six years ago, when I left my job as director of Segura Publishing Company, I sold all of my possessions and moved to France by myself to start a new life pursuing my own creative projects.
At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, but slowly the pieces got put into place. I realized then that working with other artists is just what I do. These are my people. There are certain conversations that artists have that civilians just don’t understand. Every artist knows exactly what I’m talking about.
And now, as the founder of an online business school for artists, I get to continue to work with other artists, empowering them and sharing my experiences. When students write me of their success, it makes me feel so grateful that I followed the hunch to leave and followed that urge to find something new.
BW: What leaders do you most admire?
CC: I admire artists such as Vik Muniz and Kiki Smith who have used their success to do so much for others.
I also deeply admire Claudia Bernardi. Claudia is a San Francisco based artist and Professor of Community Arts, Diversity Studies at the Graduate Program of Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She’s also a member of the Argentine Forensic and Anthropological Team, a humanitarian organization that visits atrocity sites around the world and unearths and identifies victims of political conflict. Claudia uses these horrific experiences to make heart-wrenchingly beautiful art.
But she’s taken it further, founding the Walls of Hope project. Through this wonderful organization, Claudia’s traveled the world creating public art projects, art classes, and community development projects for victims of human rights violations. I’ve produced a documentary film about Claudia’s work, curated exhibitions and published essays because where this artist leads, I want to follow.