Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Get to the Top of the Art World?

Drawings that Work: 21st BCA Drawing Show

“How do you get to the top of the art world? It seems nowadays (compared to the past) that there are just too many people out there doing it. With so many people out there who are technically brilliant with good work out there promoting their stuff it feels a bit like a giant crap shoot.  Is it just all about luck and/or knowing the right people?”

If I truly knew the answer to this question, I would be there already. 🙂 Instead, I’ll provide my most educated guess at what it takes to get there.  First of all, I’m going to define the “top” to be artists who are showing in internationally renowned galleries and museums, who are in art history textbooks, and who are winning MacArthur grants. I’m thinking of people like Shazia Sikander, Sarah Sze, Julie Mehretu, Tara Donovan, Jenny Saville, and John Currin, to name just a few examples. Many of these artists are so famous that they don’t even need to have their own personal websites!

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Jenny Saville

I think that a host of various factors have to come together in the right way to reach “the top”. There is definitely no artist who is able to get there by themselves; they have to have a support system in place that helps them get there. Connections with certain key people are undeniably part of the equation. This can be seen in concrete examples of the top artists today: Tara Donovan was a waitress at a New York City restaurant that Chuck Close used to frequent. Lisa Yuskavage was instrumental in getting Sarah Sze her first New York City gallery show. Jenny Saville was discovered by British collector Charles Saatchi.

Tara Donovan

Tara Donovan

Time and context also plays a huge role in how one’s artwork is received. Reception of an artwork can change dramatically depending on the historical context of the work.  During the period of Abstract Expressionism, no one dared work with the human figure until Eric Fischl came along in the 80’s and resurrected that subject matter. For the time period that his work came about, his work was seen as revolutionary and gutsy. If Fischl’s work had emerged in a different time period, perhaps it would not have been received in the same manner.

Eric Fischl, Bad Boy

Eric Fischl

While being in the right place at the right time can seem to be what determines everything, I have to argue that none of these artists would have made it if they hadn’t been ready at those critical moments.  In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of amazing opportunities you get if you aren’t prepared to take advantage of them, or if you don’t have outstanding work to back you up.  I am certain that every one of these artists who has “made it” has been working incredibly hard from the very beginning, and that it’s no accident that they were ready to go when the moment struck.

As for connections, remember that people only refer people who they are confident will represent their opinion well. People won’t want to help you if they don’t believe in the work that you’re doing.  And to a certain degree you actually can control who you meet. These artists took initiative to position themselves to meet the right people; it’s no coincidence that almost all of them went to New York City, and that many of them completed their education of some of the most prestigious schools in the nation.

I don’t believe it’s a complete crap shoot, because luck and knowing the right people is really only half the battle. The other half is completely up to you.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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