Self-initiative is everything when you’re a visual artist. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past decade of teaching and making art, it’s that opportunities in visual arts almost never fall into your lap. Unless you are independently wealthy, extremely well connected, or insanely lucky, you have to take the responsibility to go out there and find and/or create opportunities for yourself.
Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006, is famous for his “Last Lecture” which he gave back in 2008. In the lecture, he talks about “really achieving your childhood dreams.” One of my favorite pieces of advice that he gives is to “ask for what you want.” It sounds like a statement that should be obvious, but I was surprised that when I sat down to really think about it at the time, how infrequently I actually asked for what I wanted.
There are two actions to that piece of advice: 1) identifying what you want and then 2) asking for it. Depending on what you want to do, figuring out what it is you want can be totally obvious or completely mysterious. For me, knowing what I want hasn’t been challenging, it’s the asking part that can so difficult to do.
Recently, I’ve had to do a massive amount of asking, way more than usual. Every time I ask for something, whether it’s a grant proposal I’m putting together, an exhibition opportunity, or a job, I feel like I’m walking a plank on a pirate ship. Most of the time, I start with an email inquiry, and I have to take a deep breath before I click “send.”It’s hard to ask for things. In most situations, you’re asking someone you barely know, or don’t know at all.
Asking can be exhausting, and you have to prepare yourself to be rejected over and over again, with the high likelihood that you won’t get a response. It can get to the point where you become grateful for any response, even if it’s a no. This process can be very frustrating; it can feel demeaning when you’re constantly begging on your hands and knees all the time for even the slightest bit of acknowledgement.
I don’t know why asking is so intimidating for me despite the fact that I have evidence that asking can be effective. I try to remind myself that asking is no skin off my back. After all, the worst case scenario is either being ignored or rejected, which is nothing new.
I try to remember that you only need one person to say “yes” for all of that asking to be worth it. Even though the asking can be painful, I know that it’s possible to get results this way. I’ve landed jobs and exhibitions because I asked, asked the next year, and then the next year, until that polite rejection became a “yes.”