Happy new year! As we begin the new year, I’m looking forward with great optimism and hope. Even though there is much conflict and turmoil in the world, I feel confident that the human spirit will prevail. I see so much to be hopeful about, and I feel that art can be an important part of making the world a better place.
At the same time I’m upbeat about the future, I understand that it’s not always easy to remain positive, and that doubt and fear have a way of creeping into our minds. As I’ve interacted with artists over the last year, I’ve heard a lot of concerns and worry expressed. Being an artist is hard and sometimes scary.
I’m not an artist myself, so I can’t understand all of the challenges and difficulties you face. However, as an artist working to sell your art, you are a small-business owner, and as a fellow small-business owner, I have faced many of the same issues you have faced in building your business.
At this point, my gallery has attained a certain level of stability. Though there will always be bumps along the road, experience has given me a certain level of placidity about the day to day issues that arise in any business. I know that things work themselves out.
This wasn’t always the case. For the long, initial years of our business, I spent many sleepless nights worrying about how we were going to get through our challenges. How were we going to pay next month’s rent? What could we do to increase sales? What would I do if the whole gallery thing didn’t work out?
I could taste my fear.
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t still have concerns about the future, there will always be some level of uncertainty in any business, but at this point, it’s exactly that, concern, not fear.
Growing up in an artist’s home (remember, my father is the painter, John Horejs), I saw first-hand the adversity that comes into the life of a struggling artist (and his/her family)!
Just to provide a short list, I’ve observed that many artists experience the following challenges:
- Fear of Failure. This is a pretty universal fear, no matter what your undertaking, but for artists, the fear of failure attacks on several levels. First, there is a fear that your work itself might be a failure – that you will be unable to live up to your vision because you aren’t able to master your technique or craft. There is also the fear that the public won’t catch your vision or respond to your work in a positive way.
- Fear of Criticism. This one is related to the first, but I know that many artists are afraid that other artists or art “experts” will find their work lacking. I’m sure that many of you have been on the receiving end of harsh criticism. It’s not fun, and not every critic is good at turning their criticism into constructive criticism.
- Fear of the Unknown. This is one that I can understand directly. As you work to establish your art business, it’s likely that there is much that you won’t understand right out of the gate. How can you get your work in front of potential buyers? If you are showing your work directly to buyers, what will you say when discussing your work with potential buyers? How will you handle the mechanics of a sale if someone does buy? How do you ship and install artwork? What about sales tax? Income tax? Just thinking about all the moving parts that are required to run a business is enough to make the heart palpitate. It’s especially overwhelming when you are first establishing yourself.
- Artistic Uncertainty. As an artist, you make critical decisions about the direction of your work that will make a huge impact on your creative direction. What if you choose poorly at some point and go down a creative dead-end?
- Lack of Support. Okay, that’s a nice way of saying it. The fear I often hear expressed by artists is that friends and family will think you are crazy for pursuing your art instead of something stable. They probably have good reasons for thinking this, and they likely have your best interest at heart, but it’s also clear they don’t understand how important your art is to you.
I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the fears you face as an artist, and I hope you’ll share others in the comments below. Whatever your fears are, however, the important question is how can you overcome them?
I have several suggestions from my experience as a business owner. I don’t mean to imply that fear can be easily overcome, nor that these suggestions will revolutionize your life by helping you instantly vanquish your fear. You can start conquering your fear by doing the following exercises:
- Face Your Fear. Over the years, I’ve learned that hiding from my fears, or burying them somewhere in the recesses of my mind, only serves to compound the impact of my fear. I’ve also discovered that when I deny my fears, they can poison my outlook on life and my ability to take action. It is better to identify what you fear, call it what it is, and start working toward a resolution.
- Get to Work. Fear can be paralyzing. Giving into that paralysis doesn’t help resolve your challenge, and time has a tendency to compound your problems. No matter how daunting the challenge is, I’ve found it’s best to just start working, even if it seems like the small amount I’ll be able to do today won’t make a dent in the problem. Most problems are eventually overcome by the myriad of small actions you take to resolve them. I’ve discovered that the opposite of fear is action.
- Make a Plan. In conjunction with getting to work, I try to approach problems and challenges systematically. For me, that usually means making a list. I love to-do lists. Listing what needs to happen to tackle a problem, and then checking off work as it is completed is therapeutic, and listing out each step of the process helps me see my problems in a different light.
- Obtain Knowledge. The more you know, the less you fear. Learn everything you can about your art and your business. Some of your fears are irrational – based not on a potential negative outcome, but rather on your lack of knowledge.
- Network – Build a Support System. It’s hard to imagine there’s a single difficulty that you are facing that hasn’t been seen and overcome by someone else in your community. Network with other artists or business owners to draw from their wisdom. This kind of networking shouldn’t be a one-way street. If you look for help in your network, you should also be willing to share your experiences and help those in your network when they are in need.
- Identify the Worst Case Outcome. This one is going to sound a bit counter-intuitive, because we’re always told to be positive and think about the best-case scenario. Doing exactly the opposite, however, can help you conquer your fears. If there’s something I’m afraid of, I’ve found that thinking seriously about the worst-case can help sooth my nerves. When a problem looms unexamined, my tendency is to think of it in a vague, “this problem could signify the end of the world” kind of way. Thinking about what will really happen if the situation unfolds in the worst way possible usually shows me that the negative outcome is less serious than my imagination might have made it out to be. Better still, it’s rare that everything will occur according to your worst-case outlook. This means that as events unfold, you will have the pleasure of saying “well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!” In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve taken this idea (and many other thoughts on overcoming fear) from a book, which leads me to the next suggestion:
- Read Dale Carnegie’s Book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” This book is brilliant. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but it’s safe to say that it has a daily impact on my daily life and outlook.
- Talk Out Your Problem Or Conflict with The Other Party. Finally, I would recommend that you reach out to whomever may be on the other side of your fearful scenario and work with them to overcome your problem. For example, in 2008, after the economy had tanked and very little art was selling, I found it impossible to pay the gallery’s monthly rent. I lost night after night of sleep as I tried to figure out what to do. I imagined the landlord locking us out of the building and our business dissolving. Days turned into weeks as we got further and further behind. It was soon clear that we were going to end up several months in arrears. I eventually screwed up my courage and called the owner of the building for a heart-to-heart conversation. I explained what was happening and the problems we were facing. Our landlord would have been well within his rights to shut us down, and I know this happened to many businesses. I was fully prepared for this to happen (see my worst-case scenario tip above), but it turned out that our landlord was accommodating instead. I’m sure that he could see what was happening in the economy and realized that if we failed, he would likely be sitting with an empty storefront. He asked me what I thought we might be able to do to solve the situation, and together we came up with a plan to modify the lease so that we had a shot at making it through the recession. Here we are all these years later, but we wouldn’t be if I hadn’t faced my fears and made that phone call. I’ve had other situations where the outcome wasn’t so positive, but I’ve always found that I’m better off talking it out with the other party and trying to work out the problem.
- Gain Experience. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not that I no longer have anything to be afraid of, it’s just that now, having faced and overcome many challenges, I know that every problem has a solution, and that everything can be worked out.
Remember, courageous people aren’t those who have no fear, but rather those who face their fear and overcome it.
What are your Fears, and How do you Overcome Them?
What are the things that you’ve been most afraid of in your art career? What are the things that you most fear right now? How have you overcome your fears? What advice would you give to an artist who is facing fear right now? Share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions in the comments below.