How Not to Help an Artist

I read an interesting article recently about how men talk to women entrepreneurs about their new projects or businesses. They tend to issue warnings about pitfalls and to caution the women, as if they’re not aware of the challenges and don’t know what they’re doing. Women, on the other hand, tend to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, and jump in to offer brainstorming, connections, resources, etc.

It got me thinking about those of us who’ve pursued careers in the arts or even those of us who pursue our art part-time. We get plenty of warnings and cautions from day one. And some are pretty harsh. “Hope you’ll enjoy living on welfare,” more than one person told me in the early days of my career. I also heard this one a lot, “Don’t quit your day job.” They didn’t even bother to say “yet,” they just assumed I’d never be able to quit.

People issue other warnings to us, too, even after we’ve been working in our fields a long time. They suggest we change lanes because the genre or medium we’re working in is no longer in vogue. They tell us not to waste our time applying for certain grants because competition is up or our work is “too safe” or “too out-there” to stand a chance. They tell us how few people reach their crowdfunding goals and it’s a waste of time. Or they quote some statistic showing that fewer people are buying our type of art these days and recommend we shift gears.

They warn us about our personal lives, too. They say things like, “Once you get popular, you have to know when to say no, or you’ll just work all the time” or “If you write your memoir, it’s possible your family won’t speak to you again” or “You need to get a studio because working from home doesn’t allow you to separate work from homelife.” I hate to tell you, but we’ve all thought of those things and more. Trust me.

Rather than issuing well-intentioned cautions and warnings, I wish people would instead assume we know how challenging our jobs are and say, ”How can I help you reach your goal?” Then offer to connect us with buyers, resources, partners, events. Or propose some marketing ideas to help us get our work out there better. Or brainstorm something we could bundle with our art to give it more value. Or offer to help us better organize our studios or offices. Or, heck, just tell us what we’re doing right and why, and then encourage us to keep going!

While it’s true many of us are a bit naïve when we start out in the arts, that’s true of anyone undertaking a new venture. But that’s also a great time for mentors and coaches to step up and help us put our feet on the right path. And it’s a great time for cheerleaders to line up to tell us we can do it. Most of us know (or figure out very quickly) that a life in or around the arts is not going to be easy. But we welcome solid ideas that help us move forward in new and profitable ways. That’s how you can really help!

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