When considering what makes an artist or creative venture successful – sheer talent, great marketing, a large social media following – how important is developing an artist network? Are there benefits to focusing on building a robust set of contacts that can help you along with your career?
In 2005, scholars and sociologists Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro released a study that analyzed the patterns that lead to the successes and failures of Broadway musicals. The study was meant to speak to a larger phenomenon–the way that freelance economies organize themselves and the conditions that lead to successful creative projects. The study demonstrated that the old adage is, in fact, true: it isn’t about what you know, but who you know.
Uzzi and Spiro’s study analyzed 474 plays across three decades and nearly 2,100 subjects. The study evaluated the success of a show based on critical reception and box office earnings. Success, the study concluded, was not based on talent alone. Rather, success was most often contingent on the professional networks and teams that the crew had built to support each individual play. The artist network that was too closely connected often failed because of the absence of challenges or new ideas that fresh collaborators introduce. Likewise, an artist network whose collaborators didn’t have a history together suffered due to their lack of team cohesion. The strongest projects were the product of a diverse artist network of long-standing, trusted confidantes alongside fresh collaborators that would challenge and inspire the status quo.
This same logic – the notion that developing an artist network can only enhance your creative success – can be extended to anyone in the creative industry. Whether you are a curator opening a new gallery, a graphic designer looking for new clients, an art director in search of your next commission, or an artist wanting to exhibit your work — developing and demonstrating a unique talent is only half the battle. The other part? Building an artist network that engages with and helps propel the work forward.
Leah Gibbs-Gore agrees. Gibbs-Gore is a Senior Account Executive at Creative Circle, one of the country’s largest and most successful creative recruitment firms. Before her work at Creative Circle, she studied as a classically trained graphic designer at the Pratt Institute. Both her social and professional artist network consists of designers, artists, and people within the creative industries.
“People launch their careers by making connections with other people in the industry,¨ she asserts, ¨Giving themselves a leg up over the people who apply for a job on a website or a more traditional route. You have to really put yourself out there and be assertive.”
Laying Down the Groundwork
For young creatives and artists, beginning to build the foundations of a strong professional artist network in a new industry can feel overwhelming. But getting yourself out there and making a solid first impression is only the initial step of a much longer process. After you’ve introduced yourself, the difficult task becomes being able to continue to engage.
Before throwing yourself out there and attempting to build an artist network, it is important to understand what you have to say. What are you already communicating across your digital platforms? Are you using the right platforms for your particular industry? If you bring people to your brand, does your messaging move fluidly from your digital creative portfolio to your social media to your printed resume? Are people able to understand who you are and what you can do?
“It is important to show that you have something to add to the conversation,” insists Gibbs-Gore. In order to demonstrate your value to an artist network as an independent creative or artist, it is important to make sure that you have done the homework and developed a strong narrative around your work, and that you can relate to potential collaborators and clients. An artist or creative should start by ¨building a brand for themselves,¨ Gibbs-Gore continues. “Whether it be on social media or a website, it is really important to have some sort of digital presence,” which demonstrates a strongly developed and easily digestible personal brand. Having a clear messaging strategy will make it easier for collaborators to evaluate your work, and help you find new opportunities within a wider artist network.
Likewise, Gibbs-Gore argues the importance of tailoring your message to individual connections and analyzing how your brand can move within different spaces. If you are reaching out to a potential employer, be prepared to continue the conversation. ¨You can curate a resume so that if you get a response, you will have something that is a bit more targeted that you can speak about together,¨ she suggests. ¨It is also important to figure out how your art can fit into a commercial space. A fine art photographer could work in the commercial artists’ field and should be creating materials that show a balance between building a commercial presence and being true to your essence as an artist.¨
Developing Your Creative Portfolio and Brand Strategy
“The more you throw yourself out there, the more likely that you are going to meet the right people,” Gibbs-Gore iterates simply. “The same goes for applying for jobs. The more you apply for jobs and get your creative portfolio out there, the more people are going to see it, offer feedback, and start reaching out to you.”
When developing your professional artist network, consistency and persistence are key. Freelance creatives and artists have a wealth of opportunities to tap into their local arts community and should be taking advantage of each and every opportunity to introduce themselves to the scene. Gibbs-Gore stresses the importance of attending local shows, an art opening, networking events, and creative portfolio reviews as possible to familiarize yourself with your local artist network and become a constant in the scene.
While attending a busy art opening reception or event may not be the place to build a lasting first impression, Gibbs-Gore argues the importance of observing and understanding what goes into an art opening or event and how people interact with one another. Practice, she suggests, is extremely valuable in developing an artist network. ¨Having conversations with strangers will help you develop better conversations with the people you choose to target. It is important to be both assertive and vulnerable. Put yourself out there. Ask people questions. Learn about other people and what they do.”
Once you have begun to build a library of emails and contacts, make sure that you are finding ways to stay in touch. ¨Get some emails and find ways to stay in contact,¨ Gibbs-Gore suggests, “Put together a regular blog post, write a monthly newsletter, build a presence that keeps people engaged with your work.”
Focus Your Energy on Building an Artist Network
A strong brand strategy will be all the stronger when an independent creative or artist has a clear goal in mind, Gibbs-Gore suggests. ¨An important part of building an artist network is figuring out what your interest is,¨ she says. “Understanding your immediate goals will allow you to assess where and with whom to focus your energies. ¨If you are a fine artist and your goal is to get a show at a gallery, you should be going to art opening after art opening as often as possible, so you can begin to make those connections.¨
But while most imagine that networking means constantly reaching out to new people, tapping into your established artist network and strengthening existing ties is often more fruitful. ¨If you are coming out of art school, then your continued education office is a good jumping-off point. If you are already working in the creative industry, utilize the relationships that you already have to create new relationships and develop a more expansive artist network.¨
Hang In There
In the end, building an artist network is a long game. Building meaningful professional relationships with longevity takes time and care. Says Gibbs-Gore: ¨People tend to give up a little too easily. Ultimately, if you are an artist and you are trying to make a connection it is okay to follow up a few times and understand that in all likelihood you aren’t going to get a response right away. It is about being persistent, letting your intentions be known and don’t give up so quickly.¨
What’s your strategy for developing an artist network? Let us know in the comments!
Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work has appeared Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur.