Strategies for Artists from a Creative Career Coach

marc zegans
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Pictured above: Marc Zegans’ client, Maggie Mailer.

Marc Zegans has been a creative development advisor and creative career coach for over 20 years. His mission? Helping artists, writers, and creative people thrive and shine. With a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University, Zegans guides working artists in their creative endeavors, while helping them gain the practical and business aspects to obtain their career goals. Zegans provides seasoned guidance in charting their creative courses by finding and maintaining their audiences, navigating successful transitions of their careers, and achieving financial growth and public recognition in ways that deepen their creativity. His clients have exhibited their work at MOMA, The Whitney, and many other museums, and some of the artists he’s worked with include Gabrielle Senza, Diane Rosenblum, and Maggie Mailer.

We sat down with Zegans to gain some insight into the tools working artists and designers need to survive and thrive in their creative careers.

Creative Careers Require Creative Entrepreneurship

LAS: In your role as creative career coach, where you’ve helped orchestrate what one of your clients described as, “dream fulfillment,” what are the issues that often go ignored in an art business?

Marc Zegans: If you are an artist in it for the long-term, you’ll find that your creative life passes through several stages that can be punctuated by very sharp crises of meaning. It can be helpful to ask yourself, what’s the central question that I need to answer at this stage of my life? For example, if you’ve completed your BFA or MFA and you’re just entering the art world, you may feel an intense conflict between your desire to produce work and the social and economic demands of being a working artist outside the school gates.  

The reason you’re feeling this strain is that the concept you developed of yourself as a productive working artist in school is too thin a way of understanding your creative identity to be of much use to you once the scaffolding is off.  School helped you develop discipline, take creative chances and learn from critical feedback, but it didn’t give you a way of developing your creativity in the hurly burly of life outside the academy.  If you approach this next phase with curiosity about how your creative identity needs to grow, then your possibilities begin to blossom. Your central question becomes, “How do I creatively embrace and enter the life of a working artist?” That’s a very rich vein to explore, and one that you’ll likely find to be surprisingly liberating.

On the flip side, you might find yourself at this stage of your life overwhelmed with opportunities.  You’ve drawn tremendous interest at your thesis show, galleries are after you, demand for your work is high and the pressure to perform is rising. You jump on the fast track because you believe that’s what a successful working artist is supposed to do, and begin to lose yourself as you try to satisfy the demands of people with agendas that don’t match your own best interests. Before you know it, you’ve burnt out, dropped out or sold out, and find yourself asking why?  

The reason is simple. You jumped in without establishing your conditions of consent–what it’s good for you to say yes to, and why; this is something I often explore in my work as an artist coach.  Knowing that you have real choice and agency when you have the self-respect and confidence to honor your intentions (and that you are more likely to thrive in your career if you know how to say a healthy ‘no’) allows you to discover your power as a working artist, and to use it wisely.  

LAS: I’ve spoken to working artists who’ve insisted that they will not pay for their career; meaning they will not pool resources to rent a space for an exhibit, or will not enter contests with high fees– is this the artist who is waiting for divine intervention to legitimize their work? Is it better to be proactive, and invest their own capital?  

Marc Zegans: The answer depends on two factors: first, whether the life you envision as a working artist comes from the core of who you are, or is the product of fear; second, whether personal investment is necessary to fulfilling your core vision. For example, if your intent is on making work that doesn’t require enormous resources, and you’re not driven by an urgent desire to regularly show, build a reputation and make your livelihood from your art, then you can quite happily grow as an artist without “paying for a career.”  It’s easy enough to find an outside job that allows time and provides money; allows for art making and for the opportunity to show your work in an unpressured way when opportunities arise.  Working this way, if it aligns with your highest and best self, can be immensely satisfying.  

If, on the other hand, you want to influence the larger conversation in the art world, and your work is being refused by conventional gate-keepers, you may have to make your own opportunities. When you do, you’re not only likely to improve your luck, livelihood, and capacity to translate your dreams into reality, but, especially if you join forces with others, to have the opportunity to influence the direction of the conversation. Take the effect that the 1863 Salon des Refusés had on subsequent practice.  This group of artists, which included Cézanne, Pissarro, and Manet, who had been rejected by the government-sponsored Paris Salon– organized their own show. Consequently, the history of art and the course of their own art careers was indelibly changed.  

From this perspective, the idea of “not paying for my career,” is foolhardy. In my experience, when a working artist says this, they’re really saying, “I don’t want to collaborate in my own exploitation.” From this perspective, it makes sense to resent contests with high fees with little genuine benefit to the winning artists, much less those who pay to enter and win nothing.  However, it makes even more sense though to let go of the resentment and put your energy and resources elsewhere. That’s both self-respecting and good, practical strategy.

LAS: In your essay, “Arc and Interruption: The Five Stages of Creative Life and Crises That Intervene,” you state that “art careers pass through discrete developmental stages punctuated by acute crises of meaning.”  What is an acute crisis of meaning? And how does a working artist move through this crises?

Marc Zegans: Let me take the second question first. When we’re in crisis, we do sacrifice career momentum, and that’s the point. Shifting from a way of working that no longer holds the same meaning it once did into a new creative identity requires us to re-envision who we are, and it requires us to change. In practice, this means that as we grow as a working artist, we have to add new dimension to our identities and to the way we understand the world. These periods of metamorphosis interrupt our art careers, and they are risky, but they are often the sources of our most profound creative growth.

We hit these acute crises of meaning when our sense of who we are and what we’re doing as a working artist no longer holds water. We feel things lurking underneath the surface–bigger questions, deeper issues, powerful pulls that we feel an urgent need to address. Yet we know viscerally that our present methods are not up to the task. The problem is that we’re biologically wired to seek solutions from within the zone of what we presently see as possible. Even though we know that the familiar doesn’t serve us, we look to it because that’s all we know.  Ironically, the greater the depth of our mastery, the more violently we resist what Susan Rubin Suleiman described as “Risking who we are, and stepping into the unknown.” Yet to restore meaning to our lives and our art careers, when we hit such a crisis, this is precisely what we have to do.

A particularly potent illustration of this phenomenon is with older artists who wake one day with a chill knowing that their remaining time to work is finite and that they will have to find fulfilling means of working. Artists who enter this late phase are known to develop an “altersteihl,” a term used by art historians to describe a revitalized brilliance in the work of aged visual artists, that is motivated by different concerns departs sharply, but vitally from past work.

Janice Blaze Rocke, a painter, writer, and cultural producer, captures the essence of this transition beautifully in a paragraph from her forthcoming novel, Resurrections in the Dark. “But then there’s the other part of growing old. The certainty of death. These days that certainty precedes my desire for drugs and alcohol as the source of my obsession to produce art and writing–as if I’m attempting to create something timeless, to somehow transcend death. Make a part of myself immortal,” she writes.

Assess Your Goals Before Adopting New Styles or Technologies

LAS: As a creative career coach, you’ve written that the emerging, mid-career, and established working artist model is not a viable path for artists. Instead, you propose a new narrative– “developing discipline, achieving mastery, enacting self-authorship, attaining eminence, and creating legacy.” Why is this model more accurate, and how does it speak to being a working artist today?

Marc Zegans: The model I’ve shaped invites us as artists to ask questions about where we are in our developmental arc. What are my true needs at this stage of my creative life? What practices will serve me well? How do I cultivate the resources and support I need to thrive? Because it prompts such questions but gives us a developmental frame in which to respond, it pushes toward greater accuracy than the conventional model, which focuses on externals.  

For example, if I’m an artist who developed my tools as a working artist, but now feels drawn to pull back from the tribe and write my own script, it behooves me to ask, how do I want to distinguish myself and why? And by what means will I go about this? That’s a very different kind of question than that which is going to preoccupy an accomplished working artist in late-middle life negotiating the social demands of eminent position. If you’ve reached a stage of wanting to influence the field from a position of eminence, you might be asking, “how can I help shape the field in a way that truly matters?

By helping the artists I work with voice to frame these questions,  I give them a foundation for developing the emotional, imaginative, aesthetic, and practical resources they need to resolve the challenges that lie within their art careers.

LAS: You write that animating your work, or what fires your passion, was a “deep-rooted fascination with the conditions that contributed to and impaired the lives of creators and innovators operating in different terrains.” Can you talk a little bit about this? Could this, for example, describe a photographer who resists moving from 35-millimeter film to shooting digital images, but find that he/she is losing their way because they are not being responsive to a shift in how art is being produced, viewed, or valued?

Marc Zegans: Your question about the photographer is a good one. Let’s consider a couple of alternative scenarios.

First, imagine that you’re a photographer who’s become somewhat set in your ways. You don’t want to experience the awkwardness and discomfort of mastering new technology because you’re happy with your old tools. You like their hand feel and familiarity. You find yourself strongly resisting making changes in your equipment because you don’t want to have to tolerate the discomfort this shift will bring. You know that you’re not keeping up and that it’s hurting your work, and the longer you hold out, the more disoriented you feel, and increasingly you sense that your possibilities are diminishing.   

One path out of this mire is to imagine how you might engage and embrace the new tools at a rate that’s comfortable for you, and that’s appropriate to your art career’s creative needs. You can begin by asking, “Which of this new stuff would be genuinely helpful to me?” That way, the move to new tools can become a source of inspiration and exploration, rather than a source of anxiety and helplessness.  

By framing your approach to incorporating new tools and methods in terms of your desires and interests, and integrating them into your work at a congenial pace, it becomes possible to restore a sense of balance, orientation, vitality, and opportunity to your creative life. Now imagine that you’re a photographer who views the call to digital as a genuine siren song, a deadly seduction.  For you, following the path to digital simply because it’s sexy would be to lose your true course as a working artist. You know that your best way forward, like Prometheus, is to lash yourself to the rigging, so as to hear the call without abandoning either yourself or your vision.  

The crucial difference between you and the first photographer is that sustained use of your particular tools is integral to your thriving practice, it’s the source of your creative vitality. Your decision to stick with celluloid displays genuine integrity, not a fearful resistance to change.

Having made this choice, you now face practical challenges that you will have to surmount—fewer resources provided by industry, shifting venues, choices about whether to display jpegs of images made on film—and new opportunities for attaching value to tangible work, made by hand and in limited supply.  If you develop effective means of adapting to these new conditions while hewing to your methods, you can thrive artistically without abandoning ship.

LAS: You’ve been asked to address a group of MFA candidates on graduation day. What would be the most important piece of advice for them as they embark upon their art careers and become working artists?

Marc Zegans: Continue to make art. Make your choice to be an artist unconditional.  You hurt yourself when you make your creative life contingent, as Blanche Dubois would put it, “on the kindness of strangers.”  Trust that if you’re willing to learn, to strive, to adapt, to add layer, variety, and depth to your creative identity, that you’ll find your way.  And to help you do that, here are two questions you would be wise to ask yourself every day, “How can I go about the practical magic of making art in a way that will truly work for me?” And, “When this way no longer works, how can I alter my assumptions, methods, and practices to best serve the artist I am becoming?” If you answer these questions honestly and look for the help you need, your prospects are strong.

Have you every worked with a creative career coach? What strategies did you learn? What worked and what didn’t?  What have you learned about being a working artist? Let us know in the comments!


About the author

Lillian Slugocki

Lillian Ann Slugocki is an award winning writer. Her wheelhouse is pop culture, art, health, business and tech. Follow her on Twitter @laslugocki.


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  • Delighted to hear it Kevin. I work with the full-spectrum of creative artists, and the essential ideas here apply as strongly to writers and performing artists as they do to visual artists. You might want to take a gander at this piece, which summarizes the underlying model.

  • Short of picking up and moving to a better market (with huge costs and tricky logistics), I wonder what the advice would be for a working artist that has saturated their own market and can’t seem to get traction outside of it? There is such a glut of artists today compared to 10 years ago, breaking into a new market seems like a very daunting task, especially when one considers that in the flyover states there isn’t anything even close to an “artists agent” around….

    • Hi John, you bring up a very valid concern. Presumably, the idea is that the digital marketplace opens up a totally new audience for today’s working artists. Have you delved into this at all? If you’re apathetic to digital, what about targeting key cities near your area, or participating in an art fair? I also find that mixing up the galleries you work with can make a big difference.

    • I would begin by looking closely at the profiles of the people who buy your work. Who are they? What are they interested in? How did they come across your work? If you craft a clear demographic profile of your collectors, and also intermediaries who have taken an interest in your work–galleries, journalists, curators and so on, you can see out such folks in other markets, either digitally, by making visits or networking through your collectors themselves. As Nicole Martinez’s comment implies, you can build digital communities that are global, and your sales can expand from these relationships.

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