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How to be Supportive of an Artist


ARTS SHRINK is a bi-weekly column designed to answer questions from artists and arts groups related to their arts business and practice. The Arts Shrink brings two decades of experience as an arts consultant, teacher, and mentor to the table as she responds your questions.

Dear Arts Shrink: My sister is an artist. She's really talented and I try to help and support her as much as possible by creating a peaceful and quiet environment for her to work in and letting her know about gallery and museum exhibits or networking opportunities. Seems like whatever I do annoys her. What am I doing wrong?

-Older Sister of an Artist

Dear Big Sis,

You're not doing anything wrong! Your sister is lucky to have a supportive sibling like you. Your actions are coming from a loving place and there's nothing wrong with that. Although it's not possible for me to know all the aspects of your relationship with your sister, I can offer some general advice regarding support for artists.

Let's talk basics:

Examine Your Expectations
What do you expect the result of your supportive activities will be? Do you expect to make your sister happy? More productive? Improve the quality of her work? Make her wealthy? Famous? It's really important for you to be clear about your long-term intentions. Once you identify them, tell your sister. You need to make sure that what you want and what your sister wants is the same thing. For instance you may want your sister to be famous but perhaps that's not important to her right now. Or you may want your supportive activities to make her happy but for some artists happiness doesn't lead to creativity; they do their best work in times of turmoil or struggle -- and they know it. Or maybe you want your sister's work to be shown in a gallery but she doesn't feel like she's ready yet. You get the idea. It's important that you check in with your sister, tell her what your hopes for her are and make sure that the two of you share the same vision.

Healthy Tension
In order to be successful every artist needs to recognize and make peace with what I call "healthy tension." An artist typically encounters this tension when the creative process and/or product intersect with the realities of the marketplace. In the performing arts this tension is often present, as an example, between a producer and a director. A theatre director, for instance, may want to do a play that involves, say, 24 actors. The producer may then say something like "No way. We can't afford it." And so it begins. We see it also between writers and their editors, visual artists and gallery owners, and so on.

Not only is this tension an inevitable part of an artist's life, it can also be a healthy part of their creative development. The realities of the marketplace create rigid perimeters within which the artist must push their creativity in order to realize their vision. Artists who are willing to accept and work within these perimeters can not only achieve financial success, but also artistic excellence. These two seemingly incompatible forces can come together to create a fertile creative environment.

An artist's willingness (or unwillingness) to accept this tension as an opportunity for artistic growth will greatly impact their career.

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Back to you Big Sis. I mention healthy tension here because your attempts to create an environment that eliminates tension may not be in the best interest of your sister's career down the line. When an artist develops in a completely supportive bubble then enters the arts marketplace where tensions exist in abundance, the artist is often unprepared to deal with them. These artists are shocked to discover that anyone would dare question their creative decisions. It's a completely supportive bubble that can create this sense of entitlement and supremacy. It's been my observation that artists who are adept at working under less than ideal circumstances are more successful in the marketplace.

I'd like to remind you that there are two of you in this relationship. I encourage you to honor yourself as much as you try to honor your sister. It is clear from your question that you love your sister and think highly of her work, so cut your behaviors some slack. You can't and, in my opinion, shouldn't be 100% reactionary to your sister. And, I have to be honest my dear Big Sis, it might be your undivided attention that is, in fact, part of the issue. Imagine someone hovering around you, watching your every movement, every nuance of mood, re-thinking your decisions. That'd be annoying -- right?

Do you have a question you'd like answered? Send an email here.

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Top Image: hannes.a.schwetz/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Corbett Barklie is committed to deep engagement with artists and artist collectives whom she believes are the backbone of the creative community.
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