Neelon: Ten short memos to young Boston artists


Cambridge artist and writer Caleb Neelon sends along “Ten short memos to young Boston artists” just in time for back to school season.

Caleb Neelon: The following memos are for Boston area artists who are in their twenties. I don’t claim to have it all figured out or anything, but hopefully this is a bit of collective wisdom that can help you on your way to do your thing and make a living at it, all while living here in the Boston area. Doing so is really hard to do, and a lot of people leave town, thinking – sometimes correctly – that it’ll be easier to live a creative life elsewhere. But hopefully, these little bits and pieces will be of some use in staying.

A quick note: I don’t address the ‘should you or shouldn’t you’ of art school or higher education. Chances are your own economic background has determined that for you, and it also doesn’t really make much difference in terms of your future success. Except if you take on crippling amounts of debt. That’s really bad. Onward:

1. Economic freedom is artistic freedom – This means learn a marketable hustle. Every artist needs a money-making hustle to keep their bills paid. As a young artist, you should be learning how to do something that makes good money in short hours which you control. You don’t want a full time job here – you want something that makes the most money in the least time with the least effort. If you are going to wait tables or bartend, for example, this means learn how to do it at a good place, and not necessarily one where you go with your friends. Learning a marketable trade that not just anyone can do is a very important part of surviving as an artist. Examples include but are not limited to teaching, web and graphic design, copy writing, and other professional services. The key is to learn how to do something that pays well, that requires little commitment, and that doesn’t tire you out such that it interferes with your art-making time.

2. Your friends are your movement. There is a lot of strength in numbers. If you have a couple of art buddies, you have a group show ready to happen, plus one of your group probably knows someone with some weird space that you guys can run wild in as a venue for that show. If you have a couple of art buddies, you can do things like go in on a studio or live/work space together. You can each bring a skill like carpentry, photography, or graphic design to the table. Everyone can invite buddies to everyone’s shows and events and stuff. The other thing that your buddies will do over time is move around and meet new people. Your buddy who moves to San Francisco or wherever can set up shows there and put you in them. You can put your San Francisco (or wherever) buddy in shows you are doing here. Presto – you’re now showing in two cities, and so is your buddy. As you get older living in Boston, one of the more depressing things can be the constant departure of your friends for greener pastures. It’s important, however much it sucks, to think of this as your world just getting bigger and broader.

3. Make your movement bigger by scanning the world for more friends and collaborators and being a part of something bigger than you. You don’t have to get off your ass these days to learn who and what is crushing it in art these days. Make it a part of your daily routine to find some mind-blowing new art on the internet somewhere. I have my tastes, and you will have yours, so I won’t tell you where to start looking, but the important thing is that you do look. It’ll keep your artistic fires burning and hungry, and it keeps you abreast of what’s going on in art, which, make no mistake, is a global game. You need to be up on what you are a part of.

Chances are, you have some niche art interest that has a global community. Comics. Graffiti. Street art. Puppets. Rock posters. Papermaking. Skateboarding. Whatever. These niche interests with global followings are really important, and if you’re a part of them, they are your community, regardless of what’s going on for you locally. When you do find artists or venues you like, holler. Friend ‘em on Facebook. Email ‘em and say hi and show them some of your art. I can certainly speak from experience that it’s pretty cool to get an email from some young artist in some random city, even if they suck for now. So what if you don’t get responses sometimes. So what if some of them turn out to be assholes. Sooner or later, you’ll find people who might be fun to show with, and maybe the strength of having an out-of-towner in the mix will be solid enough for you to secure a venue here, or the other dude to secure one in some other city. Art relationships last for a really long time, and the networks they bring expand a lot over time. Something awesome may pan out in eight years from now.

4. Document. You already should know that the most important thing an artist can do is to document. Take really good pictures of everything. All your shows, all your installations, all your art. Good documentation makes that crazy installation you made in your buddy’s parents’ garage look like a museum show online. The photos will last far longer than the show ever will, and far more people will see them. They’re a part of the art. Take them seriously.

In this era of digital cameras, documenting is basically free, so you have no excuse. Digital cameras are so good today that you can do pretty well yourself with a little learning, but you also should make friends with someone who can photograph all your stuff really well, and trade them some art or help them move or whatever for their troubles. Do the same for the guy you know who does nice websites. As an unknown artist, if you can’t get it together to document your work well and get it online in a way that’s easily visible, you’re fucked.

5. Keep your expectations reasonable when it comes to what success in Boston will mean. Let’s get this out in the open: Boston is, at best, an okay art town. If you’ve relocated to Boston from somewhere else in New England, you may be a bit wide-eyed right now at the variety of cultural stuff going on. But you should proceed under the assumption that the cultural activity here in Boston simply won’t be enough to make an art career for you. Even the best-known local artists have side jobs in something else that pays their real bills. In fact, it’s a challenge to come up with names of Boston artists who I know support themselves solely through their art sales. Boston is not a great place to sell art, and Boston art venues don’t get the visibility we would hope. There may not even be a venue in town here that shows art anything close to what you do or even what you like, and it’s important to remember that that isn’t your fault, it’s the fault of the narrow scope of what’s financially viable for venues here. Part of succeeding here is figuring out a way to get your work visible out of state and in front of the broader community of taste that digs what you do. If you go to enough art openings in Boston, you’ll see the same 100 people over and over again. It’s also worth noting that plenty of Boston galleries make more than half their sales to people out of state. Making your art a road warrior means putting it in front of new people in new places. If all your checks are coming from in-state, it’s a bad sign.

So how do you get the ball rolling on shows and such outside of Boston? This is where your buddies and your niche art interests come in. Your buddy who moved to L.A. might be able to organize something there. They should at least be able to let you sleep on their couch while you go visit the city and try to make a few connects. And by being a part of the global community of skaters, graffiti writers, papermakers, rock poster makers, whatever, you are dialed into a network of people all over the place. These niche art interests all have their own followings, collectors, and fans – and these are all assets that, when you are a part of them, you bring to the table when you work with more standard-issue galleries and venues.

6. Don’t get sucked in to the idea that everything has to be done through an institution or organization, but also understand that it has its place. Old cities like Boston have lots of organizations, institutions, associations, and such. Yet as an artist, you’re an entrepreneur, and this immediately presents a conundrum. Boston is a tough place for entrepreneurship in the arts because of the presence of these many organizations, institutions, and associations. Why does this make it tough? Well, as arts organizations get older, they develop a kind of brand, style, and image. And chances are, as a young artist, you don’t fit that brand, style, and image. The older the organization, the more likely, also, the longer the line will be for the opportunities that they can hand out. The older they are, the more likely they are to have more formalized (read: stupid) processes for how they take on projects. Don’t rope your hopes to anyone but yourself, and for damn sure don’t change your art to fit in. Making opportunities for yourself on a truly DIY level is the most important thing you can do. Paradoxically, you may find that there is nothing that will make institutions pay attention to you like proving that you don’t need them to make your voice heard. And sometimes those stupid barriers to entry come down unexpectedly.

7. Put the pressure on Boston by succeeding outside of it, but also know the advantages to living here that aren’t obvious. Yes, Boston is one of those lame cities that wait for its own artists to succeed elsewhere before it recognizes them. So go do killer shit in other places. In fact, I bet you’ll actually find that it’s actually easier to hook up opportunities elsewhere, because your being from here, to someone not from here, is something new and different. And when people from Boston see that people from outside of Boston are paying attention to (or just paying) someone from here, they’ll gradually wake up. But even if they don’t, you’ll still be doing your thing. And doing your thing, regardless of how, is what proves to people that you are for real and in it for the long haul.

While you’re out of town doing great stuff, take comparative notes on what it’s like for artists who live elsewhere. New York, for example, is the obvious place where many of Boston’s young artists are drawn to move. Take a good hard look at what life is like for them there, though. There are plenty who are ambitious, talented, and lucky, and find gallery success, but look carefully at everyone, not just the few who you may have heard of. What’s the success rate? Are people able to afford a decent place to live and a place to make their art? Are they able to afford these things on their own, or is there family money involved? What kind of side jobs do these relocated artists have? There’s plenty of stories of artists who have headed off to the Big City and have made it in the art world, but dig more deeply and you’ll find far more of people who have moved, only to find that a room in a crap apartment and a tiny studio cost so much there that they have to work long hours at side jobs to keep them up. Here in Boston, things aren’t cheap by any stretch, but cheaper perhaps to the point where you can leverage more time to work on what matters, which is your art. And time to make the best work you can is the most precious commodity you have.

8. Understand that this town is fantastic at providing education, but terrible at providing mentorship – and know the difference between the two. When you are in your twenties and getting rolling as an artist, you have a lot of questions to ask. That’s good. You should ask shitloads of questions of anyone who looks like they have the game figured out. That’s how you get lots of information, and the more people you ask, the better a sense you’ll have of what’s real info and what’s bull. But something you need to know about Boston is that its population is, by age, a pretty old one. There are lots of people in college. There are lots of people in their fifties and sixties. There are comparatively few people in their thirties and forties. And what young artists need are older sisters and brothers, not parents.

Here’s why that matters: when you are in your twenties, people in their fifties and sixties aren’t really going to be able to give you the advice you need when it comes to getting your art career rolling. They came up in a different era. They probably will have no clue about where you fit in within what’s going on in young contemporary art. They probably won’t be able to connect you with people and opportunities that are logical next steps for you. They will be great at asking you the broad questions that help you step back and reflect on your life as a whole. But what they won’t be, in all likelihood, are people who can best direct your next move. It’s looking for mentorship that drives a lot of people to go to grad school, and certainly it’s a good way to buy some mentorship. But grad school is either financially feasible for you or it isn’t.

That’s where it’s really important to find mentors, and by this, I mean people who are five and ten years ahead of you on the career curve – not twenty years ahead. This is a town full of people old enough to be your parents, but what you really need are cool older brothers and sisters. These are the people who are going to know the guy who is opening a venue, the woman whose marketing firm needs to look young and cool, the guy who is putting together a show you might fit in, the galleries that might be worth stepping to and the many, many, many venues in town that will be a total waste of your time. They will know the right people in the media to contact. They can help you brainstorm sponsorship ideas in a meaningful way. They may need a hand for some project coming up, and that can help you meet more people. And Boston’s demographics being what they are, these mentors are gonna be few in number. Look hard – and simultaneously, look for them outside of Boston.

9. Pay attention to the people who pay attention to you. You may have a fixed idea in your head of where your art career will take you. You definitely need to be headstrong to get an art career off the ground, but at the same time, be open. Boston’s not a great art city, but it is a great city in other disciplines, and disciplines cross boundaries all the time. A totally unexpected audience may be out there, and it might be a source of bucks you never would have foreseen.

The other thing that paying attention to people who pay attention to you means is that you need to become something of an educator: people who reach out to you from unexpected places both want and need more information about what you do and what it needs to be successful. Every artist needs to be good at explaining what they do, but here in Boston, you will need to be better at it than in other cities where art is more a part of the everyday experience and discussion.

10. The only sure way to know that your dream of artistic success will fail is if you stop pursuing it. As young people, you have something that everyone older than you ignores at their own peril: youth and coolness. Don’t ever let older people get you down when they shut a door in your face, but burning bridges is always a bad move. Never slow down, never stop, and never stop pushing the best work you can possibly do.

And by the way, the one sure way that Boston’s creative scene will get worse is if you leave it for greener pastures.

Photo by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

10 Responses to “Neelon: Ten short memos to young Boston artists”

  1. Dad says:

    Wait, what was the point of living in Boston again?

  2. Thanks for putting this out there. There are some good ideas here, and it’s nice to read a piece that’s not just straight-up negative about the Boston art scene. Having somebody say that it’s tough, but to keep it up is what we need sometimes.

  3. Alex says:

    Every one of these tips was relevant and accurate in my eyes. Good job! It can easily relate to other creative/entrepreneurial careers too.

  4. Dave O. says:

    No. 6 is really important… Boston area open studios are largely depressing events. When any group stays together just to reinforce either their own mediocrity, something is really wrong. An artist definitely needs to get feedback from, collaborate with and socialize with artist peers, but I am a strong advocate for having a home studio or a studio away from this mind-numbing brand of groupthink.

    This is the most to-the-point, observant and positive take on Boston I’ve come across. Boston is arguably the most affordable city on the East coast for a burgeoning artist to be based out of that is as diverse and cosmopolitan as it is –and that’s a definite plus. As Caleb notes you have to be aware of the scene’s many limitations. Great advice.

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  7. Sherri Hanna says:

    If you want “something that pays well, that requires little commitment, and that doesn’t tire you out such that it interferes with your art-making time”, don’t become a teacher. Teaching is a profession, not just a day job where you can coast until you catch a break in the art world!

  8. Caleb says:

    @ Sherri –
    Teaching full time is certainly its own profession and will wipe you out good and proper. No question. To clarify, I’m thinking of the many, many ways that you can teach in small doses, i.e. not full-time. And that is definitely something one can do, and do well, without handing one’s life over to it.