Achieving Recognition

By Gwendolyn A. Magee

For most of us as artists, recognition is the yardstick by which we measure our success. However we define it, and that certainly varies from individual to individual, we all want it, crave it, need it, feed on it, and strive to achieve it. No matter how secure we think we are within ourselves, there is no getting around the fact that outside corroboration feels good.

First of all, we have to recognize that there is no cookie cutter recipe that will work for everyone. For example, many will say that being able to sell their art defines success. That may sound good on the surface, but for one person it may mean being able to sell her art in the $1,000 price range, and for another, anything less than $10,000 is insulting. Still another person may be thrilled to sell a small piece for $150.

Digging a little deeper, you may find that the artist selling artwork for $150 does not think that is the true value of his art. For that individual, success is not defined by the amount of a single sale, but by the recognition that comes when many value the artwork enough to purchase it. Subsequently, he enjoys the reputation that a number of sales helps build for him in his home community. This artist, therefore, is willing to sell at a price that most people can afford.

For others, success is not at all correlated with the selling of their artwork. Instead, for them, it may be more closely associated with the number and prestige of the venues in which their art is exhibited, or having it archived in museum collections, or featured in newspapers, books, and magazines. No matter how it is defined, success appears to be linked closely with a few basic elements.

Goal identification
What are your goals? What is it that you want to happen in the best of all possible worlds? Think about your goals. Write them down and be as specific as possible. Review them often. You have to define for yourself what success looks like. It is critical, whether you are an established studio artist or a novice. If your primary goal is recognition by your peers, you have to identify which group of peers is most important to you: those on a community, state, national, or international level. Are the peers in the quilting community, in the art quilt community, or in the art community?
The strategy devised by someone who primarily desires recognition by the national art quilt community will be significantly different from that planned by someone who is seeking broader-based recognition, or for whom being well known and respected in her home community is paramount.

Is your primary goal to exhibit your art to gain recognition (and from whom) or to earn money (quick money or big money)? Are you willing to sacrifice one goal to achieve another? For how long and at what cost? Do not put limitations on what you want for yourself and for your art based on what you think is “reasonable.” Don’t be cowed into thinking that your goals are too lofty. They are yours, and you do not have to justify them to anyone but yourself. You are under no obligation to ever share or discuss them, so you don’t have to cringe with concern about what others might think. Your goals may read:

• I want a feature article about me to appear in Hometown USA newspaper
• I want to my work to be published in XYZ book, magazine or journal
• I want to win “Best of Show” at Paducah/Houston
• I want to have my artwork juried into Quilt National
• I want to be invited to participate in a national invitational exhibition
• I want to exhibit at the Smithsonian
• I want to have a solo exhibition at ABC Museum or Gallery
• I want my art to sell for a minimum of $xx,xxx
• I want to earn a minimum of $xx,xxx a year as an artist
• I want to command $xx,xxx for workshops

These goals must be what you really want. Of course, it would be great to have your artwork reviewed by the New York Times, but think long and hard about what would truly be more meaningful to you: a two sentence mention in the NYT, or a four-column feature article written about you in your local newspaper.

If you want to have a solo exhibition at a major venue, it’s probably not going to happen if you’re concentrating on selling your artwork as fast as you can make it. You will need to build a comprehensive body of work, and it will have to be available for an extended period of time.

Prioritization: Which of your goals do you consider most significant and why? Put this into words and write it out. In terms of meaningfulness to you, what follows second, third, etc.? Identify the goals that fall into the “would be nice, but so what if it never happens” category. This will determine how you approach achieving your goals. Remember that your goals need not be static and carved in stone. Rethink your goals and how they are prioritized at least every six months. It’s easy to lose sight of what your big picture is. You have to retain your focus, as well as have the ability to incorporate new thoughts, ideas, or information into your strategic plan.

Timeframe: Are you willing to take a long-term view towards achieving your goals (this of course takes you back to the questions of “… for what are you willing to settle …” and “what are your priorities”)?

Mindset: You have to have an open mind in order to recognize when you’re being presented with an opportunity that may help you attain one or more of your goals. Keep in mind that it doesn’t always appear in a format that “looks like” what you think it should. You also have to be willing to take advantage of it; otherwise, many “chance” opportunities will be lost.

Do not discount the contacts you make in non-quilt-related places or situations. Attend exhibits of other artists, no matter what their medium is. The people who buy their artwork are also potential buyers of yours. Recognition in the greater art community, even at the local level, is not going to happen if you make little or no attempt to become involved with it. This means attending art events of all disciplines, becoming involved with art organizations, and taking advantage of the programs offered by your state arts commission. At the very least, attend museum and gallery openings (and other events held in these facilities) whether they are textile related or not—that’s where people with expendable funds and contacts are going to show up. Make the effort to interact with them. It won’t take long for people to begin to remember you and to keep you in mind.

Follow up
This is just basic common sense. Follow up on every possible lead you receive, even if it seems obscure. People are so interconnected that you can never predict with certainty where a break may come from. More opportunities are probably lost because of failure to follow up than anything else. And never forget the power of a simple but personal thank you note.

SAQA Mississippi/Alabama/Arkansas/Louisiana representative Gwendolyn A. Magee is a fiber artist, teacher, and public speaker. She resides in Jackson, MS. Her solo exhibition Journey of the Spirit will be at the University of Mississippi in Oxford from June 6 to August 27, 2006. Her art quilts can be seen at