What does it take to make it as an artist in Northern Virginia? In the area's studios and backrooms, painters and potters, weavers and stained glass designers, craftsmen and fine arts people are struggling -- first to create, then to sell their works.
A pinpoint percentage reap thousands of dollars for each creation by selling to galleries in New York or San Fancisco, but as porcelain artist Laura Peery puts it, "They could make art anywhere, with that kind of outlet."
For the bulk of Virginia's artists, however, the business of art means taking in $2,000 to $12,000 per year by "pounding the P Street pavement," says Fairfax County Council of the Arts Executive Director Irvin Brobeck. It also means "learning to take your lumps," says Pooka Glidden, a painter and member of the Atheneum Gallery's Exhibits Committee.
They and other observers of the Northern Virginia art scene say business here is good for the talented artist if partially eclipsed by the attention paid to D.C.'s gallery scene. To get into the Northern Virginia art network, artists, atudio directors and gallery owners interviewed offer the following advice;
Join the art associations. Professional art and craft organizations such as the Washington Kiln Club, the Greater Reston Arts Center or the Springfield Art Guild will "put you in a creative climate," says Arlington Arts Center Director Robert Cwiok, and "give you an opportunity to match the quality of your work with that of others in this market," Brobeck adds. They also make you aware of shows and meetings going on in the area.
Scope out the local scene. "One of the best things a newcomer to this area can do," says Cwiok, "is to volunteer for an arts organization. Take on a project, get involved -- and get to know the people in the area."
Others advise you to scrutinize the competition, checking out prices other artists set, types of shows available, and likes and dislikes of particular jurors: "I know artists who keep a file on the tastes of various jurors," says Brobeck, "so they only bring work that they think the juror will like."
Enter the local shows. Ranging from the commercial shopping center type ("bread and butter") to judged (a designated portion of the show is judged for prizes) and juried (each work is judged prior to acceptance), the shows give you a chance to get your work seen by area artists and build up your local credentials.
Develop a portfolio. If you have a wide range of work that "shows some development over a period of years," says Glidden, you may be ready to start approaching the galleries. The first step is to take "good slides -- a lot of people don't know how to take a decent slide," Glidden says.
Artist Peery reports that one or two slide sheets with 20 slides each is usually about the right amount to show a gallery, but Glidden thinks 10 or 12 well-chosen pictures could demonstrate the range of an artist.
Many artists also bring along a few color glossies, and one or two original pieces, "If they're portable," says Peery. "And don't buy the $1.25 cardboard portfolio to put this in," says Arlington artist Lee Anne Geiger. c"Remember that you're a professional, and give yourself a professional look."
The portfolio should also include an "interesting resume, and a photo of an artist with a cleverly worded piece about his background," says Glidden.
Do your homework on the galleries. "Here's where most artists make their biggest mistake," says Brobeck, "by just walking in off the street and saying, "I wanta do a show.'" Instead, he advises, they should spend time visiting as many galleries as possible.
Look for one or two that show work "compatible with yours," says Glidden. She thinks you should also check out intangibles like "the atmosphere of the place -- do they welcome you when you come in? If not, it will be awfully hard for them to sell."
All those interviewed warned that an artist's stature is measured by the reputation of the galleries showing his work, and say an artist should be careful not to undermine his credentials by choosng the wrong gallery. Talking to others in the art organizations, they say, should preclude this.
Contact the galleries. Once you've found a few places you think fit your work, make an appointment. Then go alone (or with an agent), and be prepared to listen carefully to the critique -- you may learn a great deal about your work.
If they offer you a spot in a show -- even if it's only one piece in a group show several months away -- "be flattered," says Peery. "That may do a lot for you -- it will expose your work to all kinds of people, and may result in contacts and commissions."
Settle on a written agreement. "A contract is absolutely essential," says Brobeck, who agrees that "there are horror stories about what galleries do to people, and many of the stories are true."
"Don't be a dumb bunny about this," says Glidden, "but be realistic. Spell out, in advance, exactly who will do what.
Most galleries charge a commission of between 40 and 60 percent, and provide wall space, mailing lists and some publicity. The artist is usually expected to bring the works to the gallery. ("And make sure they're structurally sound and well-framed," says Glidden, "get some advice from a good framer.") Either do the pricing or give the gallery some advice on prices ("Tell them which ones are your favorites," says Peery), provide a list of people to be invited to the show and go to the opening.
It also helps if the artist does some public relations. "Get to know the critics, send them cute little notes, call them on the telephone -- anything short of physical harm is legit," says Glidden.
Then be prepared to work for your money. "I never just get a regular paycheck," says Peery, "and I think, talking to my friends, that this is typical. I sell a lot of work in Georgetown, and I always have to call them up and hassle for my money."
Develop a following. The Torpedo Factory's assistant director, Carol Baliles, finds a group of regular buyers of "inestimable value." She advises artists to get the name and addresss of "anyone who shows interest in your work," and send them notices of forthcoming shows or new studio locations. yShe will even call one or two of them up to say, "I just did a painting, and I know you'd love it."
Get a studio. "At the beginning, you need to hustle a lot," says Brobeck, "but once you've started to make it, you need to produce a lot." Inexpensive studio space is available to qualified artists through cooperatives like the Arlington Arts Center and the Torpedo Factory.
Remember that "following these steps won't make you an artist," Cwiok warns, "just like going to art school won't make you an artist. It's possible to have the best academic credentials in the world, and still not be an artist."
The credentials "look good on a show's brochure," Glidden admits, "but it all comes down to what you've taught yourself, really."
For Brobeck, it comes down to what you are communicating. "An artist should have something to say about the world, and if he's not communicating, he's wasting his time," he said.
The urge to communicate must exceed the fear of rejection: "The artist digs down deep when he makes art," says Glidden, "and it's an enormous emotional risk to display that much of yourself, particularly since the audience is in complete control -- they can mock you, or ridicule you or reject you."
How do artists handle the rejection? "You cry a lot," says Reston potter Laney Oxman, "and then you crawl out. As long as the ideas keep flowing, you can make it."
And as long as you know how to hustle, observers note, you can sell it. But there comes a point when the hustling can slack off, Glidden says. "If you set yourself a long-range goal and really work at perfecting your art, you can probably spend about 25 percent of your time at the business end, and still make it after six or eight years.
"The people who hustle 50 percent of the time may make it sooner," she concludes, "but they're usually the people who want to be stars.They'll have to hustle all their lives."