How can I be a famous artist? This is a question often asked by young artists who want to know how to become successful artists. Can you be an artist? Certainly, you can. Can you become a famous artist? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s possible. But in the arts, there are no guarantees. On a recent reality TV show, an Australian choreographer Jason Coleman commented that celebrity wasn’t something that you chose – it was something that happened to you. Sometimes artists do great work, and while making a living, are never well known beyond their immediate circle or a few collectors – while mediocre artists, by hitting the right cultural note or being picked up by the right dealer, can become household names. Fame is a fickle business.
Know What You Want
Do you know what being an artist is really about? It’s amazing how many myths people believe about being an artist. Some of them can be a real problem if you take them too seriously. Surprisingly, starving in a garret, having a drug problem and even having an unconventional haircut are all optional. Many great artists are quite sober people who you’d probably think were plumbers or house-painters if you saw them on the street.
Become an Artist
The first thing you need to do to get famous is to be an artist in the first place! How do you do this? You make art. Why do I put this step before art school? Because you need a portfolio to get into art school. Art school can make you a better artist, but you have to have the instinct and desire to make art in the first place. You can develop the skills as you go, but the place you begin is to start creating. A sketchbook is an excellent place to begin.
You need to be better than average if you want to be famous. You’ll need to learn about art theories and art history, as well as learning the techniques you need, whether it’s drawing and painting, digital art techniques, sculpture or contemporary installation methods and video production. Art school can help you with all of that, as well as encouraging you to think deeply about philosophy, and networking with other artists. You can also develop yourself through independent study, reading, night classes, and workshops. To help you think about some of the issues affecting your choice, check out this article on whether you should go to art school.
Make a Plan
Building an art career takes time. Collectors want to know that the art they are buying will increase in value and that the artist is continuing to create and to improve so that people will still want to buy the work. So you need to develop your portfolio, reach out to galleries and dealers, and participate in competitions to gain exposure. A methodical approach is a key to success, saving you from wasting time and being distracted from the important task of actually making art.
Make Lots of Art
This is the tricky bit. The key to being famous is being a household name. This means being popular. In art, there seems to be two main ways of doing this. One is to be utterly committed to your work, do work that is meaningful and with good technical skills, that is so deeply true and heartfelt that dealers, buyers, and the wider world will ‘connect’ with it on a deep level. They recognizing that you have a unique vision of the world which is also one that they can understand in some way. Think Lucian Freud, Anselm Kiefer, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy. But it’s not enough to work like a great artist: you have to find what makes you just as unique a visionary as they are. An art residency can help give you time to focus.
The other avenue is to try to cater to public taste, choosing best selling subjects, doing work that you know will be popular. Sometimes this will be deliberately ‘edgy’ or funky work to match a current trend, which can work if you’re quick enough to get on the coat-tails of the trend-setters.
More often it’s bland quasi-realist work, with quaint candle-lit cottages for one market or ‘saucy’ nudes for another. If it makes you happy, go for it.
Market Your Work
This part can be fun at times, but it can also be hard work, and it can be distracting. Don’t get lost in self-promotion and forget to spend time in your studio. To become famous, you need to get your art in front of an audience. A big audience. You need to approach a gallery and work towards representation in a major art fair. For serious art, this traditional approach is still the best route to take. Most major galleries maintain their own artist websites, but until you are represented, creating your own web gallery is a good idea. Some artists prefer to sell their work independently and online, but really you need to leverage conventional art networks to get attention from collectors. However, online markets can be a good stop-gap for an emerging artist and are also popular with artists working in both niche genres, and popular mass-market work, especially prints and posters.
About This Fame Thing…
Fame is something that happens, not something you choose. If you just want to be famous, you should probably try to get on a reality TV show or marry one of the Kardashians. Seriously – ask any of your non-artist friends to name five contemporary artists. Unless you live in an unusually creative environment, I’d be surprised if they can think of any at all! What really matters is doing good art that you can feel proud of.