Postgraduate Opportunities for Artists
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nasher, 2013, oil on canvas
The path of “the struggling artist” is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when considering postgraduate careers in the business world. However, when young artists, such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, CJ Hendry, and Ken Nwadiogbu, are able to sell their art for prices ranging from $1000 to $3 million, the romantic vision of the struggling artist is replaced by a sexier image of a financially independent, rock-star artist. As in any other business, developing a successful career as an artist demands time and persistence. There are no “off days”, since the work of an artist is her identity, and cannot be set aside at the end of a workday. A certain level of training is also usually involved, after which an artist must promote her work and introduce it to the world. While many websites and books may offer guides as to how to develop an artistic career, the young artists of today are turning towards non-traditional avenues in order to find opportunities to which they may not have had access 30 years ago. Today, young artists are creating their own opportunities.
Instinctively, the first step in pursuing the path of a professional artist is to apply for art school. There are many reasons why someone would want to do this, including access to a network of art industry experts who may not be easily accessible to the artist otherwise. Another reason may be to jump-start an artistic career through a guided program that offers exhibition opportunities, regular critiques, and mentorship. An art school is a nurturing environment for a new artist to experiment and test ideas before implementing them in the outside world. It is a place where artists can benefit from ample studio space, the feedback of their peers, and a community of like-minded individuals. Once graduation looms around, artists must come to face the reality that they will need to actively seek out their new community, and also implement the tools they easily had access to while at university. Rather than get fed information about upcoming artist competitions, grants, or exhibitions, graduate artists will need to take the reign of their own future and find these opportunities through their own initiatives.
There are several options that will lead an artist, post-graduation, towards a successful career, and all of them involve relationship-building: If the artist is social, networking may come easily, and she will benefit from the in-person interactions that may lead to studio visits, commissions, direct sales, or an introduction to an influential contact; an introverted artist may find more success through online promotion and marketing of her work; a lucky artist will find a patron to champion her work and connect her to other influential art collectors; and most desirable of all is for the patron to be a cultural gatekeeper, such as an art dealer, who can open doors for her in the elite world of art market influencers.
In Nigeria, parents do not particularly consider the visual art field as a career opportunity, and generally tend to encourage their children towards professions that are more science- or technically focused, especially if they are smart. Perhaps this is why Njideka Akynyili Crosby originally attempted a more conventional path in medicine, yet turned to art when she was denied acceptance to the school of her choice. Two years after graduating with honors from Swarthmore College, she went on to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where her teachers had a tremendous impact on her and made her realize that this was the life she wanted and could have. Between her certificate and her subsequent MFA degree from Yale University, Crosby was the recipient of the 2009 Coverley-Smith Prize from the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, as well as the 2010 Gamblin Painting Prize from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. As a student at Yale’s MFA program, she was also accepted for a residency in New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem, and it is there where her career began to really take off. From this point on, prizes, grants, residencies, and speaking engagements flowed regularly in her direction, and by the time she made her debut at one of the most well-known international art fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach, Crosby’s work was selling out at $50,000 apiece.
Now, Njideka Akynyili Crosby’s work is in such high demand, that her paintings are selling at over $3 million at auction, and galleries are selling straight to museums. In Crosby’s case, her development as an artist after graduation was propelled by her unique story, and her ability to tell that story. Enrolling in continuous art programs that included residencies allowed her to produce more work, and create more opportunities for her to exhibit.
In contrast to Crosby’s journey as an artist, which includes the traditional art education to gallery representation, some talented artists are opting to go directly to the collectors and bypassing the traditional gatekeepers entirely. This approach has created opportunities that have never before been possible, allowing the masses to create “instant” celebrities rather than having certain individuals create them through strategic marketing. One artist who has gained significant success through individual promotion and social media platforms is CJ Hendry. Similar to Crosby, Hendry attempted a different, more accepted path before turning to art. However, she dropped out of architecture school when she realized it wasn’t for her, and then after taking a shot at finance school, dropped out of that as well. In both cases, art was what they turned to when they realized that a career in art was what they were most passionate about.
CJ Hendry, via Instagram
For Hendry, the tipping point for her success was when she made her first sale through Instagram in 2012, the same year that Crosby was a resident at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Crosby went the most established, traditional route, while Hendry took the more accessible route, taking advantage of today’s technology to brand herself and her work. A NY Times article published this year on CJ Hendry depicted her as someone who, despite achieving artistic fame, was still searching to be accepted by the art world. It is difficult to know which strategy for career development is best, but ultimately it comes down to the artist’s goals. Hendry has no gallery representation, stages her own shows, has yet to see any of her works in a museum collection, but has a 1500-people-long waitlist for her work that always sells out. Crosby, on the other hand, has sold out gallery shows, where her collectors have mainly been museums, such as the Tate and the Whitney, and her work is in such demand that it circulates through auction houses that sell her work for millions of dollars.
Ken Nwadiogbu is another rising star from Nigeria, who began his artistic journey at engineering school. Finding time in between classes as he completed his engineering degree at Nwadiogbu would express his creativity through drawing. As a product of the Millennial generation, he grew up well-versed in the marketing power of Instagram and has been able to use this platform to display his work and gain the attention of people in the art world. In terms of career development, Nwadiogbu is a bit of a hybrid of Crosby’s and Hendry’s paths. Similar to Hendry, he is not formally trained, yet has immense technical skill. He is also open to gallery representation, although his self-promotion so far has made it unnecessary; he has been able to break out into the art scene through the accessible platforms of social media and has used the platform to reach a network of influencers and tastemakers on his own.
Ken Nowadiogby, The Value of Nothing, 2018-2019, charcoal and paper collage on canvas
Unlike Hendry, however, Nwadiogbu has not financed his own solo shows but has relied on relationships to help promote his work and curate his drawings in both group and solo exhibitions that bring his physical work outside of Africa. One particular advantage of using Instagram to publicize his work is that he is able to control his messaging and use the platform to voice his opinions on socio-political structures in his country. Had he attempted the more traditional route, he may not have had this kind of control.
The career opportunities for graduates looking into developing as professional artists are abundant, and thanks to social media, very accessible. Regardless of social media and real-world connections, however, the truth is that without initiative, persistence, and determination, opportunities will not materialize.