Artists learn promotion is selling yourself, not selling out

Visual artist Kara Zuzu of Lawrenceville
Visual artist Kara Zuzu of Lawrenceville
Photo by David Kelly
| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 6:05 p.m.

There was a time when singer-songwriter Erika May thought promoting herself was selfish.

Then, a friend suggested to the Mt. Washington resident — whose eclectic mix of expression includes writing, speaking, graphic design and fire dancing — that she was actually doing the world and herself a disservice by not sharing her talents.

“Her perspective turned me around,” says May, 29, best known to her fans as EMay, whose new attitude helped win her a Pittsburgh Creativity Project award for her contributions to the city's cultural landscape.

“One other person speaking well of me and my work is worth a thousand words I could say about myself,” says May, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, who now connects with others in a variety of ways, from cyber space to old-school face-time at shows and other events.

It's that kind of thinking that brings a smile to the face of writer-artist Austin Kleon, who delivered the opening keynote address at this year's South by Southwest gathering in Austin, Texas.

Kleon, a New York Times best-selling author describes his latest book, “Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered,” as a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion.

The Austin resident's goal is to try to teach people in the creative and performing arts, and those involved in other professions, to think about their work as a never-ending process, to share that process in a way that attracts people who might be interested in what they do, and to deal with the ups and downs of putting their work out in the world.

Kleon's mantra: “In order to be found, you have to be ‘findable.' ”

“It's not about networking at cocktail parties. It's about taking advantage of the network,” he says. “By openly sharing your ideas, knowledge and process, you can gain an audience — for fellowship, feedback or patronage.”

An art to what you do

Even for those who are not artists, there is an art to what you do and people who would be interested in that art if you could share it with them in the right way, Kleon says. Luckily, most of us have access to tools that make it easy to accomplish that.

“Anyone who owns a fairly recent smartphone is basically carrying around a multimedia studio in their pocket,” says the 30-year-old Kleon.

Still, he says, many creative people not only struggle with how to effectively promote themselves, but also are unwilling or downright hostile to the idea.

“A lot of artists view self-promotion as a sleazy, phony endeavor, even though some of our most popular artists, including the Beatles and Andy Warhol, were enormously talented marketers,” he says.

Bethel Parks' Peggi Habets, a figurative watercolor painter and national workshop instructor and author, says some of the most talented artists she knows are relatively unknown outside their community because of their resistance to promote themselves.

Habets loves the “very humble and down-to-earth” nature of Pittsburgh residents. “However, when it comes to promoting one's art, you need to get beyond that mindset, respect yourself and decide that your art is worth sharing with the world,” she says.

She spends at least 40 percent of her studio time promoting and marketing her art, including through social media and entering national and international competitions, which led to a publishing company offer for her book, “Watercolor Made Easy: Portraits.”

“Most artists' successes are the direct result of their ability to promote themselves,” Habets says.

Kleon says that is why he wanted to help people get started.

“I learned everything I know through the generosity of artists and thinkers who put their work out into the world, and so, if I can contribute my own part to helping others along, I'm thrilled,” he says, “There's never been an easier time to share your work and meet like-minded people, regardless of your social status, your skills, geography, etc.”

Musician Lance LaDuke, who teaches music-business marketing, communications and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees.

“This is a spectacular time,” he says. Because there is more competition, though, it also can be “harder, scarier, less certain.” The artist has to take on much more of the responsibility for making things happen, LaDuke says.

Many ways to Interpret

While there are many ways to interpret “self-promotion,” says Delanie Jenkins, chair and associate professor of Studio Arts at the University of Pittsburgh, it comes down to “moving it out in the world to complete the (artistic) conversation.”

Pitt's “Preparation and Practice in the Visual Arts” course has students exploring the challenges of creating a career in the arts before they graduate.

“Finding the audience for one's work is part of the challenge and a necessary exploration,” says Jenkins, a past Pittsburgh Center for the Arts artist of the year.

“I'm constantly thinking of new ways to promote myself,” says Burton Morris, Pittsburgh-based pop artist. “It's always important to think of new ways to keep it out there.”

Warhol set the standard for that, says Morris, 49, whose work is being featured in a retrospective at the Senator John Heinz History Center through April 27.

“He was a constant promoter, constantly thinking of new ways to promote what he was doing. He was a genius at it,” Morris says.

“It's really fascinating where your work can take you,” says Morris, whose art has been selected for the set of “Friends,” the Academy Awards, the World Cup soccer games, the summer Olympics, the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Major League Baseball All-Star game. “If you don't get the word out in some way, you'll probably never get discovered.”

The idea that artists are in some way above promoting themselves or that such activities will taint the value of their work is “hogwash,” says classical saxophonist James Houlik, 71, professor of saxophone and chair of woodwinds at Duquesne University School of Music. He guests with some of the world's great orchestras and lectures on subjects such as “The musician as entrepreneur.”

“It is about simply keeping ourselves on the radar,” Houlik says. “Those who can't figure out how to put their work out there will be overtaken by those who spend a part of their energy on marketing and sales.”

Kleon says it is necessary to get over the “starving artist” romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity. Some of our most meaningful and most cherished cultural artifacts, such as Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel, were made for money, he says.

A labor of love

Visual artist Kara Zuzu, 29, of Lawrenceville promotes her work and hopes to be able to make a living through her talents. But, she believes most artists make art for the love of it.

“It's an insatiable appetite that must be fed whether or not I am getting paid or displaying it,” she says. “I believe this is why self-promotion gets put by the wayside.”

Actor, writer and singer Bria Walker, resident teaching artist at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Theatre Arts, advises her students to think of themselves as a business. “A business promotes,” she says. “Times change, and they change fast. That's why you have to keep educating yourself” on the best ways to promote.

Joe Wos, 43, of Penn Hills, cartoonist, storyteller and executive director of the Pittsburgh-based ToonSeum, takes the view that any artist who says marketing is selling out doesn't know what it means to be an artist.

“As an artist, you are the brand,” he says. “People loved Warhol not just because of his work, but because he created a character, a brand. Don't try to be the next Andy Warhol. Be the first you! Don't ever stop.”

Wos believes that art is art only when someone besides the artist appreciates it.

“That is something you learn the first time your mom puts your work on the fridge with a magnet,” he says. “But it never would have gotten on the fridge if you hadn't shown her the art first. That is called marketing, showing off your art in the hopes that someone will approve and put it up on the fridge.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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