How Does a 21st Century Artist Measure Success?

On opening night at an art exhibit of my Dad’s I’d stare at the placement of the paintings in the gallery, mesmerized by how different the work looked on bare white walls with studio lights. Then I’d look for the red dots as if I was going on a treasure hunt. A red dot meant the painting had been sold. I didn’t know the details of gallery commissions and bill paying, but even a child can observe their parents’ relief when times are good. 

During childhood I’d enter a house that only had a few photographic portraits or one lone poster and feel a sense of despair. Didn’t these people want to look at something wonderful? Didn’t they want to hang a picture on their wall  that they could look at any time of the day or night that would start them thinking in ways that would soothe their mind? That’s what art can do. As a child, I couldn’t quite verbalize it, but instinctively I knew what felt good.

All artists: writers, musicians, actors, visual artists have material necessities. But most artists cannot financially support themselves by the monies earned through their art. My Dad Herman Maril was a teacher, Professor of Art at the University of Maryland. His teaching salary provided the family with a stable source of support and my mother also worked. More important to my parents than sales, were the placement of my father’s work into major museum collections because that meant the general public would see his work in the decades to come.  Art sales are unpredictable.  

I used to sell antiques. Today’s artists are engineers, construction workers, salespeople, restaurant workers and just about any profession one can imagine.   It is a balancing act to figure out how to earn money and have time to produce art.

At some point in time, whether you are writing poetry or acting in plays; you ask yourself how much energy do I want to put into self-promotion and how much energy do I want to put in creating my art?

I would much rather write, then spend time researching which publications might publish my stories, but I have to send the stories out into the world if I want them read. I also want to keep on working to become a better writer, which means taking the time to read other people’s work as well as discussing my works in progress with other writers.

Whether someone likes your art can be subjective. A few years ago in grad school, when I was getting my MFA at Stonecoast (University of Southern Maine) one of our faculty members, novelist David Anthony Durham, chose one evening to read some negative reviews about his work that had been posted on Goodreads rather than do a traditional reading. We all laughed at some of the snarky comments, but it also struck me as a very humble thing to do and reminded all of us that no matter how successful you become—and with seven novels ( a number optioned for movies) David is quite successful—your work is not going to be universally loved. Some people won’t like it. They’ll like something else instead. 

This gets me to the heart of my question which is measuring success. Monetary success is a fleeting thing. One year your book may be on the best seller list and you make some money, but how long will the money last? Ten years later no one remembers your name or reads your book and hopefully you’ve saved some of the big money you’ve earned  The important thing a writer strives for by being published is the hope that people will read your book and it touched them in some way. If reading the book made them think differently about something important or just provided a needed break from reality; the writer in my humble opinion is successful. 

Now this doesn’t mean, we all shouldn’t reach for the stars. But many artists, such as those people I’ve admired who perform in community theater productions, are happy to have a chance to perform—even if their performance isn’t on a Big Screen or Broadway Stage. If the Pandemic has taught us anything, it has shown us how many people can create marvelous podcasts and video productions in their homes to share with the world.

Whatever art gives you pleasure–books, documentaries, paintings, photography, music, theater or something else– it is valuable to you. The number of artists in the world keeps growing, and that’s a wonderful thing. 

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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