Ray Cronin shares “survival strategies” for life in the art world
May 20, 2010

Welcome to the Art World

I must say that I was surprised and touched to be asked to speak at this graduation ceremony. The two honourary degree laureates today are both well known to me, directly in one case and by reputation in the other. Iain was one of my advisors in grad school and one of my favourite artists. Stan Bevington’s Coach House Press was one of the gold standards when I worked in literary publishing. It’s humbling to be sharing a stage with both of you.

However, this afternoon is about you, the graduates. Congratulations. Today marks the end of one stage of your life, and the beginning of another. I hope you’ll never stop learning, but today you’ve changed from students to peers. I’m honoured to be speaking to you today, the latest members of the NSCAD mafia. Welcome to the Art World!

You’ve picked an interesting path, which will be no surprise to anyone who knows you – if you weren’t prone to interesting choices you never would have ended up in an art school, would you? But the world you’re entering is very different from the one you’re leaving behind today. School, this one or any one, is an ivory tower, a place where you get to try things on for size in relative safety. You were protected in school, cushioned from many aspects of the world you were preparing for. People cared what you did; in fact, many of them actually cared enough to make sure that you did things. They chased you for assignments, listened to your excuses (however farfetched they were),  gave you extensions on deadlines and always, always, gave you the benefit of the doubt. People cared about what you made, listened to what you thought, and gave you time and space to make mistakes. That’s what is so great about art school.

But it’s all over now. In my world, in what is now your world, you have a different set of conditions to deal with, and a complicated series of paths to navigate. Curators are often called “gatekeepers,” because we metaphorically hold the keys to the museums and galleries that are at the pinnacle of the art world’s food chain. But I’m not speaking today as a gatekeeper. You’re graduating – you’re on my side of the gate. Rather I’m here in the role of a guide. My job here today, as a graduate of this institution, as someone who set out on this journey over twenty years ago now, is to provide some pointers.

There is no map to our world, and no shortcuts either, at least none that I can show you. Nevertheless, some of you, I know, will find them. What there is, is a world of opportunity, pitfalls, lucky breaks, disappointments and near miraculous bolts out of the blue. It’s an invigorating, enervating, rewarding and frustrating place – often all at once. It’s also never, ever boring.

This art world I’m talking of lacks definition or form; it’s really a web of networks and interests, an industry and an article of faith. There are as many ways to survive in it as there are people striving to do so. Where you will end up is almost certainly not going to be where you thought you were going. Most of you will end up doing other things – some will leave this world altogether, but I hope that most of you will remember the reasons you went to art school in the first place, the desire you obviously had to be different and to chart a unique course, and that you will stick it out. It can be hard, but it’s worth it.

Whatever you do in our world, whether you make art, sell art, write about art, transport art, protect art, arrange art, teach art or any of the other myriad things we do with art, “different” and “unique” are always operative terms. As I’ve said, this place is many things – but boring isn’t one of them.

When I graduated from this institution 23 years ago I thought I was going to be a sculptor. And I was, for 14 years, but I was also a critic, a journalist, a publicist, a theatre set builder, a marketing director, a retail clerk, a teacher, a curator, an editor and an arts administrator, often two or three of those at once. I didn’t plan to be the Director and CEO of an art museum, but here I am. I did plan to make a living in this business though, and again, here I am. If you stay in the art world you’re going to have similar journeys. Predictability and stability are not operative terms in most aspects of this career.

Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re staying. I would like to share some survival strategies with you, things all of us out here have had to learn:
  • Don’t expect things to be fair. You don’t necessarily get a turn and no one owes you anything. No one cares what you think you deserve.\
  • Work hard. You’ll only get lucky breaks if you’re working harder than everyone else. And if you aren’t working harder, you probably won’t recognize a lucky break if it comes along.
  • Don’t sell yourself short. Believe that what you do and what you create is important. Value your work, and value the work of others.
  • Be realistic – you’re new at this and there are many, many people who have been doing it a lot longer than you. Listen and learn, show respect, and look at things as they are, not as how you want them to be. There is always someone better. Live with it. And strive to be that person.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. You’re going to. A lot. That’s how you learn.
  • Try not to be a jerk – if you screw people over it will come back to haunt you. As stated, the art world is many things – all of them small.

Finally, remember to remember your friends. I introduced the painter Eric Fischl at a NSCAD graduation several years ago, and in his speech acknowledging his honourary degree he stressed the need to remember your friends. To be supportive of each other and to, as much as possible, share the success you find individually. It was good advice, and it reflects how I’ve navigated the art world since my graduation – I still have a network of friends that I went through NSCAD with – they’re among the few people who really understand me. We have supported each other for 20 plus years. None of us would have succeeded without that mutual support.

The art world is made up of networks of people; some of them you’ll be able to join and some will be closed to you. Frankly, most will be invisible to you. But you’re lucky – you’re starting with a network. That’s the friends around you – support them, share opportunities, give praise, give advice and take it. Be helpful, build communities. Everything is interdependent in the art world. You’ll work in museums or in web design, as teachers or technicians, you’ll own galleries or work on film sets. Your studio practices will change and evolve over time, some of you will work at them full-time while others will make other choices. But you will still need networks and you will need support.

The people sitting with you today are the ones who care most whether you succeed or fail, and you need to value that. Your families and your peers are the people you can count on. The old saying “a rising tide floats all boats” is true insofar as it is about the sea and boats. It’s not true in the art world. Tides are predictable; they come and go with regularity. Success is not. This season’s enfant terrible is next year’s wash-out. Next season’s curatorial darling is this season’s non-entity. You simply cannot predict whether success will happen, or how long it will last. To take advantage of the art world’s tides you need to work together. As much as you can on this journey, take your friends with you – travel in groups.

Basically, my advice boils down to this: stick together, work hard, believe in yourselves, be just, and don’t forget the passion that made you start. That’s what a guide can tell you. What you have chosen to do is important. I hope that you beat the odds, that all of you stick with this path you have started on. I wish you success and hope that you share your success with your peers. And that they share theirs with you.

Forget seven days in the art world, here’s to a life here. Time is on your side – it is all going to be your world soon enough. Do something interesting with it.

Cronin - Graduation
Ray Cronin, BFA ’87, is Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. A graduate of NSCAD University and the University of Windsor, Cronin was the Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGNS until his appointment as Director. He is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award.