I have found that the reality of being an emerging artist differs somewhat from the intense cosmology that is often fed to and proliferated by students. While everyone knows someone-who-knows-someone who's had that "big break" right out of school, the likelihood is that you will have to do some work to get where you are going. If you have found this article, you most likely already know this.
For me, priority number one is to keep on making art. Perhaps you scoff, but you would be surprised how easy it is to put your precious free time into forwarding your career at the expense of making things (or into watching CSI: Miami, for that matter.) I've been there, and escaped just in time. Let's say you've just had a particularly productive period.
You've created a new body of work, you've documented it, you've written a new artists' statement to reflect this work, and you have a neat little database of contacts in your hands with which you hope to rule the world. This is precisely the point at which you should make a conscious effort to keep making things. The feeling of shopping one's old work gets to be just that, and an emerging artist needs to think of documentation as an ongoing involuntary process, as opposed to a state of the union, which favors a compartmentalized, capitalist slant. I believe that semi-fallow periods are entirely acceptable, but your macroscopic focus must remain healthy and in the right place, or you may lose enthusiasm and develop a dreaded case of ennui (please see the aforementioned reference to network television.)
Believing in and projecting humility will help your cause. Notice I did not say self-deprecation. Given your "emerging" stature and the fetal nature of your endeavors, it will behoove you to dispense with any residual megalomania straight away. I truly believe that hubris and conceit are the two biggest mistakes an emerging artist can make when dealing with people. Chronic shyness, low self-esteem, and even annoying facial ticks can all be forgiven by a gallerist or an organization when faced with strong quality work and a willing and able demeanor. Consider all offers that are presented to you with equal measure, and be sure to express gratitude for any help offered. Later, when you have had some solo shows, reviews, or have a current buzz, you can start choosing how to best represent yourself.
However, it goes without saying that if you feel you are being taken advantage of, you should stick up for yourself, and your vision. In the past, I have repelled others with a cavalier attitude that I hope I have since shed. Similarly, I have come close to being taken advantage of for fear of seeming too demanding. There is no flashing neon arrow pointing to the proper mode of conduct for art world interactions, but self-respect and consideration will help to perfect your radar and also take you a long way in the eyes of others.
Beware of the deadline. Situations are always complicated by time, and deadlines aren't going anywhere, so you might as well get used to them. Just don't let anyone use a one as leverage against you. The bottom line is that you must be comfortable with the decisions you make. It's better to ask for a little more time to think about something than to make a decision in thirty seconds which you will regret for the next year or two. If a gallerist or institution can't understand your request, then you should ask yourself if they are really treating you with the consideration described above.
If you don't have contacts, you may want to get some. Success in any artistic discipline relies a great deal on the relationships you have made and their perpetual grooming and maintenance. Does this mean you have to be an outgoing and social person? Well, it helps, but it seems to me that many artists are not, myself included. I have taken some inspiration from successful artist David Shrigley's words on exiting a BFA: "Don't worry if you're too shy to schmooze. There are other strategies... Do what you want to do. Everything is possible... Real life is better than art school."
Just remember that any advice or help you receive is a favor, not your inherent right. If you call up every gallery in a city and ask "How do I become a successful artist?" I guarantee that you will get some cold responses. Gauge when the moment is appropriate to ask a question or favor, and do so in a natural, easy way that doesn't make you seem too desperate. Desperation smells like sulfur-- very pungent, easily identifiable, somewhat repulsive.
Never assume that you are entitled to anything except fairness and respect. Do everything in your power to get things rolling. I cannot stress this enough: if you assume entitlement, you will enter a world of excruciating pain and self-doubt. And you, as an artist and human being, deserve more than that. If you never know what might happen, entitlement becomes surprise, and anxiety, gratitude.
Eric Lebofsky received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his BA from Columbia University in New York City. He is a visual artist and musician working in Chicago. His drawings have been included in various published venues, as well as in the artist books he fabricates and distributes. He is represented by Sears-Peyton Gallery in New York and Miller Block Gallery in Boston. His band Avagami is based in Chicago.