I began showing my work in the late 1950s by participating in competitive museum shows and invitationals in college galleries and similar venues. I didn't have a solo gallery show until 1974. I suppose that was due to youthful shyness but it was also due to the scarcity of galleries and to the refusal by gallerists to sign on artists who had not yet compiled an impressive and sustained track record. Thus the incubation period for artists was typically several long years beyond art school and it fostered a lonely resolve -- it certainly did for me -- to develop personal commitment and abilities. In short, to be devoted to doing something important as an artist, and to do important art, one had to remain free from art commerce and fashions.
For incubating artists of my generation, the imagined audience was art history, the phantoms of the dead great artists, and those few people, usually fellow artists, who held similar views. Such idealism was likely a case of ego protection both for and by artist peers and myself but it was nevertheless considered far more virtuous to nurture an outsider's integrity than to acquire an insider's security. We expected to be discovered which meant that we didn't seek any big break but naively awaited the inevitable event! For a few, as always, success came quickly. For some others, it came in tiny accretions, slowly, over years. For still others, the heroic ones, it has never come but they still create strong work. Most, however, gave up and drifted into other careers, sometimes finding their genuine vocations.
The old saying about the deadliness of early success, before one has developed his or her creative playing field, remains true, but perhaps its ugly effect can be delayed more today than it was in the past. That's both good and bad. On the good side, it means that today's artists can begin and re-begin their careers by taking new paths and finding new audiences and venues. That's exhilarating for a truly creative person! For the new artist there's no waiting period anymore, no hand wringing apprenticeship, and no tediously acquired old-fashioned skills are necessary. Whoever wants to be an artist today needs to jump in, anywhere, and the sooner the better. Those who hesitate are the only certain failures. Now is the end of the rainbow for those who say that art can be anything at all -- and can prove it. Hip gallerists and curators are roaming the art school studios like sports scouts, eager to kidnap (and create) next season's star artists. On the bad side, the enticement to get out there too soon, without that lonely testing of resolve and development, means that weaker artists can flounder around in the artworld for a very long time, tugged this way and that, getting just enough tentative support to keep them from pursuing a profession or applied art skill that might have been far more beneficial in personal and material wellbeing.
The proliferation of art schools, college art programs, junior colleges, and art centers over the past four decades has sheltered large numbers of artists through teaching positions where they are encouraged to lure still more to join their ranks despite the near absence of any structured art curricula and required base of knowledge. Instead of skills and knowledge, the new emphasis is on how to function in the artworld. Howard Singerman put it succinctly: " ...(art schools) don't teach art, they teach one how to be an artist". Paradoxically, this development tends to exacerbate the politics of artworld networking at the expense of individual creativity. The strategies and values of the ever-expanding entertainment culture are now steering the artworld.
Looking past the pitfalls of today's art scene, and keeping in mind the best of the best, there's no arguing the fact that today is a terrific time to be an artist! There are so many more ways to be an artist today. Art is no longer on the margins of society (yes, that's good and bad, too). It has been integrated into the fabric of the world economy and world-views through the new technology and ease of international communication and the proliferation of art theory and criticism. No serious artist lacks opportunities to develop his or her ideas, to do something relevant, important.
It's quite astonishing to an artist of my age to weigh the paucity of professional options for artists forty or fifty years ago against the plethora of options that exist today. The highly praised Public Art Program in Chicago is merely one of many significant examples. Through public commissions, it has enhanced the careers of hundreds of artists and has bridged gaps between artists and audiences. Also, despite the shrinkage of government funding in recent years there are many more grants and modes of support for today's artists than any artist of the1950s could imagine. And it wasn't that long ago that Chicago had no MCA, only one or two contemporary art galleries, zero college art museums, and almost no patrons of new art. The odd absence of a vital art press in Chicago is partly offset by the growing interest in art blogs that maintain the vitality of open conversation among artists and others in the arts. Further, it's not sensible to think of regional or provincial art anymore. Today every serious artist is a world artist. Although art is still a most daunting profession, this is a very good time to be an artist.
William Conger, painter and author, received his MFA from the University of Chicago in 1966. He has been shown his paintings in group and solo exhibitions for nearly fifty years, and has been teaching in college art programs (DePaul University and Northwestern University) since 1971.