“Ask The Artists” Part 1: What Is Your Definition of Success?
Hear from Coco Fusco, Kyle Abraham, Eva and Franco Mattes, J.T. Rogers, and more.
The constellation of literary, performing, and visual artists in NYFA’s network is vast. In our more than 50 years of service to individual artists and arts workers of all disciplines and career stages, we’ve supported thousands with grants, resources, and professional development. In this new series, we asked artists representing programs including the NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship, and the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program a series of questions about the creative life. We hope their answers empower you to keep pushing forward in your careers.
Our first question is a two-part one. We’re sharing a selection of answers below, with more artist insights on this topic in our next “Ask the Artist” post!
What is your definition of success? How do you balance (or purposefully not balance) the commercial aspects of being an artist with your pure artistic intentions?
My definition of success is being able to enjoy making my work and sharing it, having opportunities to show my work, to travel, to participate in interesting discussions and meet interesting people in my field. I have a full time teaching job and have never tried to support myself by making art. The income from my videos, performances, lectures, and publications gets put back into my work.
Fusco was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction in 1991 and 2014.
Image Detail: Coco Fusco, 2018; Photo Credit: Ross Collab
Success is subjective, and something I’m constantly questioning and at the same time, striving for. Artistic acknowledgement is wonderful, but it can’t hold you or comfort you in times of loneliness or doubts of failure. I ask myself if what I’m making is honest and true to the vision I intended. There’s always room for improvement, but have I made every effort I could (in a healthy way) to reach my artistic goal/vision? If that happens, I try to take a moment to smile…before moving onto the next of many challenges. Haha!
Abraham was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Choreography in 2010.
Image Detail: Kyle Abraham, Photo Credit: Tatiana Wills
It’s hard to judge an artist’s success, for a number of reasons. On the one hand you have of course commercial success which is more connected with galleries, than you have “exhibitions success,” that’s more related to art institutions and Biennales, than you have “academic success,” and finally popularity, some artists are stronger in one and weaker on another. Our personal meter to judge an artist is her influence on other artists. Being her peers or a younger generation. We often go back to Marcel Duchamp, who didn’t break any record, commercially speaking, but whose influence on the art world is probably unrivaled.
Eva and Franco Mattes were NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellows in Digital/Electronic Arts in 2017.
Image: Franco and Eva Mattes; Milan, 2021; Photo Credit: Nicola Biscaro
Like almost everyone, I want to make money from and get attention for my work. Sometimes that happens; sometimes not. But success for me is the joy of the process—of collaborating with people I like and admire as we make something together that’s bigger than all of us. On the days when we’re all humming along together, I’m so happy I get giddy.
Rogers was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting in 2004, 2008, and 2016.
Image Detail: J.T. Rogers, Photo Credit: Rebecca Ashley
My definition of true success is making art up until you croak. An oversimplification, undoubtedly…
I think knowing you have had some influence on other artists is a way to mark your success, too. Teaching, thoughtful activism, and helping your fellow artists exhibit are some examples of good influences. And then there is commercial success which comes to a few but surely not all. Most artists need a day job to pay the rent.
The conundrum is that one needs to work at showing and promoting one’s work in order to have commercial success, but where is there time to do that AND support yourself with a day job and make the art, too? Perhaps part time jobs are the answer, but when do they ever pay enough to cover all the expenses of being an artist? Applying for grants helps, but that takes time away from the studio too. For years I spent Sunday mornings sending out slides and my C.V. to anyone who I thought might be interested. The ongoing problem for any artist is simply finding time to make the art.
If you have unlimited energy, and some marketable skills, and you really want this, you’ll be fine as long as you can keep making the art. Have confidence in yourself, make artist friends and be a friend, get to know the galleries and museums in your area, and enjoy your life as it is. Remember that the art making is the core of it all, so be the best artist you can possibly be. And don’t stop.
WalkingStick was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in 1992, a Murray Reich Distinguished Artist Award recipient in 2018, and a NYFA Hall of Fame Inductee in 2022.
Image Detail: Kay WalkingStick, Photo Courtesy: Kay WalkingStick and Hales, London and New York
My definition of success is very simple: every day I wake up and still get to be an artist, I consider myself a success. I think it’s important we all work by our own definitions, and I realize that as a first generation college student with a single mother, the odds were definitely against me continuing on after I graduated – many of my peers didn’t.
Being committed to a lifelong practice as opposed to reaching certain milestones of other people’s definitions of success is the key to remaining satisfied with my path, to me. There is a lot of rejection in the art world, and most of us struggle to keep going with the pressures of day jobs, families, and economic reality. But that commitment is something that can remain even during the rough times I might only get a few minutes a day to really be in my practice – no one can take that away from any of us.
Murphy was a mentor in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Denver in 2021.
Image Detail: Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Photo Credit: Tammy Shine
I think definitions of success will change depending on where you are in life. At this time in my life I am focusing on what one can call “shadow work,” what produces fear in someone or anxiety, and why. As I unpack this psychological issue I realize my work as an artist is becoming stronger, and I am learning to be successful by making better choices with what I sign up for, and how to develop systems that will support my practice in the long term, instead of just exhibition to exhibition. How does all this have to do with success? I am doing well enough to plan a future, and that is invaluable.
Khan was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work in 2018.
Image Detail: Baseera Khan, Courtesy of the Artist
My definition of success has always been multidimensional. It has its roots in observing and connecting processes and timing. In this manner I have found that I feel most happy and accomplished with the journey as well as the destination. I learned this at an early age working in the family owned flower/ceramic shop. Which led me to the practical idea of success balanced with happiness in what I do in the field as an artist and educator.
I have been working on that [balancing the commercial aspects of being an artist with my pure artistic intentions] since the beginning. I was a clumsy kid so learning how to land without too much pain was important. Practicalities in the shop taught me about the importance of self sustainability. As I began to practice as an artist I realized the relationship between financial stability and pure artistic intention was one that placed me at odds with making a living out of just my artwork—art exploration and doing work that is not trendy is a hard sell.
I solved my dilemma by journeying into art education. It has given me the ability to share what I have learned and financial sustainability affording me the capacity to accomplish my long term goals as an artist. I’ve now taught visual arts the Texas Public Education system for 28 years, 23 of them at Tom C. Clark High School in San Antonio, TX. This has given me the ability to share what I have learned and financial sustainability affording me the capacity to accomplish my long term goals as an artist.
Valderas was a mentor in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: San Antonio in 2018 and 2019, and is a member of NYFA’s Board of Trustees.
Image Detail: Luis Valderas, Photo Credit: LMG Photography
My definition of success as far as my practice is concerned, is the freedom to do whatever I want with it, to not have to abide by other people’s expectations of it, and just being unapologetically selfish with it. In terms of balancing the commercial aspects of it, I try not to put the weight of having to be “commercially successful” onto my work. I sell work if and when I want to, not because I have to. And that’s really been important for envisioning the kind of life that I want to live as an artist and sustaining that vision long term.
Cadet received a JGS Fellowship in Photography in 2020.
Image Detail: Widline Cadet, Courtesy of the Artist
My definition of success is first and foremost having the opportunity and time to make artwork that interests me, that I find personally challenging and gratifying. I know that it is immensely fortunate to be able to be an artist at all, to have the chance to make my work. Also I feel successful if my work can be seen by others and if it speaks to people. My work is a largely solitary process but can’t produce work in a vacuum, I need people to see it and hopefully connect with it. And finally I feel that it is a success to make a living doing the work that I love. I don’t feel that I need to make a killing, just that I can live off of it. I don’t take any part of my life as an artist for granted. I know it’s an extremely difficult field to be in and just to be in it is a success.
Goodman was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts in 2017.
Image Detail: Johanna Goodman, Courtesy of the Artist
Success means you’re able to execute the next art project which interests you in your daily schedule without compromising its quality due to other commitments in life. I take each commercial request as an individual case, and consider if the core of pure artistic intention can be embedded within the project in any possible way. If the answer is yes, I can foresee a delicate balance and that’s the only way I can process the request.
Hsiao was a mentee (2016) and a mentor (2022) in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.
Image Detail: Chemin Hsiao, Courtesy of the Artist
I define success as dreams matching up with my reality. I am successful sometimes. Oftentimes I’m not. I balance the commercial aspects of my career with collaborations. My collaborations often cross over into other fields, genres, and industries.
Linzy was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Video/Film in 2015.
Image Detail: Kalup Linzy, Courtesy of Melissa Lukenbaugh and the Tulsa Artist Fellowship
Success for me is being able to follow a train of thought in the work—having the time to do that, and execute the work in a way that feels intentional. As far as the commercial aspects, I think it’s crucial to find partners (curators, dealers, gallerists) that understand what it is you are trying to do with the work, inspire you to keep growing, and to open the space for a critical dialog around the work as well. I think it’s super important to feel understood and supported—those relationships need to help you move your practice forward—they need to be more than transactional partnerships.
O’Keefe was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Photography in 2019.
Image Detail: From Erin O’Keefe’s studio, Photo Courtesy of the Artist
You can find more articles on arts career topics by visiting the Business of Art section of NYFA’s website. Sign up for NYFA News and receive artist resources and upcoming events straight to your inbox.