Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: The Artist as Culture Producer

Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: The Artist as Culture Producer is the second book in the Living and Sustaining a Creative Life trilogy published by Intellect Books in 2017. This collection of essays by 40 visual artists describes how artists extend their practices outside of their studios. Edited by artist and educator Sharon Louden, these stories show the public how contemporary artists add to creative economies. Below is the essay that Don’t Take Pictures’ Editor-in-Chief Kat Kiernan contributed to the book.

Disappearing Act, Kat Kiernan

When he asked if I was an artist, I said “no.” I answered almost reflexively, but still the word felt heavy in my mouth, as if I were telling a lie. The gallerist went back to his booth at the art fair as my boyfriend shot me an incredulous look. I have a BFA in photography and a decent exhibition history for an emerging photographer, yet I had declined to identify myself as an art-maker. Those in the arts can and do debate about what it means be an artist, but it is a given that to earn the title one must make art. Busy with other creative projects, at the time of the art fair I had not done so in over a year. I had owned and operated a successful photography gallery for three years and had launched a photography magazine, but somewhere in all of that I had let go of the “artist” label in favor of “curator,” “dealer,” “critic,” and other more prestigious-sounding titles. Though I would like to be equally artist and arts promoter, the reality is that creating opportunities for other photographers often impedes my own art practice. This is not to say that I do not live a creative life. In my “business hours” position as the Assistant Director of the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York City, I design advertisements and catalogues, manage inventory, write press releases, and curate the occasional exhibition. After hours, I manage and write for my photography magazine, Don’t Take Pictures. I also curate independently, write for other publications, and attend portfolio review events. These jobs are themselves creative and constant sources of inspiration for my photography. Some of them also help to pay the bills.

Admittedly, it is unusual for someone my age to have moved relatively seamlessly into a career in the arts. Young people often struggle to be taken seriously, and at times my lack of years has been a hurdle. However, youth comes with certain advantages that are often overlooked. For example, just out of college, and without any job prospects, I was able to make a long-distance move from Boston to Virginia with minimal hesitation. I put my meager savings into opening a photography gallery and hoped that everything would work out, reasoning that if it didn’t, losing my own money was better than losing the bank’s. When you don’t have much to lose, you don’t worry as much about losing it. Looking back, I see how naïve I was about small business operations, but perhaps if I had had more experience I would have been too wary to take the plunge into art dealing.

The Kiernan Gallery opened its doors in November 2011, six months after I graduated from The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. As I was making plans to open the gallery, while simultaneously careening toward graduation, I was surprised at how many recent graduates with art degrees were entering the world with sparse résumés, if they had one at all. I myself had only a handful of juried shows and my thesis exhibition. Of course, timing is everything, and it was at this time that I met a boy. After a whirlwind romance, he asked me to move with him to Virginia while he attended law school (we are still together five years and three states later). Opening a gallery had always seemed like something that I might do later in life, but intrigued by the idea of moving somewhere new, I researched the area. The low cost of living and disproportionally large arts community suggested that I could make this dream a reality sooner than expected. My goal with The Kiernan Gallery was to create a venue where emerging photographers like myself could exhibit their work. Had I stayed in Boston, there is no way that I would have been able to afford to rent an apartment, let alone an exhibition space. In the name of romance, I packed my things and moved south.

I signed the lease on the gallery space two weeks after my boyfriend and I unloaded our U-Haul at the apartment that we had rented sight-unseen. The former sporting goods store that would become my photography gallery had original pine floors and exposed brick that provided just the right amount of charm to help potential collectors envision hanging the art in their homes. The gallery consisted of two rooms, one for group exhibitions and the other for solo shows. Each month’s group exhibition was curated from a pool of submissions by a gallerist, editor, curator, or photographer interested in discovering new artists; I curated the solo shows. The juried show model helped photographers expand their professional contacts, something that I benefited from as well; developing relationships with the jurors as well as the artists I had shown. Located on the same street as five other art galleries, and situated between two colleges, my gallery quickly found a place among Lexington, Virginia’s art lovers and the larger photographic community.

Over the next three years I mounted more than 30 exhibitions with corresponding catalogues, and expanded the gallery’s activities to include off-site pop-up shows and other events. Located in the rural Shenandoah Valley, I relied heavily on the internet to present work and reach people beyond the borders of my small town. As a photographer, my love for a finely crafted print runs deep, and as an art dealer, I appreciate collectors who purchase original art online instead of buying only what is geographically convenient. Experiencing art as reproduction is not a new concept, but has become more prevalent with the rise of digital technology. For that reason, the gallery’s website, social media presence, and newsletter were designed with the understanding that most of the people on our mailing list might never experience The Kiernan Gallery as a brick and mortar space.

As is often the case with projects and career paths, one thing leads to another in unexpected ways. So it went with my shift from gallerist to writer and publisher. From the outset, my time in Virginia was finite. Knowing that I would move again (destination unknown) upon my boyfriend’s graduation from law school, I wanted to find a way to continue the work that I had started regardless of where I lived. I felt invested in a number of the photographers that I had exhibited, and though we did not have a representation arrangement, I wanted to maintain these relationships. A printed publication seemed like an excellent way to present a portfolio and accompany it with writing that was more in-depth than an artist or curator’s statement. Deliverable directly to doorsteps, neither the readers’ proximity to the art, nor my proximity to the reader, would matter. More experienced and more connected to the photographic community, I called on friends and colleagues for help with writing, design, and promotion. Showing excellent photography is important, but having something to say about it elevates both the artist’s work and the medium itself to a new level. The magazine’s title references the shift in vocabulary from “taking” pictures to “making” them, while also serving as an attention-grabbing name. Don’t Take Pictures connects a global audience with photographers who engage in the considered act of making photographs.

Learn more about Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: The Artist as Culture Producer at  University of Chicago Press Books .

Learn more about Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: The Artist as Culture Producer at University of Chicago Press Books.

While the work I was doing with The Kiernan Gallery had garnered some press, Don’t Take Pictures opened the door for me as a voice in the photographic community. During my last year in Lexington, the gallery, the magazine, and my own photography were all competing for my attention. Aside from a very part-time student intern and the occasional assistance from my boyfriend, most of the time I was a one-woman operation. As copies of the magazine made their way around the country and the online articles travelled from Twitter feeds to Facebook posts, I also started to receive invitations to critique at portfolio review events and jury exhibitions. Having an official moving date on the calendar helped me to make the most of my time—without it, I do not know how much longer I could have continued going at such a frantic pace. At this time, the gallery was my only income-generating venture, and here I was preparing to close it down, making our impending move all the more daunting.

After my boyfriend graduated, we decided to move to New York City for its large art and legal communities. A few months before the move, I interviewed Lou Meisel for a Don’t Take Pictures article about the camera’s role in Photorealist painting. Over the course of our three-hour conversation about art, business, and collecting, I mentioned that I was planning to relocate to the city. He mentioned that he was looking to hire someone for a newly available Assistant Director position. It soon became apparent that we were interviewing each other. After the article was published, I received a phone call from Louis offering me the job. Though not a photography gallery, my position at the Louis K. Meisel Gallery requires many of the skills I developed at my own space, and has helped me find a foothold in the New York art scene.

There is a misconception that those who turn to curating or criticism are failed artists. I have heard it said enough times to know that it is a popular theory, especially among artists. Perhaps if I spent less time helping other photographers and more time on my own work, I would have a more developed art career. Nonetheless, I enjoy watching the successes of my peers, and am happy when I can share in their experiences. It has taken a few years, but I have slowly started to forgive myself for the weeks in which I don’t pick up my camera.

Although I did not have any new work to shop around when I arrived in New York, I did have a new perspective on art making. Only after leaving Boston did I begin to understand the importance of an artistic community. As a student, the community comes pre-packaged with peers, faculty, and lab techs. Without regular critiques and discussions I felt isolated in Lexington, as though I were making work in a void. In New York, I found myself once again in a new place. I was determined not to let this transition distract from my art practice, so I signed up for a photographic workshop in Maine. Immersed in the workshop’s creative environment, I was able to put aside my other projects and dedicate myself to making pictures. Photographers of a wide range of ages and experience levels provided a diverse and fresh array of perspectives on my photography as it evolved. At the end of the workshop, three photographs, collectively entitled “The First Lesson,” found a place on my wall as a reminder of what I can accomplish when motivated and inspired.

Graduating from college had freed me from the project-per-semester model. At first I resisted, then embraced the added time for exploration. I quietly learned historic photographic processes, documented Virginia’s foxhunting traditions, and even took on a few commercial assignments. By moving outside of my usual cannon and not worrying about when to release a series, I embarked on a new way of art-making, one that embraces the long-term. I have recently begun to view my artistic career in terms of decades rather than years. Thinking on this timeline helps me to set goals for myself and takes the pressure off of me to chase accolades and other fleeting measures of success.

I find owning the label “artist” difficult. In my experience, people in the art world will apply their own definitions of the word, deciding whether or not those around them check all of the boxes. People outside of the arts ask me to define my work, seeking a way to connect it to something that they understand. This is usually followed by, “But what’s your real job?” I did, and still do, feel uncomfortable responding that it is my real job, preferring to talk about the Louis K. Meisel Gallery or my magazine. Does this mean that I am not committed to my art? I don’t think so; it just means that I don’t wear the “artist” nametag as easily as others.