We talk a lot about the importance of being your own biggest fan and a strong marketer as an independent, professional artist. In our last post, we discussed the feeling that the art world is one big gated community where entry is impossible. In that post, we made a point to emphasize that there is work, hard work, involved in the success of just about every artist thriving today. Occasionally we like to present real world examples of those artists not only to demonstrate the kind of path one might take to achieve success, but to show that it can be done.
Today we meet Stacey Kirby, a North Carolina artist who, in 2016, won the $200,000 grand prize at ArtPrize Eight. Kirby’s interactive performance piece titled The Bureau of Personal Belonging explores questions of personal validity within the community as well as the politics of identity and civil rights. Kirby uses interactive performance to create the atmosphere of a government office. Participants fill in forms asking probing questions such as what they bring with them into the space (anything from the contents of their pockets to the thoughts in their heads) or an explanation of their family, relationship, or lifestyle. Kirby then uses their responses to shed light on the way in which communities and the nation interfere with personal life choices and civil rights, deeming some more valid and deserving than others.
As an independent artist, Kirby has had to be her own advocate all along. The opportunity to create The Bureau of Personal Belonging only arose after an ensemble performance piece fell apart. Rather than let this hold her back, Kirby used it as an opportunity. She presented her solo work to a local art museum and was offered the chance to perform the piece publicly for the first time. Over the following two years, Kirby worked tirelessly, moving from space to space, promoting her work across the country, until she eventually found her way to ArtPrize.
Being her own representative meant that Kirby had to have a way to boil down a large and complex work into an easily accessible sound bite. Working on a pitch allowed her to quickly and efficiently explain the premise of the work. This is something that all independent artists should work on. It is critical that you are able, at a moment’s notice, to explain your work in such a way as to convey the overall message. This is a critical part of your business practice, a bit like a verbal resume.
Stacey Kirby’s work takes on enormous topics looming over our nation today. She approaches them with courage and doesn’t back down. This too takes some practice. It is important to allow yourself to have big ideas and follow through on them. Even if something seems intimidating at first, get to know it a little bit, keep it close, and find the courage to make it a reality. This is your art, an expression of your thoughts and feelings. This can feel like being laid bare for the world to see, but that is simply part of the package when it comes to being an artist.
In practical terms, as we discuss at every turn, funding is a huge piece of the professional artist puzzle. Winning a $200,000 prize is all well and good, but it certainly doesn’t happen every day. For Stacey Kirby, Kickstarter has provided her a home to fundraise for her work. Because hers is a site specific work of art, these days an office space in Grand Rapids, Michigan that holds regular office hours seven days a week, there is a need for people to mind the shop so to speak. Kirby also uses her Kickstarter as one way to recruit volunteers to act as officials in her Bureau. Participants are thanked with their own limited edition rubber stamp.
It’s very easy to look at someone like Stacey Kirby and assume that she arrived at the top effortlessly. Just as humans do not spontaneously arise fully formed, artists do not make their careers overnight. As we have discussed again and again, there is the need for hard work in order to achieve success. What is important to remember is that this is achievable.
Stacey Kirby is a perfect example of an artist who, through her own tenacity and the belief that she has an important message to convey, wound her way along the path toward success. Now that she has reached a new level in her career, there isn’t room to sit back and relax. Since winning the ArtPrize, Kirby has added another element to her ever-evolving piece. Just as the landscape of politics and civil rights continues to change, so too must Kirby’s artistic commentary. Choosing the life of an artist isn’t an easy path, but it is unique in that it allows for the free expression of our innermost beliefs. What’s more, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it’s a way to make a living doing just that.