Michelangelo had them. Warhol had them. Not only did Picasso have them, he was one of them as a child -- his father's. Chihuly relies exclusively on them since an auto accident cost him his depth perception in the 1970's. Few artists get to be famous all by themselves. What these and many, many others have in common are assistants. It's not a dirty word, and in this context should not evoke visions of art factories and sofa-sized paintings.
To assist: 1 to give help to; aid 2 to work with as a helper.
Let's face it: we all need a little help now and then, some of us more so than others. You might be the next Pollock waiting to be discovered, but are you good at - and have the time for - all those nitty-gritty details in the office or in smoozing prospective collectors? If you're fortunate enough to have your own agent/rep working for you, don't you still have a nagging feeling in the back of your head that there is a lot more that could and should be done to promote you and maximize the exhibition of your work?
All of us need assistants if we want to become professionals. The portrait of the artist as a lone wolf is merely a modern factoid, probably brought on by late 20th Century leisure time which allows so many of us to pass ourselves off as artists, when in fact we're just hobbyists. If you need to produce and sell work in order to eat, then you need help. Allowing others to shoulder some of the load allows us more time in the studio, or perhaps just more effective time, but time nevertheless.
Historically, assistants were the product of the guild or apprentice system. How else was artistic knowledge to be passed down through the Ages without modern education and those ubiquitous MFA programs? Neither photography nor offset printing had been invented, so human hands and eyes took their place in popularizing the art of the times.
Just how can you as a professional artist utilize an assistant? Let's run down a list of things you can allow others to do for you that have no connection with your creative side:
· Office work is the first one that comes to mind. This is administrative effort and doesn't bring in any money. It just needs to get done. Paying bills and collecting money. Doing the books. Maybe even getting to know some of that application software on your new computer and thereby producing a snappy business card or brochure. Think of all those mundane paperwork chores that keep you awake at night because you haven't gotten around to them.
· Running errands is another good use of assistants. Don't like to go to the post office? Need to pick up that framing from the shop around the corner? How about dropping off some flyers announcing your latest exhibition? I don't know about you, but personally I spend a couple of hours a day on this kind of busywork.
· Ancillary work around the studio is a natural. Stretching, matting and framing canvasses are not exactly creative pursuits. They are just a step above sweeping the floor, which also has to be done on occasion. How about packing and shipping? If your assistant is artistically inclined, it would seem reasonable to allow him/her to help in some of the prep work on your pieces.
· Promotional work is something that we all should be doing more of. You've got that exhaustive mailing list from all the folks who have shown up at your exhibitions over the years; why aren't you working it? Wouldn't you like some competent help in producing new literature depicting your latest work? I'll bet every one of you needs help in researching new exhibitions - show or die.
Many of these functions can be farmed out, and to that extent an assistant might not necessarily be required in your particular case. There is that frame shop around the corner. Your local copy service can help to some extent with your literature. And you can contract with a cleaning service to keep your studio presentable. But that's not the same as having these capabilities in house. For one thing, your assistant is under your control. He/she knows you and how you like to work, and is always on call. There is a synergy involved in working closely with others that can't be duplicated across the counter in a stranger's shop.
And the final reason for having assistants is simply that lone wolves get lonely. It is very difficult to conduct a professional business in an isolated studio without interpersonal contacts. We are a social species, and are at our best when interacting with others. Not only is working alone lonely, it's downright hazardous to the success of our endeavors. Without a sounding board, we are all apt to make some pretty stupid mistakes. Ones that could have been easily avoided had we had someone to discuss them with. Two heads really are better than one. In interpersonal relations the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I have seen the phenomenon time and again: the single craftsperson or artist who begins working with another. Immediately there is a spark, spontaneity, a wave of creativity that did not exist before when this person was in that lonesome rut.
The pay for an artist's assistant depends. If you've got a college close by you can call the dean of the art school and have a student seconded to you - you pay nothing and your assistant gets credit hours. Stuck in a cultural wasteland? Hire someone at a scutt work wage and see what happens. Here pay depends on performance - after a trial period. Did your assistant enable you to double your income the first year he/she worked with you? If so, then I'd definitely think about taking out a bank loan, if necessary, to keep him/her happy. There's no magic formula here - just common sense. Explain your situation and find out about that of your prospective assistant. The fact that the job is in such a creative environment is worth something to applicants.
So, if you are a professional, do yourself a favor and try not to do it all yourself. You'll be a lot happier, and - hopefully - much more productive. And, hey, having assistants is a sure sign that you've "arrived," isn't it?
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