What Does Success in the Arts Look Like? - Interview IV with Lauren van Haaften-Schick

Lauren van Haaften-Schick: Art historian, educator, curator

For more information on Lauren's work visit her Homepage
or contact her at: lauren[at]laurenvhs[dot]com

 What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

Let’s call fame what it should be: recognition. The issue of fame is linked too deeply with branding and celebrity - aspects that are very present, but which I don’t feel are the most productive frameworks. Difficult art takes time to realize and to unfold; the logic of fame precludes this. 

My feelings on recognition have shifted over time, corresponding with my own changing orientation to or position within the art world. When I organized exhibitions as a gallery employee, gallery owner, and independent curator, the rapid pace of the contemporary art press and the speed with which some artists are swept up by the market made it seem that fast success is the only kind of success that matters: if no one writes about a show when it’s up, or if no one buys a work before it is returned to the artist, it’s like it never existed. Reviews in the moment surely matter, but we need more complex metrics for understanding recognition as a process that also takes time. Now that I am working on my PhD in the History of Art, I’m biased towards a long-term view. Artists are lost to history all the time, but there are also many figures that historians—and curators or other artists engaging with art history—are able to recover, re-present, and bring recognition to later on. For truly complex practices, that act of recovery can sometimes be more than a corrective in the historical record, as some artists’ works may only fully come to light later on once analytical frameworks are better capable to grasp what the work meant in its time.

What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

This question calls for troubling, or following the bait of its open-phrasing. Receiving rejection can be good or bad, it will always depend on the nature of the thing one hoped to obtain and their relation to it. In my exhibition Canceled: Alternative Manifestations & Productive Failures (2012-2014) I presented projects by artists and curators who created works in response to instances of censorship or foreclosure by arts organizations. The exhibition took as its core premise the notion that ‘rejection’ never has to result in ‘failure’ if you redirect your efforts towards other sites, modes, and forums, which may ultimately be more fitting and fruitful than the original intention would have been.

On the other hand, another form of rejection is when the individual says no, a premise I explored in my subsequent project Non-Participation (2012-2016), which is a collection of artists’ letters in which they reject opportunities that have been given to them. In the letters, artists’ declare political positions, call attention to corrupt institutional practices, or are simply honest about being over-worked and over-tired and unable to produce any more. Saying no can be the hardest thing to do when the cultural-capital, earned through exposure, carries the potential reward of monetary capital, or when vocalizing a protest can actually endanger your status, or when we simply want to say yes to everything because we love what we do. But being willing to reject certain terms and situations is fundamental for controlling the means and manner of artistic production, and if we don't maintain control over that, then what is the point of producing in art?

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

The question of financial or other “stability” is profoundly different in the United States than in Europe or most other countries. One major reason is because our physical and existential needs are bound up with the for-profit medical and health insurance establishments. Here, we must either receive health insurance from an employer, or be able to afford it independently; even with reforms in the last few years, good healthcare is financially prohibitive for many. I know few artists or other art workers who feel that they would be secure if they had a major health issue, and I know some who have had to give up working in the arts because they face chronic medical conditions and needed to find other ways to be able to afford the care they require. I say this because a livable income and financial stability is not just a matter of professional success in the U.S., but an existential necessity. As a result, artists here have to make profoundly more difficult choices about what they will sacrifice in order to do what they love, and “success” narratives are wholly dependent on what one was able to sacrifice or not. 

How do you define success in the arts?

Success in the arts is just as much about the relationships you form and the people you work with than anything else. We choose to participate in this little world because this is where we find the communities we want to be a part of. I keep my idealism close to my heart. 

Do you have role models for success and who are they?

I look to artists and organizers who have facilitated communities, very broadly defined: Seth Siegelaub’s leftist political theory publishing and distribution network “International General”; the collectively operated artist residency Denniston Hill in upstate New York; Michelle Grabner’s fusion of exhibition space, residency, and personal home in The Suburban and The Poor Farm; Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), who are setting new equitable standards among arts organizations for the payment of artists fees, thereby inspiring a community defined by respect for and adherence to those standards. There are many, many others.

Which advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self

Forge more mentorships with people one, two, three generations older. Particularly with more older women, since art and art discourse is especially vulnerable to domination by charismatic men!

Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/ gender

Just as women still earn 0.80 cents for each dollar men earn in the United States, gender disparity in the arts is a very real issue. Entry-level staff in arts organizations and galleries are nearly always in the majority women, but from the management level onwards the picture looks a whole lot different. Most of the students in graduate programs in the arts are women, and yet again, who “makes it” in the field does not reflect that. Sexism and racism are structural and art cannot fix either. But what art can offer is a space or vehicle for thinking-through and demonstrating other modes of relation and production, and being critical about what should not be re-produced in society. That task is not the exclusive domain of art, nor should it solely be the job of the artist to tackle those issues. Artists are a part of society just like everyone else; it’s a matter of demonstrating that, shockingly, things can in fact be done in different and more equitable ways. The tricky part is not how to show that in one’s writing or art—it's making sure we reflect those values in how we lead our lives.