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With a rising number of artists vying for a limited number of galleries and grants, arts professionals are pivoting to careers as coaches. But can they help people profit from their talents? (Hannah Robinson/The New York Times)

by Travis Diehl



NEW YORK, NY.- From 2005 to 2017, Paddy Johnson ran a respected art-world blog, Art F City. “Fiercely Independent,” began its tagline. But art criticism is a precarious business. She tried teaching as an adjunct, but that wasn’t much better.

Gradually, Johnson shifted to providing career counseling to artists and helping them workshop their statements of purpose and grant applications. She realized it could be a business. In February 2021, she invited her mailing list to a webinar on the value — or not — of a fine arts degree, titled “Is It Time to Kill the MFA?” A follow-up email included a link to “Book a free consult with our coaches.”

In May of that year, Johnson founded Netvvrk, an app-based resource for artists, with message boards, how-to guides and frequent Zoom seminars. It now has more than 900 members, most of whom pay between $49 and $87 a month.

Welcome to the vast, thorny wilderness of online artist mentoring.

With ever more artists vying for limited galleries and grants, there has been a recent flush of subscription-based, web-powered coaching and marketing programs offering advice, encouragement and feedback to creative types. This is partly a symptom of COVID, which encouraged people to embrace video calls and group chats at the same time it intensified isolation. It also reflects the growing number of midcareer artists looking for peers beyond art schools and yearning to profit from their talents.

Many of these groups’ founders were frustrated in their own careers. “I felt like a failure as a teacher and a failure as a critic,” Johnson said. Now, rather than hustle for teaching gigs, coaches like Johnson rely on apps like Teachable and Mighty Networks to reach followers and collect dues.

The self-help genre has a reputation for selling unrealistic promises; as they say, if you want to get rich quick, write a get-rich-quick book. But as a critic with an MFA, I’m a convert to one classic: Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” a workbook for unblocking creativity that has sold 5 million copies since 1992. Which left me wondering: Do the members of mentoring groups benefit as much as their gurus?

So I signed up to mailing lists. I started a fresh Instagram account and followed every artist coach I could find, which attracted targeted ads from still more. I sat through sales pitches — like a free workshop on avoiding online art scams from a program called Milan Art that ended with an overview of their membership costs. I even signed up for two: Johnson’s Netvvrk and the Praxis Center for Aesthetic Studies, for a peek behind the paywall. And I asked more than a dozen of these groups’ members about their experiences.

These career support services range widely, from sales-focused to philosophical to pedagogical. Instagram teems with figures like Lloyd Coenen, a painter with a self-described “7-figure art career,” and Miriam Schulman, who calls herself “your curator of inspiration.” They post teasing tips on social media and sell marketing advice to aspiring Frida Kahlos and KAWSes. I passed up the Making Art Making Money School of Business, which sent potential students an excoriating email saying, “You’re not getting any younger.” Another service I sampled, Art Storefronts, described on its website as “An Exclusive Community of Growth-Minded Artists and Savvy Mentors,” will build you an online shop and help you self-promote.

Those who want a holistic approach to art can join artist-led groups dedicated to mutual support and demystifying the art world. On Netvvrk’s message boards, members experienced with galleries and graduate degrees share advice and cheer one another on. Emails from Brainard Carey and the Praxis Center address you with subject lines such as “How Are You Nurturing Your Career In Bleak Mid-Winter?” and “Is Your Life Real?”

And if you’re looking for something more personal, reminiscent of attending art school remotely, the consulting startup NewCrits promotes “a community of artists for the present” via hourlong virtual studio visits. West Street Coaching, a smaller outfit, also offers one-on-one meetings. The NYC Crit Club and its sister Canopy Program provide a mix of virtual classes, online critiques and in-person sessions at their Chelsea loft.

These groups aim to pick up where traditional art education leaves off: Artists want to know not just how to make paintings, but how to sustain a long and satisfying career. The coaches and advisers wrestle with the problem of success as an artist: What does it look like? How do you know when you have it? And can any amount of coaching, self-promotion or community get you there?

And all of them, to some degree, appeal to your vanity. They stoke that glowing kernel of a dream that says: You’re special. You’re an artist. You have something to offer — something that other people want to buy.

Hang Your Shingle

My introduction to Art Storefronts was an Instagram ad, styled like an urgent iPhone notification: “Reminder: Artists who join this week get free website setup and management for life!” A few clicks later, I was on Zoom getting a tour of one of the company’s tailored e-commerce sites.

The idea is simple: Artists upload high-resolution images of their work. A fulfillment center prints and ships editions direct to consumers, at different sizes, on materials that range from wall-mounted canvas and acrylic panels to yoga mats and tank tops. Artificial intelligence-powered statistical analysis tracks your potential buyers; a marketing calendar maps your social media strategy. The bespectacled sales representative showed me a summary of one artist’s yearly take: more than $80,000. If I signed up in the next few hours, he said — at $1,699 upfront for the basic Bronze membership tier, plus $50 a month for the web store — they’d build my site for me. And I’d begin, supposedly, collecting cash.

Art Storefronts debuted in 2013. It now has 14,000 members. Nick Friend, the company’s CEO and founder, graduated from University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. He developed the idea for Art Storefronts after starting a company that manufactures fine art papers and canvas.

As the Art Storefronts website puts it, “Selling art? Marketing is all that matters.”

From the moment I surrendered my contact information, I sustained their hard sell: emails and text messages dangling one of a few dwindling slots in their latest limited promotion. Other emails promised further walk-throughs with satisfied Art Storefronts customers.

“I’ve noticed now so many ads, these videos, you know: ‘Artists, I can help you make $500,000 and blah, blah, blah.’ And that’s always the promise,” said Karen Hutton, an accomplished landscape and travel photographer. She sells multiples through an Art Storefronts website, but that’s just one piece of a successful career. “I have a vision for what I want my business to be,” she said. “Their business education doesn’t align with that. And that’s fine because it aligns with other people.”

Ideally, says one testosterone-laced Art Storefronts podcast episode from 2017 (removed from their website in the past several weeks), prospective members are encouraged to pass what they call the “Does My Art Suck?” test by selling their art, offline, to a stranger.

Friend said that 20% of new members haven’t sold art before. Art Storefronts seemed ready to take my money, too; one marketing email said that my art had “randomly caught” a rep’s eye. But I hadn’t shown anyone any.

Telling Artists Everything

While Art Storefronts encourages artists to act like small-business owners and think of art as “product”— one member, for example, describes scoring a coveted licensing deal with the University of Kansas — Carey, an artist and director of the online Praxis Center for Aesthetic Studies, argues that “artists aren’t entrepreneurs.”

“If they were entrepreneurs, then as soon as something didn’t work, they’d move to something else,” Carey said. Instead, they make art for “the weirdest reason in the world”: because they want to see it.

Carey founded the Praxis Center in 2016. Today, the online group claims 1,800 members and charges between $33 and $59 a month. With his warm voice and shaved head, and seven how-to books to his name, he’s the picture of a guru. When I took the Praxis plunge, asking for help getting grants, I got a personalized welcome video within a few hours.

The Praxis Center grew from a collective comprising Carey and his wife, Delia Bajo, also an artist. His sales pitch hinges on the duo’s participation in the Whitney Biennial of 2002 (a performance that involved washing visitors’ feet and giving them bandages and hugs). People started asking them how they got in. “Unlike what we encountered,” Carey said, “which is, you know, people holding their cards close to their chest in terms of how they made their way in the art world, we began telling them everything.”

Their basic method: Ask. Ask for meetings, then shows. Heck, ask for money. Go to the donor wall of a museum, Carey advises in one members-only video, and take names. In his 2011 book “Making It in the Art World,” Carey describes how he mailed cryptic packages of work samples to four Whitney Biennial organizers, which scored Praxis an interview.

If you want to set up an online store or get a Guggenheim grant, said Carey, he can help. Another draw is the weekly series of invited curators, whose emails are added to a growing list.

Karin Campbell, a curator of contemporary art at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, was a recent guest. A few Praxis artists have emailed her. That said, Campbell told me, conversations don’t necessarily lead to shows. For both artists and curators, “sometimes it’s just about communing.”

Pivoting to Community

Brad Troemel found success in the early 2000s as a post-internet artist and conceptual sculptor; now he keeps a safe distance from the art world, writing video essays critiquing culture that are delivered to his paying subscribers on Patreon, an online publishing platform.

In a 2022 video with nearly 8,000 views on YouTube, Troemel breaks down hustle culture, embodied in rise-and-grind memes about working hard. The ultimate goal, in his analysis, is “to get you to proudly embrace your own exploitation.” During the pandemic, he said, the nature of the hustle shifted from a kind of motivational sloganeering to online groups sold as “communities.” Troemel points to NFTs and meme stocks as examples. Art coaching groups often promote fellowship, too.

Even the fanciest MFA program can finesse the fact that surviving the mental, spiritual and financial doldrums of a long career requires devoted friends. Netvvrk, with Johnson as its red-haired figurehead, emphasizes — well, networking.

“The art industry is messed up,” reads the Netvvrk homepage, using an expletive. “Let’s beat the system together.”

Jonathan Herbert, an artist who said he went tagging with Jean-Michel Basquiat and now resides in Sarasota, Florida, is active in Netvvrk and Praxis Center and speaks fondly of both. “I remember the day of finding a great grant and not wanting to tell anybody, because God knows one more person applying would really screw my chances up,” Herbert said. But Netvvrk users freely share open calls in the Opportunities section.

Herbert recalled needing a recommendation letter on short notice. Another Netvvrk member, B. Quinn, wrote him one. (When I interviewed Quinn, she shared the same story, unprompted.)

Yet even with Netvvrk, the promotional emails come thick and fast, suggesting that you’ll “get the shows, residencies, and grants of your dreams.” Does that bring the awkward tang of false promises?

“What we are trying to do is to make things easier for artists and also to set expectations appropriately,” Johnson said. Sure, members start out wanting to know how to get more shows and find galleries, she continued, but “those questions get answered naturally” as you focus on meeting people and making art.

Johnson has several part-time employees, including William Powhida, a New York artist known for critiquing art’s power structures in his drawings and writing. In his view, the group can help people “understand what the field looks like and how rare it is to achieve the kind of art world success that they might be seeing or reading about.”

Blame the Game, Not the Coach

Some of the coaching groups I explored meet a clear need for many of their members and founders — while seemingly reproducing some of the hierarchical business models (namely, art schools) they’re trying to escape.

Amy Beecher, a former Netvvrk member with a Yale University MFA, sees the uptick in artist coaches and career-development groups as a reflection of an increasingly professional approach to the creative life. There’s a “cringe factor” to this, she said.

“Are these programs inevitable at this moment in time,” she asked, “given the amount of people who’ve been through MFA programs that sort of optimistically promise the myth of a career?”

NewCrits was founded in 2023 by another unsatisfied teacher, artist and Whitney Biennial alum Ajay Kurian. The group is his alternative to teaching at Yale and Columbia (which he still does). “The first art school in America recently closed,” Kurian said, referring to the San Francisco Art Institute. “I think there are many schools that are not far behind.”

NewCrits says it provides “time and attention to be fully seen.” It offers one-on-one online career counseling or virtual studio visits with “the world’s most visionary artists,” including Ser Serpas and EJ Hill (they were in the 2024 and 2022 Whitney Biennials, respectively), for $180 to $300 an hour. That’s a fraction of the price of an MFA but also a fraction of the experience — studio time, campus life, group critiques. Kurian said he plans to roll out group options this fall.

Traditional art educators also cite the importance of community to a life in the arts. “Nothing takes the place of a real interaction with other working artists or your peers,” said David A. Ross, a former director of the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and currently chair of the hybrid Art Practice MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. The degree, begun 14 years ago, caters to artists with an average age of 35, many of whom have jobs and families.

He said enrollment has been steady. “I cannot teach somebody how to make good art,” Ross said. “That has to come from inside. But you sure can help them manage a lifelong commitment to a very complicated career.”

On April 14, Johnson emailed her Netvvrk members after a “bittersweet week.” One of their own, Antonietta Grassi, had won a 2024 Guggenheim Fellowship. Sadly, she continued, the grant is competitive; many more members were among the 94% of applicants who didn’t win. “And what that means, is that you should apply again this year,” Johnson wrote. “Something will break for you. I promise!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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