02 May 2013


A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at Hillyer Art Space on the topic of arts advocacy; organized by ArtSee DC (and moderated by ArtSee's Elizabeth Grazioli), the panel also featured The Fridge's Emma Fisher, artist Steven Kushner, and Arts-in-Education Manager Ethan Clark. And while the conversation started on the topic of funding - government and otherwise - for me the big takeaway was how quickly it turned into a discussion of needing to be your own biggest advocate. And that conversation has very much stuck with me.
There's what feels like a delicate line between ambition and drive; of working towards a goal vs. working to work, because you have a million ideas and interests and don't know quite know how to handle downtime. Until recently I fell firmly into the latter camp - I've always been driven to work/do/make, but I spent the last decade without a particular goal in mind - especially that of supporting myself with any of the various art and style-related projects into which I was sinking every spare moment.
My parents were/are small business owners, and it was drilled into me from day one that projects and interests were what you did when you got home (and you were lucky if work didn't come home with you, so BE PRODUCTIVE!). That mindset kept me in health insurance and it kept me in steady paychecks during my 20s; it kept me patient and it allowed me to spend my free time throwing things against the wall and seeing what stuck. And then all of a sudden I was over 30, and then one day I just woke up certain that I was better at my side projects than I was my job.
When I left the FULL-TIME ARENA in late 2011, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to be working for myself. I had the mega-encouragement of my husband, which got me through (and still gets me through) every weird hesitation. I'd saved up some money. I got three very, very part-time jobs. I started reading every word of career advice I could, from the NYT Business section on down to Model Mayhem message boards. I picked the blog back up from where I'd let it get all dusty. I spent all the money I'd saved on producing photo shoots, taking coffee and drink and dinner meetings, and turning Panda Head into an LLC. I spent hundreds of hours updating the site and pulling my hair out over HTML. I started the Newsletter. My Mag partners and I got the band back together after a two year hiatus. I said yes to everything. Mostly. I put my pride in my pocket and started sending out press releases when I did something I was really proud of. I was incredibly lucky to have a network of friends and collaborators who recommended me for things and offered me projects, and fear of letting them down meant I worked double time. I can't even tell you how much I relied on my family and my friends and on precious-golden-interns for help when I got stuck on logistics or needed hands. I started emailing people whose work I admired and told them I'd be happy to hold their coffee if they ever needed anyone to assist. That press release shyness eventually disappeared. My hesitation at asking what people's budgets were went away. I started to be able to speak clearly and articulately about what I was doing (whereas before I would kind of trail off after the word BLOG). I put my personal site together. I started getting bigger and bigger opportunities, which was both terrifying and exciting and I kind of had to pick one emotion so I went with the one that would allow me to keep moving forward. I kept all three part time jobs. I keep every receipt. I send thank you notes for everything, and I try to be nice to myself when things don't go as planned.
And so back to advocacy. I would be nowhere without a terribly long list of people who have advocated for me, and I don't even know who I would BE right now if I hadn't started advocating for myself. I feel incredibly lucky to have reached a point where I'm doing what I love mostly all the time, and I'm starting - just starting - to see it turn into a viable career. I'm not totally there yet, and I'm just now working on that whole ambition/five-year plan thing - but I'm feeling momentum.

instagram by ArtSeeDC
related: that "Lost Land" show in the background is no longer up, but it was AMAZING. Check out more of Fawna Xiao's work here.

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