Friday Tips for Artists: Forming An Art Gang

Toulouse-Lautrec, With Some of His Gang

This is a great idea, backed by great tradition. Groups of artists have played a role in the development of one another�s careers throughout history�in terms of support, inspiration, and in some cases dissipation.

There was Degas� group that gathered each summer in Brittany, which later gave rise to Gauguin�s group. There was Lautrec�s group that roved in and out of a variety of Montmartre cafes, and experimented with a variety of absinthes. There was Benton�s crowd on Martha�s Vineyard, the American Impressionists at Old Lyme, and Jackson Pollock�s band of merry drinksters at the Cedar Bar on Long Island.

If you know these stories, then you know that brilliant work is associated with these characters. You may also know that drug abuse and alcoholism was in some cases associated with the same. It seems in many instances that there is a steep price for brilliance�although this is not always the case.

But it hasn�t just been artists who have banded together. All kinds of people engage in this practice for obvious reasons of mutual support, shared contacts, and shared beliefs. To me, young Ben Franklin�s coalition of intellectuals, entrepreneurs and artisans–called The Junto–during his early years in Philadelphia is one of the best examples.

How do you form such a group, regardless of where you might live? Start by approaching the local paper. If you live in a fairly large city, it�s not likely that the major daily will do a story on this, but it is likely that a smaller, community-oriented paper will. But if the town where you live is moderate in population, it�s virtually a given that the daily will do a story. Why? Because journalists are often sympathetic to the arts, being part artist themselves.

So call the paper, get the name of the appropriate editor, and send them a press release. You can do this via e-mail or regular mail. I recommend the latter so that you can include visuals of your work as an example. The release is nothing more than a one-page business letter, explaining your idea, the story behind it, and why there is an element of human interest. Make the story as interesting as possible. Include details of when you want to meet, where, how frequently, etc.

And while you�re at it, you might want to mention some of the groups I alluded to above, and how throughout history this has been a practice of singularly dedicated artists. Just don�t get into the various aspects of drunkenness and hell-raising.

After sending the release, wait a week, then call and politely inquire whether the paper will be doing the story. In time they�ll let you know. Just don�t bother them overmuch, as journalists are insanely busy people with insaner deadlines.

Once this is completed and the article comes out�assuming it does�undertake an
e-mailing campaign with art teachers in your area, both at the college and high school levels. Many are artists themselves, hang out with artists, will gladly pass on the information, and probably join. It will be up to you to decide if you want to restrict the group to the kind of work that you do, or leave it wide open.

Just be sure to ask yourself, is this group going to merely be a collection of polite coffee sippers who gather to socialize, or are you going to get down to the blood-and-guts aspects of creating art, and be honest with yourselves in the process? This doesn�t mean that you can�t be polite, or that you can�t sip coffee. You should always be considerate, as I think vitriolic criticism is counter-productive, and rarely inspires change. But candor, when born of mutual respect, is essential for the advancement of individuals within any group.

Your purpose should be growth, both as individuals and artists. Growth is best achieved by grappling with and overcoming adversity, in both your work and personal life. That, in turn, is best dealt with through candor. When everyone understands that this is among the group�s goals, then you�ll be creating a coalition that may well leave a significant stamp on each of you for the rest of your lives. Good; that sure beats staying at home and doing nothing in perpetual solitude. There’s already enough of that; too much in fact. This is your way to break out of it.

Have a great time with this. And hey, swap the coffee for wine if you want, or better yet, bourbon (then I’ll join). Absinthe? Man, I think I�d stay away from that. Bad news. Just ask Lautrec.

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