Thursday, May 26, 2011

The not-so-marketing book that changed my professional life: Art & Fear

It's 122 pages long and one of the shortest reads around. But Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking is a game-changer of a book in my professional life. I'm writing this post in response to the nonprofit blog carnival about a *marketing* book that changed your professional life, so you might think I'm a little mixed up. Bear with me.

I came to this book not through work but through a hobby. I've spent a lot of my career working at or consulting for nonprofits. At one of them, I mentioned to a coworker that I was thinking about taking a class after work, maybe to refresh my French speaking skills. And she said, "Are you out of your mind? You work with language all day, every day. Take dance lessons, learn to cook, train to row competitively. But don't take up a hobby that's so much like your work!"

At first, I was taken aback, but I followed her advice. Tango. Guitar. Cooking class. Salsa. Theater voice training. But it was in an art course that I learned about Art & Fear, which gets read like a prayer book by aspiring artists. It gets at every uncomfortable issue a professional artist faces. Turns out artists have a terrible time "shipping," as Seth Godin says--and that makes it a bit like marketing. It's tough enough to create something with which you're satisfied, and quite another to put a price on it and display it for others to ignore, criticize or pass over...and then do it over and over again. Even worse to stand in front of it while people say things like, "I could make that" (Knock yourself out, lady) or "Could you tell me how you made that, precisely, so I can go home and make my own instead of buying yours?" (Not so much).

From this little book, you can take away useful lessons for the nonprofit marketer, such as:

  • Developing a vision
  • Understanding your audience, without letting what they might say paralyze you
  • Being as creative as possible, without fear of the consequences
  • Understanding why creativity is so difficult to achieve, something we rarely acknowledge but often are asked to do--especially at nonprofits
  • Finishing and shipping
  • Having the confidence to get out front and make a statement
  • Facing critics
  • Building confidence in yourself and your work

The language itself is a model for the marketer, with all the concrete, simple language missing from so many nonprofit marketing efforts. I've given this book to media relations officers afraid to place phone calls, writers who couldn't finish their work, marketers who thought their creative briefs weren't good enough, and many more people who'll never make art, but can make an art out of their work. Nonprofit executives--who compete for attention rather than profit--face the same audience issues as artists, just in a different plane and context.

And me? I'm submitting a body of work for my first solo show at a professional gallery, and haven't even tried to talk myself out of it. I just finished the piece shown here today--the paint's still drying, and you're the first to see it. Let me know what you think.

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