Measuring Success as an Artist

[Some background: I’ve struggled with the concept of “success” in my practice for decades. In a capitalist society I never felt successful. If what you’re doing can’t be measured by society’s default (a profit ruler) there’s no way for you NOT to feel like a failure.

So, I started measuring with a different ruler – the progress ruler. Instead of measuring how much MONEY I MADE from my practice, I measured how much TIME I SPENT creating. It made a world of difference in how successful I felt the year had been. This year it became clear to me that I might need a variety of rulers for tracking different modes of success.]

The start of the new year is traditionally a time of optimism. The blank calendar ahead shines bright with possibility. Many of us think about the positive changes we’re going to make – to our life, our business, our self.

While I’m not big on resolutions, I do like to make goals.

I’ve mentioned before than I’m super nerdy about the business side of my practice. I love drafting an annual plan, breaking goals and tasks down into timelines, and logging my studio hours. I even do a mini review every three months, because resolutions and goals don’t mean much if you’re not tracking them and measuring your progress.

One of my early January tasks is to look back on the previous year and review it so I can plan for the year ahead. Normally, conducting an annual review is one of my favorite tasks. For more reasons than just Covid, 2021 was a strange year.

I’d had the collective equivalent of a four-month absence from creating and I knew that when I reconciled my studio hours spreadsheet I’d be nowhere close to my annual creating hours goal.  I was dreading looking back through my timelines and schedule to account for how I’d actually spent my hours.

Not surprisingly, after I’d tallied up my numbers I found I’d logged only half the hours I’d aimed for.

What WAS a surprise were all the other things I did accomplish and had forgotten about because I was so concerned about my lack of creating (this is why a physical record of what you do each week, month, year is so critical).

Because creatives who work for themselves wear many hats, it only seems reasonable that we have multiple ways to measure our progress (think of Olympic judging, where technical, artistic, and difficulty levels all factor in). My artistic score may have been low last year, but I rocked the technical and difficulty level of my practice.

I’d applied to many calls, been in several shows, networked like a boss, joined an online artist community that I adore, mounted a pop-up solo show, hosted tours & studio visits, co-launched a collaborative street sculpture project, and co-curated a large group show. And those are just the highlights.

By using multiple criteria it’s easy for me to see that I had a wildly successful year despite being so far from reaching my desired creating hours.

As you move forward into this new year, consider putting a system in place to track your progress. It doesn’t have to be complex or uber-nerdy (unless you want it to be).

I use a combination of a physical monthly planner (events), Evernote (daily task lists), word docs (timelines, submissions), and an excel spreadsheet (studio hours) to track my growth. If this sounds too overwhelming, you could do most of your tracking in a weekly/monthly planner and just jot down studio hours in there.

Measuring success as an artist takes a bit of work to set up, but finding the ways which best tally the growth in your practice and life is a game-changer. Trust me, there’s nothing that motivates more than starting out a fresh new year already feeling like a winner.

What are the ways in which you can measure your progress? Not tracking your progress yet? What simple step can you do to start?

6 Responses to “Measuring Success as an Artist”

  1. Sharon Reay says:

    So helpful, Jody. I have, at various times, begun to jot down studio time – but usually it falls by the wayside after a few weeks, when I either miss a few days (or misplace the notebook I was using). This time, I actually purchased the monthly planner to record my progress.

  2. I really resonate with this post because there are so many things that go into art making and so many ways to be and feel successful. I also use a physical/digital combo to plan and track my goals (Google calendar, physical planner-trying the Best Self quarterly planner this year, evernote for project specific notes, and Asana). I start with brainstorming annual goals around how I want to feel and what I want to have down in 5, 3, and 1 year and then work backward to break that down into projects. I love looking back at brainstorms from past years because often I do something I had thought of but didn’t focus on. And of course, some things I thought I wanted to do just don’t happen and that’s ok too. I’m trying to learn how to create open space for the unexpected opportunities because those are often the most exciting and rewarding!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your process, Stephanie. You obviously love planning as much as I do! I, too, aim to create goals around my desired feelings, though I need to be constantly reminded that I’m not just aiming for something to “do the thing” 😉 The idea of saving open space for the unexpected is brilliant and something I haven’t done in the past. I’ll definitely be working that into my 2022 plan!

  3. Jean says:

    Always so impressed with your organization and tracking! Time can just keep going~ love that you are seeing all the carats in your diamond of life! As creatives it can get really abstract… thank you for blogging, this all of it— it maybe needs to be a course!!

    • Thanks so much for reading, Jeannie! Thrilled that you find it useful. It makes SUCH a difference to be open to seeing the many different ways success can be measured. I sure wish I had taken a course on gauging success as a creative about 20 years ago. I’ve listened to an excellent book on measuring from where you started vs. measuring how short you came up: The Gap and the Gain – you might enjoy it, too.