Practicing “The Ask”

They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

— Andy Warhol

This is one of my favorite artist quotes. It’s especially poignant for those of us who are self-directed and self-employed. If you want to be showing your work more, you have to apply to more opportunities. If you want to create more, or different, work, you have to log more hours or be willing to venture into an exploration phase in your studio.

When I was a much younger artist, six years into my professional practice, I found myself getting frustrated. Why wasn’t my work getting shown? Why wasn’t I being invited to participate in group shows? Why wasn’t my career advancing?

I’d graduated from art school (yay! good for me!) and even developed a somewhat consistent studio practice. Although I had amassed a body of work, none of it was getting shown.

The answer turned out to be very simple. I hadn’t yet embraced Warhol’s famous quote.

I wanted to advance my art career, but I wasn’t doing anything to MAKE that happen. The audience I wanted was not going to have a chance to see my work unless I MADE IT HAPPEN. As much as the introverted me would have liked, I couldn’t just sit around the studio creating work if I wanted to attain my artistic goals. I had to make changes to my habits.

The Ask

One key concept that I needed to get comfortable with was “The Ask”. This included looking for opportunities that my work would be a fit for and applying to submission calls. The galleries and artist-run-centers I was reaching out to had yearly deadlines. Artists/curators would pitch a proposal to the institution with a cover letter and examples for a show that would often happen – if the proposal was successful – 8-18 months later. Because I didn’t have relationships with any curators, I was essentially pitching myself as a “free agent”.

By pro-actively reaching out and “asking” galleries to exhibit my work I secured and successfully mounted one duo and seven national solo shows over a 10 year period. [full disclosure: there were A LOT of rejections along the route to those shows]

Harnessing the Power of The Ask

Currently I’m learning that you can harness the power of The Ask in bigger ways. Instead of waiting for an opportunity to present itself, I’m training myself to be open to making it happen.

  • Can’t find a residency that’s a good fit? Think about how to create your own version of a residency.
  • Feeling isolated and disconnected after 2 years on-and-off Covid quarantine? Take steps to reach out and reconnect with your community.

You Have to Change Things Yourself

If you can embrace this powerful statement, it’s a life-changer. It motivates you to shift from operating your life passively to actively pursuing goals. Objects at rest will stay at rest, objects in motion will stay in motion.

Which brings us back to The Ask.

Often we don’t have easy access to the resources we need to take the next step in our practice (that’s why we’re applying for opportunities).

In order for us to make things happen, we can’t do it alone. We need help. It might be financial, it might be physical, it might require skills that we do not have. Whatever it is, we’re probably going to have to ask at least one person for something…and that can be super stressful.

What if you ask and the answer is “NO”? Yup, it’s always a possibility that you’ll receive a negative response and feel sh!tty and rejected. Here’s another possibility: what if you ask and the answer is “YES”?

Embracing Rejection

In 2014 I attended a conference for entrepreneurs (WDS). Speaker Jia Jiang recounted a social experiment he conducted: 100 Days of Rejection. In summary: to condition himself against rejection, Jia decided to practice asking for things from people. He expected to get rejected but noticed immediately that almost everyone responded positively to his asks. As he got deeper into his project Jia’s confidence grew and the asks got bigger and bigger. At one point he asked a complete stranger if he could fly their airplane. They said “yes”.

(Jia is an engaging and witty speaker – you can watch the full talk here).

As someone who experiences a lot of anxiety when it comes to asking, I found the results of Jia Jiang’s experiment to be incredibly inspiring. The takeaway: Just ask. Don’t let the fear of rejection stop you from asking and making change happen. More often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the response.

So, now that you’re all fired up and inspired, what changes are you going to make and what are you going to ask for?

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