Most artists fantasizing about success in the art world might look to artist Michael Hafftka‘s career as the epitome of that success. With a practice focused on exploring freedom through figurative expressionist painting, Hafftka’s work has been collected and exhibited by some of the world’s most prominent museums: Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, among others. His work has also been shown across the globe, from Belgium and Holland to Japan and across the United States in the span of his 40-year career.
Hafftka built his career through unconventional methods, allowing himself the freedom to experiment. An entirely self-taught painter with a penchant for travel and an unending quest to uncover his family experience, Hafftka shirked academia in favor of self-discovery.
He spent his early twenties traveling through Europe and Israel, connecting with long-lost relatives while exploring the architectural and artistic treasures housed within their borders. Upon returning to the United States, Hafftka settled in his native New York, and began to do what most spoke to him: paint. While making a living as a sometimes truck driver and freelance paste-up artist, Hafftka spent his spare time carting slides of his paintings from gallery to gallery.
Frustrated with the seemingly unending rejection, Hafftka decided he had enough: Rather than wait for a gallery to approach him with interest in exhibiting his work, Hafftka decided he would show his work on his own. In 1981, Hafftka took to the streets to exhibit his work, propping his art against buildings on New York’s 57th Street, a street where many galleries were located. A film by Jon Rosen, entitled ‘Pointless Gesture,’ depicts Hafftka’s endeavors and interviews the artist, who laments his frustrations with the limitations of the art world.
In spite of raising eyebrows, Hafftka found success within the New York art scene. Landing his first solo show at the Gotham Book Mart in 1983, Hafftka began exhibiting his work steadily in New York, with a new solo exhibition opening almost every year. In addition, Hafftka diversified his art business by collaborating with authors on various works. Hafftka illustrated six books throughout the early 2000s.
Today, Hafftka continues to live and work in Brooklyn, producing work at a constant pace. We sat down with Hafftka to find out how he juggles creativity with the business of art.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by the non-verbal experience of art. Painting is completely non-verbal and serves nothing but painting. While I’m painting, there’s no political objective behind it. If I wanted to express myself politically, I wouldn’t do that in a painting. One thing you can experience from my work is that I’m totally into freedom.
How should young artists approach their careers?
The challenge of being a young artist is to make work that you absolutely, completely believe in. When you’re looking for a partner, you’re looking for someone you’re going to bare your soul to. Art is the same thing, you have to be yourself and put yourself out there.
Why do you think it’s difficult for artists to run an art business and sell their work?
I think that the business of art and the goal of art is not aligned. Galleries aren’t scouring websites looking for artists that express things beautifully or express political goals, what they’re looking for is a product that people can buy. A lot of times, artists feel like the only time galleries take them is when they serve that goal. Art and business are often at a crossroads.
How can artists circumvent the gallery system?
I can’t stress enough how being yourself is very important. The gallery world can be challenging for young artists. You have to go forward and believe in yourself. I was extremely lucky that collectors came to me, bought my work, supported me, and introduced me to museums and curators. And I believe that happened because I was eager to form relationships with them and get to know them.
Why is social media a crucial tool for art entrepreneurs?
One of the things I find remarkable is that you can express yourself to the public through social media. It’s changed the art world to an extent. In the old days I’d have to get film developed, so I would go to a photo studio, wait for it to be developed, then go to the post office, just to get one reproduction of one painting out to a gallery.
Now, with social media, I have thousands of people looking at my work. It enhances distribution tremendously.
Any advice for young art entrepreneurs selling their work without the help of a gallery?
When you’re young, you make work and offer it to people at a price that people can afford. I try to price my paintings sensibly – I get advice from collectors and dealers, and I look at comparisons of other artists. While I do often sell my work through galleries, I make sure that I’m working with people that are honest and hard-working. They take that commission because they’re working to sell your work, and they’re giving you exposure to people you may not be connected to.
Why is it important for artists to support one another?
Artists can be extremely competitive with each other. From an artistic point of view that makes sense, but from a business point of view it makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve never met a collector who can only buy one artist. They can buy 100 or 1,000 artists. There’s no reason not to introduce collectors to other artists. It’s very much part of my role as an older artist, I mentor a lot of young artists, and the reality is I tell all young artists is get to know everyone you can, share your work, look at other artist’s work, and enjoy it. There’s no reason for this secrecy.
Why is it important to stay true to your roots as an artist?
At 62 years old, I’m very grateful I decided to do what I believed in. If I made paintings solely because I thought that I would sell them, then I would be unhappy. It’s been extraordinarily hard many times, but artists must always remember and keep in mind that they need partners in this business, people who believe in you and want to see your career flourish. Whether that’s other artists, galleries, resources, family or friends, artists should find partners that help them keep their business going.
To learn more about Michael Hafftka, visit his Orangenius profile.
Do you run your own art business? Share your strategies in the comments.
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