The VVerking Life of Contemporary Artists
Within the art world, there is the persistent myth of an art critic who is theory-driven, with a trenchant inclination towards “late-capitalism” or “Anthropocene”-loaded art speak. A lone, authoritative snob — perhaps even a failed artist themselves! — with a litany of grievances and few friends.
In Paddy Johnson’s view, this myth doesn’t hold. “I think a requirement for the job is that you like more things than you dislike because otherwise, you get mired in cynicism,” says the writer and critic, who founded the influential contemporary art blog Art F City. Look to the work of critics like Jerry Saltz, Roberta Smith, and even the recently passed Peter Schjeldhaal, and you’ll find more positive reviews than negative ones. Most critics are less inclined towards an axe-grinding agenda: they want to cultivate an open dialogue about the urgency of art and culture and how it reflects our socioeconomic realities and everyday life. In some ways, this speaks to Johnson’s vocational pursuits. As the first blogger to be awarded a Creative Capital Arts Writer grant for the form, the Canadian writer established her reputation as a clear-eyed and direct critic shedding light on feminist and activist works. Today, Johnson furthered the enthusiasm and commitment she has brought to bringing exposure to emerging artists in her current role as a career coach for artists. (I should now preface this profile by making the obvious disclosure: I am a former Art F City editor, so Paddy was my boss. Since then, she’s become a trusted editor, mentor, and friend; in 2021, I was a guest speaker for Netvvrk.) Her company, VVrkshop — pronounced, with a very Sprockets-accented lilt, Verk-shop — promises to help artists get the shows, grants, and residencies of their dreams. VVrkshop realizes Johnson’s life goal to dispel myths: first, the lone critic; now, the recognition that artists, especially those in their mid-career, shouldn’t face stigma in accessing professional development. “I think that stigma has done a disservice to artists because it means that there's this idea that artists should be able to solve any problem creatively. And there are these magical unicorns that can do anything. But then, we don't give them the skills they need to do well,” Johnson says. What’s guided Johnson towards VVrkshop has been the mistakes and missteps she’s made in her career. While Art F City was an authority in the digital art field, it was, unfortunately, dependent on the internet’s fickle attention economics and the punishing project-based arts funding cycle. That, alongside the unreliable teaching gigs, was wearing Johnson down. “I got burnt out, and there were conditions that weren’t changing that I needed to change, namely that I wasn’t making money.” Even though she was doing everything she was supposed to do to make her way through the art world — adjunct teaching, applying for director-level staff positions with cultural institutions — it wasn’t cutting it. “There were jobs I was applying for, that I didn’t get, where after the fact, I thought, ‘maybe that’s a bullet dodged,’because I’m the type of person that needs to run my own thing.” The pandemic afforded Johnson the chance to find it. After redesigning her website to allow her to sell artist statement writing workshops, a friend, Robin Cembalest, the former editor of ARTNews, recommended she establish a company that would offer professional development workshops for artists taught by Johnson alongside other facilitators, and thus VVrkshop was born in July 2020. While VVrskhop was initially a success, it soon faced challenges that many new businesses encounter: “I was working all the time, and there was no way to scale the business,” says Johnson bluntly. “It is very frustrating to be in a position where you have a lot of knowledge, and you can see that there are people who can benefit from it if you could only impart it to them.”
Taking part in an incubator helped Johnson understand how this needed to be fixed: she needed to reach a broader scope of artists and cultivate a stronger connection with them and each other. She also needed to readdress her misconceptions. Whereas she felt drawn towards bringing greater exposure to artists, that wasn’t necessarily what artists themselves wanted. She posted a poll on Instagram to her followers, asking if they wanted more press or more shows. “And it was 100% more shows,” recalled Johnson. “Their response also told me something I already knew about the role of the media in the art industry — it’s diminished, as has its importance to the success of a show or an artist.” It was a turning point that led to Netvvrk. The subscription-based network — and yes, it’s pronounced Net-verk — is the dovetailing of an art-crit and run-club hosted on its community-building platform courtesy of Mighty Networks. (“Basically, it looks like Facebook, but you don’t have to worry about destroying democracy by using it,” quips Johnson.) Each month, artists can participate in virtual studio visits with other members, take part in “strategy calls” from Johnson for coaching on networking and time management, and receive an “asset review” where their artist statements, Instagram accounts and even grant or residency applications are surveyed. Participating artists can access curriculum materials covering website design, art pricing, and even how to approach gallerists. Here, studio practice and art opportunities don’t just happen from the wisp of inspiration or who-you-know; it comes from discipline and an understanding that you require goal setting and even accountability from others in the same boat as you to secure that grant or gallery representation. Additionally, you maybe have real-life commitments to contend with: family, children, and elders. “We have mothers who are, quite frankly, completely burnt out and at their wits' end and don't know what to do,” says Johnson of a core Netvvrk group. “I think one really good thing about Netvvrk is that we have mothers who are completely burned out and mothers who are at the other side of that who can offer some mentorship.” In her view, this attests to the lack of mentorship available in the art world, which pales in comparison to other more established industries: “the art world doesn’t have an HR department.” Netvvrk has amassed such a treasure trove of content that new members are assessed to receive a personalized recommendation of content to access, as well as a graph to show their strengths and weaknesses. Like physical trainers, they are given personal feedback on what they should focus on over the next three to six months to achieve their goals. Netvvrk is a testament to the value of cohort-based learning, which is hands-on, real-time, and community-driven. “I think there is tension growing between the perception of a need for a gallery versus just doing stuff on your own,” explains Johnson. “So they’re running their studios and working maybe in a slightly more commercial sphere. I’ll add that participating in the artist-run circuit might be doing your own thing as well.” It’s led to participating artists supporting and holding each other accountable and to larger questions about what traditional and non-traditional pathways toward artistic success look like.
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