Art Business: Artists and Apprentices

Today, aspiring professional artists have many ways of gaining hands-on experience while gaining insight into the art business field in which they will eventually be working.

by Daniel Grant

Today, aspiring professional artists have many ways of gaining hands-on experience while gaining insight into the art business field in which they will eventually be working. Some young artists get jobs at art-supply manufacturers or stores, hoping to better understand the tools and materials of their trade. Others work at galleries in an attempt to learn the business side of the profession as well as what is currently selling in the art market. And still others prefer to take the traditional route and serve as an apprentice to a professional artist, learning new skills and becoming acquainted with some of the high-powered collectors, critics, curators, and dealers who operate within it.

A Rauschenberg combine, 1963.
A Rauschenberg combine, 1963.

The actual duties associated with an apprenticeship vary depending on the artist for whom one works, but apprentices generally do the daily tasks that help an artist keep his or her creative life in order. “I basically did everything,” says one former apprentice, who is now a professional artist. “I managed the money, ran the studio, and contacted galleries, critics, and collectors.” Although apprentices often have to do some rather menial tasks—ranging from stretching canvases and cleaning brushes to answering phones and making coffee—they are also privy to the entire artistic process from start to finish, which can be an invaluable experience for a budding artist.

Some professional artists establish a personal relationship with their assistants, talking with them about art and other topics, while others converse only about the tasks that need to be performed. That kind of distance may come as a shock to young artists who expect that being an apprentice will lead to a mentor type of relationship and perhaps even provide opportunities to advance their own careers. Brice Marden, who was an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg for four years, explains that, “my job was to have everything prepared so that it was easier for Bob to paint.” Assistants who can maintain that kind of attitude will most likely have an easier relationship with the artists for whom they work.

The apprentices who can endure long enough to learn from the artist and develop relationships within the art world will almost always see a payoff. Rauschenberg ended up buying Marden’s work and hanging it in his studio for all to see, which led to opportunities for the assistant. “I first met the De Menils [Houston-area art collectors and museum founders] when I was working for Bob, and they eventually started collecting my work,” Marden tells. Victor and Sally Ganz, also collectors of Rauschenberg’s work, began buying the paintings of Dorothea Rockburne after meeting her at Rauschenberg’s studio when she was an assistant there. Both Marden and Rockburne state that they, in turn, have also tried to open doors for their assistants. In fact, one time Rockburne brought a French dealer to the studio of one of her assistants and that collector ended up buying the studio out, allowing her to stop her apprenticeship and paint full time.

One of the issues often inherent in the artist/apprentice relationship is that assistants may sometimes lose their artistic identity. “It’s a natural phase of working for other artists,” Rockburne says. “Your work is going to look similar to theirs at some point, but I often tell artists to work through that to get to the other side. If you can do that, it shows your strength of character as an artist.” Other young apprentices find that when working as assistants, the more responsibilities they are given, the less time is available to do their own work. “It’s very hard to focus on your own work when you spend a lot of time working for someone else,” one assistant admits. “It’s like any job: the more time you devote to one task, the less time you have for others.” Her response was to eventually leave the position and dedicate more time to her own artwork.

Some individuals work as a particular artist’s assistant for an extended period of time, which maintains continuity and limits artistic interruptions, but sometimes both artist and assistant recognize that a long association is not healthy for either one. Sculptor Mel Kendrick states that, after a number of years, an assistant’s view of the artist’s process can become overly narrow. “Basically, the assistant learns your way of working and feeds it back to you,” he says. “An artist can ossify.” On the other hand, a new perspective can bring growth on both ends. “I like having contact with the younger world,” says Marden. “New people bring in new ideas.”    

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