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Looking at CJ Hendry and the paths into a successful career as an artist.

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

C J Henry holds her drawing 'Kash Kurrency'. Ballpoint pen on paper, commissioned by Kanye West.

Disclaimer: I am in no way saying that young artists should aim to become famous through social media - totally not my jam. This post is meant to highlight how I've grown sceptical of the traditional models of success in the fine art world and that there is hard evidence of young people, right now, building new models. CJ Hendry is a good example because she used sales advertised through social media to host her own gallery shows, resulting in huge commission jobs and essentially bypassing the initiation process into the commercial art hall of fame.

Okay hear me out on this one, CJ Hendry is someone that artists and the entire fine art world loves to hate, and it took me a good minute to come around to her too. Not only has she landed herself in hot water multiple times for being culturally insensitive and environmentally unfriendly, she works in a hyper -realistic style that the 'fine art' world considers shallow AND she gained her fame and money through Instagram.

So, I don't really like her art at all and perhaps that's just taste, but it's not her art that I'm interested in. It's how she engages with the public and funds her own shows. Recently, a few discussions in tutorials have made me consider how I define success, what I think success looks like, and what barriers I've put around my own practice to try to adhere to these invisible models.

CJ Hendry has made millions from selling her art online and completely bypassed the gatekept gallery industry by setting up her own large scale commercial exhibitions in unlikely places. Some of them are interactive, there's treasure hunts for free artworks, there's even one where the white gallery walls and floors are a jumping castle! She chares free admission to the public and sells loads and loads of merch. Her self promotion has led to her original work being wildly sought after and her being commissioned to make work for high end celebrities. Liken it more to a business if you wish, which it is in a sense, but by making her work so accessible to the public and raking in the cash where it is offered to her in the form of wall-décor commissions she now has the freedom to expand her art without restriction. Whereas for many of us it is the other way around - perfect your art first and then reveal yourself as an emerging artist, the process from then on should be linear.

For most of my career I have ben pushed by mentors, teachers and fellow artists to aim for art prizes, grants, publications. Unless you're making work that's purpose is to address capitalism or the gatekeeping of the art world itself, don't sell prints, don't print your work on tea towels or bed spreads or do anything that will compromise your purity, until you get into the commercial world. Exhibit at a gallery with a good name and beg them to sign you on, then you can sell your work for 'what it's worth'.

Most of the artists working around me are well aware of these barriers but feel this is the life they chose.

'Art is a hard industry to break into'

'The government doesn't provide enough funding or value the arts'

'It's basically chance if you get a big break or not, but if you're good enough you'll eventually get noticed"

or, my Dad's favourite:

"Let's fake your death and finally we can make loads of your money from your art"

So sure, there's artist run initiatives, collectives, student services, art fairs, group exhibitions and other avenues to get work into spaces but I'm thinking about beyond that. For every emerging artist and graduate how many 'make it'? and by 'make it' I mean find financial stability, job security as working artists and aren't prey to a market climate or fashionability? You know, like what you get in every nearly every other professional industry after 5+ years of formal training.

For how long can I continue my art purely for the pursuit of excellence when I would love the prospect of buying a house to be a reality for me by the time I'm 35, or to not have to work two freelancing jobs anymore. I have people asking me to do commissions of pets, grandmas and décor stuff, but why do I feel it cheapens my 'fine art' to capitalise in on a skill that I've worked hard for? Where did this invisible barrier come from?

When I think about money and my art I get stuck on the last show I had before Melbourne's first lockdowns in 2020. It was the most successful show I've had, and it was in an Air B'n'B. Some friends of mine knew the owner and we installed a huge show in the empty house, took donations, had live music, BYO booze and food, and I sold loads of prints and small works. Prior to that I had a show at a popular bar and sold some larger works to local collectors, yet just a few months before I had forked out almost $3000 of hard earned cash for a commercial gallery space that got me nothing more than another line on my CV and heaps of bunches of flowers. That was the milestone moment in my career, not the epic Air B'n'B show..?

I guess, I'm thinking a lot about what I'm aiming for, academia and fine art will always be my goal, and I will always continue exploring my art conceptually but I also I want to remodel my definition of success, because frankly this isn't my hobby. It's a field I am trained in, a field I value, am dedicated to and want to spend my future in. I will owe tens of thousands of dollars for my education and did I really choose to do that for a Maybe? Because if I follow the competitive model of grants/awards/publications > residencies > gallery signing and so on then when can I own a property? even own my own studio? That model provides no stability? So, the reality for most is that Being an artist is probably going to be a side gig and we can aim to work in the arts industry, education or sell tea towels....

I'm looking out for new ideas and ways that I can use my skills as a labour to fund more shows of my own, like I did with the Air B'n'B. Maybe one day it will lead to something and I'll get my house.


CJ Hendry's Instagram handle is:

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