BY CATHERINE HAGGARTY
It’s 6:58 AM and I wake up to a text from my twin sister, Elisa.
I’m almost awake anyway, so I swipe to unlock my iPhone and it reads:
“Cath… tell me, what will you do today to be great?”
This message isn’t totally random, actually—it arrives in a timely fashion, as this is something I have been thinking about recently. Elisa, like many, is fervently on the pursuit of success and optimizing her best self every day.
I pause for a moment, trying to make sense of what this means for my modest day ahead. On my Thursday agenda is a painting class to teach, some miles to run, and, later on in the evening, paintings to make – that’s it.
I wait to respond as I make my coffee.
Success - an elusive noun mostly defined by the context of its use. To find what many would deem "success" in the art world today is no small feat. Typically success is defined in press, sales, gallery representation, or a tenure track- teaching job.
If you think about it, hundreds and thousands of people are in pursuit of success in the Contemporary Art World. And, arguably, once you reach a certain level of success, you become influential. But is it possible to be influential without ‘the typical’ description of success? And more importantly, is being influential ultimately a part of becoming successful?
To me, success is influence. I've come to learn that influence often precedes success, despite what I had thought years ago. I believe that influence is garnered through generosity, connection and empathy - not through the use of power, force or manipulation.
Last week, I stumbled on a podcast on The Leonard Lopate Show - The Power Paradox, What Machiavelli got wrong, and it struck a chord with me. Leonard interviews Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley about his new book, The Power Paradox – How we gain and lose influence. In his research, Dr. Keltner asserts that kindness, social intelligence and empathy earn us power and influence. Going against the philosophy built by Renaissance political philosopher, Niccolo’ Machiavelli who argued that ‘the end justifies the means’, Dr. Kelnter overviews his research in social psychology and its impact in today's social climate. Dr. Keltner gives several examples where those that are generous, empathetic and socially intelligent rise to power and influence. From military ranks, private and public sector jobs and even social groups - those that influence the most often work hard not just for themselves - but for the greater good.
This got me thinking about my experience as a painter, a teacher and a curator working her way through the incredibly over-saturated and highly competitive New York art world.
In 2011, I reached out to Kathy Bradford asking for advice on how to make the most of an upcoming Art Residency at The Vermont studio Center. Having only met Bradford once, a year before, a studio visit in which I barely spoke - I was uncertain she would respond at all.
I nervously formulated my question before clicking send, thinking any response would be a big deal. A few days passed, and Kathy wrote back with a thoughtful and extensive list of how to make the most of my month in Vermont.
Bradford, a Guggenheim fellow, modeled and echoed Dr. Keltner’s theory of ‘The Power Paradox’ perfectly. Her response to me is just one example of connection and generosity she consistently offers to many emerging artists.
When her remarkable solo show, Fear of Waves opened at the prestigious Canada Gallery in the Lower East Side this winter – there wasn’t an ounce of breathing room. If you were an artist and in New York – you were there, no questions. Her paintings were brilliant and the culmination of decades of tireless work – but the crowd was there to support an artist who's been influential well before her sell out shows. Influence can and should precede success – Bradford, is a prime example.
There are many artists who follow this model - thankfully. However, some like Bradford, have figured out the perfect balance - and it shows. In the podcast, Dr. Keltner also notes that is is far more difficult to maintain generosity and empathy as one becomes more successful. This, the work of simply being human must be paid attention to by even the most considerate of individuals. For as much as it is wonderful to be popular and successful, one must stay grounded and empathetic for lasting influence.
Both Two Coats of Paint, run by Sharon Butler and Gorky’s Granddaughter, run by Zachary Keeting and Christopher Joy are additional examples of building influence through generosity and social intelligence.
Zach and Chris have built one of the most extensive collections of artists interviews in the world. Their video series is a labor of love and a unique inside look into artist’s studios and work. For those not readily in New York, it is especially helpful to connect and learn from.
Sharon Butler’s prolific and eccentric paint centered blog, Two Coats of Paint has become a staple in the Contemporary Art world by writing about painting and providing weekly residencies for artists. Sharon, an accomplished painter herself, has spent a great deal of time and effort building a community to connect painters all across the country. In these two examples, influence is in sync with generosity and social intelligence; making both Gorky’s Granddaughter and Two Coats of Paint perfect models of The Power Paradox.
If the job of the artist, as I believe it is, is to produce culture, rather than simply remark on it, we must be present and ready to consistently share our experiences. In what capacity we do this is our own path; there is no formula that I can tell you. Social intelligence, work ethic, critical dialogue, and talent all play a role in each person’s road to becoming successful - whatever your respective definition of that elusive noun may be.
Your job is to build your own path to influence, where success may just be right around the corner.
It’s been 15 minutes since I received Elisa’s text asking me what I will do today to be great.
At 7:13, I put down my coffee and respond, simply:
Catherine Haggarty is an artist, curator and writer. She received her M.F.A from Mason Gross, Rutgers University in 2011 and is currently a member of the artist run curatorial collective and exhibition space, Ortega y Gasset in Gowanus, Brooklyn. In 2016 Catherine's work traveled to Paper Paris with Look & Listen, Art on Paper Fair as part of Armory week with Proto Gallery and a solo show at This Friday or Next Friday Gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Publications include The Black and White Project (2015) for the Sluice Art Fair, London, UK. Haggarty was the recipient of the ESKFF Emerging Artist Grant and Residency at Mana Contemporary in 2014 along with the DNA Residency in Provincetown, MA in 2016.