SUCCESS IN NEW YORK—BUT NOT OVERNIGHT: STEVEN BINDERNAGEL TELLS ALL
Someone—a stranger to you—sees your work on a gallery wall and wants to take it home, enough to lay down some significant cash. This is a seminal moment for most fine artists. When it first happened for abstract painter Steven Bindernagel(CCAD 2002), he was honored. “That I made something that someone else fell in love with was amazing and humbling,” he says.
The cash was nice, too, but “the money thing” truly sank in as more paintings sold and he realized he could quit his day job. “That’s when I thought, ‘Ok, this is really awesome,’” he recalls now.
The Cleveland native moved to New York in 2004. After earning his Master of Fine Arts in 2006 from the School of Visual Arts, he spent the next four years in the city working 40–50 hours a week as an art handler—plus 40 hours a week in his studio. As he explains, “It was important to me that I spend as much time in my studio as possible. It was also important to me that I eat.”
Bindernagel’s hard work paid off when the CRG Gallery offered to represent him in 2010. He will have his first solo show there this fall. Rebecca Ibel, curator and director of the Pizzuti Collection, calls CRG “an international force in contemporary art.”
It’s also where her boss, Ron Pizzuti, caught sight of his first Bindernagel and bought it that same day. The painting is now one of a number of Bindernagel’s works in the internationally significant Pizzuti Collection—alongside those of such established and respected artists as Shirin Neshat.
A typical day for the 33-year-old artist starts around 8 a.m. in his Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment. After taking his dog, Baxter, for a quick walk, he heads to his studio in Queens, where he’ll sketch, paint, and draw until sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight.
But on an atypical day, Bindernagel might be back in a gallery packing or hanging art. About this he wants to be clear: While he is happy and incredibly fortunate, there’s no need to romanticize the artistic life. If a month is looking thin, he’ll pick up a freelance art handling gig. Art sales tend to slow in the summer months, and this past summer his costs shot up as he burned through supplies preparing for his solo debut.
But this “ebb and flow,” as he calls it, is a far cry from the cliché of the starving artist. That’s one myth he’s quick to blast. “Say, ‘I am going to move to New York to be a professional artist,’ and people think you’re crazy — they tell you you’re crazy,” says Bindernagel, “but get here and you’ll realize art is a billion-dollar industry with a huge net of available jobs.” From hourly work in galleries, museums, and shipping companies to assisting artists, correcting digital files, and photographing artwork, he says, “there are really a lot of options” to get set up and connected.
This is typical of Bindernagel’s realistic, yet positive, take on making it as an artist. It’s not easy, he says, but it is doable. What’s his Number One insight?
Make art. It may sound obvious, but staying focused on this key priority takes more dedication than you might think.
Here are six more:
Plug into the art world. Bindernagel was making ends meet in retail, but to get the life he wanted he felt he needed a job in the art industry—so he became an art handler. This put him in galleries meeting artists, collectors, and curators and gave him an up-close view of how the system works.
This was all very helpful with: Get a social support network. “If you are going to make a run of it in New York City you need a net of people who are there for you—who support you, recommend you for group shows or studio visits, and push you.” If Bindernagel took a day or two off of painting, a studiomate would call and say, “Hey, where you at? Get in the studio. You’ve got to put in some hours. And bring beer.”
Support, of course, is both get and give, which brings us to: Go to your friends’ openings. “Sure, you’re tired, but go anyway,” he says. “You’ve got to support your friends.”
Get a studio. Bindernagel pays more for his 400 square feet of studio space than for his apartment. “It’s really the most important place to me in the world,” he says, and it’s always been a top priority. It reminds him every day that art is a serious business. Plus, he makes a mess. “I need a certain amount of freedom when I paint,” he says. Also, it’s more professional: “People generally don’t want to come to an apartment for a studio visit.” It’s been great, too, for expanding his social circle and for networking. “It’s a given,” he says, that he and his studiomates will introduce each other to any visiting artists, curators, or collectors. “This sharing and community building has been invaluable to us all, leading to shows, sales, and contacts.”
Keep your head up. For the first three years in New York, no one showed much interest in Bindernagel’s art. The reality, he says: “Tons of people are not going to be impressed by your work—be persistent and dedicated and resilient.”
Finally, especially for those still in school: It’s never too early to think about a game plan. Work on writing skills—it’ll help when applying for residencies and grants. Find out exactly what a gallery registrar does, how to store and best maintain your artwork, and how to approach a gallery.
“So many people blindly send a stock note and an elaborate portfolio, but galleries don’t look at those books,” he explains. The key is to be recommended or to build a relationship. “Go to the gallery’s every single opening,” he suggests. “After a few months introduce yourself, tell them you like what they do, offer your card, follow up — it’s kind of like dating.”
Bindernagel found his path during a New York residency through CCAD. “The program was awesome,” he says, “but if you can’t do it, sublet. Spend the summer here. Test it out. See if it’s for you.”
Lastly, he urges, talk to people: “I’ve told you my story; there’s always another artist who’s done it differently. There are many ways to make a living, make art, and be happy.”
Update, 11/15/12: Bindernagel reports that he is “safe and sound” after hurricane Sandy, and his neighborhood escaped the worst. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his studio building in Queens. His sixth-floor space is fine, but at street level the water was knee-deep, and the building is still without heat. Also flooded: the CRG Gallery in Chelsea where his show was to open on Nov. 15 (tentative new date: Jan. 17). Though he feels “very lucky” that his newest work was safe in his studio, some paintings at CRG were lost. “Yes, it’s disappointing,” he says, “but so many people lost so much more.” One bright spot: he has a second show to look forward to—at the Beta Pictoris gallery in Birmingham, Alabama, this summer.