In this interview, Saul Robbins discusses how it's not enough to just make the art.
Saul, where would you say you are in your career?
I believe I am somewhere between emerging and mid-career: no longer unknown, [but] not yet established enough that my creative work, projects, and desires achieve broader success with new audiences and collectors. I firmly believe that I am making important work that is slowly gaining more attention, but at a slower pace than I would like to secure gallery and museum exhibitions, publications, festivals, etc.
You have been in New York for some time now. Is it the epicenter [that] so many fantasize it to be? Is there a need to be in that city?
New York City is one of the epicenters in the US, but not the only epicenter. Incredible art and culture are created and produced almost everywhere in the US. However, because so much money and influence is here, I think New York City exerts more influence on every market— not only the art market—than most cities in the US. Does every artist need to live here? Certainly not, but they should visit to gain a greater appreciation and awareness of what makes New York City such an incredible and influential resource for potential creative success. Finding success here is not easy, and I always tell students and colleagues to look outside of New York City for opportunities. There are so many excellent opportunities to be found elsewhere, in the US and abroad.
After I had my undergraduate thesis exhibition, you reviewed my portfolio and provided me with just [such] honest feedback. One of the things you said to me was that the work was strong enough to be accepted into a graduate program. Do you find that grad school is a natural or necessary step in artistic development?
I am always happy to offer honest feedback, and it’s amazing to me that so many people don’t always get this from their peers, mentors, etc. Your question presents such a complex equation to consider. For myself, 20 years ago, when I moved here from San Francisco to study at Hunter College, [my] MFA allowed me to study with great professors, such as Roy DeCarava, Constance DeJong, Juan Sanchez, Tom Weaver, etc., and to receive a terminal degree allowing me to teach at the university level. Thus, professionally and personally, graduate school was the desired and necessary next step for me.
[Nowadays], the market is saturated with MFAs and others wishing to find success in the arts, and the cost of that investment is far more than even the best private schools were when I began studying. So, I am very frank with my students, questioning if this is a realistic and reasonable pursuit [toward] their goals and in line with their financial abilities. If you don’t wish to teach, maybe other options make more sense. However, there is another key component in this equation: the more connected you—and the school and those surrounding you—are to key decision makers, the better your options will be for social networking, which is more than a small determinant of one’s success.
You don’t have gallery representation, so you're fully responsible for your brand. Is that a benefit [or] a hindrance to not have someone act as a broker or promoter for you?
This is also a complex situation. While I do have more control over my brand, I don’t usually have someone who knows the business better than I [do] to guide or counsel me, so my work may not be getting as much attention as it needs to reach success. It is very difficult to reach collectors without an advocate (gallery) invested in myself and my work, who is presenting and representing it (and me) to interested audiences, including curators, writers, editors, etc.
Conversely, unless your exhibitions generate a certain amount of sales, most or all of those proceeds end up supporting the production costs of your exhibitions, rather than returning to you as that all-powerful American dream: “profit.” The critique that many artists hold against gallerists and gallery representation for taking more than they give is rather naive. Most galleries and gallerists are not taking advantage of their artists. Rather, they work as hard as we do at what they do best, and the ones I know and admire genuinely care about the ongoing career success of their artists.
When I had my thesis exhibition, selling the work was my least favorite experience: following up with interested collectors, negotiating pricing, and dealing with [those] potential collectors losing interest. Do you have any advice for artists who struggle or are new to pushing the work?
Work hard, treat everyone professionally and respectfully, be authentic and honest, pay attention, keep in touch regularly, and most of all, be patient. Navigating our careers successfully is as challenging as making the work, and no matter how comfortable we are with all of the tasks, it is vital that we don’t get discouraged by the ongoing silence as we move forward. As a curator once told me, their minds are like Rolodexes, filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people and their work, and they can move very slowly.
However, when they lock onto an idea, they remember those of us who keep in touch. As they used to say, phones don’t ring on their own. Everyone needs to find a style that works for them personally and professionally and to be patient with the complexities of both the art environment and our habits and desires.
Regarding pricing your work, because this is another complex equation to understand and resolve, I would suggest looking at what your peers are doing to guide you: comparing image size and edition numbers, prices, and acceptance or interest in their work. If you have friends or mentors who are, or work with, gallerists and [are] willing to look at your work, they may also be willing to discuss this with you.
You’ve been working [as] a fine art photographer [as well as] commercial photographer, teaching workshops at the collegiate level, [and even served] as director of the Camera Club of New York. Has being involved in such various aspects of the art community made a difference to your career? For me, interning for galleries, working for artists, [and] volunteering at festivals gave me an insight that altered my path.
Yes, absolutely. When I teach classes and workshops, especially about communication and professional development, I always talk about the values and rewards of being involved as much as possible with organizations and people whose values you share and wish to promote. While I was never the Director of CCNY (now Baxter Street @ CCNY), many people thought I was because my enthusiasm and commitment to the mission are so strong and personal. (I was a board member for three years and have continued as an active volunteer for over ten years.) I served on multiple committees where I thought I could have an impact, which afforded me access to many great and dynamic people, including artists, gallerists, curators, writers, organizers, etc.
Helping people has been an integral part of my work long before graduate school, and is an authentic part of who I am and how I respond outwardly to the world; getting involved has always been an element of my personality. Also, I take interns from time to time and enjoy getting to know them and their work and helping them meet new people as much as having them help me with my creative projects.
Do you have a focus right now (exhibiting, grants, residencies, etc.) or is it more whatever opportunities fit best?
[You know how on some multiple-choice questions there is “e, all of the above”? That’s my life because nothing moves in a straight line. I think a good artist is always working to maximize all of these opportunities while maintaining their focus on making the work, and of course, making a living. It’s a ridiculously tough job.
Currently, I am working with renewed commitment, focus, and most of all, a tremendous amount of patience, because we now have a son, Theodore, who is 17 months old, so everything requires more commitment and dedication in order to integrate parenting with the constant demands of this career. Time moves differently than it used to. I am busier than ever yet much less productive. As Theodore grows, time will expand again and be more manageable.
Some of the many projects that I am focusing on right now are following up after a large and very successful exhibition this past March-April in New Orleans that utilized “Initial Intake” and “How Can I Help? – An Artful Dialogue” as the framework to focus on local mental health and wellness services and service providers; promoting two ongoing series, “Chemical Peels” and “Where’s My Happy Ending?” to new audiences; and completing several exciting interviews and writing projects that were more demanding than expected because of how little time I currently have to think and articulate myself more deeply about my creative process.
I am also looking for more teaching and consulting opportunities here and abroad; applying for grant and residency opportunities for a stay-at-home father who doesn’t want to leave his family for very long. And, most importantly and as time allows, I continue to create new work, visit galleries, museums, and playgrounds with Theodore, meet new people and friends in the arts community, and find inspiration from all of it.]
Saul Robbins is an artist focused in the medium of photography. His works have focused on human behavior, particularly on how people interact within their surroundings as well as the psychological of intimacy.
In 2012, he produced How Can I Help? – An Artful Dialogue, in which people were invited to confide with Robbins or other artists about anything, in a pop-up office / exhibition environment in Midtown Manhattan. The project was reproduced in 2014 at Photoville; in 2015 at KOLGA TBILISI PHOTO; and again in 2017 at the Pelican Bomb in New Orleans. The Pelican Bomb also commissioned Robbins ‘to photograph diverse locations of mental health and wellness service providers, whose licensed practitioners staffed the pop-up office.’
Robbins currently resides in New York City where he is an Adjunct Professor of Photography at the International Center of Photography.