When Vincent van Gogh died, he was not a well-known artist. His brother, Theo van Gogh, died six months later, leaving his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the mission of promoting her brother-in-law’s work. She inherited 200 of van Gogh’s paintings, which were worth so little at the time that she was advised to get rid of them. Perhaps Van Gogh-Bonger’s mission was as much fueled by love and duty as it was an understanding of the work’s potential. Although the general public didn’t appreciate it yet, many artists admired Van Gogh’s work but didn’t have the money to pay for it.
Van Gogh-Bonger started a boarding house in Bussum, then a small village 15 miles from Amsterdam. She would meet people and form working relationships with them. She worked tirelessly with dealers, galleries, and museums, embedding herself in the art world. The work paid off and Van Gogh-Bonger coordinated 20 exhibits of Van Gogh’s work in a decade. She also published her collection of letters between the Van Gogh brothers, which added to Vincent’s reputation and drove up the value of his work. Eventually, she successfully placed his work in museums, and the market had gained the initial momentum it needed.
Some markets seem to emerge naturally, but others are made. In this case, Van Gogh-Bonger dedicated a significant part of her life to making a market for Vincent van Gogh’s work. Even though Van Gogh’s work was already complete, the reputation, awareness, and value of it weren’t set in stone yet. Vincent van Gogh wasn’t recognized as an artist until after he died, when his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger did the hard work of communicating and promoting Van Gogh’s genius.
In an interview with the writer and designer Debbie Millman, artist Shantell Martin says, “Create your own opportunities and do that by using what you have access to.” She recalls her journey, moving away from a fanbase, contacts, and early success in Japan to continue her art career in New York City. She practically started from scratch, sleeping on friends’ couches and meeting new people, in a city abundant with competition. It seemed like everyone else was also an artist.
Without anyone offering her an opportunity, Martin would grow stagnant; so she decided to create her own. Borrowing her friend’s space, she returned to an art form she used in Japan, but wasn’t in demand in New York—projection and VJing. She invited her friends, who invited their friends, and so on. She recalls, “Eventually, someone sees it and says, ‘Hey. I work for MoMA. Would love to do that at our friends and family event. And we’re going to pay you to do that.’”
Martin elaborated in an interview with me for this book: “Now more than ever, I like to tell younger artists that it’s really important to turn your weaknesses into your strengths. If you’re not comfortable hosting shows or parties, find a collaborator to help you in that area but force yourself to do it little by little until it’s [something that you’re comfortable with].
“It’s not really about being a promoter, but doing what you can to put yourself and your work out into the world in a way that is also still authentic to who you are and the work you want to make.”
Value is a very amorphous concept, and yet we all know a form of value when we experience it. Service is a form of value. Usefulness. Education. Experience. Excitement. Entertainment. Symbolism.
Your work is already valuable in its own way. These series of prompts are designed to support you to get other people to see what you see. You don’t need to want to be the next Vincent van Gogh to communicate the value of your work. You might find them useful to simply start conversations with your audience, customers, collectors, and handlers. If you’re interested in becoming a working creator or artist, these prompts will get you started, and I suggest checking out Michael Ardelean’s Art for Money, another Holloway book, which is totally dedicated to getting paid what you deserve for what you create.
There might not even be a commercial motive. Maybe you simply want friends and family to understand you and your work better. Or maybe you’re interested in working together with another creator and want to start the collaboration well. In both of these cases, communicating the value and intention of the work is crucial to getting the creative process started.