Is It Okay To Say "No"?

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just-say-noDear BURNAWAY,
When I relocated to my current city, people suggested that I should “seize every opportunity” and “be a yes-man,” and that a can-do attitude will help propel me into the world of the professional artist. But lately, I’ve found myself spinning my wheels and doing a lot of free stuff, a lot of things that I’m not too sure fit into the life-puzzle I’m trying to put together. I’m participating in a lot, but as a whole, I don’t feel it’s amounting to much. Do I have it wrong? Is it better to be a “no” person or a “yes” person? 
Doormat in Nashville
 
Dear Doormat,
First, I commend you for having the chutzpah to be a yes-man in the first place. As I’ve said before, it’s a major feat to get out of bed and do anything in this unpredictable and absurd world. In my humble opinion, people should get awards for way more stuff than they currently do—things like carrying all the grocery bags in one trip, or putting together a passable work outfit in under five minutes, or calling Comcast without becoming homicidal. Acting, music, and being a clever scientist are certainly valid grounds for acknowledgement, but so are a lot of other things.
Since there are no awards to give you, sunshine, let’s talk about an ugly little thing called desperation. Most discerning, experienced people can smell desperation a mile away; so as general life rule, you should avoid appearing desperate at all costs. That goes for your professional life as much as your love life. It’s good to be picky. No one with a reasonable intellect will fault you for having a system by which you judge what is worthwhile and fruitful for you, and what is not.

Gustave Courbet, The Desperate Man, 1845; oil on canvas,
Gustave Courbet, The Desperate Man, 1845; oil on canvas, 18 by 21 inches.

It may seem paradoxical, but an artist’s reputation hinges a great deal on what they choose NOT to do. So while your well-intentioned friends or parents may have told you to seize every opportunity that comes your way—they were wrong. There is such a thing as overexposure. And some opportunities are just shit. Period.
There comes a time in an artist’s career when they have to start saying, “I’m better than this.”
“This” could be a variety of things: juried bonanzas at the county fair; coffee shop shows; group exhibitions with other artists who aren’t on your level; art auctions for causes you don’t support; one-night-only shows … the list goes on.
Those types of things have a purpose and are wonderful outlets for embryonic artists or hobbyists. However, if you are at a point in your career where you feel like these things aren’t helping you, it’s time to get more strategic, more serious. You only have so many days on this planet; there’s nothing wrong with picking and choosing how to best reach your goals.
Networking is a critical part of being a successful artist or creative person in this day and age, but you’ve got to make sure you are networking upward. Does that sounds sleazy to you? Well, it’s not; it’s smart. To me, it sounds like you’re spinning your wheels in your current engagements, so what you need to do is tilt your head back and look up.
Get out of your comfort zone, aim higher, and most importantly, learn how to say no. Have you done enough group exhibitions for a while? Then cap them off. Say no, and begin to focus on creating work for a solo show—even if you don’t have one lined up just yet.
Art isn’t so different from music in that way. A band can’t play every weekend in one town and expect their audience to grow exponentially. People get tired of seeing the band play, and they stop showing up. My mother used to call it “wearing out your welcome.” It’s infinitely better for a band to disappear for a while, then play a sold-out show to a crowd of excited fans who have been anticipating their return.
Do something similar with your work. Be selective about when and where you exhibit it. Make it count. If you’re wasting time—or feel like you’re wasting time—on projects that aren’t challenging you creatively or helping you network up, then say the magic word, the beautiful, underrated word that all artist’s should hold near and dear to their hearts: No.
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected] 
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.