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Published in Columbia Daily Tribune, 12 February 2006

A Different Kind of Success

Part of the ongoing series of how local artists market their work.

Vaughn Wascovich considers the 150 hits he got to his website for his recent show at William Woods University to be a success.  He figures "that's probably as many if not more people than saw the show in person."  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But it's a shame more people didn't take the opportunity to see the work by this professor of art at MU.  Take a look yourself, and you'll see what I mean.

But Wascovich's attitude is not untypical for those artists who primarily work in the realm of the academe.  There, it's not a matter of commercial success.  It's a matter of doing good art.  Art that means something.  Art that challenges in a way that almost by definition means that it's not likely to be "commercial."  Art that isn't just decoration.  People outside of the academic world often make the mistake of thinking that this means that "academics" don't understand what commercial art, or commercial success, is all about.

Wrong.  At least in this case.  Wascovich knows all about commercial art.  For the better part of two decades he did commercial photography for some of the biggest businesses in the country.  As he says, he "wanted to be the 'go to' guy for small to mid-size agencies, and it worked pretty well.  I wasn't the best at anything, but I wasn't the most expensive either, and usually the client or art director had worked with me previously and was fairly comfortable doing so.  If you had 6-10 fairly consistent clients, you could do okay."

And doing OK in the commercial realm allowed him to continue his studies in art, through graduate school and then as adjunct faculty at Columbia College, Chicago.  Freed from worrying about his photography selling, he was able to concentrate on the things which mattered to him, and so earned a reputation as a respected artist.  An artist who now has multiple nationally-juried shows to his credit.  An artist who is currently a member of the Harvard Visiting Scholars Program, due to his involvement in documenting some of the nation's biggest Superfund environmental cleanup sites.

How did he do this?  What is the way to "market" your work in the academic world?

For Wascovich, one of the most important ways is to just do the work.  "Set goals for yourself and do them.  I talk about goal setting a lot with my students.  It's not their job to evaluate their work, that's for someone else to do.  They're just supposed to get it out there."

That workmanlike attitude means also jumping through the expected hoops at a given institution.  In the last couple of years Wascovich has participated in almost 50 group juried shows, not because he particularly wanted to but because that is what is valued in academic circles.  What was more important was winning some recognition in the form of grants from the Illinois Art Council and from the City of Chicago.  The money helped, but the validation of his work meant that others took him seriously as an artist.  It also gave him more confidence in his work, and encouraged him to send out submissions to galleries and school shows.

Probably the biggest thing to happen to him in recent years has been his involvement with the Harvard School of Public Health/Environmental Studies, which had people doing work at the Tar Creek Superfund Site.  He was documenting the site (the largest Superfund site in the country) through his photography and mixed-media assemblages and was invited to present his work at a national conference at Dartmouth in 2003.  That presentation was a success, he was invited to become a Harvard Visiting Scholar, and on the 17th of this month will be giving a lecture at Harvard on the topic of his work.

That kind of credibility is gold in academic circles.  And it all came about because he was willing to follow his artistic instinct to do work which isn't what most people think of as commercial.  As Wascovich said when I asked him whether he'd ever tried to do art fairs or informal display spaces such as restaurants:  "at some point I just told myself to not even consider that anyone would want to buy this work and that's really freed me up, not having that expectation.  Besides, what restaurant would want images of a toxic dump in their place?"

A restaurant that appreciated fine art instead of decoration, I suppose.

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