Success in the arts: it’s more than just downright talent.

Art patrons stand before Seurat’s famed “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in The Art Institute of Chicago.

Struggle. I’m no different. I have a good job, but I can’t take it for granted. And, many (so many) struggle much more than me… and you might not know even though you interact with them everyday. But, worst of all are those who don’t struggle, but put it out there as if they do. They seem to have plenty of leisure in their life, but avoid talking about how they do it. And, when pressed about how their lives are abundant with leisure, their answers are often rather vague or convoluted. Sometimes they’ll even throw in a smokescreen of complaints for how some things are so unaffordable. Yet, if things get bad enough wherever they are or in whatever they’re doing, they always have the ability to walk away without any repercussions. Most bothersome to me is that they aren’t nearly as self-made as they project—more like they’re just damn fortunate, but will make every attempt to claim otherwise hiding behind labels like “successful artist.”

The phrase “successful artist” (“successful photographer,” or “successful designer”) is extremely commonplace but, as of late, strike me as ambiguous and questionable. Attend an artist reception or photo lecture and you’ll likely have one of these descriptions thrown at you during the introduction of the artist/photographer. In such cases, I always wonder, what do they really mean by “successful?” Is this something that is measured in financial gain or is it simply a form of recognition for an impressive body of work?

My suspicion here is that most folk think the term “successful” used in this context is that of financial success or at least making a living from their works, and for that reason I believe such introductions or use of this term need to be more specific. Will we ever see a day when a “successful” artist or photographer provides some kind of proof (copies of their tax returns, billed accounts, etc.) that back-up such claims?

With the opening paragraph in mind, I suspect that many of these “successful” individuals are simply backed by some kind of big money—typically coming from wealthy families, or have tight connections to such families that can fund their expenses. I believe the proper term is “trust-fund baby.”

This will likely make me unpopular, but—for illustrative purposes and to fortify my last paragraph—I have wondered often about the success of the late and highly-touted Cody photographer Bobby Model. Reading his obit, he seems pretty straight-forward in terms of his dedication for photography and no doubt, he was a decent guy who had his heart in the right places. Yet, I’ve often wondered did his photographic work truly keep him afloat given his world travels as a freelance photographer? He has often been wrongly associated as a National Geographic photographer. Even in his father’s Wikipedia bio, it says, “He was the father of the late Bobby Model, who was an internationally known photographer for National Geographic.” However, Bobby Model was only published in National Geographic and in 2006 was selected by the magazine as a top “emerging explorer”—I’m pretty sure he was never on NG’s payroll.

So then, just how did Bobby Model actually fund his photo gigs if he wasn’t employed as a regular shooter for some major media outlet? Search the internet and you have to dig a little to find out that Model’s father is Robert Model, son of Faith Rockefeller Model. That’s right, Rockefeller… and not just any Rockefeller. Bobby Model is the great-great grandson of the Standard Oil tycoon, William Rockefeller. For whatever reason, this little gem of family information isn’t included in any of the glowing biographies about the talented photographer. Do you suppose that some of this family money might have assisted Model in his world travels when the paying photo assignments were thin? Think of what you might do if Rockefeller money was backing your artistic endeavors.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe Bobby Model really did gut it out on his own without any assistance from the family trust. But let’s face it, when one is an heir to a family called Rockefeller, such doubt will always exist.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably concluded that I don’t have much love for someone like Bobby Model, or those who have financial resources to back their projects whether they’re successful or not. I’d admit to jealousy more than simply disliking such individuals. But the truth is, such scenarios have existed for ages. Influential and history-changing names like Gutenberg, Columbus, Du Pont, Kennedy and Bush had financial backing from the beginning without having to do much scrapping to access the cash they needed to get their projects off the ground. And many of these individuals did great things from their financially-privileged status. So, I’m not here to condemn such lives. I just don’t think misleading the public about one’s “success” is cool. There’s nothing wrong with being a recipient of such wealth, but at least own it. I certainly would.

I suppose being some kind of “recipient” is relative. I may not be receiving financial backing from the Sam Walton family, but whatever merits I would receive as a “successful” artist (should that day come), I would be obligated to at least acknowledge my income as an educator because that has allowed me to be active in the arts, while it has also provided me far more art contacts than if I was a stocker for the local grocery store.

In short, if financial backing was their from the get-go, a “successful” artist should acknowledge it rather than project an image as if they are cut from the same cloth as a self-made success like Phil Knight (the guy who started Nike).

Considering all the great, undiscovered artists and photographers that are out there right now, surely any one of them could be a household name if they had the financial backing from someone like the Rockefellers.

This kind of thing happens at all levels of affluence too. A few years ago, there was a young photographer working the sidelines at local sporting events. He paraded around at these venues with camera equipment that matched or exceeded what other professionals carried around on the sidelines. Yet, his classmates on the yearbook and school newspaper staff were shooting with very modest equipment. Why did he get the nice equipment while his classmates were limited to the low-end equipment? Simple, because he is from an affluent family—one that owns a newspaper and is relatively wealthy. Is he a better shooter than his peers? Maybe. But, until his peers have the same opportunities to work with the same equipment, we’ll never know. Yet, because he was given the “inside track” during his development, I’m sure he’ll be promoted as a fine shooter and in time, even take his place as a photographer for his family’s newspaper (if he so desires).

To take this subject-matter one step further, even fame from other areas can benefit an aspiring artist. Actor Jeff Bridges (the son of a the self-made, famous actor Lloyd Bridges) comes to mind for his photography and music. Prince Charles, George W. Bush, along with actors Jim Carrey, and  Steve Martin are also known for their paintings. Yet would we know of their artworks if not for the initial fame?

You hear a lot about White privilege these days, but what we’re talking about here is quintessential privilege.

Even in our smallest communities, there are many talented and worthy artist out there that we may never know only because they aren’t famous for something else, or they’re not trust-fund babies.

Related: Confessions of a Trust-Fund Baby

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