Becoming a Successful Artist Means Becoming a Successful Business Person

Advice from 2011 Alumna, Painter & Sculptor Cindy Bernhard.


American Academy of Art graduate Cindy Bernhard, a successful painter and sculptor, has built an enviable resume in a very short time. Just three and a half years after graduating from the Academy with a BFA in painting, Cindy has earned her MFA in painting at Laguna College of Art and Design, in Laguna Beach, California; taught at the Evanston Art Center, the American Academy of Art, and the Laguna College of Art and Design; has won many awards; has had several shows overseas and throughout the U.S.; and is making a living through commissions and gallery sales.


She also has a collaborative exhibit with Douglas Stapleton, “Like This,” running through January 2015 in Chicago’s gallery district / River North neighborhood at Jennifer Norback Fine Art.


To top it off, Cindy also recently illustrated a children's book titled, "The Adventures of Hank and Mr. Cornflakes". 


In addition to her current show at JNFA, she has four more group shows lined up for 2015 in Chicago, Evanston, Florida, and in Paxos, Greece. Also, the February issue of Sheridan Road Magazine will feature an interview with Cindy about her “Like This” show and work. And, the art critic and curator Peter Frank wrote an article about her work, which is featured on Cindy’s website.


Cindy believes being a good artist is only one element of having a successful career. As she explained: “I want to stress that it’s up to each of us to make our dreams happen. It’s a full-time job to cultivate your contacts, and find people who are interested in showing and buying your work. Making great art is only part of your career. I talk to everyone I possibly can to try to get work. It can take conversations with 20 people to get one commission.”


“Cindy was one of the most talented, focused and driven students I’ve worked with in the past eight years,” stated Misha Goro, chair of the Department of Visual Communications at the American Academy of Art. “She has a unique and mature creative vision. After her graduation I recommended Cindy to Jennifer Norback, my Chicago art dealer, for the position of a gallery intern,” Goro added. “In less than six months, Cindy was promoted to the role of one of the gallery directors, a position she still holds today. That says it all.”


White Land oil on canvas 20 x 16 2014




How would you describe your approach to creating art?

My current body of work begins with setting up still lifes constructed out of fragile materials, which create imaginative theatrical spaces. I build them up with materials such as chicken wire, paper, cardboard boxes, plaster, toy pigs, and miniature props like corn stalks and miniature lights. I meticulously place the objects in my still lifes to create specific moods often generating humor, poignancy and hopefulness. Life is above all a question of relationships; and the pigs in my artwork become a device to examine this subject matter with a sense of humor.


What are the three most important things you gained from attending the Academy?

1. Relationships. I created strong bonds with many of the faculty and students. These relationships became my first networking circle and opened up wonderful opportunities for my career.

2. Broad skills and experience. I learned how to create art in many different mediums. That prepared me to work on commissioned projects ranging from computer designs to traditional oil painting.

3. Perspective and focus. Being around many talented painters at the Academy also taught me just how competitive the art world is. Rather than focusing on all the other artists who I think are "more talented" than I am, I’ve learned it’s more important to focus on one of an artist’s most important “skills” – being motivated and self disciplined. 


What advice do you have for young artists in school, soon to graduate or recently graduated?

When students chose art as a career, they must think of it as starting their own business. Chances are you won't graduate with a BFA and get a full-time job creating paintings that gives you a steady paycheck. It is your responsibility to get your own clients and meet the right people who will help you further your career. It’s essential that you take responsibility for your own success and not expect someone else to create your future / successful career. That’s your obligation to yourself.   


Deep Hole mixed media 4.5 x 6.5 2014


What are the five most important things young artists should do to better sell themselves?

1. Be diligent with building your brand. The art world is so small. People know each other. You have to be very aware of and proactive about building and cultivating your (positive) brand. Every contact matters. Make sure they are all positive.

2. Intern at a gallery. This is crucial. Work as hard as you can to prove yourself, gain the trust of the owner, increase your responsibilities and make sure you stand out over other interns. Doing sales and learning the business within a gallery is an invaluable experience.

3. Follow up. Constantly following up with people is hugely important. Just meeting someone is not enough. You need to foster relationships. I stayed in touch weekly for three months with a very busy prospective buyer until she was ready to purchase a piece.

4. Have your own website. If you don’t, it’s hard to expect others to take you seriously as an artist. The lack of a site shows you’re not trying nearly hard enough.

5. Be open and look for opportunities. Luck is often a matter of being awake and hungry. Work hard to make opportunities for yourself.


Where do you want to be in five years?

I want to receive a substantial grant to do a very large public art piece or installation; I’d love to have a full-time teaching job; and I simply want to keep making art.


What artists most inspire and/or influence your work?

1. Giorgio Morandi, 2. Lisa Yuskavage and 3. Caspar David Friedrich.


Cindy currently lives outside Chicago in the rural Illinois town of Elwood – the same town in which she was born in 1989 and grew up.


You can learn more about Cindy and see more of her work here:








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