Do you want my advice about how to become a successful artist? I'm not so sure that you do. I have two words for you: MOX IE. Being a product of the academic art system myself, I have advice you might find contradictory, but let me explain. As you advance, there is a point in school when you realize that you are paying quite a lot of money for the experience of two simple things: a studio and resources which allow you to pursue your work independently, and participation in a ready-made artist community. Many people installed in an academic program take those things for granted, and just hope to skate through to greater earning potential.
My advice is this: Stop worrying so much about being accepted by galleries or academic institutions. Don't waste your mental and spiritual energies marketing yourself. Work as little as possible, as work is the great enemy of artists everywhere. Work just enough to fund a studio for yourself and buy whatever supplies you need. Ask for help from other people, you will be suprised how much help you will be given. Lose your apprentice mindset. Lose your student mindset. When people ask you what you do, don't ever say "I'm trying to be an artist" or "I'm trying to make it as an artist" say "I am an artist." It isn't arrogance, it's the truth. Don't suck up to anyone. Claim your own power. Put all your eggs in the same basket. Be reckless. Be daring. Be defiant.
Don't think about shows at all. Think about the art you are doing. Then reach out, not to institutions, but to other people in the same position as you are. Other artists. Band together and support each other, encourage each other to work more, share studios and keep each other on track, work your heart out and enjoy it, drink whiskey and critique each other late at night on the weekends. Build an artist's community with integrity and galleries will come to you. If there is an older artist you admire write them a letter. The list of older artists who have taken me under their wing and given me guidance is far too long to write here. They will be flattered and will probably ask you to dinner. At the very least you will get a friendly rejection from someone you really admire. Here's a letter Jasper Johns wrote to me telling me he had no need for a studio assistant but wishing me good luck. Isn't it great to have Jasper Johns wish you luck?
There's a giant book called Who's Who in American Art
. Using it you can contact any artist you admire in the US. Matthew Barney always needs assistants. I think his policy is that he gives anyone an unpaid trial period and then if you do well you get on the payroll. So save some money and go! The first thing you'll learn is the exact temperature a refigerated room needs to be to sculpt in Vaseline. Regardless of what you think of his work, a year working for him would be equivalent to or better than any academic program.
To be an artist there are only two rules: Work as hard as you can in your studio, and make friends with as many other artists as you can.
In the immortal words of MC5
: KICK OUT THE JAMS!
Here's a relevant link on the same issue: foot in the door
Isaac, well said and about those pesky day jobs, that could be another post.
While I agree that a confident attitute is key to being a practicing contemporary artist, something must also be said for self marketing and interacting with the "money" side of things.
Being around other artists and looking at as much art as possible is the priority for being an artists. However, venues for the communication of your work (galleries, institutions, events) must be sought out if you are to reach more than a few people.
Institutions and money should not be avoided but converted to your cause. Press the flesh, be there and represent yourself.
Keep the faith.