10 Tips For Artist Travel; Preceded By A Cautionary Tale

Safari camp on Paradise Plain, Masai Mara, Kenya, 2004

As those who get my newsletter and read this blog know, I was invited to go on what sounded like one of those trips of a lifetime that many artists dream of….traveling to India to see wild tigers. I had been scheduled to leave this past Tuesday (Jan. 17), but I canceled the trip. Why? Well, the reasons why and what you can learn from my experience are the topic of today’s post. I’ve illustrated it with images of journeys past.

I’m going to keep the identity of who invited me and was sponsoring the event private, since at no time did I feel that there was any malice or ill-intent involved. But, as I think you’ll see, it doesn’t take either to decide not go on, or actually cancel out of, what seems to be a great trip.

Artists copying masterworks at The Louvre, Paris, France, 1996

To make a longish saga as short as possible: an artist friend asked if I would like to see if he could get me invited to an artist’s event in India. We would be hosted at a fancy lodge  adjacent to a national park which is home to tigers and other wildlife. I said “Yes!”. And, after a short time, an invitation was emailed to me by the organizer. I accepted. It seemed like a smart career move, based on what I knew at the time, with the opportunity to have my work seen by an international audience.

Plans were plotted and plane reservations were made. Then all the artists involved (from quite a few countries) got an email from the organizer with an update for the event. And that’s when it started to look iffy. As in, OMG.

What had been represented to me as an Artist’s Week that would result in a donated work being exhibited on a tour in Europe and then auctioned off to support tiger conservation had morphed into an event in India which was to include a fashion show,  rock concert and some kind of children’s activities. There were no specifics about international exhibition venues and the auction was now going to be handled by a “company like Christie’s”, whatever THAT was supposed to mean. And, to top it off, the organizer said that a new sponsor had signed on and wanted our paintings at the end of February, that is, one month after our week there had ended. Red flags, flashing red lights, danger, danger, danger.

I was going to travel, literally, half way around the world for….this? I don’t think so.

Leaving our names on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, Germany, 1990

While there were serious problems with the changes themselves, the fact that things had changed so much so close to the event was even more worrisome. It suggested an inexperienced event organizer who was winging it and didn’t really know what they were doing. Things that should have been settled long before the artists were even invited (and remember, I got on the dance card late in the day) still seemed to be in flux. Not to mention the completely unrealistic surprise deadline and, oh by the way, can you all increase the percentage of your contribution because it’s (all together now) For The Tigers.

I (apparently along with a number of the other artists, including the friend who got me into this) replied saying, more or less, you’ve got to be kidding. I wrote to the organizer that, unfortunately, I was going to have to bow out. My previous commitments and my working methods made it impossible to meet the deadline. (I wasn’t going to get into all the other stuff.)

My friend also dropped out.

In the meantime, I had bought plane tickets to Nairobi and back and he had bought our tickets from Nairobi to Mumbai and back (I was going to hang around in Kenya for a couple of weeks after the return from India). I had, the day before, sent via FedEx my visa application to a company that handles such things.

Now I had to unwind it all. I stopped the visa application process before it had started and had them FedEx my passport back to me (total cost: around $50). I canceled my itinerary and banked the tickets (change fee when I re-book: $250. Ouch). Friend canceled the tickets he had booked (cancellation fee: $218. More ouch). So, around $500 to get out of it. Not great, but it was the right thing to do, believe me.

So, what can be learned from all of this? Remember, there are no bad guys. Everyone had good intentions.

New Forest ponies, Hampshire, England, 2004

Here’s 10 tips, based on the above and other personal experiences:

1.  You’ve seen an ad for a workshop or a tour in a place you’ve always dreamed of going to. Ask yourself: Is this the right trip for you or are you going because it’s there? How well does the trip fit your artistic goals?

2.  Can you check out the organizer through references from previous “customers”? Make sure that their criteria for a successful or failed trip are in line with yours.

3.  Before you sign up, have an exit strategy. This may mean paying more for refundable tickets (which I had not). It may mean having to leave the workshop or group. I ended up moving into a small hotel in town when I was in Portugal in 1996 because the group I was with at an old farmhouse was the very definition of “disfunctional” and I couldn’t even get a reasonable night’s sleep.  Make sure you have enough money or at least a high enough limit on your credit card so you aren’t stuck in a bad situation for lack of funds.

Roman temple ruins, Evora, Portugal, 1996

4.  I don’t travel with miscellaneous groups of total strangers anymore. See item 3. What’s your tolerance for rude, inconsiderate behavior? What is your tolerance for physical discomfort? Know thyself and do not try to fool yourself or talk yourself into a trip. If you need your own room, suck it up and pay the single supplement.

5.  Which brings us to….Don’t force it. Trust your gut. I had to force myself to punch the “Buy” button for the India trip plane tickets. There is a book called “The Gift of Fear”, which I recommend for anyone who is planning to travel to unknown or exotic locations because it explains very clearly WHY you should trust your gut/instincts/intuition. The punch line is that the data you need is there, but, for whatever reason, only your subconscious mind is perceiving it. In hindsight, it’s often quite obvious why it was really dumb to (fill in the blank with the “What was I thinking?” of your choice).

6. Once you’ve signed on for a trip, monitor the responsiveness and helpfulness of the organizer(s). Do they communicate with the participants in a timely and professional fashion? Do they answer emails, voice messages in a timely fashion? No news is bad news and was one of the red flags for the India trip. And, by the way, two days before the event, the schedule for the week was sent out (I’m still on the mailing list, I guess). There will be only one “game drive” a day and the rest of the time will be filled with…other stuff. I would be a seriously unhappy camper at this point.

Outdoor cafe, Milan, Italy, 2000

7.  If you start to wonder what’s going on, don’t make excuses for the organizers. For most of us, once we commit to something, it’s natural to want it to all be ok. See item 5.

8.  Yes, it’s your dream trip, but don’t get carried away. Be hard-headed. You’re the one writing the checks. The only leverage you have is your willingness to walk away. Do not let yourself be cornered into thinking that you MUST go if it starts to feel wrong. It wasn’t easy to get to the bail-out point on the India trip, especially after announcing it in my newsletter, on my blog, on Facebook….but it was the right thing to do.

9.  If you are traveling with a buddy, once again, have an exit strategy. Travel can have a strange effect on some people, who will possibly do things that they would never do at home. You are responsible for your own care and safety. If someone you’re with wants to do something you think is stupid or risky, walk away. I repeat, walk away. You’re a long way from home, may not speak the language and might not have a cell phone that works where you are. Carry the contact information for your embassy with you and register with them before you go. They can’t help you if they don’t know you’re in the country.

10.  But if it all feels right and good, GO, GO, GO!!! There’s nothing like getting out there into the world and learning what a big, wonderful, fascinating place it is.

The Parliament Building with statue of Chinggis Khan, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 2008

6 thoughts on “10 Tips For Artist Travel; Preceded By A Cautionary Tale

  1. It’s funny, I thought of The Gift of Fear and also Blink when you started telling the story.

    In college I trusted another university’s reputation as an alpha-tester of a study-abroad program. The university people had been taken in by a a couple of shady operators in Europe. Fortunately the academic side of it wasn’t affected, but there’s something very special about a brick house that literally falls in when the wind blows hard. (At least the three tons of bricks on the recently-vacated beds of two students got the attention of the PTB at the university, who had been dismissing student complaints about the housing as privileged whining.)


  2. I did a three-week summer art course at Christ Church, Oxford in 1989. We stayed in a dormitory that had been designed by John Ruskin and, at least, was solidly built.

    I was on what we would call the second floor. There were toilets on the landing, but the tubs (no showers) were in the basement. It’s quite possible that those bathtubs were the source of the saying “Big enough to sink a battleship”. Took about an hour to fill with tepid water. So very Victorian.

    On the other hand, we ate in the College dining hall, watched over by portraits of the likes of Charles Dodgson, Edward VII, Gladstone and other graduates. Food was good, too.


  3. Sad that the trip did not happen, but much happier that you and your friend are safe, healthy, and happy!

    If you learn what happens to the artists participating, will you keep us posted (all puns)?

    Looking forward to more of your adventures…!


  4. Thanks, Cathy! I thought your name looked familiar. :0). Yes, I’m really looking forward to the Sea of Cortez trip. David Wagner has put together quite a group of artists. It’s gonna be fun!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s