Last month, we covered some of the realities of the art world, including what artists are up against, and why galleries can often seem unapproachable. We also clarified the differences between commercial and not-for-profit galleries, and how this affects the artist selection process.
This month, we will discuss practical steps to getting gallery-ready, and tips to developing more harmonious relationships with the pros who can support your career.
The common sense approach
Most artists would rather focus on art making than on the tedious business of getting their foot in the door. That’s understandable, however if exhibition and representation are on your career bucket list, you’ll have to find ways to become more organized, more goal-oriented, and work within a system that you may dislike or disagree with on a philosophical level. If this rubs you the wrong way you may want to avoid galleries altogether, but if you’re willing to understand how the machine works, here are some of the basics you’ll need to make inroads into the art world:
Develop a consistent body of work
Generally this means that an artist has been exploring an idea, a theme, a medium (or any number of factors) for some time, and to some extent as to reach a natural conclusion. You don’t have to produce hundreds of pieces; groupings between five and twenty are probably sufficient, but a gallery won’t take you seriously if you only have a few paintings to show, or if your work encompasses a wide range of ideas without any kind of discernible connection or throughline. It’s also important to know that galleries don’t have the time to respond to every request for feedback from artists who want to know if they’re going in the right direction. That’s not their role, and besides, different galleries want different things. The best thing you can do is to focus on the work itself, and explore an idea to the fullest until you have something to show for.
Get some exhibition experience
Kind of a catch-22, I know. How do you get exhibition experience if you haven’t shown work before, and if galleries require prior experience? This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. If you’re an artist, you’re likely to take classes or get together socially with other artists. Join a critique group where ongoing projects are reviewed on a weekly basis, expand your network and find ways to work together. Many artists form collectives, approaching alternative spaces like coffee shops and retail stores to put on exhibitions. Keep in mind that every opportunity counts; amateur shows, group shows… you have to start somewhere, perhaps even organize one yourself. Student or peer-group exhibitions are a great way to get the ball rolling. Look for exhibition opportunities online, and if your work fits the parameters, send your submissions. Don’t restrict yourself to your local area either; depending on the exhibition, and unless your work is massive and difficult to ship, it’s sometimes worthwhile to participate in open calls in another state, or even in another country. All exhibition or project-related experience is relevant, so another option is to look for work as an intern, studio hand or assistant to an established artist, and keep track of all projects you have worked on. It can be an eye-opening experience, and can help fill out that otherwise lean resume.
The big ticket international art fairs are a great way to see what’s going on in the contemporary art world, and learn about the type of work commercial galleries are interested in. They aren’t, however, a good way to seek representation. A recent trend is for artists to gain entry to large commercial art fairs (like the LA Art Show), only to jump from booth to booth with a portfolio under their arm, cornering gallerists who are absolutely not there for that purpose. When I first heard about this I thought… this can’t actually be a thing, but turns out the once-isolated incidents are on the rise. Let’s be clear: International art fairs are not job fairs for artists. They exist primarily to connect commercial galleries with serious buyers and collectors. Some galleries have a lot riding on these events, in some cases selling more in one weekend than they do all year in their physical location, so recruiting artists is not on the agenda. There are however different types of art fairs to consider, smaller events at a local level where participants set up shop and connect directly with people who (usually) attend with the intention of buying. It’s a good way to build community, especially if you use social media. If you can establish a base of buyers and followers, you will increase your visibility through word of mouth. Although showing at a small art fair isn’t particularly helpful when approaching galleries, the more people are interested in your work, the better.
Do you absolutely need a BA, BFA, or MFA to be considered by a gallery? Hard to say. I know self-taught artists who have reached an astounding level of professional recognition, and sell their works for more money than they ever imagined possible. I know artists with advanced degrees from prestigious schools who are teaching five-year-olds to finger paint for $11 an hour. Unfortunately, the first scenario is pretty rare, and the second is becoming fairly commonplace. Life can throw you for a loop, and there is no guarantee that you will be the next self-taught darling of the art world, or that a costly degree will get you in a room with powerful collectors. If we look at this without donning rose-colored glasses, a degree should mean that an artist has spent some time developing his or her critical thinking skills, and at the very least, is able to work through problems, collaborate with others, meet deadlines, and fulfill the demands of a thesis or graduate exhibition. It should also provide artists with connections that may come in handy later. However, education isn’t always a good measure of talent or intelligence, and we know that economics play a major role in an artist’s ability to obtain a formal degree, and maintain a studio practice after graduation. The bottom line is, when it comes to the artists they represent, art business professionals are likely to favor advanced degrees over the alternative, but only if the work garners their attention. With tuition costs at an all-time high, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons carefully before assuming that kind of debt. Depending on your age and your financial situation, it may not be worth it.
Approaching a gallery is no different than applying for a job. Both nonprofit and commercial galleries will expect a resume and a brief bio and/or artist statement. There are many examples of artist resumes online, but it’s important to focus on relevant art experience, and leave out anything that isn’t (so don’t include that stint in accounting). List your education, any residencies or workshops, projects (including volunteering or assisting on a project), your exhibition history, any publications, reviews, recognitions or awards, and finally, any collections your work belongs to. If you’re just starting out, it’s understandable that you may not be able to include many of these sections, so expand on what you do have, and keep working on the areas that need improvement. Your bio should briefly summarize your journey as an artist; where you live and work, what you studied and where, what your current body of work is, and perhaps some exhibition highlights. If an artist statement is required, look for examples online but essentially this is a mini-thesis about your work. It’s always helpful to include a brief, well-written cover letter to introduce yourself, and why you’ve chosen to contact a particular gallery.
Website and social media
Now that you have the art, the resume, the bio, the statement… it all needs a place to live. With so many tools available to design websites for next to nothing, from templates to free blog platforms like WordPress, there are no excuses anymore. Galleries get a little suspicious when artists tell them they don’t have a website, or that it’s in the works. This usually means the artist is just starting out and doesn’t have much to show, or isn’t savvy enough to engage in their own PR and promotion. So figure out a way to establish a web presence and start using social media to promote it. Post clear, well-shot images of your artwork with titles, medium, dimensions and year created, and include site pages with your resume, bio, statement, and any relevant exhibition history. Galleries want to work with artists who are ready to go; a website is the bare minimum required to show them that you are serious.
Do your homework
One of the reasons galleries are so guarded is because they are absolutely flooded with requests from people who didn’t do their homework. This becomes a time suck for everyone involved, including the artist. Galleries specializing in contemporary abstract paintings receive proposals for figurative bronzes; digital art spaces are approached by landscape painters working in oil — it’s the equivalent of throwing spaghetti against the wall but, you know… the entire pot. It’s about relevance, and finding a good fit on both sides. It takes little to no effort to research a gallery; they all have websites, and most will clearly outline what their specialty is. Not sure what type of work a gallery is interested in? A simple search will uncover images from previous exhibitions, but if you really can’t tell, feel free to send a polite e-mail and ask.
The art of communication
Netiquette. It’s not a brand of hair removal cream; it’s the dos and don’ts of online communication. Galleries tend to be on the formal side and are usually unimpressed by people who blanket them with unsolicited e-mails containing 20 extra-large images, a long list of websites and social media links, and a heading that reads “Check out my awesome art!” Equally irritating are artists who promote themselves by posting spammy links to a gallery’s Facebook wall. Finally, nobody wants to be added to mailing lists without prior consent. At this point, I have to admonish you to practice self-respect: If you’re legit, then don’t peddle your wares like a Canadian pharmacy, spamming every gallery that pops up on your radar. Always check the website first; if it says they’re not accepting submissions, don’t contact them; if a gallery isn’t seeking new artists but you’ve done your research and feel you may be a good fit, keep an eye out for announcements as they may occasionally be recruiting; if there is no information on how to submit artwork, and no statement declining submissions, feel free to e-mail them and ask what their requirements are; if you do happen to find a gallery with an open call, great! Read and follow their instructions, or you may be rejected in favor of someone who does. Simply making an effort and being courteous goes a long, long way.
Be nice to the gallery girl or boy
One of the biggest mistakes artists make is assuming that the person at the front desk is just a glorified secretary. Galleries are essentially small businesses where key players tend to be very hands-on, sometimes out front answering phones, talking to buyers, etc. This means that on any given day, you may actually be speaking to the owner, the manager, the director, the curator… you never know. In some cases, even the assistant or the receptionist weighs in on artist selection, so antagonizing the first person you meet isn’t exactly smart. Galleries are usually staffed by capable people who can play many different roles. Although it’s unlikely that a receptionist will end up running the place, he or she may very well find themselves up the food chain at another gallery, and trust me… if you’re a complete tool, they will remember, and they will share that info with people who may matter to you down the line. Like they say in Hollywood, be kind to the assistant; today they’re getting the dry cleaning, tomorrow they’re running the studio.
A word on submission fees
It’s become fairly commonplace for galleries to charge portfolio review fees, or entry fees for juried exhibitions. Many artists are deeply offended by this; some even respond by saying that the gallery should be paying them to view their work. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but all this outrage is just a symptom of how uneducated artists really are about the system they are so desperately trying to be a part of. Although I don’t particularly like fees, I’ve come to terms with the fact that they are, at times, necessary. Here’s why:
- Nonprofit galleries or art organizations run on limited budgets and are often short-staffed. With the astounding number of submissions they now routinely receive, things like time spent on responding to inquiries, reviewing artwork, and managing all of that information have to be considered. Cost efficiency is key; since nonprofit galleries don’t necessarily focus on art sales like commercial galleries do, they must raise funds by other means, such as ticket sales, private donations, artwork submission fees, or membership dues.
- Galleries see a massive difference in both the number and the quality of submissions they receive when fees come into play. Fees force artists to do some research, and consider whether or not their work actually fits the gallery’s criteria. It’s unfortunate that galleries have to take this patronizing attitude, however it all has to do with time management. Entry or portfolio review fees are a natural response to a market that has a disproportionate artist to gallery ratio, and can’t possibly support that many individuals.
The self-representing artist
If reading the above makes your blood boil, or simply sounds like a bad fit for you, then you might want to steer clear of the gallery system and consider self-representation.
What self-representation means is that you are not formally repped by a gallery, and choose to sell your work directly to buyers and collectors, usually through your website and social media. A hybrid of this is the artist/gallerist, where an artist (or a collective) opens a storefront or gallery space to exhibit and sell their own work.
Self-representation isn’t for the faint of heart. In order to succeed, you’ll have to manage yourself as a business, which means that a lot of the above points still apply, except that your professional focus will shift from galleries to collectors.
Many artists keep a foot in both worlds; since commercial galleries don’t represent artists like they used to and may opt out of forming exclusive arrangements, self-representing artists are free to pursue opportunities as they arise. Many do continue to approach galleries however, not so much for representation but because savvy collectors are still interested in exhibition history.
Agents and management
Finally, you might want to approach an agency or a manager that represents visual artists. Sometimes, this is simply an art dealer who sells privately. In my experience, it’s pretty much the same as approaching a gallery, although agents and managers are traditionally more invested in developing their clients’ careers. A rule of thumb is to never pay anyone in advance to represent you; it’s one thing to pay a small fee to have your portfolio reviewed, it’s quite another to give money to a manager for a job they haven’t done yet. Just like galleries, managers and agents work on commission; they get paid when your work sells. Beware of long-term contracts, and read the fine print carefully.
Breathe, regroup, and make a plan… or not.
In today’s market, artists have to work harder than ever to stand out from the crowd, and half the work has nothing to do with painting away in your studio. If you can get to a place where you are able to balance the creative and business sides, then you already have a leg up on a lot of people.
Personally, I think the only way to cut through the noise is to study your industry and understand what you’re up against. Another piece of the puzzle is the ability to deal with rejection, without taking it personally. If someone says no, it’s not because they’re haters; it’s because they know their business, and have made an educated decision based on criteria that is unique to their market, buyers, or overall goals. You’re not a good fit for them, and more importantly, they’re not a good fit for you. Keep learning about the business, and try to find that niche market that responds to what you have to offer.
If you find yourself rejecting the idea of art as commodity, but get something out of the practice of art that greatly enriches your life, nothing says that you have to engage in the game. In that case, perhaps the pursuit of art is its own reward.
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Images by Nat George unless otherwise mentioned.