In this guest blog post about art business, artist Kristy Gordon shares her advice for working with galleries and more. Her work is featured in the September 2015 issue of The Artist’s Magazine (get the issue here!)
The Do’s and Don’ts of Navigating the Art World
by Kristy Gordon
Twelve years ago I took the leap and left my job as an animator to devote my life to painting full time. I had to teach myself how to navigate the art world, and although I made many embarrassing mistakes along the way, I learned from each one. I refined my approach to talking to dealers, collectors and other artists and now I feel pretty confident in the various interactions that we have as artist as we pursue a career in the arts. I think the most important thing is to always paint whatever we’re excited to try or curious to explore. That’s how we discover our unique artistic voice and create work that only we could make. The discovering of my artistic voice is a topic for another article, and this article will focus on practical tips for navigating world of art business.
How to Approach an Art Gallery
I will begin by talking specifically about how I approach an art gallery. First I go into the gallery in person and look at all the art on their walls very carefully before approaching the front desk. I never have a portfolio in hand when I make these visits, however I do have a portfolio on my phone, and my website is kept up to date. After taking in all their amazing work (remember they are proud of what they show, so never criticize work in a gallery that you are wooing), I approach the person at the front desk. If I’m lucky this will be the gallery director or owner. To this day this is the scariest part of the process for me. I will literally be shaky while I try to appear casual and composed. I’ve discovered the hard way that announcing that I’m an artist tends to make them want to run away from me, so it’s better to be smooth about it.
I strike up a conversation with them about the work in their gallery and compliment it, then ask what their submission process is like. This indirectly lets them know that I’m an artist, although a good gallerist already knew that as soon as I walked in the door. They can tell. This gives them a chance to say, “we’re not taking any submissions right now,” or “you can send us some digital images, or mail us an artist’s packet.” No matter what their response, when I get home that night I send them a greeting card saying what a pleasure it was to talk to them during my visit to their gallery.
If they invited me to send work, I will write that I look forward to sending some images of my work soon. It’s too pushy to slip a business card into the thank you card. Leaving it low pressure and casual is better. The card will have an image of my work on the front, and my logo and website printed on the back. Then I will send them a perfectly prepared artists packet or e-mail submission containing a cover letter (reminding them that they met me), a biography, artist’s statement, resume, 10-15 images of my work and a self addressed stamped envelope.
I keep track of the dates I sent the packet, and will send packets to several galleries at once (don’t put all your eggs in one basket). I keep track of which galleries have responded back to me, and if I haven’t heard back from a gallery after a month I call them up. Being considerate of their time, I emphasize that I know they must be very busy and I just wanted to see if they received my artist’s packet and if they’ve had a chance to look it over. I’ve followed this method from the start of my career, and have found that as long as I have researched the galleries well, and they truly do take artists at my career level who work in a similar style to me, I typically get into at least one out of ten galleries.
By spreading out my chances and submitting to multiple galleries at once, I minimize the impact of rejections. I expect about nine rejections for every one acceptance, so it’s not a big deal when a rejection letter arrives. I know so many artists who are afraid to put themselves out there because they fear they will get rejected and it will crush them, but the fact is that if one is submitting to as many shows and galleries as they should be, there will definitely be some rejections. Early on I made the decision to just get over rejection. I don’t even talk about it or think about it. I just move on.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
Over the years I’ve also developed my ability to feel the fear and do it anyway. When I was first starting out at 24 years old talking to gallery owners was pretty much the scariest thing in the world. My whole body would tremble. I really wanted to appear composed and professional, but I just had to do my best, even if I wasn’t perfect at it. I’ve heard that successful people aren’t necessarily better at doing the things no one wants to do; they’re just willing to do it anyway. I try to reinterpret the feeling of fear as the feeling of excitement. They feel similar, so I tell myself that I feel really excited whenever I feel nervous.
Have We Met? Etiquette for Art Business Situations
One of the more unfortunate issues that I encountered was my inability to remember the names of people I have met in the art world. In the beginning I tried so hard to fight this. I would make copious notes about everyone I talked to at an event and study my notes before the next show. Still there would be people I didn’t even remember meeting at all, who definitely remembered me and would seem offended if I was honest about not remembering them. The worst is when I had actually met people on multiple occasions and I didn’t remember. So I had to develop a few tricks for navigating the names situation. One trick I picked up along the way from a more established artist, was to always say “good to see you” whenever I meet anyone. If I’ve met them before they assume I remember them, if we haven’t met they’re flattered that I think we have. The few times I let my guard down on this one, and I said “good to meet you,” I have invariably met them before, sometimes on numerous occasions. How embarrassing. What artists do at big conferences is pretend long enough to get by, and then quietly ask a trusted artist who the person is. So they get it all straight before they see the person again. Artists are really your best friends in this situation.
Also, I take careful precautions never to enter into a situation where I’m introducing large groups of people, or even small groups. I’ve noticed the terrible tendency for my mind to blank as soon as I go to introduce anyone at all. I’ve also witnessed other well-meaning people entering into unfortunate situations where they’re introducing as many as 30 people, and by the end they forget a couple names. I noticed one of my gallery owners would cleverly see one of these situations arising and carefully bypass it by exclaiming enthusiastically, “Oh my gosh, do you guys know each other?! Well introduce yourselves!!” If you can pull this off with enthusiasm as if this is exactly what you are supposed to do and you are totally unaware that typically you might have made the introductions of each person yourself, no one will pick up on it and friendships will have been saved.
There is also etiquette for personal conduct among others in the art world. It’s so great that as artists we can actually build friendships with other artists we admire, and even with our gallerists, collectors and critics, but it’s important for us to be mindful of boundaries as we are establishing these new friendships. Don’t ask too much from a new contact, and don’t be demanding or put them in an awkward position. Strive for a balance of give and take, and try to keep the connections reciprocal. I find that it’s best to just sit back and be grateful for any connection you have at first, and don’t ask anything of them to begin with. Let the connection develop naturally. Also, don’t send lengthy e-mails, no one has time so it’s best to streamline your correspondence to brief and concise messages. We help each other as artists in the art world, but don’t be high maintenance and don’t take without giving. If someone helps you try to find a way to return the favor.
Keep It Professional
Avoid complaining about all the things going wrong in your life and your career. The contacts you make in the art world may be friendly, but the relationship is professional. You want to portray yourself as a successful artist (or gallery). I once was wooing a gallerist that I was getting to know and she was interested in my work. One day I went in and greeted her by saying “how are you,” she told me that business has been incredibly slow and she cries every night. I stopped wanting to be shown with that gallery. The same applies for artists. No one wants to exhibit or purchase work just because they feel sorry for you. When someone asks how you are, say “great.”
Transition the Conversation When You Need To
I have also fine-tuned my ways of interacting at the opening of a solo show or other important art exhibition. This evening can be very high energy and really demand a lot from the artist, so it’s good to be mindful of your energy. You may like to talk to each person at the opening for several minutes, but you will eventually need to close the conversation to talk to someone else (everyone wants to talk to you). There is a useful trick that I came up with for wrapping up a conversation with a potential collector at the opening night of a show. I had noticed that if I said “it was nice talking to you” that’s like goodbye and they pretty much just leave the gallery, it’s like I’m telling them to leave! So instead I came up with the useful line “I’ll let you enjoy the show!” Then they are guaranteed to keep looking around and may end up buying something. Also I had to train myself to just say “thank you” when people compliment my work. I had to really be conscious of this in the beginning or I would pretty much talk people out of liking a piece. Just say thank you, thank you, thank you, over and over again if you can’t think of anything else. That will do, and they might buy the piece!
If you receive a rejection from a show or some other opportunity don’t give up. This is just part of the process. I often receive a “no” from galleries the first time I submit to them. Keep them updated about your work and see if they would like to see where you’re at in six months. I like the saying that disappointment is just an appointment not yet met. Some of the things that have happened in my art career took three years or more to build, and the preliminary steps were crucial parts of the process.
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