The Shining Unicorn: How to Get an Art Gallery
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Many artists and fine art photographers ponder this potentially terrifying question: how do I get an art gallery?
Let’s be honest. Finding a gallery to represent your artwork can be hard and seems like a job in itself, requiring emails, calls, preparation, meetings, follow up and more. When is there the time to do art?
Some see it as a necessary evil while other artists actually like the process (I am in between).
Getting a Gallery Is Like Dating
It’s like dating. Don’t come right out and ask if you want to get married or “f***” on the first meeting. Rather, it’s a deep business relationship–a partnership–so some thought and effort is par for the course. Would you start a five or ten year or more relationship on the basis of just one email? That’s what some artist’s fail to understand. We are all people, and the match has to be the right fit, art-wise as well as personality-wise.
Face the Fear
Fear for most artists seems to be part of the equation, but it doesn’t have to be. Getting out in the world away from the studio and showing personal work might feel vulnerable. What if they don’t like it? What if they won’t give me a show? Remain positive and just get out there.
There is no one way of securing a gallery to show your work but here are tips that could help.
1. Start with Who Questions
Who DO you want to work with?
Who DO you want to spend time with?
Who DO you like?
Who IS easy to deal with?
Who IS honest?
A dealer is asking the same questions about you…and that’s as it should be.
Start the process listing those dealers you’d really like to work with, some “pie-in-the-sky” blue chippers, and a few emerging dealers in and outside New York. It might not matter if the dealer representing you does not have outposts around the globe. Infact, it might be a detriment. Just look for the best fit and the rest probably will take care of itself.
2. Get Your Work Ready
Assess where you are. Do you have a great, clear body of work put together?
If not, regroup and come back later, and that’s okay.
If you feel have the work, make sure it can be easily understood and presented. Now is not the time to put together a “greatest hits” show that summarizes everything you’ve done over the last two decades–this could risk confusing or boring the dealer.
Generally, I usually gather about fifteen photographs, and if they want to see more, I make another appointment. Also, as a photographer, perhaps unlike most painters, I can usually bring work to a gallery, and for this, I make 20×24” prints because they are easy to handle.
3. Meet with Other Artists
Meeting with other artists is helpful for a few reasons. First, it’s networking. Second, they can offer feedback (feedback from peers is extremely helpful in both building confidence and knowing how others perceive your work). Third, most importantly, other artists can be a great recommendation source, one of the best ways to start a relationship with a dealer.
4. Get Your Mind Ready
It’s scary to show your work and meet people. I get it.
But as an artist, it is important to get out in the world. No one is going to knock on your door and hand you a show. Prepare mentally for the process by being positive but realistic, and don’t get lost in negativity with “what if” doom scenarios or “why don’t they understand me, those bastards” thoughts.
5. Share Work on Social Media
Using social media could be a great way to connect and find a gallery to show your work. Instagram in particular is a great resource, but Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even Snapchat are excellent platforms. Find the galleries you want to work with and comment on their posts or retweet a message. After you’ve developed a relationship, you might ask if they could see your work. But be forewarned: an intern might be running their social media campaign…but still, it’s a great way to get visible. For example, I’ve made several good connections through Facebook and Instagram.
6. Your Tribe: Gallery Openings
Another part of the job of being an artist is to see what work is out there. Going to art gallery openings is another networking opportunity but most importantly, it’s a place to meet dealers.
Start by saying “hello” and congratulating them on the show. Try to be friendly and chat with their assistant. Don’t ask to show them your work! Instead relax, have fun, be seen and see other artists.
7. Who to Reach Out to: People You Know Is Best
Now might be the time to set up appointments.
But with who and how? This is the “meat” of the matter.
The best approach is to reach out to people you know but with an eye on the list you made earlier. They could be artists, dealers, curators or even accountants. You never know who will be the best connection. For example, I met a major New York dealer from her tennis partner I made the acquaintance of; for another, I met a gallerist while photographing their gallery event.
Send a brief email stating why you want to meet. Then follow up with a phone call. If they don’t know you, they most likely will not respond. Sorry. No matter, persevere, and get to know them through going to openings or via networking, as mentioned above.
If you do know them, email or start with a phone call asking to set up a studio visit. If they say no, stay positive and try again later or move on to someone else; if they say yes, great and get ready (see below)! Continually meet people and selectively attempt to set up studio visits.
8. What to Do and Not Do at the Studio Visit
Before the visit, be present and positive–just be yourself. Do all the basic things like be on time, arrange the work, dress in clean clothes, etc. Start the conversation with two or three condensed sentences describing what the work is about. But some dealers might want to observe first and initiate the conversation later. Feel out the situation. Let the dealer look. You don’t have to talk all the time but be ready to answer questions too, such as pricing, how the work was made, and what direction you are going in.
A gallerist usually won’t offer you a show right on the first visit, but it certainly could happen. If they do offer a show, be prepared. Do you really want to work with the gallery, or are you interested in feedback. Try not to feel pressure to make any decision on the spot (although I’ve been offered shows on a first meeting and gladly said “yes”). You might want to come right out and say you are looking for representation, and think this would be a good fit. Or, you might want to asses their interest and follow up later. Or, you might ask if they are having any upcoming group shows that they think the work might be a good fit for, giving you both a chance at a “trial run.”
9. Follow Up!
Immediately after the meeting, send a follow up email or better yet, a handwritten note. Mention that it was a pleasure meeting them, thank them, be polite and ask if they have any questions. Keep on their radar by sending upcoming gallery openings or by being active on social media. Keep in mind that art is a personal preference (or course, but it’s easy to forget after being rejected). If a dealer is not interested, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. It means they are just not interested in your work.
It’s a hard process and is a bit of an exasperating and exhilarating dance. There is no one way to secure a gallery to show your work. The main thing is keep being visible, be positive, and make good work.