How to Do Your Homework, Part II
Following up on Part I of our discussion of what it means to “do your homework” in researching which commercial art galleries to approach, in this part I wanted to share some thoughts for those artists who feel they have a strong sense of which galleries their work is a good match for but for any number of reasons can’t seem to land in one.
My central assumption in offering this advice is that you understand the lay of the land pretty well. You’re up to speed on the hierarchy of art galleries and have a fairly solid sense of why your quiet watercolors of seascapes wouldn’t be a good match for the gallery focusing on bleeding edge new media work, or vice versa, for example. You’ve limited the galleries you wish to approach to about 10, based on confirmation from artists and curators you know that you’re correct in targeting them. And you have a good sense that your work is neither too close to that of any artist already on their roster or would aesthetically or conceptually undermine the work of any artist they’re working to build a market for.
What more can you do in terms of homework/research here to narrow down from 10 to say 5 which galleries are the best ones to invest your efforts, money, and hopes in approaching and networking with?
I’ll break these thoughts into 5 categories:
1. Looking for signs a gallery is looking to add to their roster.
2. Strengthening your “connections.”
3. Asking straight out.
4. Remember it’s a small world.
There is no amount of advice I can offer here for an artist whose work isn’t strong enough for the commercial gallery system to be interested. I understand that there is a huge amount of self-doubt involved in creating artwork, and (having submitted short stories to publishers when I was much younger, none of which were ever published) I know there is a certain amount of not being the best judge of the quality of your own work that clouds being able to see how you compare with the others competing for those limited opportunities. But the simple fact remains that your art must be of a certain quality before any dealer is likely to be interested, and so I’d recommend (if you’ve been pounding the pavement for years with no success) that you take a few steps to get honest confirmation (again from artist friends and curators) that your work is as strong as it seems to you it is. We all know artists for whom success came relatively late in life (leaving us wondering how the hell the system didn’t see how great they were years ago), so I’m not at all suggesting that lack of getting a gallery = bad art. Not always, anyway. But I do get a high enough volume of submissions by artists whose work I find so truly awful that I know I can’t be wrong about all of them. Some of them are simply nowhere near ready to work with a gallery.
Assuming you have confirmation (if you felt you needed it) from artists and curators that your work is not only good but clearly within the realm of what commercial galleries will exhibit, though, here are some more detailed types of/approaches to homework you can do to narrow down which ones are best to approach.
1. Looking for signs a gallery on your list is looking to add to their roster. Besides checking their submission policy on their website (duh), keep an eye on the galleries you feel are a good match for indications they’re expanding: a new location, a bigger gallery with a project space perhaps, a second branch in another city, a significant increase in the number of directors they have (one new director isn’t that strong an indication of expansion, but two might be). All of this information is readily available on most galleries’ websites (news items are common that broadcast expansions, new hires, etc.).
Reading their press releases regularly is a good source for such information. In addition to the tell-tale indication that they’re broadening the stable–“pleased to announce our first solo exhibition with Artist X”–galleries will include tidbits about expansions and such in these announcements. Reading the art press (especially the more gossipy sources, like online magazines and blogs) for signs that galleries are letting a large number of artists go (which usually ends up being only a temporary reduction in the number of artists in a stable, regardless of the offered rationales) is another way to surmise a seachange is underfoot in their programming and that this represents an opportunity (if only somewhat down the road).
Finally, a restructuring of the gallery staff, such as the hiring of a hot director from another program or the inclusion of an acclaimed curator on the staff (to replace someone else, not to expand the total number of employees), suggests the owner saw the need to shake up the program somewhat. This may not mean much unless you have a pre-existing relationship with that hot director or curator, but it usually means a shift in the gallery’s view of its identity and that means opportunity for some artist(s) (possibly you). Obviously, you’ll want to learn as much about the curator or new director as you can to see if your interests align. Google is your friend.
2. Strengthening your “connections.” I put “connections” in quotes here because obviously networking with the gallery staff and owner is a key part of getting them to pay attention to your work, but think a bit bigger here than just these interpersonal relationships. Target the wider world in which the gallery moves. If, for example, the gallery shares artists with another dealer in another city, see whether that entry point into the system is easier for you. The New York gallery you have your heart set on might enjoy the dialog they have with one in another city (smaller market), and if you can get into that “sister” gallery, it will improve your chances of working with the New York space. It is usually easier to make headway in those markets (and to be honest, if you’re having trouble making connections in those markets, it suggests your chances in the more competitive markets won’t be so good, so consider approaching galleries in smaller markets to get feedback on your submission approach and or work). Who knows, you might find a much better match in one of those markets and realize it worked out beautifully for you and that other dealer.
More than a sister gallery, though, you can strengthen your connection with your target gallery by moving in their circles in meaningful ways, such as donating artwork to benefits they chair or collaborating with artists they represent in other contexts. The more your paths cross, the more likely you’ll find the opportunities to connect in ways that could open that door. I would keep the laws against stalking in mind here, and understand that dealers read this blog too (so being too obvious won’t necessarily help you), but if you’re truly a good match for this gallery the likelihood is your circles would overlap naturally anyway.
3. Asking straight out. This takes a particular tact to pull off well, but if you have a reasonable dialog with a gallery (you’ve been dancing around each other, perhaps had a studio visit or two) but you can’t seem to move past the pleasantries, it can pay sometimes to ask them straight out whether they would work with you. As in all things in life, it’s best to be prepared for the answer if you’re going to ask, but eventually you have much less to lose by asking than you do by wondering what it might take. This question is much easier to ask via email, of course, but then it’s much easier for the dealer to ignore that way as well, so you have to weigh that against the awkward silence that might follow asking face to face.
Usually, if you have a decent relationship with a gallery already, you can follow up a negative response to this question with “do you have any recommendations for which galleries might be a better match?” If you ask a dealer this during an opening or an art fair (when they’re focused on other things), you might not get their best-thought-out response, but on a quiet day in the gallery or when seated next to each other at some function, it can be done with a light enough spirit to ensure you get good feedback and not make them want to cross the street if they see you coming a week later. As in all such professional exchanges, respecting their time and acknowledging that you value their opinion will go a long way toward getting you good feedback. As dealers they fully understand that it can be hard as an artist to find your way into a gallery. If they’re ungracious in response to your respectful request (meaning you asked at the right time and place), you most likely didn’t want to work with them anyway. Then again, to be clear, asking a dealer you barely know such a question isn’t what I’m suggesting here.
4. Remember it’s a small world.I got an email from an artist I’ve known a while who followed the advice I offer in #3. She asked what it would take for her to get a show in my gallery. Because we had had a studio visit and the opportunity to talk at length at a party once (and because I do admire her work), I responded very candidly that during our talk at the party she had scared me away with how she had dissed her previous gallery. I told her that I’m friends with that other gallery and I respect not only their program, but also their opinions and business practices. My hesitation in working with her was that she would 1) be high maintenance and 2) regardless of my efforts, end up talking about me at some party in the same fashion.
So here’s the thing. Getting the ear of a dealer you’d want to work with at a party is an opportunity to sell yourself. Except for how she talked about her previous dealers, this artist had done just that, and fairly well, but that one segment of the conversation was what I remembered the most later. Despite what you may have heard, dealers are human. They like to defend their friends and will extrapolate what they see as unjust feedback about their friends into all kinds of nightmare scenarios for themselves should they work with you. The art world is small…do yourself a favor and assess how the dealer you’re talking with feels about your previous dealers or anyone else you’re dishing before diving in too deep.
5. Patience. The other thing I told this artist was that from where I sat, her biggest roadblock was her lack of patience. Her work is somewhat challenging, and yet she expected sales to be immediate (that was her biggest criticism of the other gallery). Besides it taking longer to develop a market for more challenging work (because the potential audience is generally smaller), a lack of patience in getting what you want from a gallery will scare off dealers who know too well that it’s gonna take a concerted effort for quite some time to get you there. This lack of patience, if you too have it (I do, so I empathize) is something you must try to keep in check when doing the more interpersonal kinds of homework. It took some artists we all know decades to get to that big gallery and receive the accolades they must have known were due them years ago. Had they burned bridges during that time, rather than build them, they might have never gotten there.
Whether it’s fair or not that some artists seem to fall into success and others must toil for years to get theirs is irrelevant in this context. Being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time is an advantage in any industry. Dealers end up kicking themselves for not moving quickly enough to work with an artist all the time, so it’s not as if they have all the power here. The essence of breaking through that situation where you’re as ready as you can be, but the galleries just aren’t biting, is to keep you ear to the ground for pending shifts in their programming, maintain a positive relationship with the gallery contacts you have, and in the meanwhile strengthen any connection with them that you can.