How to Do Your Homework, Part I
A while back a reader asked what I mean when I say the first part of getting a commercial gallery is “doing your homework.” How do you go about learning what market your artwork fits into and once you do, how do you learn which galleries are both a good match and willing to discuss the possibility of working with you?
I had always thought this advice was sound, but after that question I realize that it’s easy for me to say “do your homework”— and then point to that advice if someone approaches a gallery that isn’t right for them (“they didn’t do their homework”)—but how helpful is that advice really? What leads up to a gallery offering the feedback that “your work isn’t right for our program” and how can you minimize your chances of receiving it?
I think it makes sense to break this discussion into two parts: 1) general homework/research for those just starting off looking to work with a gallery and 2) more detailed advice for those artists who have a good sense of which galleries their work fits in but for any number of reasons can’t seem to crack the door on one in the market they most want to sell in. Because of time limitations, I’ll discuss only the first part today and will delve into the second later. As with all such posts, these observations are from my limited point of view and I encourage those with other experiences to please add comments.
One of the themes I’ll hit on again and again in this section is you need to have a support network of artists and curators you can ask for advice and information. If there’s an essential “first step” I would recommend, this is it. Many of the things I say to do below require having access to people who are more tapped in than you are. With that caveat, however, there are to my mind four basic elements in doing your “general homework” in finding a gallery.
1. Determine whether your work even belongs in the commercial end of things: Many artists who want commercial galleries are conflicted about what is commonly discussed (at least in many art schools) as the corrupting or irrelevant influences of the commercial art market. Personally, I have no qualms about artists who eschew the art market…in fact, I find it highly impressive if done for the right reasons. I know many artists who like to think that way about their work, though, who will just as happily sell work if it doesn’t cost them anything personally. (I think of a certain neo-Marxist who attacked me at a panel discussion for being the source of all ill in the art world because I’m a commercial art dealer only to confess over vodka that he too had sold work and liked doing so.) All of which is my long-winded way of saying start off doing a bit of soul-searching. I don’t agree that the commercial side of the art world is automatically corrupting. Too many amazing artists were all too happy to work within it and/or work to improve it. Still, there’s no reason to assume you need a commercial gallery just because you’re an artist. You may not. It should be something you choose because it fits in with your vision of your career.
2. Learn about the art market hierarchy: I’m quite frankly surprised how many artists who want galleries are unaware of the structure of the commercial art gallery system. (“Why shouldn’t that blue chip gallery at least look at my fresh-out-of-art-school body of work?”) Professionals in other industries make it their business to understand which companies seek out which type of colleagues, but so many artists seem to think every gallery is like every other one. Here are the facts, though. There is a hierarchy. And the further up the food chain a gallery is, the more difficult it will be for entirely unknown artists (those with no important museum exhibitions or major press under their belt) to get into them.
As an artist, you can determine where a gallery fits within the hierarchy by a few easy-to-access-via-the-Internet bits of information:
Are they members of any art dealers associations? If so, which ones?
Which art fairs do they participate in (yes, you need to research the heirarchy of fairs as well for this information to be valuable)?
Do the artists they work with have museum exhibitions on their bios (yes, part of doing your homework is reading through them for clues)?
Do their artists get high-profile or lots of press?
Again, the take-away piece of information here is that galleries further up the food chain (getting into better fairs, getting more press, in more prestigious gallery associations) are generally more difficult to get a foot in the door of. Compare notes with your artist friends about where you feel Gallery X fits in the pecking order. Scope out the entire landscape of galleries so you feel you can order them all more or less (or at least any you would approach). There’s no reason not to shoot for the top and work your way down, but have an understanding of who is where before you begin.
3. Learn as much as you can about what work like yours sells for: This can be the rudest of all awakenings for unknown artists, but it’s really rather simple. In the art market, your artwork is worth what collectors are willing to pay for it. The better known you become, the more it’s able to impress/amaze them, the better a bibliography or exhibition record you have, the more money they’re willing to part with to acquire it.
Begin finding this out by asking your artists friends. Ask those who make work like yours what theirs sells for. Keep in mind whether or not you have a similar exhibition record and bibliography (just because Chuck Close is your friend, doesn’t mean your work should sell for what his does). Or, if you’re really good friends, ask them what they feel your work would sell for in Gallery X.
One of the questions a dealer you finally get over to your studio or to talk with you about your work is likely to ask you is what your work sells for, so you really want to be prepared here in order to assure them you’re ready to work with a gallery.
If you’ve done your homework here, you can say you feel it needs to be priced at $X. If you have sold work tell them what it sold for, but also in what context it sold. If you’ve never sold a piece (or if you’ve only ever sold to friends or family members who were only too happy to help you pay studio rent), say you’d appreciate their advice or recommendations on that. They may not have time, but generally they’ll be forthright about what they feel it could sell for. (Don’t misinterpret their willingness to share this information with a willingness to exhibit your work at this point though.)
If your work is considerably less expensive than most of the work shown in a gallery, it might be more difficult to get a show there (selling out your entire show might not cover their overhead). Research what the work they show sells for. If they don’t put out a price list, ask around or check auction records where applicable. Art fairs are a good place to get a sense of what work costs in any given gallery. You may not want to ask yourself if you’ll later (not at a fair please!!!) present yourself as an artist interested in working with them, but conscript your friends in finding out. Then again, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Art fairs are about broadcasting such information in most instances.
4. Learn as much as you can about what type of work the galleries you plan to approach exhibit: This is the hardest part of the general homework. It takes time. But it’s time well spent, if only in how it is likely to garner you the most useful feedback, even if it takes a while to find the right match. Casting your net too widely, without knowing whether a gallery shows work like yours, results in an artificial degree of rejection feedback. You might be the best photographer in the world, for example, but the swift way in which a gallery devoted to painting shows you the door may lead you to doubt that.
Begin, again, by asking your artist/curator friends which of the hundreds of galleries out there they feel might be interested in your work. Narrow it down before you move on to the more detailed homework to avoid wasting your time and discouraging yourself. Once you have a short list (I’d recommend whittling it down to about 10 to start), then begin the real research.
Fortunately, most galleries if not all that you want to approach will have websites with lots of images of the artwork they exhibit. An easy first step in determining whether your work will fit into their program is whether or not you like the majority of the other work they show. If you don’t, then it’s probably best to cross them off your list. If you do, then move on to the second step: Is what you do too close to what someone already in the program is doing and/or does what you do conceptually or aesthetically conflict with what someone else in the program is already doing. For (a lame, but simple) example, if an artist in the program is arguing that identity art is dead and you make identity art, the odds are not good the gallery will want to undercut all the work they’ve done to build a market for that other artist by exhibiting your work. A third step here is to see if your work fills in any gaps in their program. As Sara Jo Romero says in Darcy Bhandari and Melber’s book Art/Work, many gallery programs are built like a color wheel. To quote myself summarizing her on this idea: “You have connections between the artists that mimic the relationship of complementary colors and those that are more akin to the relationship of colors next to each other, both formally and conceptually. It may not be immediately obvious how artist A makes sense in the same program as artist B until you see how one completes a segment of the same wheel.”
So in doing your homework, look not only at a single artist whose work seems a good match for yours, but look at the entire roster and see whether you, er, “complete,” the program. Is there some element of their dedication to new media art, such as not enough work dealing with the aesthetics of digitally generated images for (another lame, but succinct) example, that they’re a bit weak on that your work would strengthen?
Once you’re closer to thinking a gallery is a good match, you’ll want to check the bibliographies and resumes of their artists. Track down and actually read some of the reviews, learn what the rest of the art world thinks are their shortcomings and/or strengths (not only of the individual artists but the gallery as a whole as well). Scour the Internet for gossip and/or press about the gallery. If you learn the gallery will be participating in an art fair you can attend, go see their booth. If you see an artist they exhibit will have a show in a gallery or museum near you, definitely check it out. Information is power here.
Finally, and this can’t be overemphasized…visit a gallery you wish to exhibit in before approaching them. This is, in my opinion, an essential part of your homework. Know what it feels like in that space, how big it is, how high the ceilings are, whether your 2-ton bronze sculpture will fit up the narrow staircase to their third-floor space. I know all the arguments about the time and money it takes to do this, but it gives you a great deal of useful information and an edge over those artists also approaching them who never take this step.
I do expect this will generate as many questions as I’ve tried to answer, and by all means please add what homework you’ve done that was helpful in your own search.