Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
I’m an artist and I live and work in [a small city]. There’s a woman who is relatively new to our small scene, and she doesn’t seem to like me, but I don’t know what I might have done to get on her bad side because most people I know enjoy her company. When I run into her at openings and parties, she makes snarky remarks that seem aimed at me. In the few times that we’ve been alone together, she’s made some subtle put-downs and backhanded compliments. Under other circumstances I’d just cross her off, but she’s friends with lots of my friends and she’s gotten herself into a position of power, curating exhibitions and jurying grants. I want to stick up for myself, but making her an outright enemy isn’t going to help my career. Can you help?
Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys. Die Schmutzigen Puppen von Pommern, 2014; installation view, Micheline Szwajcer Gallery, Antwerp.
Certainly I can help, though my advice might have you gritting your teeth a little. There are a few maneuvers you can try, and in truth, I don’t guarantee any of them because it’s possible that you’ve contracted a case of mean girl
, for which there is no permanent cure. But before we discuss a few schemes, can you find out through those mutual friends why she doesn’t like you? I’m not suggesting that you start some kind of gossip campaign—it’s more that I hope you have at least one trusted confidant to whom you might say, “Madame X doesn’t seem to like me very much, and I often wonder why.” It’s a vulnerable position to put yourself in, but it might be the most expedient route to finding a cause and planning a treatment.
In the case that your ally does not know the reason behind this woman’s antipathy, you still need to try to rehabilitate the situation. A good way to start is to “kill with kindness” (this is the gritting your teeth part). Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Is it possible that she might have misinterpreted some gesture early on in your relationship? Could she have somehow gotten the impression that you don’t like her? If that’s conceivable, then this method gives you both a chance to change your perceptions of each other. Next time you see her, find something to compliment (note that you must be sincere). Show some mild admiration, like, “That’s a great dress,” “This is a really thoughtful lineup for the exhibition,” or “I was glad to hear you picked so-and-so for a grant, she deserves it.” Surely there is something you can find to like about her, and I want you to try it on a minimum of five different occasions—demonstrate that you’re serious and give her a few opportunities to respond properly. Bonus points for following your compliment with a question that shows interest in conversing with her (“Where did you get it?” “Did you start with the artists or a general concept?” “Do you know what she’s planning to do with the money?”) Even if you don’t end up best pals, maybe she’ll see you in a new light and the two of you can move forward with equanimity.
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