Welcome to HELP DESK, where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to–contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions and save the comments section to chime in on the topics of the day. If you’ve submitted a question using an anonymizer, we regret that it may not have made it into our inbox (it has come to our attention that questions have gone missing). Please resend your query using a regular email service. All submissions remain anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving.
This week’s column is dedicated to two related questions that I received within hours of each other but from different parts of the country:
I’ve been painting diligently for 12 years, yet I live far from a significant art market. My thoughts are returning to California where even a bad economy is better than a great economy where I currently reside. Over the years I’ve developed ways to make a living so I can stay afloat anywhere I go. I’ve sold small paintings consistently where I live but economics have dictated a lower price to close the sale. I feel greater exposure is one of the aspects necessary to move me and my work to a different level. Do you think the exposure offered by a much larger city warrants a move and expands the possibilities more than just traveling to the place to show my work? Are bigger cities necessarily better markets and networks? I am not fearful of work, but I’d prefer to work smarter, not harder.
Your question raises quite a few issues about community, the marketplace, and how your surroundings can change your production. For years I lived in a small city that had wonderful opportunities for energetic new artists. Pop-up galleries and alternative spaces abounded so there were plenty of opportunities to show. However, there was no significant culture of arts philanthropy within the county borders, which meant that there were only a few top-tier commercial galleries and no real institutional structure to assist the best of these artists with their careers. Many who saw great success at the lower levels of the hierarchy felt abandoned when they realized that the jot of acknowledgement they’d already received was likely all they would ever see if they stayed in the city. Some translated that into a practice of stasis and were content, in the end, with local acclaim. Many artists left.
But many also stayed in this city, and translated the support they did have into a strong community of artists and thinkers who continually work together to expand the boundaries of their situation. They apply for exhibitions and national-level grants that will bring them attention and funding for their work. They’ve created programs that bring artists from other cities to visit. They also travel to other areas, meet artists and curators, and form lasting relationships that enliven their practices. This group of art workers is bringing the mountain to Mohammed. It’s a lot of hard work, but sometimes the dedication and support they receive from their peers is a reward in and of itself, and over time there have been plenty of other payoffs.
You ask if big cities necessarily have better markets and networks. That depends on what you make. After all, what sells well in one part of the country might be ignored in another. Watercolor portraits that fly out the door of a beach town gallery aren’t going to do well in a conceptually-driven contemporary art market. Your query doesn’t mention your community, but you do say that you’re making consistent sales. That counts for something. While you might not be able to market your work at higher prices locally, the fact that you have an audience for your work shouldn’t be discounted.
Think carefully about your options. Are staying or going really the only choices? If you want to move your work to a different level, can it be done from where you are now? Are there like-minded people you could partner with to make a change in your city? You can’t be the only artist in town who thinks about the opportunities that aren’t available to you. Is it worth banding together and giving it a go? You might create something really wonderful.
I do agree that new experiences in general can be very good for your mental health, and therefore for your work. It’s possible to create that new experience by taking on a leadership role in your hometown. But if you feel that a larger community is really the answer, why not start doing some research before you pull up your stakes? Check out the galleries in the place where you plan to move. Do any sell work that looks like yours? If you find some good matches, it can’t hurt to write the gallerist. Explain that you plan to move to that city and wonder if they might have time to chat with you over a cup of coffee during your next visit to gain some perspective on the area’s art scene. She might have some advice for you that would ease a transition (and the worst you’ll get from such a query is no answer at all).
I’m not sure I agree with your statement that a larger art market with “a bad economy is better than a great economy where [you] currently reside.” A bad economy will bring other pressures to bear on your life. If it’s hard to find a job, or to get a job that makes a decent wage, that’s going to take time away from your practice. I know quite a few artists who moved to New York and then away again a few years later. Why? Because they spent so much time working at the various jobs that paid their apartment and studio rents that they had no time or energy left over to make any artwork. Above all, protect the time you have in your studio. A move to a city with a larger art scene is no good unless you can make work while you live there.
Which of these options is best for you? I encourage you to keep an open mind. Don’t limit your choices to the most obvious or easy options. It will be up to you to make the most of any change, in whatever form it comes.
I do not live in an arts center/urban area, and my day job and personal art practice keep me so busy that I have very little time to go to any major city to circulate in, much less make overtures to a ‘happening’ gallery scene. I have been building up my exhibition record with shows in the relatively isolated college town in which I live, as well as in regional and national juried shows that I can ship work to. Since my work does not conform to local buyers’ tastes (which lean toward folksy and/or decorative), I am wondering how to go about finding venues for my work that could develop into something a little more stable and rewarding than one-off juried shows.
P.S. Before suggesting that I take advantage of the people and resources at my local university, know that I’m doing that already. The question is how to move beyond that level.
I’m disturbed by the tone of your query. “No, no, no,” it says. “I’ve already thought of that, and it won’t work.” If that’s true, and you have really exhausted every avenue in your local community, then there is only one course of action: you are going to have to change your circumstances drastically.
I’m glad to hear that you have been doing what you can to get your work out into the world. If you want to take the next step, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. First, recognize that your “personal art practice” involves more than just swiping a brush across a canvas; taking the time to travel and make new connections IS part of an art practice. And if no one is buying your work right now then, frankly, you have the time to deal with the more administrative end of things.
Going to a big city and “circulating” is not the answer, because it is aimless. The trick is to find and court specific art professionals, not whole cities. You have to do some research to find out where your work fits in. Who might be interested in talking with you? Are there gallerists or independent curators who would be a good match for your work? Look at the artists they already have in their stable: are they all working in the same medium, or around the same subjects? Did they all go to the same art schools? Does your work fit? Flinging yourself willy-nilly at galleries is only going to annoy a lot of people and waste your time, so be honest with yourself.
After you do your research, try getting in touch with these folks. If you’re far from these galleries, a studio visit probably isn’t going to happen. But like the querent above, can you buy the gallerist a cup of coffee in order to pick his brain? I’m not suggesting that you write to someone asking him out for a drink, and then beg him to represent your work while standing at the bar; instead, try presenting your portfolio in conjunction with that well-honed list of possible venues. Ask if he also thinks they are a match. What you’re looking for at this meeting is some insight, not a ring and a promise, or even any “overtures.” If all goes well, you’ll know what your next steps are.
Aside from this administrative work, what can you do to lessen the negativity that is surely having an adverse effect on your practice? Is there another artist in town with whom you can band together while you both go through this process of research and reaching out? Having a confidant can relieve a tremendous amount of mental and emotional pressure, and you might find opportunities that you can pass along to each other as you go. Moreover, you will have someone to cheer your successes and commiserate when things don’t go as hoped. It’s important to have stability and rewards outside the gallery system, so put some energy into building support that has nothing to do with solo shows or sales.