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. All submissions remain anonymous. HELP DESK is sponsored in part by KQED.org. The artwork in this week’s edition is part of the exhibition Setting the Scene at the Tate Modern, London, curated by Rachel Taylor and Ann Coxon.
I finally scored a studio visit with an important curator!!! Now my problem is that I don’t know what to show him. Should I hang old work, new work, work in progress, or a mix? I’ve never really had a curator like this visit me before. Do big-deal curators want to see my studio in its real state or cleaned up like a gallery? How can I best present my work? Help! Every time I make a decision I wake up the next day and change my mind!
Whoa, there! Now let’s all just take a deep breath and calm down a little. I’m happy to hear that you have netted a visit from your Big Fish, but don’t let it pull you overboard. It may aid you to know that curators get anxious about studio visits just like you do. Only last week I had lunch with a pal who also happens to be a curator, and he told me (quite plaintively), “You know, I walk into an artist’s studio and I’m thinking, I hope they like me, I hope this is a good visit.” Curators: it turns out that they’re human, too! If we prick them, do they not bleed?
But speaking of blood, you’ll want to remove any of it from your studio (unless it’s your medium), along with the trash, food garbage, dangerous substances, and anything that smells bad or that you could trip over. You don’t need to set your studio up like a gallery, but you want to make sure that there’s nothing there to distract you and your curator from the artwork. Tidy up, dust off a comfortable chair, and leave your frisky Irish Setter at home that day.
As for work, the answer is pretty simple: show your strongest work, which, hopefully is also your most recent. If you have a large studio, you could have some work in progress in the corners, but it shouldn’t be the focus; if you have a tiny space with room for only three works, they should all be complete—in other words, you should be presenting your work to its best advantage. My last studio didn’t have a lot of wall space and I didn’t want to over-hang, so I would put up a few pieces and then make sure my laptop was set up with my website already loaded in the browser. That way the images on the screen had a context and my visitors could get a sense for the materiality of my work before looking at representations. If you don’t have a website (really? In 2012?) you could prepare some PowerPoint slides or a portfolio of printed photographs.
Whether the curator stays for ten minutes or an hour, you want it to be a pleasant experience. At minimum, offer a glass of water. You don’t have to go bananas (literally or figuratively) by providing a buffet, but in my opinion a little snack never hurt anyone—a couple of store-bought cookies or a bunch of grapes can easily do the trick.
Try not to presuppose too much about this visit. To brazenly misquote Brandon Sanderson, “Expectations are like fine pottery. The harder you hold them, the more likely they are to crack.” Be open and curious about this visit, just as this curator is with your work. And good luck!
The studio visit: a potential promise, act of inclusion, relationship starter, or disappointing interaction–for all parties. How does a curator go on a studio visit without creating or fostering expectations in the artist that the studio visit necessarily leads to something beyond simply a visit? The second part of the question: How does one gently but constructively explain to an artist that one thinks the direction they are going in is not good, that perhaps there are more interesting and successful artistic paths. Basically, if I used to like an artist’s work, which is what brought me to their studio in the first place, and now feel they are going down a black hole, how, on a studio visit, or over coffee, do I tell them this?
First things first: to avoid fostering misunderstandings about the meeting, make the purpose of your visit clear. You can tell the artist, “I’m just curious to see what you’re up to these days,” or “I saw your work on your website and I’d like to take a look in person.” The artist is free to ask if you have specific intentions (which you can then address), but if she doesn’t ask, you don’t need to assume that she thinks you’re going to show up with the curatorial version of a ring and a promise. It might be hard to believe (especially from the breathless quality of today’s first question), but some of us artists attempt to maintain a healthy neutrality about studio visits. While a few of us may believe that a visit today means a solo show tomorrow, others of our tribe follow the dictum of Alexander Pope: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” In any case, you’re not responsible for other people’s assumptions. Just do what you can to be clear and leave it at that.
The second part of your question is much more difficult to answer because it’s dependent on the context of the visit and the prior relationship you have with the artist, as well as the artist’s own temperament and ability to receive criticism. There are a couple of strategies I suggest, depending on your level of familiarity with the artist.
No matter if you’ve just met or known each other for years, don’t rush into a dialog about your opinions until you’ve taken the time to understand the artist’s choices. If you are not very well acquainted with the artist, begin by asking questions such as:
“What made you switch media from oil paint to ketchup?”
“When did you arrive at that decision?”
“Where would you situate your new work?”
“Have you had others in for studio visits? What did they say?”
“How do you feel about this work in relation to your older work?”
The answers (and tone of the answers) should give you a hint as to whether the artist is really committed to the new work, which might mean that she is less open to criticism at that moment; or still tentative about the new direction and therefore potentially interested in (negative) feedback. But most important, by listening to the answers you also open yourself up to a different understanding of the work. It’s possible that you’ve misapprehended the work and asking open-ended questions gives you an opportunity to reassess.
Another strategy you can use is the dodge. If you feel you must find a way to communicate your disinterest in the new work, you can spend the studio visit asking to see older work (“Do you have any of those stripe paintings around?” or “Where are the small graphite pieces from your website? Can we see those?”). By focusing the visit on the works in which you are interested, you’ll communicate your disinterest in the new work without having to speak directly about it.
If you are friends with the artist, by all means, you should be candid about your apprehension. Consider taking that conversation to a place outside of the studio—where criticism can sting the most—and into neutral territory. Buy her a drink and say, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your new work. I’m not sure it thrills me in the same way as your older stuff, but I appreciate that you want to try something new. If you want more detailed feedback, I’d be happy to come by and discuss my thoughts in more detail.” Then drop it. If the artist trusts you and feels that your comments will be helpful, she’ll set up a date. If not, at least she knows where you stand.
I appreciate the commitment to honesty that your question implies. Curators, artists, and gallerists alike all need to work with people who are honest and faithful to the work at hand. Sometimes that means delivering bad news, but as long as you do it with pure intentions and as much diplomacy as you can muster, I think you’ll do okay. Good luck!
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Related reading: the post “To Show or Not to Show: Open Thread” over at Edward Winkleman