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I may be in an enviable position, but it is a sticky one nonetheless. I’m getting to the position where I may be represented by multiple galleries who want to show my work at art fairs. With the rise of the art fair as a way of selling and promoting artists, how might I go about deciding which gallery will show my work at a fair? In the instance where you are just showing in galleries it seems easy because you can schedule shows apart in the calendar year and set work aside for each gallery, but if the same galleries start showing up at fairs, it gets tricky. Is this something I have to negotiate or would I just tell them to talk it out?
Congratulations! To answer your query, I turned to some experts who have the inside scoop on art fairs. Gallerist Nathan Bowser in Portland, Oregon agrees that your predicament (if it can really be called such) is a good one to have. “This artist has a very exciting problem and should be commended for actively thinking about the best way to balance these many positive elements of his or her career. Communication is key to any business relationship, so avoid the ‘let the galleries duke it out’ approach (this is a great way to alienate your allies). This is YOUR career, so it is quite important that you remain an active voice in these important choices. How and where your art is displayed directly effects who sees it and what they take away from that experience. Though it may be one of the least interesting aspects of an artist’s work, staying involved in your career planning can be one of the biggest determining factors of your success.”
Edward Winkleman, my other go-to man on the art fair scene, had some detailed insight into how your issue might play out. As the Director of Winkleman Gallery in New York, he’s had a lot of experience with fairs, including ARCO, Art Chicago, Pulse, Year 06, Aqua, and NADA: “It’s not at all unusual for an artist to have work in the booths of multiple galleries at an art fair. Usually those galleries are in different cities, so there’s not much confusion about who represents them where, but you’ll occasionally also find work by the same artist in booths of galleries from the same city (generally as a plan worked out mutually by artist and respective galleries, but not always). For example, say Gallery A represents Artist X and Gallery B owns some of Artist X’s work outright. Even if Gallery A and Gallery B are in the same city (and even if Artist X and Gallery A might object), Gallery B can indeed present the work at the art fair of their choice because it’s their property. Of course they might damage their relationship with Artist X (assuming they still have one), but they are in the business of selling art, so….”
I’d say it sounds like you need to initiate conversations with all of your galleries so that everyone is on the same page. In their responses, both Edward and Nathan brought up the related issue of having enough work on hand to satisfy your dealers and collectors, so make sure to discuss expectations regarding quantity with your galleries. For example, Nathan pointed out, “At some point there comes a time in an artist’s career where they must face the task of supplying enough work to maintain the interest and active collecting of a (hopefully) ever-growing and widening audience. Especially for an artist whose star is on the rise, there is definitely a case to be made for producing enough work to satisfy this demand. An artist I work with has this great anecdote from a visit to Andy Warhol’s studio. He, Andy and several others were standing around chatting and the question of, ‘how to become a well collected artist’ came up. Andy’s reply was simple: ‘You can’t be well collected if there aren’t enough works to collect.’”
Edward underlined the need to put everything on the table before problems arise: “Trickier for the artist is how to keep each gallery who might want to bring work to the same fair (or to fairs near the same time) happy when supply is short. Multiples are one solution, if that fits within the artist’s practice. Otherwise, it makes sense to simply have a conversation with each representing gallery well in advance, letting them know what you, the artist, feel is available for that fair. Yes, this can lead to disagreements, but the earlier such conversations take place, the easier it becomes to work out solutions that keep everyone reasonably happy.”
So you have to think very carefully about not only where your work is going, but also how much work you can reasonably produce to have on hand for each fair. Nathan continued with some savvy observations on how an art fair functions for the artist, the gallery, and the collector: “Success at art fairs is often tied quite closely to a well-planned and executed strategy. Despite the ‘free for all’ feel on the fair’s floor, a large portion of sales start before the fair opens and even more activity culminates well after everything has been packed away. Galleries who are successful at art fairs develop leads before the fair. Later, follow-up communications after the fair can lead to sales and museum shows. Rarely do these things happen from coincidence.”
“Though some galleries find success in a ‘something for everyone’ scattershot approach to their art fair presence, I’d venture that this type of booth caters most to the impulsive ‘shopper’ who is looking for low-hanging fruit and less to the serious collectors who are generally using art fairs to check in on artists they already collect and to consider new work; to finally see in person works that they’ve been hearing a buzz about; and/or to reconnect with their network of trusted advisors (galleries) and to learn about new artists who match their interests.”
“With these points in mind, talk with your galleries. Learn about the fairs they will be showing at. Go to the fairs yourself and determine where you’d like to be seen. Find out how your galleries intend to structure their booths. Who you will be showing with? How do they see your work fitting the market where the fair is? How are they advertising? Who do they know in the area? Are there leads they are trying to capitalize on? What work of yours are they hoping to show? A few small drawings in the corner of a booth with twenty artists could do fine for an emerging career. A solo booth at a prominent fair could be the gateway to museum shows. If you are a multidisciplinary artist who works across several media and styles, you may be able to split works thematically amongst your galleries, providing each with work that best matches their program’s focus.”
Nathan summed up with some final words of wisdom: “Be inquisitive, make a plan that works for the vested parties, but also let the professionals do their job. There are a lot of variables to consider, so talk it out. It’s good to be wanted—don’t shy away from opportunity. But make sure the choices fit your goals and your ability to make quality work for this important presentation of your art. Communication is key.”
Amen to that!