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. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED.org.
I have been out of graduate school for 3 years now and working as an independent artist. I have a consistent studio practice and upcoming exhibitions at non-profit, artist run spaces but have never had any luck with commercial gallery spaces. I am at the point in my practice now where I feel ready to seek commercial gallery representation but have no idea where/how to even begin the process. The people that I know who are represented by galleries seem to have it just “happen” to them. What are some things that I could do to get the ball rolling? I know that it is usually not a good idea to just send in a work sample and CV cold. Any tips/suggestions would be great.
First of all, congratulations on maintaining a rigorous practice after grad school. There are many people who leave with an MFA and, for a variety of reasons, are not able to continue making art; so in spite of your current concerns, I hope that you look back on what you’ve accomplished so far and feel proud.
I also want to say that finding gallery representation rarely just “happens,” despite the many artists who like to make it seem as though everything just falls in their laps (implying, of course, that they are so talented that the world just comes running). This kind of social game might be fun at parties, but it seldom happens in reality. Finding representation—especially the right representation, not just any old gallery—takes research, commitment, and often some good connections; and this is all in addition to slogging away in the studio.
What you need to begin are a couple of great resources that will lay out the task in front of you. Start by reading Edward Winkleman’s advice for artists here. He lists five items that should be on the checklist of anyone seeking representation, which I will paraphrase: “1. Do some honest and serious thinking about where your artwork belongs in the art market; 2. Do some serious research to find the program that best fits your artwork within that market; 3. Don’t make mistakes that will discourage you; 4. Work toward a short list. And be very honest with yourself; 5. Once you have an ‘in,’ so to speak, then let the gallery know you’re interested in having them consider your work.”
That’s the short version, but take the time to go read the whole thing right now. I’ll wait.
Okay, now that you’re back with a more complete idea of the research project that you’re undertaking, you should consider buying a copy of Art/Work, a book I will probably keep recommending until I die. Not only is it an excellent primer for all kinds of professional activities (galleries, contracts, consignment, etc.), it also has helpful quotes from gallerists and dealers that help you understand things from their perspective. It’s not expensive and it really is a wonderful resource, so please obtain a copy and keep it on hand as you start to negotiate this path.
It’s important to remember that this undertaking is not just a matter of doing your homework and sending images. I asked Alexis Mackenzie, the assistant director at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art, for some insight. Here’s what she said: “Getting started in the commercial gallery world is best facilitated by engagement with the arts community; participating in public events, residencies, group shows, etc. and building relationships with other artists is one of the better ways to get your work seen while making connections to other curators and gallerists. The upcoming exhibitions at non-profit, artist-run spaces are the perfect starting point for this. Even something as simple as having a basic website where people can see examples of your work, your CV, an artist statement, and contact information is very useful.”
She continued with some advice that reiterates Mr. Winkleman’s wise counsel: “Outside of building connections within the arts community around you, I think one of the most important things to consider when it comes to approaching (or being approached by) any gallery is to look at their program and see if your work is a good fit. If your work is not in line with their program then it wouldn’t make sense for either of you to work together, as it would most likely not register with their audience, and they might not have collectors for you. Artists shouldn’t show at a gallery just for the sake of being exhibited; consider the fact that they will be representing you and your work, and should be able to speak for it with understanding and appreciation, and within the context of their program. This means that a gallery is most likely not going to be interested in work that this doesn’t apply to, even if the work is good.”
Additional resources for finding the right fit might be some of the curators (independent or institutional) in your region. They are likely to have a bit of insider knowledge regarding the programs of local commercial galleries, so invite a few for studio visits and ask if/where they see your work fitting into the local scene. They might have several suggestions for you, and if they like the work—a best-case scenario—they also might be willing to make an introduction. If you pursue this course of action, be diplomatic and don’t put pressure on anyone to make it happen for you. Recommending an emerging artist to a specific gallery is an act of generosity and best initiated by the curator. In other words, approach these meetings with enthusiasm and curiosity but don’t be a pest.
Also, don’t be crushed if the commercial gallery thing doesn’t work out as quickly as you were hoping it would. Ms. Mackenzie has a final suggestion for you to keep in mind as you build your career: “There are other paths besides exhibiting commercially; try looking into grants, public art, non-profits, etc. if a commercial path does not seem to be opening up at this point in time. And personally, I think the work itself should always come first. Make strong work that you believe in, and the rest should follow.”