Best of 2012 – HELP DESK: The Element of Surprise

Today’s Best of 2012 selection features our weekly art advice column Help Desk, written by the all-too-wise Bean Gilsdorf.  DailyServing contributor Amelia Sechman selected The Element of Surprise, stating It was almost stupidly easy for me to pick my favorite articles from this year. At work, I respond to artist submissions on a regular basis, some of which are so misguided I feel obligated to send them links to these two articles from Help Desk by Bean Gilsdorf. Both pieces give such clear, logical and useful advice to artists looking for gallery representation, the kind of advice all recent art school grads should be receiving, but often don’t. So here’s to Bean, for helping artists more effectively interact with galleries.”

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Welcome to another week of 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 helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions (you can use a free anonymizer like Anonymouse.org if you want) and save the comments section to chime in on the topics of the day. All submissions will be treated as anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving.

Your counselor, hard at work.

What is the most effective way to build a relationship with galleries and eventually have your work shown? Do you simply walk in with a portfolio of works/images and try to convince them of how great you are? Do you go to show openings and schmooze with gallery owners?

Sneak attack! Imagine that you are a kindly gallerist, minding your own business (literally) and making a few phone calls to chat up some nice collectors, when suddenly there is an eager artist at your desk with a portfolio. He wants your attention RIGHT NOW, though he does not have an appointment, though it is obvious that you are busy working. Put yourself in the dealer’s shoes: even if this kid is the next Jean-Michel Basquiat, are you likely to give him a solo show, let alone a second glance? No, what you are going to give this guy is a swift boot to the rear end.

You won't get a gallery by pouncing on an unsuspecting dealer.

The most effective way to build a relationship is to build a relationship. Go to openings, yes, but do not schmooze because schmoozing is yucky and gallerists can see right through you. Instead, look at the art, and then think about it until you find something intelligent to say, and then go say it to the gallerist (and also to the artist, please, who is standing awkwardly to one side hoping that someone will say something–anything–intelligent to her this evening). Is there a question you have about the work? Did it make you think of something you saw, or read, or experienced? Go have a conversation, because conversations are the best way to build relationships.

To convince someone you’re great, be great. Give a damn about art that’s not your own. Do your research and know a little something about the gallery and its artists. Show up to the openings and be a friendly face. Be kind to others, and work with integrity.

Do you see how utterly deranged this cat looks while on the hunt? An artist on the desperate schmooze looks about the same.

Notice that I haven’t said anything yet about how to get your work shown. Well, that’s because Edward Winkleman (of Winkleman Gallery, godblessum) has already answered your question. He very generously takes everything that goes into finding a gallery and sums it up into five steps, which I quote below:

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.

5.) Once you have an “in,” so to speak, then let the gallery know you’re interested in having them consider your work.

This is the short version. The longer version, the one you’re going to go read right now, all the way down through the bottom of the comments thread, is here: http://www.edwardwinkleman.com/2007/04/one-more-time-with-feeling-seriously.html

And don’t forget that good manners never hurt anyone. When you get your gallery, be sure to send Edward a thank-you note.

Gustave Courbet, The Artist's Studio (L'Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life, 1855. Oil on canvas,141.33 × 235.43 inches

I am a painter. I have had what I consider two successful solo shows in the region where I live. Some of this success is due to the highly saleable quality of my work. I’d like to do something different. My dealer is open, however I’m nervous about interrupting my momentum. How can I try out something new without alienating my supporters?

I don’t blame you for being nervous. You’ve taken the time to produce a body of work that has received attention and support, yet you want to create work that is different from your oeuvre. The question looms: if you take this left turn, will you undermine the hard work that you’ve already done?

Let’s turn this question around. What do you stand to lose if you don’t follow your lights? What opportunity might you miss? What artwork might the world never see? Do you think you will be satisfied in five, ten, or twenty years to look back on work that played it safe? All good art has been produced by taking some risks, whether they be emotional, physical, or financial. I think you owe it to yourself as an artist to explore the notions that are kicking around in your mind. There’s also the potential payoff elicited by the chain reaction that change puts into motion: risks require bravery, bravery builds character, and character makes good artwork. My friend Stephen always says, “If it doesn’t feel risky, you’re not doing it right.”

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981. Oil on canvas, 78 x 120 inches

And while I’m quoting, I’d also like to share the words of a former boss, who once said to me “All change is difficult.” This is absolutely true whether the change is for the bad or the good. The difference here is that you already know what has worked for you in the past, so you have the ability to mitigate some of the risk and awkwardness that comes with change. You can be brave and still be pragmatic. Consider your options: could you continue your current body of work while making some of the new pieces on the side? Or perhaps you could go to a residency and immerse yourself in the new experiments for a month. If you don’t have access to such a program, can you create a week or two of uninterrupted studio time for yourself? It’s possible to try out the new work from where you are in your career and not suffer any adverse effects.

The fact that your dealer is open to the idea is a very good sign. If she has been in the biz for a while you should trust her instincts. While these new ideas may seem very different to you, I’m willing to bet that they are connected to your prior work in some way, either materially, formally, or conceptually. If the new body of work is good, your dealer can help you to frame your narrative and market the work in a way that emphasizes the natural progression from old to new. Let your dealer handle the public’s expectations and make the work that is calling out to you.

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