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.
When is an artist ready to approach galleries? I’ve been exhibiting my art for about 5 years with a couple decent solo shows and a few big sales. It’s not an extensive track record but I’m dedicated and need to increase sales if I want to keep making art (I do!). I keep thinking I’m “almost” ready and don’t want to waste my time or the gallerist’s or risk making a poor first impression with them by jumping the gun. I’ve read different advice in books but still feel unsure about this important step.
Nice spin on an old favorite! Usually the query is about how to find a gallery, but equally weighty is the question of when. Begin soliciting galleries before you’re ready and you’re likely to receive rejection after rejection as you waste your time on administrative tasks instead of making artwork. You’re right to think about the initial impression you make on a gallerist, too, since you risk being labeled a rank amateur. On the other hand, if you and your work are ready to start seeking representation, there’s no reason to hang back shyly. You’re unlikely to be discovered à la Lana Turner at the soda fountain—you need to get your work out there in front of people.
So how do you know when you’re ready? It’s going to come down to the work’s quality, your determination, and—for some galleries—your resume. Let’s start with the work: you will have a better response from gallerists if you present a body of high quality work that feels cohesive. A body of work doesn’t have to look all the same (perhaps your studio practice has been dedicated to investigating different material forms of a particular concept, for example), but the individual pieces should have some clear commonalities. Quality is subjective and therefore trickier, and different gallerists will have various ideas of what it means. We’ll come back to the idea of quality in a moment.
The next question is, how’s your stamina? I don’t want to harsh your mellow, but by pursuing gallery representation you’re entering into one of those “prepare for the worst and hope for the best” situations. This will include some tough, time-consuming work: carefully researching galleries that exhibit art in your style/medium/concept, networking at openings and art events, and reaching out via emails, submissions, and in-person meetings. All of this takes major effort, and anticipating the worst means steeling yourself for the inevitable rejections—so that when they come you can brush them off and forge ahead. Conversely, you also have to prepare for success by continuing to make good work and studying legal and logistical protocols so that you’re ready to go when you hear a “yes.” Gallery representation might mean studio visits, dealing with consignment forms and other contracts, and packing and shipping work. Part of being ready to approach a gallery means understanding various conventions of behavior and codes of the art market, and if doing this kind of homework doesn’t sound exhausting then perhaps it’s a sign that you’re ready to move forward.
On to your resume and sales: you mention a couple of “decent” solo shows, but since that might mean anything from the lobby of the public library to an exhibition at an art non-profit, it’s on you to make a clear-eyed assessment of how much credibility and cachet you’ve built up. Sales, if they have been made to strangers and not just Aunt Ada, demonstrate that your work is admired and collectible. While I appreciate your mention of how long you’ve been exhibiting—it gives me a general sense for your professionalism—in the end there’s no real correlation between the amount of time spent working and ease with which one attains representation.
Ultimately, before you approach a gallery you must look at what you have already achieved and the work that is yet to come, and you must do it with a realistic and pragmatic eye. Bearing the above in mind, I recommend that you pursue a number of studio visits with curators, gallerists, art consultants, and other artists. This is where the notion of quality comes back into the picture. You can get feedback about your work, gauge its reception, and—if the response is positive—you can ask your visitor if she thinks you are ready to start reaching out to galleries. Make a list of all the art people you know in your area and start sending out invitations. The best resources you have for resolving this issue are probably right there in your address book. Good luck!