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 co-sponsored by KQED.org.
When is it a good investment to travel for your work? Recently I sold my largest piece yet to a collector out of my studio in Berlin while I was working there. I don’t have an extensive sales record and mostly subsist on grants, fundraising, and a day job. The collector is someone I have just met, but I feel that he has a good understanding of my work and has expressed interest in advocating my work to his friends and professional contacts, i.e., hosting dinners in his home to show the work and putting me in touch with dealers he works with.
I returned to the States shortly after selling the piece but since then have been invited to participate in a group show at a commercial gallery in Berlin that will coincide with an art fair there. I plan to put my work in the show, but I am conflicted over whether or not I should travel for the openings. It’s important to me to maintain good contact with this collector and gallerist, yet it is expensive to fly to Europe to do so. However, part of me thinks this expense is in some ways an investment in what I do and therefore I should do it. I have the money to do it, but it would be very expensive to me. What are your thoughts?
Personally, I love to travel and can’t think of a better way to spend my money, so I’m biased in favor of your going. That said, I think it’s unwise to wipe out your savings or max out your credit cards. What you need is a cost-benefit analysis and a plan to work this scenario in your favor. Start with the cost part: look up the airfare for the dates that you’d be in Berlin and factor in your other transportation costs (bus, metro, taxi). Now add the money that you’d spend on a hotel (if you need one) and three meals a day. Depending on how long you’re going to stay and what kind of lifestyle you have, you’ll probably want to pad your total with another $100+ for taxes and miscellaneous stuff, in case you forget to pack socks or your favorite rash cream. Take that running total and add another sum: your lost wages for the time that you’re gone. Now you’ve got a fairly accurate figure of what it will cost you to go. How can you offset those costs? Well, as you’ve mentioned, you might see future benefits in increased sales, exposure to other collectors in Berlin, and contact with dealers. But given the vagaries of the art market, these are all hard to weigh with any certainty. Let’s consider some of your other options for at least breaking even if not truly coming out ahead—cue RuPaul’s Supermodel (You Better Work).
To travel on a budget, get pragmatic: if you’re going to be away for a week or more, you can likely rent out your living space while you’re gone. Perhaps a friend of a friend needs a place to stay? This might be a low-stress way to recoup some of your costs. You’ll have to do some washing up when you get home (never a fun thing after a transatlantic flight), but you’ll recover some money and get your houseplants watered. You could sign up for a service like AirBnB, or you could e-mail your local associates and see if anyone has a cousin who’s been wanting to come for a visit.
In addition to a dinner with your collector, consider setting up other meetings while you’re in Berlin: with the permission of the gallery, you could use their space for “studio visits”—a way to meet art professionals and talk to them in person about your work. Obviously, you can’t invite other gallerists—that would be bad form—but you could talk with independent curators, and I’m sure the gallery would be delighted to have you bring in more collectors. The group-show gallery and/or your collector could likely suggest a list of people to contact.
Are there travel grants for which you could apply? Spend a couple of hours researching granting institutions, especially local ones that might be set up to help an emerging artist extend her reach. If you’ve graduated recently, call your school and ask if they provide any travel funding for recent alumni (and you could offer to give a talk on the Berlin art scene when you get back). Make a list of any and all possible sources of art-travel revenue and pick up the phone. Work it, girl!
How are you in front of an audience? You could give a slide lecture about your work (either at the gallery, at the collector’s house, or at another art space), or perhaps you have a particular skill that you could demonstrate at an art school—this might bring in a small stipend. You could also offer to do studio visits with art students, which sometimes pays handsomely. These activities won’t cover your costs completely, but together they could really help defray them. Additionally, meeting arts faculty and staff at Berlin schools will strengthen your network, and you might make some new friends.
If none of these approaches appeal to you or fit your skill set, make sure you’re at least keeping your receipts and ticket stubs, because you should be writing off all of these expenses on your taxes—even if you don’t break even on the trip, you are still pursuing revenue from a professional activity. But if you do decide to try one or more of these options, remember to follow the basic rules: don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, be polite, and take a “no” with good grace. Viel Glück!