Be Smart About Art

The Smart Approach to Art

written by: Susan Mumford Nov. 1, 2012

The Smart Approach to Art

Tips on how to secure a first exhibition and build a long-term working relationship with a gallerist, from Susan Mumford. 

All artists like to see their pieces prominently displayed in art galleries, and why wouldn't they? Be Smart About Art Academy has conducted some research that should help you to find, and maintain, a working relationship with a gallerist. 

Here are some key points to bear in mind when trying to secure your first gallery show. They will also help you to maintain an on-going collaboration with the gallery 
  • It's all about your network
  • You should regularly exhibit in group shows, juried exhibitions and open studios, which include building credibility as a professional artist
  • Maintain clear communication and set expectations with the other party
  • In your working relationship with an agent it's important that both parties view the relationship as a collaboration that includes transparency and willingness to communicate regularly. This results in a healthy, trusting situation. Put any agreements in writing, even if it's by email
  • Attitude. This is frequently what informs the gallerist's final decision about representing an artist. Established gallerists say that the weight on an artist's ability versus the likelihood of having a good working relationship is at least 50/50. Whilst the artist must produce pieces that the agent likes and can sell, the individual needs to be a willing, supportive partner. 
As artist Marcus McAllister says: 'Don't expect a gallery person to be riding up on their white steed to whisk you off to the castle. If it does happen - it's the exception.'

Finding a Gallerist

When we asked art dealers how they met the artists they represent, the majority replied that it was via other artists they worked with, The second most common method of introduction was 'discovering' an artist at an exhibition: this takes any pressure off the gallerist and enables an independent selection. The last method of introduction was via another art dealer/agent. 
These three key introduction routes place emphasis on artists' networks as well as regular group/juried exhibitions. A gallerist wants to see that an artist is actively building a career and such experience is evidenced on a CV full of exhibitions, open studios and more. Quotations by critics, scholars, gallerists and collectors should also be included on a CV to show credibility. However, the steps to achieving a first exhibition are not limited to your art world network, there are other routes to consider - See Marcus McAllister's Story (below). 

Case Study: An American Artist in Paris 

Marcus McAllister is a full-time professional artist who had lived and worked in Paris for 16 years. His first experience of exhibiting highlights the importance of artists' general networks. Marcus's first show, a restaurant show, was secured because the Parisian restaurateur was a friend of a friend. A problem arose at the private view, because whilst Marcus viewed the occasion as an art preview, the restaurateur saw it as an opportunity for increased trade and was not amused when Marcus's friends, and friends of friends, packed out the venue. When Marcus returned a few days later, all paintings had been taken down. The show abruptly ended and Marcus and the restaurateur fell out. 

Thus Marcus learned an important element of exhibition preparation: set expectations and communicate with the exhibition partner. Find out what the other party wants. Ask the question: 'Can our goals meet in the middle?' Be willing to compromise, but only if each party's aim will still generally be met. This applies to shows throughout an artist's career, no matter how green or established they are. 

Despite all this Marcus got one fundamental right, which led to his next opportunity. He had presented a clearly defined body of paintings and, as a consequence, was invited to exhibit at the Art Lovers' Association.

Here, Marcus met the curator of the Parsons School of Design, who subsequently visited Marcus's studio event (note point: regularly exhibit) and, on seeing that artist's commitment to his practice alongside presentation of strong bodies of work, offered a solo exhibition. 

By the time of the Parsons show Marcus was well on his way to being able to make a full-time living from his art. In the gap between the open studio and solo exhibition, he was picked up by agents who sold his pieces to private clients. Art consultants, curators and consultants recognised that this young American in Paris was committed to his career. Furthermore, that artist's positive attitude made him an easy, enjoyable collaborator. Marcus sold a number of pieces at the Parsons show, and some of the fellow arts professionals that he met at those early events are still associates today.