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Making Contact with Art Galleries
How to Do it Right
Art galleries and dealers are continually deluged with requests from artists to get involved with their art in one way or another either by showing it, selling it, representing it, critiquing it or otherwise helping them advance in their careers. They make contact by email, phone, in person, by mail, through friends, and so on. Unfortunately, a substantial percentage of these attempts fall far short of what galleries require from any artist who is approaching them about their art.
One critical mistake artists often make is offering little or no information about either themselves or their art other than maybe including a few images of their work or providing links to their websites or image pages. Another common error is failing to give reasons, specifically relating to whatever gallery or dealer they're contacting, about why they're contacting them in the first place, and even more importantly, why they should take time out of their busy schedules to spend time reviewing their work, let alone respond. In other words, many of these requests amount to little more than "Look at my art" or "Do something for me," with hardly any information or explanations about what's in it for those galleries if they do. It's your responsibility-- while keeping your inquiry concise and to the point, and abiding by a gallery's submission guidelines if they have them-- to explain exactly why you're making contact and what's in it for them to consider your art. If you can't come up with a really good reason that has the gallery's best interests in mind, don't bother contacting them.
Once you've established your purpose in making contact, the most important details to provide are specifics about your art-- not all of your art, but your most recent work, what you're currently producing or working on, not everything you've ever created. Also limit it to the types of work that you feel are relevant to that gallery. Briefly mention how you think they fit in with the art and artists the gallery already shows, and give your reasons why. If a gallery asks, be prepared to tell them approximately how many pieces you have completed and currently available for sale, how many more you expect to complete and about how long it will take to complete them. Additional details are also helpful to have on hand like dimensions, mediums and price ranges (the best way to handle these is to make sure they're easily accessible on your website or image pages). Don't inundate a gallery with information or images of older art, art that has nothing to do with what they show, or art that you've already shown at other venues. Galleries tend not to want work that's been hanging around your studio for a while or that has failed to sell elsewhere. They want to see your newest, freshest and best stuff.
Make sure you have your pricing act together. Are your prices net to you or are they retail prices that you and the gallery split? You don't necessarily have to go into specifics early on, but at least be clear on what ranges your art generally sells in if the question comes up. The reason for talking prices at certain points in a conversation is that any gallery you contact needs to know whether those dollar amounts fall within the range they typically sell art in. For example, if a gallery typically sells work in the $15000-$20000 price range and your art typically sells in the $800-$1200 range, then the gallery will likely not be interested in your art (why you would be contacting them in the first place makes little sense).
Another mistake artists often make is they tend to present their work with little or no context or organization. In other words, they simply ask whoever they're contacting to go somewhere online and look at all of their art together with no instructions about how it's arranged, where to start, what to pay attention to and so on. So make sure you briefly explain what your art is about, and provide whatever other basics are necessary for them to understand what they're looking at-- sort of a roadmap to your work. As an artist you have to remember that whenever you contact anyone who has little or no previous knowledge of either you or your art, you have to be exceptionally clear about why you are contacting them, what the significance of your art is with respect to them and their gallery, and how they can access and view the art. If you can't put that information together in an effective presentation-- what your art is all about and why it's worth their paying attention to-- don't contact them.
In terms of organization, present your work in easily understandable groups, series or categories, each having a particular theme, subject matter, point, purpose or other unifying characteristic. Best procedure is to do this organizing ahead of time on your website or image pages. Whenever a gallery is not familiar with you-- especially if you're early in your career-- you pretty much have to arrange your work according to specific guidelines, almost like you're curating your own exhibitions. The closer your can come to presenting your art in terms of shows that are basically ready to go, the better. And make sure your current work as well as work that's most relevant to the gallery is clearly labelled and easy to navigate to.
If you already have a respectable resume and exhibition history, you can present only a portion of a series with show potential rather than the completed body of work. Accompany these works with details about how many additional pieces the series will ultimately consist of and when they'll be finished. For example, more established artists can say something like, "This is the beginning of my XYZ series. When completed in six months, it will consist of 20 pieces all themed on this particular subject or concept or philosophy or idea or whatever." That way, the gallery or dealer can get a better idea of your capabilities as well as the significance of what you're working on.
You can't simply expect someone who has never heard of you or who is unfamiliar with your art to go to your website or wherever you keep your images and instantly understand your organization, layout or purpose anywhere near as well as you do. Nor can you expect them to do the heavy lifting and attempt to organize it themselves with no help from you. Not only would you be requiring them to spend their valuable time trying to decipher what you're up to, but a poor presentation or inadequate instructions also shows a lack of care or concern on your part. No gallery likes that. It's your duty to provide the necessary information up front-- either in your initial contact or on your website-- and essential if you expect to make any headway at all in terms of having them represent your art. The fact that you have taken the time to organize and present your work in a systematic easily understandable fashion shows whoever you are contacting that you are serious about getting your art out there, and will do whatever you have to do to make sure they understand what you're up to.
Now let's talk business. Galleries are not generally inclined to respond to artists who provide little or no details about what kind of an arrangement they're looking for other than wanting someone to show, sell, represent or pay attention to their art. One major reason for this is that if a gallery does respond to an open-ended or non-specific "look at my art and get back to me" type of request, they're automatically putting themselves in an awkward one-down position in relation to the artist. The artist would be free to dictate to them whatever terms or arrangement or prices or collaboration they feel they deserve, and no gallery is interested in that.
The gallery almost always dictates the terms of any arrangement, not the artist, so it's best to be very specific about what you're looking for, and to have no conditions or requirements around showing your art. If you do have conditions, you're essentially telling the gallery how to conduct their business, and this makes absolutely no sense. The gallery already knows what is best for them and their clientele, and what they have to do in order to sell art. If you insist on conditions (and hopefully you won't), state them up front so the gallery can quickly determine whether or not you're compatible with their agenda.
Also be able to tell a gallery why you believe you're at an appropriate point in your career to contact them. Be prepared to direct them to your resume, your artist statement, or to additional background information that supports your reasoning. If the conversation progresses beyond initial contact, be ready to go into greater detail about what makes your art unique, special or significant. Perhaps you're extremely knowledgeable about a particular theme or subject matter or aspect that's prominent in your art. Perhaps you've been working on a certain type of art or perfecting a proprietary technique for a long period of time. Maybe certain fascinating aspects of how you live or conduct your life are instrumental in the creation of your art. Focus on whatever separates your art out from all other similar looking art.
Whatever your qualifications are, be able to explain them to a gallery in such a way that you deepen their appreciation and understanding of the significance of your work. You can't convince anyone your art is worth paying attention to without providing adequate reasons why. A gallery needs the back story; they need to understand your work in depth, the way that you understand it, to essentially see it through your eyes and then evaluate it on their terms rather than having to try and guess.
So what you as an artist have to do whenever you contact any gallery about your art is to make sure you're prepared to get them up to speed on what it's all about in case they like what they see and want to know more. You have to put this kind of time into your presentation in order for whomever you're contacting to put the equivalent amount of time into continuing the conversation. You cannot simply ask galleries to look at your art without giving them good reasons why.
And always remember-- personalize your presentation to whoever you want to look at your art. Know exactly who you are contacting and why. Way too many initial contact attempts look like form letters, like the artist is sending the exact same materials to anyone who they think might be interested in their art. When galleries see this-- when it's clear the artist has little or no idea who they're contacting-- it's over before it even starts. Those of you who think you're going to get lucky by spamming enough galleries, I hate to burst your bubble, but you're not. In fact the opposite is more often the case; you're actually reducing your chances of making headway. However, if you make a compelling relevant personalized presentation, you can be certain that sooner or later someone will give you the opportunity you deserve.