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Studio Visits and Beyond:
Making an Artist/Dealer/Gallery Relationship Work
You can practically taste it-- the prospect of your first serious solo show. You've slogged away in the studio, been bulking the resume, participated in several well-received group shows, had a couple of modest but respectable solos, gotten yourself a bit of a profile in the art community and proven you're a contender. You're confident in what you're doing and people are talking you up. Now you've been recommended to one of the better galleries in town and you hear that the owner will be contacting you about setting up a studio visit. Here are some protocol pointers for making this or any studio visit work.
To begin with, whenever a gallery owner (or anyone else with a position in the art world) contacts you about wanting to visit your studio, accept their offer with enthusiasm. This approach also works the other way around-- when you're inviting someone to see your work. A willingness and eagerness to show and speak about your art always starts things off in a good way.
In preparation for your appointment, nuance the room, primp the seating area and make sure it's comfortable, dust and tactfully position your art with the good stuff up front, the ones you want to talk about, the ones everybody likes the most, and any other works that you believe are important to highlight so that your guest sees those first. Avoid using props or having to run around the space gathering this or that once the visit begins; it's distracting. Keep the visual presentation focused and direct. Maybe even have a nice bottle of wine in waiting just in case all goes well.
Regardless of how how much your guest may love your art or how perfect it may be for their gallery, confidence, deportment and the strength of your presentation seal the deal. You can never underestimate the value of a quality interaction and, assuming you survive that and get some form of representation, on your future working relationship together. For your part, that means knowing what you're doing as an artist, knowing how to explain your art and understanding what you're talking about. This doesn't mean that you give a scripted or rehearsed presentation, but rather that you make apparent that you've spent time reflecting on your artwork and know it well. Lastly, make no excuses and never apologize; this is your art and your art is your life.
Always remember that the purpose of these visits is to discuss your art, not to seek approval. In other words, never ask someone whether or not they like your work. Anytime you do this, you immediately put them in an awkward position, shifting the onus onto them, when in fact, this is your time to shine and their time to sit back and enjoy the show. They must already have some sort of affinity for the work based simply on the fact that they're there, so leave it at that.
Be specific and personal; you can bring any studio visit to life by effectively conveying your unique vision. Being honest and genuine are paramount as well; you can't machinate yourself into a show. Take responsibility for the choices you've made and require no stroking or love. Remember-- this is a business meeting. Your guest is there to see and evaluate your work, not to be touchie-feelie. You can assume up front that they respect you and respect your art, and that is why they're there in the first place.
In addition to your overall presentation, basic tact, politeness and a willingness to work with a gallery owner are what make studio visits successful. If you're good in social situations, that's a plus, but gallery owners also make allowances in that regard; they understand that having social skills and being a good artist do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. So don't worry if you're not that comfortable socially. If you're agreeable enough to be around and demonstrate that you are capable of cooperating and being reasonably easy to work with, the show can definitely go on.
Never overestimate the importance of this or any studio visit because the truth is that galleries don't always take on artists whose art they like. In fact, the overwhelming majority of owners see way more gallery-worthy art than they can ever hope to show. This means they have to draw the line somewhere, and where they draw it often depends on background noise, incidentals that may or may not be happening in addition to the art. In other words, in addition to giving a good solid presentation, you must also avoid certain indiscretions that will instantly compromise or even kill a deal.
For starters, leave any past baggage out of the conversation. For example, supposing that in spite of how well things have been going for you, you feel that your ascent hasn't been ascending quite as fast as you thought it would, and as a result, you've copped a bit of an attitude towards the art world. You believe the true import of your art is being ignored, underappreciated, underexposed, or whatever and you're not shy about letting other people know.
No matter how good you are, even if you're great, even if you're right, you know what you're doing? You're insulting people by insinuating that they're in some way deficient or uninformed for not recognizing your greatness. And that's not good. Nobody likes being called names. Any artist who denigrates art people or galleries (either by inference or otherwise) in front of a gallery owner who's visiting them at their studio will likely never get a show at that gallery. Even if the artist has only good things to say about that particular owner or gallery, if a show or relationship with that gallery doesn't go well, the artist may someday make them the target of a future rant... and no gallery wants that.
If you've got prejudicial attitudes towards the art business, art dealers, art galleries or "the system," keep them to yourself and work through them on your own, or be prepared to go it alone because no established gallery will likely take a chance on you. You want people to think wholesome uplifting beautiful thoughts about you and your art, right? Of course you do, but they'll have trouble doing that if you go negative on them. So don't. Artists who are positive, upbeat and easy to get along with invariably win out over those who come off as being potentially difficult (assuming all else is relatively equal-- and it often is).
Also, go easy on directives; too much instruction around your art never works. Let's say you tell a gallery owner he's not looking at your art right or he's missing its true meaning. Or you tell him that you have to explain your art in great detail so you can be sure he can fully appreciate it. None of this is good. First off, your art has to impress on its own and at least survive initial scrutiny. Beyond your basic presentation, you can't stand there and relentlessly lobby on its behalf; wait for the gallery owner to either advance the conversation or begin to ask questions. Second, if a gallery owner has difficulty understanding your art, consider that your problem, not theirs. They spend their lives looking at art and they're really good at it, so if they're perplexed, probably everyone else will be too.
Then again, your art might be fine, but not for that gallery (or more accurately, that gallery's client base-- assuming you don't get similar reactions from other gallery owners as well). Remember that galleries survive by selling art, so in addition to understanding and liking your work, they have to decide whether they can sell it, how they can sell it, how much they can sell it for, how much they think they can sell, and whether that means enough money to pay next month's expenses.
So let's say the studio visit goes smashingly and you get yourself a show. A critical part of any successful gallery relationship is that it be a joint venture between you and the dealer, 50/50 from start to finish. When a gallery decides to show your art, they automatically oblige themselves to put out a big fat chunk of time, money, labor, square footage, thought and overall positivity into you and your work. And you've got to give exactly that much back. Don't think "My art's more valuable than the effort you're putting into it," or that all you have to do is give them art and you're done because without it, they're nowhere. They won't be nowhere. You'll be nowhere; they'll be somewhere else.
You also have to be loyal, cooperative, timely and professional in terms of your obligations and responsibilities throughout the course of the show, the consignment arrangement or the duration of your contract. This is a business relationship; you are now involved with professional people. You must fulfill your commitments and represent the gallery the way they represent you. It's basic logic. If you short-sheet a gallery that's hawking your art, like for example selling behind their back, not only do you make it harder for them, but you also you make it harder for you. You make them look bad, but worse yet, you also make yourself look bad because the gallery will end up selling less of your art, and you'll be considered less "gallery-worthy" as a result of it.
More helpful hints for studio visits and beyond:
* Be patient, not pushy. Take your best shot; sit back and wait. Either it happens or it doesn't. Don't demand action or complain about the shows you haven't gotten or think you've deserved.
* Figure out why your art is well suited for whatever gallery visits you at your studio. Be prepared to talk on that topic and to answer any questions in that regard. In other words, do your homework in advance and learn as much as you can about the gallery, the gallery owner, their artists, their history and their perspective on art.
* Don't argue or be resentful over a commission split. Learn why dealers deserve their percentages on your own time, not theirs. (Believe me, they deserve them.)
* Sobriety is always good during any meeting anywhere.
* Don't allow yourself to get tripped up by emotions. Coming off as erratic, melodramatic, demanding, prone to emergencies or requiring continual attention are characteristics that galleries will do their best to avoid.
* Make sure everything you show is available for sale. Don't show sold or otherwise unavailable work during a studio visit-- even if it's at the top end of your output. If a gallery owner wants to show it but can't have it, you've got a problem.
* Let gallery owners come to their own conclusions about whether your art is appropriate for their galleries. Don't brag or make claims about yourself or your art such as, "I'm the next (fill in the blank with the name of a white hot artist) and you'll regret it if you don't take me on." Believe it or not, some artists actually say stuff like that.
* Stay away from challenges or dares like, "I dare you to like my art," "I dare you to understand my art," "I dare you to work with me," and so on. Gallery owners rarely take dares.
* Don't bug galleries, call them every other day, ask how things are going, ask whether you're getting a show, ask how your show is going, ask if anybody has looked at your art, ask what they said if they did, ask what their facial expressions were, how close they came to buying, and on and on and on. They simply don't have time for conversations like this.
* Sex is never a career advancement strategy (especially when you're either in a business relationship with a gallery or a business relationship is pending); get romantically involved with gallery owners or employees for personal reasons only and even then, fully think the potential consequences through before you do.
Thanks to Brian Gross of Brian Gross Fine Art, Charles Linder, formerly of Lincart, and Todd Levin of Levin Art Group for their generous assistance with this article.