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How to Show Your Art at Galleries...
and Make the Most of Your Openings
Q: How do I show my art to my best advantage? I have an art show and opening coming up at a gallery. I've had gallery shows before, but this one is more important. I want everything to go as well as possible. Please help.
A: Every art show or exhibition opening marks a milestone in your career as an artist. It's a premier, a beginning, a critical window of opportunity. It may only last a few hours, but it's like a microcosm of everything you've ever worked for and accomplished to this point concentrated into a one-shot whack at taking control of your destiny. Why? Because anything can happen-- and it often does-- which means you gotta be there, be on and be ready.
Your art never looks as good as it does at your opening. It's pristine, perfect and at the threshold of a new beginning. Everyone is optimistic about prospects for favorable reactions, healthy sales and great reviews. But the most important ingredient is you, and the more aware you are of the implications of the impending onslaught of art lovers, the better the chances to upwardly alter the course of your success.
I'm amazed at how many artists have little more than casual attitudes toward their openings, or worse yet, see them as inconveniences or distractions they'd rather not bother with. This makes no sense. They spend weeks, months or years creating the art, but not ten minutes reflecting on how they'll present themselves at its public debut. They show up, stand around, smile, chit chat, schmooze with friends, sip wine, shake hands, respond, react, endure the imposition, go home and forget about it. What don't they do? Prepare with purpose.
You can do better than that, much better, so in case there's an art opening in your future, maybe consider incorporating the following gambits into your repertoire. You'll be glad you did.
The number one rule of art opening protocol is to BE THERE from the opening bell to the closing clink. If you have to leave for any reason, tell whomever's in charge where you're going, how long you'll be gone and when you'll be back. This way, people who want to meet you know exactly how long they'll have to wait. You see, anyone can show up at anytime with any agenda, and your duty is to be available or accounted for 100% of that time. Better yet, unless it's an emergency, stick around. Remember, we're talking only a modest commitment of several hours at most, not days.
Now that you're there, make yourself available especially to people you don't know. The ones you don't know are sometimes the most important ones in the room. Don't waste time with friends who you can see anytime, let one or two gasbags monopolize the conversation, or get cornered by some pretender who talks tall but has no intention of doing anything for you, like buying your art. One of the most common mistakes artists make at their openings is spending way too much time with people who are least likely to buy or offer anything that's in any way positive for their careers. It's not easy to tell who's who at first, but the more art show experience you get, the easier it'll become to jettison the time wasters. As for your most ardent admirers, you can bathe in their white light anytime, so be brief and save the rest for later.
Keep the traffic moving; keep conversations basic and answers short. That way, you maximize introductory opportunities as well as the potential to add to your fan base. Always speak in everyday language anyone can understand, especially when you're talking to someone you've never talked to before (if you need help with this, practice before the opening). Resist the urge to tell people more than they want to hear and avoid answering questions in insider art jargon that only MFAs can understand. Best procedure is to answer all questions in thirty seconds or less (if you think that's too short, time yourself and see how much you can say in thirty seconds-- you'll be amazed). The longer your answers, the fewer people you'll have time to talk to. If someone wants to hear your life story, tell them you'll be happy to get into it later, after the opening.
Pay attention to everyone you talk to; make sure they understand what you're saying. Speak at their level and don't act like you know much more about art than they do (even when you do). If you see they they're not quite getting what you're saying, slow down, back up, ask what they don't get, and try a simpler approach. Or periodically pause the conversation and ask if they have any questions. Most importantly, avoid the tendency to be argumentative or to correct anyone who misinterprets your art or sees it differently than you do. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, especially around art.
So here you are; the stampede is on. Everyone's looking good, wanting a piece of the action, to be part of "it," to rub elbows, make the scene, get somewhere, be somebody, feel special, whatever. But you've got the wildcards too, strangers who come because they're curious, they've come with friends, they like parties, they're walking by and look in the window, they like crowds, they like to look at art without being noticed, and so on. It makes absolutely no difference whether they have any idea who you are or have ever seen your art; anybody can become a buyer or really help you out in your career. Anybody can decide for whatever reason and at any moment that they like who they're talking to and what they're looking at enough to get serious. And in order to facilitate that seriousness to hopefully culminate in sales (or more), you've got to make the process of identifying with, understanding, appreciating and especially owning your art as effortless as buying a quart of milk at the grocery store.
If you feel it's appropriate, walk up and briefly introduce yourself to anyone who's actively scoping your art, your resume, the show statement or your price list for any length of time. That's all you have to do; introduce yourself-- no pressure, no nothing. A simple "hello" will do it. You can tell real fast whether they're interested in talking. If you get a cool reception, politely excuse yourself and move on. Remember, all kinds of people might want to talk to you for all kinds of reasons, but sometimes they either don't know what you look like or happen to be shy or are afraid to ask. Good procedure is to assume everyone's too shy to say hi and would much rather have you go first. When you guess right and deepen their experience of your work, you win followers and maybe even collectors.
Do you best to answer questions in earnest and avoid stock answers. For example, if someone asks you to explain your art or asks a question about the meaning or significance of your work, don't tell them it means whatever they want it to mean. Because guess what? They already know that. They want to know what YOU think it means. Be responsive and attentive, no matter how uninformed their questions may be. Imagine yourself in their shoes. When you ask questions about stuff you don't understand to people who understand it really well, you'd want them to help you too.
Always remember, it's OK for people to like something they know little or nothing about, and if that something is your art, you're in luck. Tons of people who like art know little or nothing about it; some of them turn out to be buyers and some of them will hopefully buy yours. I see this happen all the time; every dedicated collector has to start somewhere. So to increase the chances of those starts happening with your art, have entry-level explanations and answers that keep them in the game. They'll really appreciate you for it.
You see, many people spook easily around art. Sure, they love it and may well want to own it-- practically everybody does-- but as soon as they don't understand something or feel the least bit confused or uncomfortable, they usually run the other way. In order to increase the fan base and make the sales, you have to unspook them, or better yet, don't give them a chance to get spooked in the first place. Stay basic right from the start, because that's how we like it. Simple. Entry-level. We're at an art opening sipping wine, appreciating the work and having a good time, not at a postgraduate seminar. You'll have plenty of time to get serious with those who want to know your full story... later, not now.
As for the curators, critics, reporters, bloggers, photographers and videographers in the crowd, no matter how insignificant their publications or websites or how much you may disagree with their views, give them absolutely everything they ask for (within reaspm, of course). You want coverage and reviews, and the more you get, the better. So if someone comes up, introduces themselves and tells you they're with this publication or that, chat them up. Publicity is always good, no matter where it appears or what it says; every time someone writes about your art, that means your art's worth writing about and even more importantly, that greater numbers of people will see it. As for that pipsqueak who writes for iliketoblatheraboutart.com-- the one with minimal readership-- he or she may one day become the art critic for The New York Times. Furthermore, you never know who'll stumble across tje coverage of your show on iliketoblatheraboutart.com, like what they see and decide to take action. The more people who see your art in more places, the greater the chances that something good is going to happen.
A few additional pointers:
* If someone doesn't know who you are or isn't familiar with your art, go easy on them. Welcome them to your show and answer their questions.
* Even if you're uncomfortable in public, make yourself available; avoid appearing aloof or preoccupied. You only have to endure this for a few hours, plus you never know who might want to meet you and where that conversation might go.
* Make sure everything is priced and that prices are visible for everyone to see. Requiring people to ask how much your art costs eliminates potential buyers who for whatever reasons don't feel comfortable asking.
* Keep an eye on the crowd. If you're busy, but see people who look like they need help or have questions or want to talk, point them out to gallery personnel or approach them yourself. When you need help and nobody helps you, you leave, right? You don't want that.
* If you're talking to someone you know and someone you don't know comes up and wants to talk to you, politely tell the someone-you-know that you'll be delighted to continue the conversation later, and then talk to the someone-you-don't-know. Keep the someone-you-don't-know waiting for as little time as possible. The most important people at your opening may turn out to be ones you don't know... yet.
* Make sure you have enough copies of your show statement, press release and price list available at the front desk or counter. Nobody likes having to look over other people's shoulders, having other people look over their shoulders, waiting for someone to put a copy down, or reaching for one and having someone else grab it first.
* Be careful not to pressure people or oversell (this is not usually a problem with artists, but it is tempting from time to time).
* Be positive. No complaining. No trashing other artists, collectors, galleries or anybody or anything else. Whatever you say, keep it on the up-and-up. Negativity gets you nowhere.
* Stay sober. You'll have plenty of time to party your brains out later.
Now that you know what TO do at your art events, you can read about what NOT to do here: How Not to Act at Your Art Shows and Gallery Openings
(Art by Jane Rosen)