Image from tjnorris.net
Pam Farrell, artist and blogger, suggested today’s topic. “It's obvious that anything an artist puts out there can be used as a marketing tool, and in this case, it goes for the gallery as well. I know how to talk about my art, but how does that change when it’s an event?”
Great topic, Pam, and congratulations on your show at the Ruth Morpeth Gallery. (Pam's going to give a gallery talk on Saturday, March 28. Her blog has the details.)
An event creates a more formal context for your comments. Not to put undue pressure on you, but when it’s an event, when people are coming to hear you, you not only have to have something to say, you have to be able to say it well for 20-30 minutes.
An artist’s talk is a little bit of show business. Speak clearly. Make eye contact with individual members of the audience around and throughout the room. Share a story. Ask a rhetorical question. Invite an occasional call and response. After the main body of your talk, invite the audience to ask questions. An interested audience—and most people who make the effort to come are interested—could easily extend the event by another 20-30 minutes. Before you know it, an hour has gone by like that.
Credit: Lady Pink talk at the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Graffiti, via post by Brooklyn Museum on flickr
Who’s Your Audience?
Is it primarily your collectors and friends of the gallery? Great! This audience is motivated to learn something about you and your work. It’s also true if the event is part of a lecture series, or if an artist’s talk is a regular feature. Talk about what motivates the work, how you work (technique), where you work (studio)—the big picture, so to speak—and then indicate specific works, pointing out some of the elements you’ve just mentioned, or tell a story (if it’s interesting) about how a particular painting/sculpture/print/whatever came to be. Just as the work on the postcard is usually the first one to sell in a show, the works you talk about may get that kind of collector attention as well.
Is it artists? They’ll want to know about the work, of course, but they’ll also very likely have technical questions for you. If you don’t wish to be bogged down by “What kind of ventilation do you use?” or “What’s your proportion of stand oil to turp?” feel free to say, "I’ll take a couple of technical questions, but since we’re surrounded by the work, that’s where I’d like to keep the focus today." Then draw their attention to a particular artwork. (You could also suggest that artists wishing to talk shop could meet at the gallery another time, or at your studio, specifically for that reason. This could develop into an important network and support group for you, and vice versa.)
Is it students?
This is not the case with Pam, who will be speaking to artists and collectors in a commercial gallery, but if you are showing/speaking in an academic setting, students will certainly be your primary audience. Here you'll talk about your work, but you should expect all kinds of nuts-and-bolts questions from the audience, from technical process to career advice. How else do students learn?
Credit: Ranjani Shettar talk via UMass Amherst website
It is primarily your non-artist friends and family? Then you’re going to get questions like “How long did it take?” and “But what does it mean?” You might want to skip the talk entirely and just chat over a glass of wine.
What If You’re Terrified of Speaking?
You’re not alone. And there’s no reason to put yourself through an agonizing experience. Consider these options:
. If it’s a solo show, ask the dealer to “interview” you, a la The Actor’s Studio, or to have a “conversation” about your work. That’s good visibility for the dealer too
. Remember this: People who come to hear you speak are motivated by an interest in you and your work. You are the authority here. No one knows more about your work than you. Just open up and share what you do, why you do it and, if you wish, how you do it. Still nervous in front of your audience? Imagine them on the toilet; that's the great leveler
(The Blogpix panel, March 7, 2009, at Denise Bibro Fine Art. From left: me, Hrag Vartanian, Roberta Fallon, Libby Rosof, Bill Gusky and Brent Burket. Photo: Martin Bromirski) .
Prepare for the Talk
You’ll be a lot more at ease if you have prepared your thoughts, perhaps printed out some notes. (Actually index cards are better because they’re easier to hold, and they don’t rustle.) Often I’ve ended up not using the notes at all, because the fact of having prepared them was all I needed.)
Tips from TV School
Back when I had my day job in publishing, I was sent to a three-day course to prepare me for speaking on TV and to large groups. Here’s the gist:
. Stand up (or sit up) straight. Sounds elementary, but it makes a difference. When your spine is straight and your shoulders are back, your lungs can take in more air. That makes you more alert
. If you’re using a mic, adjust it before you begin so you don’t fumble. And, this sounds ridiculously elementary but it’s not, know how to speak into it. There’s a sweet spot where your normal speaking voice will be amplified without your having to strain. (And when you say, "Can you hear me?" you are making personal contact with the audience right from the gitgo.)
. Make eye contact. TV school says, “Four seconds per person.” You don’t have to count. Look at someone, say a sentence or two, and then look at someone else. It's not a tennis-match back and forth, but a front, back, here, there movement
. Watch the “Ums” and “you knows.” If you follow New York politics you’ll recall that, you know, Caroline Kennedy was, you know, recently, you know, undone in her bid for the, you know, open Senate seat in part by her, you know, speaking style. If it’s painful to, you know, listen to you, people will, you know, tune out. And um, if you need to say um between sentences, just take a breath instead
. The answer is in your brain, but rolling your eyes back to find it will not retrieve the information. That looking-up-to-heaven eye roll is endearing in little kids, but in adults, not so much
. Yes, you can use your hands. Some people like to keep them in their lap or on the table, and that’s fine. TV school tells you that “small gestures” are OK. I’m Italian, so “small gestures” is relative, but the point is, if your conversational style includes hand movements, keep them in. And this is me talking now, not TV school: If you are a sweeping-gesture kind of person, and it’s your artist's talk, for godsakes don’t try to sweep your gestures under the rug. Gesture away. (When you have your 15 minutes on 60 Minutes, follow TV school’s advice.)
Do not be intimidated by this list. In fact, just reading it is enough to make you think about unconscious gestures and perhaps to adjust them ever so. By the way, I have just saved you $2500.
Have the Talk Taped
You don’t have to put it on You Tube, but a good talk of you at a particular point in your career is a valuable document for your personal archives. The dealer may wish to use a snip for the gallery website, or to include a DVD of your talk to a client who couldn’t make the event. If you look at the tape and hate what you see, learn from it. In fact, if you haven’t spoken before, make that tape before you give your talk and learn from what you see.
One Last Requirement
Enjoy yourself! Enjoy the attention. You'll be back in the studio, alone, soon enough.