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With all the advice floating around about how to approach a gallery, let’s talk today about what not to do.
Sending an Email or Letter?
“I am not ‘To Whom to May Concern,’” says a Westchester dealer. “If you don’t know whom to address, you haven’t done your homework.”
“Please look at these jpegs and get back to me,” wrote an artist in an e-mail to a dealer in a large city somewhere south of New York. If a dealer is interested s/he will get back to you. So give the gallery something useful: a phrase about your work and some indication of your familiarity with the gallery and its program and a link to your website.
Sending a Package?
First, make sure the gallery is looking at physical packages. Many don’t want to deal with the administrative responsibility and will tell you they prefer electronic submissions.
If physical packages are acceptable, keep yours short and to the point—and neat. A curator from an academic gallery north of New York City held up a tattered manila envelope. “This is what I received a package in,” she said scornfully. “I’m all for recycling, but sending a package in a used envelope tells me that I’m an artist’s second or third choice. And if the package in general is messy, it suggests that the artists may be similarly sloppy in his or her practice.”
So it’s like job hunting? Yes, says this curator: “It may seem petty, but appearance matters.”
Visiting the Gallery? Don’t Interrupt
I was chatting with a dealer in a small gallery outside of Manhattan. We were seated in the gallery proper. An artist came in with a portfolio, stood there waiting for a break in the conversation. When it didn’t come quickly enough for her, she said to the dealer, “Excuse me. I’m here to show you my work.”
“Did we have an appointment for today?” asked the dealer.
“No,” the artist replied. “But you said you’d be willing to look at my work.
“I am willing to look at your work, but you need to make an appointment.”
“But I’m here now.”
“But I’m busy,” he said
“You’re just talking,” she persisted, holding her ground.
“Yes I am,” said the dealer, digging in his heels.
It was awkward. Eventually the artist turned on her heel and left.
Don’t Be a Boor
A Boston dealer recounted this story to a group of students I brought to the gallery:
“An artist came in the other day with a portfolio and asked if she could show it to me. I was at the computer, obviously involved in something. I told her I was busy. She asked if I could just take ‘a quick look.’ I replied that I couldn’t just drop everything each time an artist came in, but that if she sent me material I would look at it during a time I set aside for just that job.
“‘But if you took a quick look, you could tell me whether or not the work was right for the gallery.’ she said. Now, a quick look is not going to do her work or anyone's work justice, which is why I set aside specific time to look at presentation material, but she was insistent. So I took a quick a look and told her it wasn’t right for the gallery. She left and I went back to what I had been doing.
"To tell you the truth, even if the work had been right for the gallery, there’s no way I would have wanted to work with such an obtuse personality. This is a business in which we work very closely with our artists. If we don’t think we can work well with an artist, there’s no point getting involved.”
Don’t Waste the Dealer’s Time
Olympia, who works in a gallery in Chelsea, left this story in the Comments section of a recent post (I’ve shortened it slightly):
“We had an artist come in to the gallery wanting to show us his portfolio. We asked him to please email his resume, statement and 6-10 images and said we’d get back to him. The artist kept pushing, saying ‘I want a show here next year.’
“We politely responded again that wed get back to him if his work is appropriate. He then asked us, ‘What is your gallery name?’ And he asked if our owner is a man or a woman [if he’d known the gallery name, he would have had his answer].
"We deal with this kind of thing on a VERY regular basis."
Pay attention to Body Language
One of the great things about the art fairs is that dealers are typically out from behind a desk, so conversation can take place more easily between artist and gallerist. But keep it short; they’re there to sell (and these days, the pressure is on for them to recoup at least their expenses).
At an art fair in New York a few years ago, a photographer stopped by a booth and proceeded to pull out a fairly large notebook of prints.
“So-and-so [whose work was on display] is a friend of mine. I wonder if he mentioned my work?” asked the photographer.
“No,” said the dealer, with her 'cordial' face on.
“Well, maybe I could show you my work?” she asked, thrusting the notebook at the dealer.
“This isn’t a good time for that,” said the dealer backing up slightly (her 'cordial' face now gone) .
“Well let me show you just this one,” said the photographer, pulling an image from the notebook.
The dealer backed up a bit. The photographer advanced and kept advancing. The dealer kept retreating until she hit the back wall of the small booth. The look on her face registered something just short of panic. I was there.
“Hey, it’s 2:30,” I said. “You have to call. . ." I made up a name.
The dealer grabbed her phone and went into the closet of the booth. The photographer left.
“You can come out now,” I whispered, a few seconds later.
She laughed, but in that moment I understood the reason for the often high desk that separates the dealer from the public in a gallery.
What's the Lesson Here?
Basic business sense coupled with elementary interpersonal communication skills may not get you into a gallery, but the lack of them will surely lock you out.
(Relatedly, see Ed Winkleman's recent post on "Booth Away" (scroll down a few posts to get to it.)