Marketing Mondays: Meet the Press

Say you’ve been contacted by a reporter to talk about your work in conjunction with an exhibition or open studio, or any kind of project you’re involved with. Do you know how to handle an interview?

Above and below, talking to the press. (These images from the Internet)


The process seems simple enough. The reporter asks questions: How long have you been an artist? Tell me about the show (project, event)? Who else is involved? How did the show or project or event come about? You respond enthusiastically.

Then maybe you break for coffee. The reporter's notebook gets put down and you relax. The conversation slides around to an arts administrator in your city who just got passed over for a promotion, or to an artist you both know to be difficult. You're chatting informally so you respond with a less-than-flattering anecdote about the administrator or share a bit of gossip about the artist. Back in interview mode, the reporter asks you, “Would you show me your process? You’re uncomfortable with sharing trade secrets, or maybe the studio is not set up for that kind of show and tell, so you demur. No problem, says the reporter.

The article comes out. You’re portrayed as a gossiping blowhard who’s eager to tout your achievement but secretive about your process. That’s an extreme example, but it happens.

My day job for 20 years was as an editor and writer, so I feel confident sharing these tips with you:

As long as you’re talking to a reporter, you’re on the record
It doesn’t matter whether the tape recorder is running or not, whether she’s taking notes or not. If it’s an interview, what you say is fair game for the reporter--and that includes art bloggers, many of whom have significant and substantial readership. The good news is that if you’re being interviewed, it’s probably for the arts section, not for national news (unless you're a certain well-known artist who has had some copyright issues), so you if you keep to the topic at hand—you, your work, the project—you should do just fine. This is true whether you’re being interviewed in person, over the phone or via email. Yes, you can say “off the record” if you don’t want something reported, but why say it if it’s not meant for publication?

Want to be quoted correctly?
Keep your answers short and clear. Don’t digress. Speak at a slow-normal pace; rapid-fire speech makes it hard for the reporter to take notes, and on tape it can make you appear manic. If you’re mentioning unusual names or titles, jot them down on a small sheet of paper and give it to the interviewer at the end of the interview. If you haven’t been interviewed before, or if you’re a little nervous about the interview, do a mock Q&A in front of the mirror; this sounds silly, but it’s a good way to get comfortable with what you want to say and how you want it to sound. The better the quality of your information, the more likely you are to be well represented.

Be interesting! Have a couple of good sounds bites
From the reporter’s point of view, a boring interview can sound like blah blah blah blah blabbity blah. I once did an interview with the emerging artist son of a famous painter. The guy was a dull as proverbial dishwater. Nothing I asked him elicited anything interesting or quotable. The fact is that he was a boring guy with boring work who was mildly consequential only because of his dad. God, I was glad to get out of there! Another artist I intervied for a feature was not particularly interesting personally, but his work was and his passion for it was; it was a lively interview that resulted in a good article which allowed that passion to assert itself on each page.

One time, I interviewed a florist-to-the-stars for who was so quotable that what was supposed to be a short item turned into a feature with plenty of anecdotes, pullquotes and pictures. And then there was the well-known artist I interviewed in his Lower East Side studio. I did my homework and he responded with stories, pulled out work to show me, and talked about many of the paintings in his studio, including a now-iconic series that was in progress at the time. That was a great interview!

Writers need a good lead and a good kicker—a juicy quote or comment to end the story. Your passion and knowledge will provide them. Indeed, if you can provide interesting information for each point you wish to make, the interview pretty much writes itself. Relatedly . . .

Be prepared to steer the discussion
Small local or regional publications may not have full-time arts writers, so a general assignment reporter—one with little understanding of art, and possibly no understanding of your work in particular—may be assigned to interview you. If the conversation heads in a way that you know will not serve you well, steer it over to where you want it to be. Offer an anecdote, or direct the reporter’s attention to work that you wish to talk about.

Sometimes a photographer or videographer comes with the interviewer. Draw their attention to the work you’d like them to shoot—not by saying, “This is what I’d like you to photograph,” but by a more enticing lead in: “Let me show you my newest work" (reporters love a scoop), or "I believe this is the piece that secured my grant." Or, "See this detail . . . ?" And then go on to focus your attention and theirs on a particular painting. Put away anything you don’t want to be seen. You can’t control what's written about you, but you can control what you offer to the writer.

Appearance matters
If the interview is in your studio, you’ll look ridiculous in your dress-up clothes; if your interview is in their studio, you’ll look ridiculous in your painting clothes. And you may not like what I’m going to say next, but women are always held to a higher standard in terms of appearance. You can ignore that if you want to, but that's the cold, hard fact. Just look at the pictures above. The interviewee in the top picture, dressed understatedly in a clean silhouette and solid color, will stand out for what she says and for the work she has done, not for how she's dressed. If you're Shepard Fairey, you can dress as you wish--though you notice his interviewer is wearing a suit.

Send the reporter off with a small package of information
Standard presentation materials are usually sufficient: resume, statement, a CD with a few images. Make sure the images are titled. Include a business card so the reporter can contact you if she has follow-up questions.

Don’t demand to read the piece before it goes to press
That’s not going to happen. If the topic is unusually technical, a reporter—or perhaps someone from a magazine research department—will read you specific passages to confirm the correctness of the information. (Books are different because there’s a longer lead time. By all means ask to read the materials about you. Some writers will accede, others won’t, but no writer is going to offer, so you’d be smart to ask.)

Send a Thank You note
Unless the writer did a real hatchet job—and despite my opening worst-case-scenario, that’s not likely—send a note of thanks for the piece, even if there's a misquote or two. Any medium is fine: email, postcard, handwritten note. Writers change jobs, some become editors and may be in a position to assign stories. Everyone remembers the interesting artist who remembered them.

Do you have an interview story? Share, share!


Nancy Natale said...

One thing I learned the hard way is not to use irony in any statement. Irony seems to be totally lost on reporters and they report what you say as a straight comment, making you sound ridiculous. And you are totally right, Joanne, about off-hand remarks somehow becoming the lead in the story. Why is that?

The worst interview I ever had published said that my work was about motherhood. This was so wrong that I was flabbergasted. But rather than being incensed about it, I interpreted it to mean that I had not made myself clear about the meaning of my work - despite spending about two hours with the interviewer, by the way! I think it helps to formulate in advance a short statement that sums up what your work is about. It would also help to give or email to the reporter a printed version of the statement (that maybe is a bit longer than what you express verbally).

I think that deciding in advance on the hook you want the reporter to use in the story about you and your work really helps both you and the reporter. They may choose not to use it, but at least you will have given it some thought and made an attempt to direct the reporter in the direction that you want.

One other comment is that I have never seen a write-up about me or my work that has not contained at least one factual error - unless the published material copies verbatim the written material that I have supplied. I find it a little entertaining to see how far off the track they have gone.

paula said...

good post. i like your perspective, it reminds me that the interviewer also gets bored and probably is on the lookout for things that grab their attention: 'mania' if talking too fast, looking bad, saying strange things....
i love what you say about steering the direction too. that is empowering.

Joanne Mattera said...

@ Nancy: I think everyone has to be the subject of at least one really bad article. Like you say, you really learn what to say and what not to say. You're so right about irony.

The other thing I didnt mention is that some interviewers don't have a clue. I was "interviewed" by an artist for a book she was writing. She came to my loft with no tape recorder, no notebook. When I asked where they were, she said, "Oh, I'll remember." I said a condition of my continuing the interview is that I wanted to see what she wrote before she published it. I'd never read an "interview" so filled with misinformation. She'd reconstucted my comments--turning them into Frankensteinian blends of various phrases I'd used--and gotten many facts wrong. So the other thing that happens with interviews is that we learn to be more discriminating about whom we talk to.

Casey Craig said...

I've been interviewed twice, by one local and one regional newspaper. In both cases, they came to my home studio. I was very pleased with the results and in one case, the article was sent to me for approval beforehand (their idea not mine). I made minor corrections/suggestions that had to do with art terminology more than anything and the writer was very grateful for my help and input.

I do think a mock Q&A is an excellent idea or at least prepare yourself for what is likely to be asked to avoid excessive uhs and ums.

Peggradyart said...

I was interviewed by an intern for our local paper. He called me at home so frequently my partner thought that perhaps he had a crush on me. He didn't, he was just checking and questioning everything I'd told him. His questioning forced me into being much more articulate about my work and the article was one of the more interesting ones in the arts section that I'd ever read (and, believe me, that was because of the interviewer, not because of me). Sent him a very heartfelt thank you note.

Stephanie Sachs said...

I have done many interviews of artists for our community television station.
Here are some tips.
Look camera ready. Joanne wrote how important it is to look the part for an interview it is even more so for tv. Your shirt should have a minimal amount of print, preferably blues and greens no black or white.
Women and Men both would do well bringing a transparent powder between the lights and the nerves there is a lot of sweating.
When the interviewer asks a question pause afterwards, take a deep breath, and answer in full sentences. ie. How long have you been an artist? Answer, I have been an artist for 10 years. Rather than just 10 years. This helps the edit of the segment and gives you more of a chance of being in the segment.
I would add to what Joanne said about speaking negatively, in all that you do be conscious of this. A gallery owner will be turned off if you speak negatively about another gallery, a reporter could use it in the wrong way and a potential collector could be insulted.

Kristine Campbell said...

I have been interviewed by a local TV station and two local newspapers. All did a wonderful job but, there had to be one, the TV interviewer did a nice job I said witty things and it was all wonderful until the cameraman realized that tape wasn't working and the interview had to be started again. It is very hard to be witty twice and in all the same places. But all in all they have been good experiences.

Ingrid Ellison said...

I was recently interviewed for an on line art magazine and I thought it went well. The editor sent questions and I could take my time to answer them-they were printed verbatim-Once it was up on the site I sent a thank you card that I had made-the editor responded saying it was the first time she'd ever been thanked!

I was so surprised to hear that, but pleased that I had remembered my manners....

Kim Matthews said...

I just saw a video of a recent conversation between Chip Kidd and Milton Glaser. It seemed very casual but you could see how Milton carefully designed the talk to cover several key points. It was educative, thought-provoking, engaging, and of course Milton was a mensch as always. If only we all had such skills.

Kathy said...

Thanks for these great tips. I'll be sure to read this one over the next time I'm doing an interview.

Claudia Waters said...

Great post Joanne, thank you.

Miranda said...

I wish I had known this before I did my first interview, but some lessons need to be learned firsthand! It was after the formal interview had finished, just talking with the interviewer. I jokingly mentioned how one of my profs had called me "anal" as in "anal-retentive." Well, of course it was mentioned in the article. It wasn't a big deal, but I was mildly embarrased just because I didn't expect it to be included! Remember that everything you say is fair game!

Philip Koch said...

I've found it's generally quite easy to get at least some kind of article published on your work if you're having an exhibit at a regional museum or nonprofit gallery. Editors are so incredibly short staffed these days that if you send them a short proposal for a story or interview, suggest a few talking points, and a couple of well selected images, they'll usually jump at the story. In a way you have to do some of their work for them as they are dizzy from trying to get ten things done at once every day.

Appear organized, speak slowly and calmly (even if that's not what you're feeling) , and realize that we artists are in fact intriguing to people in other walk of life. It's ok to sound enthusiastic about what you're doing.

Joan Mellon said...

Hello Joanne,

Thanks for your ongoing informative blog. I now count on it to find something to spark my brain. Congratulations on the "Materiality" show at Amy Simon. The review is much appreciated as are your words and images that brought me "Tantric Painting" at Feature, a show I'm sorry I missed.