Marketing Mondays: How Not to Get Reviewed

As artists we want opportunities to show, and we want our shows to be reviewed. A good review, written by someone familiar with our work or genre, can open new paths to the dialogue we hope to have with our audience, offering insights or comments that we might not have considered before. A good review can place our work within a larger esthetic context. Depending on the writer and the publication, a good review may even help create a place for us in the art world, or secure the place we already have. To that end, we provide the gallery or museum with a good selection of images, an up-to-date resume, and a clear, concise statement. Additionally we may engage an essayist for a catalog or work closely with a writer secured by the gallery or museum.

So what happens when the institution rolls boulders into the path of the reviewer?

That was my experience recently when I went to view and review, on assignment from a national magazine, the retrospective of a giant in the field of abstraction via the medium of fiber. For casual visitors, I’m guessing the show was a delight—all shimmering color and sensuous material in numerous galleries on two floors. For a reviewer, however, it was a nightmare.

As is often the case with Marketing Mondays, a personal experience gets turned into not just a cautionary tale but a commentary on how artists can begin to take control of a bad situation.

Here’s How Not to Get Reviewed
. Don’t allow photography in the galleries
. Don’t provide installation shots to the reviewer; in fact, don’t photograph the installation at all
. Don’t leave a press packet for the reviewer, as your PR person promised. That way, the reviewer can spend her most of her viewing time making a floor plan of the show and sketches of the individual works with the hope of matching the information to digital images that will be emailed at a later time
. When the reviewer finds a seat and takes out her pen again to organize the notes she has already made, have one of your guards rush over and say, “I’m sorry, pens are not allowed in the galleries. Have him offer her a yellow pencil with its point worn down to a nub
. Focus on the needs of your board of directors and on the lenders to the exhibition, and think of "press" as the release you send out, rather than of the working people who come to write about the exhibition 
. Ignore the fact that reviewers are typically freelancers who typically receive very little remuneration for their labor, which includes preplanning, getting to the institution (often in an unfamiliar geographic location), visiting the exhibition, writing a review and, often, securing images as well

To be fair, the gallery’s PR person did give me a book-length catalog, which I saw as the saving grace in this roundelay of don’t, don’t, don’t. When I sat to write, it was to make notes directly onto the catalog pages while the work was fresh in my mind, and while I had the opportunity to go back and check on anything I might have missed in the first round of note taking. But the no-pen fiat was the last straw. I left, vastly annoyed that I had wasted three hours and driven numerous miles on three-dollar-a-gallon-gas.
Fortunately I have a wonderful editor who intervened with the gallery director to secure images of the artist's work. It takes a lot of stress and energy to be the squeaky wheel--and if you know me, you know I can squeak pretty well--but sometimes that's what it takes to get the grease.  Below, I offer some examples of "grease."
What An Artist Can Do to Encourage Reviews
Communication for an exhibition starts not in the press office, but between the artist and the curator of the exhibition, ideally with the institution's director,  and certainly with the institution’s public relations person. Make sure reviewers will be welcomed and given the information they need.
. Ask the director: Must there be a no-photography policy? Is there room for flexibility here? Might press be given some leeway? (With few exceptions, if I can't shoot a show I don't write about it; the photos I take--including wall text and labels--allow me to take visual "notes" so that I can concentrate on thinking about the work, not the notetaking.)
. Make sure installation shots or a map of the gallery will be available to reviewers if the no-photos policy is rigidly enforced.  Ask the press office to send you images so you can see what will be available to reviewers.
. If you’re showing in a small institution that has no funds for photography, shoot the installation yourself (or have it shot) and make sure the PR person has digital images available. (DIY extends up and down the art world food chain.)
. Ask to see the press packet. Increasingly digital rather than hard copy, it should contain everything a reviewer needs to know about you and your work. Some of the information will come from the statement and resume you provide; some will be generated by the PR person. Check the PR person’s information for accuracy.
. Consider preparing a brief FAQ about you, your history, your materials or your working process. While art magazine writers and art bloggers can be assumed to know something about their subject, publications at the local level may send a general assignment reporter to write about your show. With that in mind, do what you can to make sure a writer understands the information. A smart PR person will welcome the information
Add a Personal Touch
Even if the institution or gallery has sent out announcements, there’s nothing wrong with sending postcards directly to the local and regional critics and to the regional correspondents of the national art magazines.
. Add a brief handwritten note inviting them to the opening, or to view the show. If they have reviewed your work before, remind them of that, or let them know you follow their writing (but don’t lie and say you do if you really don’t). Many local/regional critics acknowledge that the personal note is often the thing that gets them to the exhibition, or to write about it
. Be prepared to supply a reviewer with any material or images they need. You don't need to worry about this for your retrospective at MoMA, but smaller institutions with smaller staffs simply may not be hitting all the notes
Over to you: Have you missed out on a review because of an institutional or bureaucratic boulder? Bloggers and others: Have you not reviewed a show, or reviewed it with difficulty because of the situations I describe?  Anything else you'd like to add about the no-photo or no-pens policy? 

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Mallory Steele said...

thanks so much for your helpful hints!

Nancy Natale said...

As always, this is an excellent post, Joanne, and much appreciated for its tips both to artists and to small-time reviewers, i.e. bloggers, like myself. I points out that if I want to review a show, I need to do more than just show up and look around. Perhaps it's time to take a more professional stance and to contact the institution in advance, as you suggest.

I had two no-photography experiences last year: the first prompted a snide post by me about the Boston ICA's superlative bathroom accommodations when I really wanted to write about Charles LeDray's "work, work, work, work." On another occasion, I visited the DeCordova Museum to see the show of Leonardo Drew, which was accompanied by an artist's talk that day. I managed to get a few surreptitious photos but blogged about objecting to the policy. I got a very nice comment from the new Director of the DeCordova in response to my post that invited me to return to the museum, where he would insure that I would be able to photograph the show. Perhaps if I had contacted the museum staff in advance, I would have received this good result before I visited.

In contrast to these bad experiences, I should mention the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art which had so many online resources for the Anna Hepler "Makeshift" show that it was a pleasure to write it up. And I did mention in my post how easy they made it for me.

We are all in this art business together and cooperation is vital to sustaining interest and funding for our important work.

Anonymous said...

As a gallery, we welcome the press, but only if you have made arrangements beforehand. If you call and make an appointment with the Directors, we will provide you with a press packet, a catalog and will be glad to tour you through the show and answer any questions you have and can provide you with images.

If you show up at the gallery without an appointment, we cannot guarantee that a representative of the gallery will be available to answer questions. The gallery sitter will not allow you to take photographs (there is warning signage about this). There may be information to take but it will not be as complete as the press package.

As for ink in the gallery, we do not have any specific ban against it, but I am aware that works of art have been damaged by people who have pens in their hands, who then point or gesture at a work and inadvertently make a mark on that work.

Lynette Haggard said...

This is a great post and most informative. I will make sure that when I intend to blog or write about a show that I contact them first. Hopefully, in 5 years this will be history and museums and galleries will have modified archaic policy.

Gwendolyn Plunkett said...

I had a similar experience last summer at the MOCA in LA with Arshile Gorky's retrospective. No photos allowed. I was taking notes with a pen and a guard approached me with the caution that I could not use a pen. Pencil was okay though but he didn't offer me one.

I attended a workshop last week on marketing strategies for artists and art organizations. One of the things mentioned was sending out a Media announcement right before the exhibition just to members of the press with set times for photo and interview opportunities with the artist. Don't know if that would help many of us bloggers...we probably aren't on their mailing lists.

Joanne Mattera said...

Good comments, everyone!

Gwen, there is almost always a press preview for museum events and art fairs. You have to get yourself on the press list. For bloggers that means sending links to a few of your best posts. Since there are a lot of blogers these days, some institutions tend to be stringent about who gets a press pass--but then again, press is press. I do think bloggers benefit from calling ahead of time to request a press kit and press entry (i.e. free entry) to a museum show. Some museums will send jpgs upon request. Others, like the Guggenheim, provide a password to a designated node on the museum website; the images will be accessible for a certain period.

I do think the no-photos policy is absurd. A few years ago there was a fabulous Eve Hesse show at the Jewish Museum, There was no photography. So I went on line and found all the images, and posted those. Same thing for the Charles LeDray show that Nancy mentioned. I found a ton of images, including some on the ICA website. What was missing, unfortunately, were the installation views that give a reader a visual context for the artist's work.

Another point: Though some museum shows have the no-photo policy in place, I already possess images of the same work, having shot it previously in a gallery or at an art fair. The images on Flickr alone probably encompass everything that can't be photogrphed. So, Lynette, let's hope you're right about the rules changing.

Anon, while it makes sense to call ahead to a museum, I couldn't imagine calling ahead to a gallery. When I make the rounds in Chelsea for instance, I'd have to call dozens of venues. Not possible. I just walk in, view the show and photograph it. I avail myself of the press materials, and I always ask for a list. If the gallery tells me "no photos," I finish viewing the show and then leave. I won't write about it. I'd love to hear your reasons for the no-photos policy in your gallery. Would you expand your comments a bit more? Possibly this topic could become a whole other MM.

Cojo said...

Well said! Whenever a gallery tells me they don't allow photography I get irate. "MoMA allows photography, are you better than MoMA?"
or... "I'm an art blogger, do you want my press credentials, or do you not let the press photograph the work as well?" or...
"So you basically don't want anyone to know that your show exists? I'll be sure to email the artists and let them know how the complimentary article I would have written about their work will now be written about you and your shitty ability to promote your talent."

I mentioned this in a blog post last year when I was shooting photos of galleries in St. Augustine, Florida while on vacation and the store owner actually had me delete the photos I had taken in the gallery before I left the store. The whole rant can be read here:

If I go to an event and don't photograph it, it doesn't get written about besides a casual mention in a blog post about something else. Basically if I don't have photos it is like it didn't happen.

And I really try as hard as possible to not have to post gallery supplied photos that everyone is gonna run, kind of the point of going there and telling the story is showing photos I took and framed up with my own eye.

Thanks Joanne!

Franklin said...

Yes, MoMA allows photos. And the last time I was there, a couple of jackasses were attempting to conduct an impromptu photo shoot which resulted in the model nearly resting her cheek on a Matisse's Goldfish and Palette. The guard had to wave them off. Another jackass muttered something at me because he was trying to take a picture of an eight-foot-high Ad Reinhardt and because I was looking at it, I was in the shot. And one day, mark my words, someone is going to set off a flash at a painting I'm looking at, and I am going to get in his face.

As far as the galleries are concerned, a question for the bloggers: do you look at a show before you decide whether you're "on duty" or not? Because that's the wrong way to do business. Even before I had honest-to-goodness press credentials, when I entered a gallery, I would introduce myself to the person at the front desk, announce that I was covering the show for such-and-such website, inquire as to what images the gallery had available, and ask permission to take installation shots. I never had trouble with any of them.

Alyson B. Stanfield said...

Excellent reminders, Joanne!

I reviewed shows for two weekly papers for a couple of years and understand where you're coming from.

I wrote a post encouraging all artists, galleries, and museums to have a press room for bloggers and to have this known inside the gallery spaces - something that guards could refer people to who wanted to write about the exhibit.

Joanne Mattera said...

You make an excellent point about the museum tourists who insist on posing in front of this painting or that sculpture. It's annoying to people who want to view the art.

But you're being rigid about the right or wrong way to do business. When I'm making my Chelsea rounds, I sometimes don't know I want to photograph a show until I see it. I don't review in the conventional sense; I connect the dots visually between and among the artworks I see. I'm commentating on or reporting. There has to be that impromptu element for me. That said, I always have a card to give someone behind the desk at a gallery or at an art fair booth.

Joanne Mattera said...

I love the idea of a press room. The one at Basel Miami has a long table set up with two rows of computers--it's a place to check email, prepare a blog post, even print out my return ticket, and the one at the Armory provides a quiet spot to get away from the bustle--but it's unrealistic to think that a New York City gallery, where space is at a high-priced premium, could ever provide that kind of amenity.

Anonymous said...

From Anonymous 1:23:

We are a non-profit gallery and as such, we do not own most of the work that we exhibit. We see it as our duty to protect the copyright interests of the artists we show. Some of the collector's works and loans from other organizations we acquire are very specific in their agreements that the work not be photographed, so we have contractual agreements there. And the damage from the intense light of dozens of flashes can ruin a work of art very quickly. Not everyone is conscientious in turning off their flash.

So far as I am aware, with all of the coverage that has occurred on our exhibitions, each reporter has contacted the gallery and received permission to review the work. (They often want to interview the curator and artists and this always requires scheduling.) This includes bloggers as well. Many of the reporters and bloggers who cover our exhibitions have developed relationships with the gallery. If we know you and your reputation, we are inclined to give more access.

Alyson B. Stanfield said...

I probably wasn't clear. I was talking about an online press room. So that a reviewer is given a slip of paper that says "You can download images for your review at www...."

Joanne Mattera said...

Your idea of an online press room is fabulous. Galleries would be smart to adopt it. I always appreciate a gallery website that provides an online press release, list of artwork, and images of the work, including installation shots. (My pet peeve: galleries that use a flash format, which prevents me from grabbing and saving images--though that's probably exactly why they chose the format, eh?)

I do understand your concerns. Flash is bad for the work and annoying to the viewers.

You also make a point that bloggers would be wise to heed: "If we know you and your reputation, we are inclined to give more access." We are all in this together, and it makes sense for bloggers to call or email ahead and then to follow up with an email proving a link to the post in which the review or coverage is posted. Galleries work hard to create exhibitions that give their artists visibility (as well as sales). Bloggers work hard to view and report on what they see, often for no pay. It's lovely when we can appreciate one another and work together.

lxv said...

I've found that in museums, you are generally permitted to photograph without flash in the museum's own collection, but special exhibitions are often prohibited because of copyright issues mentioned above. On the 6th floor at MoMA, it is almost never allowed. In galleries, I often employ the guerilla approach on the theory that it's sometimes easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

But stores (and galleries are stores) usually do not allow photography of their merchandise or the manner in which it is displayed. In my career/dayjob as a designer, I have been stymied in my attempts to document the work of others by officious security guards and store managers. I was once kicked out of a dress shop for turning up the hem of a dress and looking how the garment was made. They thought I was a spy. I was actually just a potential customer. It's a fine line. There are no rules.

Cojo said...

I generally don't like approaching a gallery I casually walk into like I'm a member of the press for a few reasons. First off they expect you to write about them, and if I don't find anything worthy of writing about it would be a direct snub for me to never raise my camera after announcing I would be taking pictures.

Second, you get treated differently. If the staff of a gallery is rude to the general patron, I want to be treated in the same manner. This way I can give my readers an idea how they (casual art viewers) can expect to be treated upon viewing the work.

Art Blogging, for me, isn't just a pure critique of the work in the show, but also the characters, and interactions involved in the viewing. If a museum, gala, or fair is charging a cover I will contact them in advance for a press pass (to avoid entry fee) and then will make my presence known, but like Joanne said, on the random stop on a casual Chelsea gallery crawl it's not the foot I lead with.

Franklin said...

There has to be that impromptu element for me. That said, I always have a card to give someone behind the desk at a gallery or at an art fair booth.

I don't think that's objectionable. The idea is that you can present yourself as a professional when it's time to spring into action. I have no doubt that you, in particular, know what that entails.

Art Blogging, for me, isn't just a pure critique of the work in the show, but also the characters, and interactions involved in the viewing.

Fine, but in what sense is that an art review, and what's the upside for the gallery in helping you write it? Its job is to present the art in the best light possible and its only moral responsibility is to submit the work for fair judgment. If in the course of writing about the work you're going to expound upon your treatment by the gallerina, the artist doesn't benefit from that.

Joanne Mattera said...


I think art blogging allows for a different kind of art coverage. One could certainly write a straight review--I have--but it also allows me to do a visual roundup of exhibitions with an introduction and then a string of related images; or more personal, subjective writing.

What does this offer the gallery? Attention for its artist(s)in a context that is thoughtful and visually engaging. Considering the large number of exhibitions in relation to the very small number that get any attention at all, a gallery has everything to gain from any serious attention.

Franklin said...

A gallery has everything to gain from any serious attention.

The operative word here being "serious." The worst-case scenario for them is lousy photos of their artist's work getting posted at artknucklehead.blogsplat.com with insufficient attributions, alongside inane or nonexistent commentary. Let's face it, with Paddy Johnson rounding up Armory-related Missed Connection ads from Craigslist and Tyler Green's empty scolding, the genre is squandering most of its potential at the moment. Some reassurance of the community that we ostensibly serve is probably overdue, if you care to look it that way.

Joanne Mattera said...

I hear you Franklin. Unlike a vetted group such as the AICI, or whatever it's called--the art critic's association--bloggers tend to be more anarchic. That's our strength, frankly. (There are plenty of clueless editors and lousy accredited critics, too.)

Bottom line: we do what we do. An institution would be smart to accommodate us, even artknucklehead.blogsplat.com. We are out there writing about art in an arena in which fewer and fewer print writers are doing so because of the dwindling newspaper and magazine market. (And I say this after having seen one of my gouache paintings on paper, a chromatic grid, be referred to in a home decorating blog as being "Madras-inspired" and having a commenter say something like, "Ooh, that would go great with my kitchen curtains.")

Eva said...

There's so much grey area. That's what I am seeing in this conversation and it confirms what I've thought all along. As a writer I like taking pictures. But as a gallerist I've been in a situation where the photographer jumps from shooting the art to shooting the gallerinas and clients, etc. And then we find out that these photos are not even for a blog but for their Facebook. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but yes, I think I also have a right to say no to that. And this kind of thing happens on blogs too.

musehunter said...

This is such an interesting discussion to read. I find the talk on photography particularly interesting - as a professional writer for national art magazines (and previously as a local mag/online/blogger) I have never taken photographs of work that I intend to review. I find that making detailed, thoughtful notes and sketches (usually in pen!) makes it easy for me to absorb the work and the installation as a whole, and to think about it in theoretical/historical contexts. I think this is something I have learned as an art historian - it's kind of frowned-upon to rely on photographs in this academic field, so I have always avoided it. I'm interested in how the writers commenting here use the photographs once they get home to write the piece, and what kind of notes you guys make while in the gallery?

Joanne Mattera said...

@Musehunter: I practice paperless journalism as much as possible. I start by photographing the overall space, then go in specifically: work, detail, detail, wall label. If there's no wall label, I shoot in the order of the info sheet.

This approach is crucial for shooting the art fairs (where I also shoot the gallery sign), where I take 5000+ pictures and then go back to refer to them venue by venue. For a gallery show, I do the same thing but on a smaller scale. Then I can spend time quietly with the work, allowing each work, and the specifics of each work, to register. When I return to my desk at home, I have the experience in my head and the information and overviewas in pixel form.

With the exception of credited photographs, all the images you see on this blog were photographed that way.

musehunter said...

That seems like a really good system, Joanne, especially when you're dealing with a huge volume of work at once. Perhaps I am too forgetful, so I need to make loads of notes.

Joanne Mattera said...

The system is great, especially because I can take pics of details that interest me. In the process, I remember everything I was thinking about the work as I looked at it.

Terry Ward said...

i'm with cojo
- - - - - -
Cojo said "...don't like approaching a gallery ...like I'm a member of the press .... First off they expect you to write about them.... Second, you get treated differently."
- - - - - -
when i'm writing for the magazine, i just go in incognito and take a good long look. a bored, perfunctory greeting from the disksitter MFA-kid means i'll be free to take my time undisturbed. then i'll do a second loop with a discreet notepad and pencil to make a few notes. in 70% of galleries the desksitter won't have looked up from their mac until i'm half done with that phase. then i'll go to the desk and request a press packet. half the time there isn't a hardcopy one and we work out the email particulars. i ask if i may snap some reference photos and they agree. if i'm in love with the gallery (5% of venues), i'll also ask to see the owner.