Marketing Mondays: "Why Haven't I Heard Back?"

You sent submission packages to a few dealers. It’s been months and you haven’t heard back. Or maybe it was an e-mail with a few j-pegs that got no response. You curse them. How busy can they be? It’s just one submission per dealer, after all.

I’m not a dealer, but I work with many, and I’ve been involved with enough artists’ projects to be able to tell you with some certainty why you haven't heard back:

. They haven’t gotten to it yet
. They considered it and decided against it, but they’ve been too busy to tell you
. You sent material in a format the gallery doesn't consider
. They’re still thinking about it

The package you invest with such hopes is in fact one of dozens, possibly hundreds, that a gallery receives each month. And as much as a gallery depends on the work of artists, those submissions are in fact unsolicited.
They haven’t gotten to it yet
Scenario 1: The curator of a small regional museum, addressing a group, was asked rather urgently by an artist, "Why don't we hear back from you?" The curator responded with genuine compassion. I’m paraphrasing her answer, but this is the gist: “I run a small, understaffed museum. There’s a box with about 200 manila envelopes that have been collecting for six months. Each one is a proposal or submission package. It breaks my heart that I haven’t gotten to them, but I haven’t had the time, and neither does my one assistant.”
. Her advice: “Come to the openings. Introduce yourself to me. Let me see you over the course of several events. Show me that you really are interested in my museum. Then if you tell me you’re sending a package, I’ll keep an eye out for it. It’s still unsolicited, but I’ll know who you are. When I do have a chance to open some packages, it will be of the artists who have made a point of making themselves known to me.” Fair enough.
They still haven't gotten to it
Scenario 2: Under the desk, in the backroom, somewhere in most galleries is a box full of packages that artists have sent. "I get to three of four, then I have to go back to more pressing activities--like installing a show or selling art," says one dealer. And what about the packages that aren't recent? "I'm embarrassed to yell you this," s/he admits, "but there are packages there, still unopened, from when I first opened the gallery." Let's see, that was back in, well let's just say it was back in the last millennium.
. How dealers are solving this problem: Clarifying their submission policy to encourage j-peg or URL submissions exclusively. It's an easy way for them to browse and a fast way to respond. But if your package at the bottom of the box, don't expect a response any time soon.

They saw it, considered it, decided against it, but they’ve been too busy to tell you
“If I responded to every solicitation, I’d need to hire a full-time staffer to do it. That’s a luxury I can’t afford,” says one dealer who asked that I not use her name. “But I’ll tell you one thing: If I see something and like it, I will get back to the artist—and the more I like it, the faster I’ll respond.”
. And you're expecting a crit? Let's let the dealer of a Westchester gallery take this one. Here's what the gallery's website says: "Due to the large number of submissions we receive, please understand that it is not possible for the gallery to critique work on an individual basis. "
You sent material in a format that the gallery does not consider (or no longer considers)
Dealers these days are very specific as to what they will and won’t look at. Visit a gallery’s website and click onto the category marked “Submissions” or “Contact” or “Information for Artists” and you’ll see just how varied their specifics are.
. If they say, We are not accepting submissions at this time: Don’t send presentation materials. "Put me on your postcard list. If I'm interested you'll hear from me," offers a dealer who asked not to be named
. If they say, We prefer a CD: Send a CD even if you would prefer to send materials in a different format
. If they say, We do not look at packages, but we invite you to send an e-mail with up to five j-pegs, a resume and your URL: That’s what you send. (Invite. Such a lovely word.)
. And be aware of what they absolutely don’t want: Here’s the verbatim instruction on that issue from a Brooklyn gallery: "Sorry, our mail server storage is miniscule. Please never send us Jpeg attachments. We will immediately dump them in the trash." Harsh but helpful.
They’re still thinking about it
This is a very large gray area that could easily be confused with all of the above, but assuming you did submit materials in the approved/requested format and you haven’t heard back, it’s possible they’re considering it. Here’s that same gallery I quoted in the previous paragraph: “Please do not expect an immediate response. [We] often hold onto work for future programming.”
Update 2.28: And just so you know this is true, here's an interesting story from an artist named Jeanne Williamson, who sent a package to a gallery in December 2006 and never heard back. . . until the other day, when she got an invitation to show there.
. So what do you do in the meantime? Do what you normally do: Keep making art. Keep showing it. Keep getting it out into the world. If the gallery or curator does finally contact you, great. If not, your studio practice continues as it always has. (There's no reason you can't have a few packages out there at once. And if it turns out that two galleries want the same work, well, that would be a great problem to have, wouldn't it? Cross that bridge when you come to it.)
. You do continue to visit the gallery, right? Just because you haven't heard back doesn't mean you should boycott the place
Postcards Don't Require a Response
That’s why I like postcards as a way of getting your work out there. You never get a rejection because you’re not asking for anything outright. Dealers like postcards because they offer a quick look with the option of a quick Google search or online visit, and they don't fill up the inbox. But, trust me, those postcards get looked at. Some postcards get propped up next to computers, tacked onto bulletin boards, stacked or filed with other related images. In other words, dealers and curators do with postcards exactly what artists do with them. (Remember the dealer who said, above, "Put me on your postcard list.")
Curators, especially, seem to regard postcards as snapshots of the zeitgeist. They hold onto the ones that interest them, typically filing them according to their particular system. Eventually one of those people you've sent a card to will pull the whole batch of them out to see what’s been going on over the past six months or year, or to see who might fit the bill for a particular show. Then you'll hear back.
Or not.


Bill said...


Thanks for this excellent post. I think it accurately identifies/clarifies what artists encounter when they're sending out submissions, and should help with "expectations".

I agree about sending postcards - I've been doing it for years. I've also had good results with high quality brochures (3 or 4 images from a specific body or work, short bio and statement).

I should add that in the 20 years since I started my studio practice, there have been numerous times when a year or more passed (from the mailing), before I heard back from a gallery or consultant. They've almost always said "we saved your printed materials in our files, and now we have a project where your work fits..."

There are always going to be people you won't hear back from, as well as "rejections", but I don't think you should take it personally. For every rejection, look for another contact to make.


lookinaroundbob said...

As professional as everyone(?) tries to be, the reality is that no one likes to deliver bad news (we're not interested in your art) and always puts it off til last (or never) it is human nature.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Thanks Joanne,

Worked this weekend on creating a postcard so thanks for confirming that I am on the right track.


Anonymous said...

Besides being an incredibly interesting blog, you have the most informative blog around. Keep up the good work.

Anne McGovern

Rob said...

Joanne, great take on submissions, very helpful, just to add/reiterate, patients, persistence, and personal contact are key. Unrequested blind submittals isn't an effective way to approach a gallery but if you can continue to follow up and make personal contacts, it can work as part of an overall approach. Sometimes it takes years to build the relationships that lead somewhere; also, it can, obviously, take years to build a body of work that fits with a gallery or museum, giving up because of a lack of response guarantees failure.

Barbara J Carter said...

Regarding sending postcards, there are a bunch of interesting comments from gallery directors here:

To summarize, most didn't think postcards were very effective. One mentioned needing to see at least 6-8 images to get a feel for an artist's work. Others mentioned that an artist's self-advertising can be counter productive.

All of which is to say, there are no easy answers.

Joanne Mattera said...

Well, a postcard is not a one-shot. If artists get in the habit of sending postcards, a sense of their oeuvre will build up over time. the subtext is that this is person who is showing regularly, who has an audience. Curators, for sure, look at them but you are right that there is no one-answer-fits all.

Jan Blencowe said...

Having worked as a gallery director I know how many submissions can come in and I know how short staffed many galleries and museums are. But, as an artist submitting materials I know I would deeply appreciate even an automated e-mail response. Galleries could have one that says "thanks we're considering your work and will keep it file" and one that says "thanks for submitting your work, unfrotunately we do no think it is a good fit for us at this time." An automated response would be quick, easy and considerate. I think artists would be very grateful to just hear something back from the gallery or museum, even if it's a polite "no".

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of one million years, Joanne.

>On Kawara's work speaks simply and directly... Another series of works, begun in 1969, involved sending postcards and telegrams to friends and acquaintances bearing messages like 'I am still alive'. ... the root of all these works is the artist's fundamental and on-going concern with the essence of human existence.<

Sounds good!


Princess Rashid said...

Thanks Joanne for this very useful post. I too find postcards to be useful and inexpensive tools to gauge interest and keep my work in the gallery owner's or curator's eye in a non-aggressive way. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Great post!
I find it useful to send a query email to the gallery and ask if they are currently accepting artist's submissions (if they don't have that information on their website). If I get a response, then I know what they prefer, if I don't, then I know I'm taking my chances.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thank you.

Claire Robertson Houghton said...

Joanne, I always find your blog interesting each time I visit. Thanks for your efforts.