Marketing Mondays: How NOT to Approach a Gallery

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Blogpix, The Show
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Armory: Show Me the Money
Armory Week: Salvage Operation .

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.”
Relatedly, that "Sir or Madam" salutation needs to be retired, too. There's nothing more off-putting than being addressed as "Dear Sir" if you're not a Sir and, frankly, the only "Madams" in business are not selling art.
Do you address the recipient by first name or title? I'm no social arbiter, but I think either would be fine. Mr. or Ms. is never inappropriate in the salutation, but I’m not offended when someone addresses me as Joanne, and I assume a dealer won’t be either, assuming the letter is respectful and to the point. Maybe it's a matter of age. When I was in my 20s, I used a courtesy title. Now I use the first name, even if I don’t know the person. (Any dealers what to weigh in on this?)
“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.

Back in the day artists did go around with portfolios in hand. No more. I wonder, though: Is there something about their large shape that serves as a kind of psychic "shield," emboldening us to interrupt and insist?

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.)


Anonymous said...


On the gallery subject, I've noticed that you are represented by several galleries across the US. When you were seeking representation did you go and visit the galleries in person to assess them or did you rely on other information? I am in the process of researching galleries and have been submitting out of state, but do not have the luxury of going to each gallery personally. I'd love to hear what your process was.

Best Wishes, Casey Craig

Kaylie Abela said...

Joanne, good post. On the note of having a "quick look," something else that gallery owner said that really stuck out to me was, "Did that person really only want me to give their work a quick look?" Meaning that if you respect your work, you should actually want the dealer to set aside time for it so that they can consider it thoughtfully! I don't think I would ever be that pushy, but now I'm even more sensitive to it because I remember that conversation.

Joanne Mattera said...

The quick look issue probably merits a whole post. On the one hand, you want a prospective dealer to consider the work thoughtfully. On the other hand, I'm thinking of a Philadelphia gallerist who said to me, "I can tell the minute I see the first piece if the artist is right for my gallery or not."

I know from my experience curating and selecting work for various editorial projects, that I can spot the "Not rights" and the "Rights" immediately. The "Maybes," a more vast middle ground, do require more consideration. Do I like them? Are they right for the project? How do they relate to the work already selected? These are the same questions a dealer asks, along with "Do I have a collector base for this kind of work?"

You ask how I found my galleries. The ones I'm with now came about in various ways, but for the most part either:
. I visited many galleries and felt that particular ones would be right for me and vice versa. (This kind of reconnaissance is tax deductible and FUN.)
. I was recommended by an artist already in the gallery. I then came with an "imprimature" as did the gallery. If it's more than a one-show situation (and even sometimes then), I make a point of visiting the gallery and meeting the dealer.

More than most businesses, this is an interpersonal relationship of equals. What's the point of having a relationship with someone you don't know?

Edward_ said...

Do you address the recipient by first name or title? ...(Any dealers what to weigh in on this?)

I'd agree that either is fine, so long as the tone is respectful. Don't write:

"Dear Ed,

How's it going?"

if we've never met, for example...such casualness suggests you're not taking the situation seriously to me.

But if you're looking for rules or at least solid guidelines, I'd recommend:

The initial contacts should be dealt with as professionally/formally as a job interview. It doesn't hurt to write "Dear Ms. {dealer's name spelled correctly}." It communicates that you've never met but you respect that person based on their reputation or position. If, however, you've met already, it sounds a bit forced, so switch to their first name.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Ed. It's appreciated.

Douglas Florian said...

Great post.
These things need finesse and good timing.

Anonymous said...

I was hired as a gallery director for our local community college within the past two years without gallery experience, but with a background in the studio arts and administrative experience. I did a lot of research before putting out my first "call for proposals".

I was amazed at the lack of attention artists give to their submission materials. Out of all the proposals received, only a handful made an impression on me.

Did not like:
- small gifts included - a deck of cards (????)
- materials packed so tight that they are difficult to get out of the envelope and back in
- handwriting that is not legible
- submitting slides when images on CD/DVD was requested
- proposals that included a "notebook" of information in addition to the requested submission materials

- presentation materials where the artist has taken the time to treat and market themself as a business
- artists that follow the submission guidelines
- presentations that are to the point

Lynn Dunham said...

I think Ed Winkleman's pod cast on the topic of emrging artists seeking a gallery is most informative. Many artist have viewed this and thanked me for the post. Don't thank me, it is Winkleman who desrves the kudos. There are too many dealers who are unapproachable but he clearly cares about art and artists.
Here is a link to the bad at sports podcast.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Lynn. That's a great link. The entire podcast was good, but the last 20 minutes of the hour addressed his point of view about artists and galleries.

Anonymous said...


Just came across your blog, and agree wholeheartedly with the points mentioned about approaching galleries. As an artist based in the UK I approached a gallery in Switzerland recently with, what I had thought was a relevant, well researched and put together proposal - however my mistake was to include the gallerist's first name (along with Ms and her surname) in my cover letter. I received a very curt reply asking me not to address the person so informally as we had never met... ouch!! So a word of warning if approaching galleries in Europe.

Joanne Mattera said...

Good point, Anon.
Americans tend to be somewhat more informal that Europeans. (Though, as Ed points out, "Hi, How's it going?" is way too informal even for us.)

Ian MacLeod said...

Thanks Joanne, excellent information and interesting responses. ian

Anonymous said...

it just kind of blows my mind that artists will still do this. i'll be the first to admit, i'm as new to approaching galleries as one gets, but i research - do i think there's a fit with the gallery's body of work, who do i send to, what are their submission requirements, are they even accepting submissions, and so on. some galleries have pretty interesting requirements. i found one which will only accept submissions once a year, and if you miss it, too bad for you. but the gallery director sets aside this one week out of the year to do nothing but review, and i have to respect their process.

i kind of feel like if i want to be treated like a professional, i should act like one. and if i want in that gallery enough, i'm going to do what they ask. i can only imagine how difficult it must be on a gallery's end of these endless submissions, with all the different formatting possibilities. it just has to make your head spin.

the story about the cold call to the gallery while you were "chatting" kind of makes me laugh though. i used to work in architecture, and sales people from different manufacturers would always drop in without an appt to pitch me their stuff. it didn't take long for me to learn, either schedule an appt or i'm going to take the bare minimum time before i can shuttle you out the door. i've got work to do, and you are keeping me from it. harsh, i know, but it amazes me how many people there are who don't respect another person's time or business.

Diane McGregor said...

Great post, Joanne. Another point worth mentioning is the very polite "Thank you" when a gallerist has indeed taken a look at your work, even a "quick look." A handwritten thank you note, even if your work is rejected, makes a good impression. Also, if making a submission through email, and you get a response, (even if it's "no thanks") it's a good idea to send an email back thanking that dealer for his/her time and consideration. It's a small gesture, but I think it makes you stand out in the crowd.

Anonymous said...

Genuine kindness is the root of all good manners and keeping kindness as your guiding principle will keep you on track with gallerists, other artists, and the press.
I want to add a pet peeve. Proofreading your written communications is a must and often overlooked. Correct spelling, grammar, and a consideration of the reader's time and point of view make a better impression and show you care.

Oly said...

Great post, Joanne. Though you left out the artists who:

1. Send us marriage proposals, then stalk staff members on Facebook and emails.

2. Tell us "they're not dead yet, but may well be soon."

3. Send us their actual artwork. Yes, I repeat, send us their artwork.

Either way, I will say this (though of course admittedly I'm prejudiced), you have such a manner of professionalism and intellectual know-how that shine through. You know when to say something, and when to hold back. I wish only that the people who submit in the "how not to" category read art blogs.

Most don't even know what a jpeg is if it hit them on the head.

Oh, if only.

C. L. DeMedeiros said...

I love that post
I'm getting so into do the right thing about approach someone.
Any advise is welcome.

Scary times
but I believe something good will come out of this whole mess.
by the way

“I am willing to look at your work, but you need to make an appointment.”

“But I’m here now.”

Sounds like me two summers ago in Provicetown, doing my gallery tour.


Anonymous said...

A common-sense professional approach. Thank you Joanne.


Bettina Tizzy said...

Joanne: I'm recommending this excellent post to the hundreds of artists I work with in virtual worlds. I wonder if you could add a few thoughts on digital art and especially Machinima and other video-based or video-presented art?

I know it's annoying to be pitched via email with a bunch of links but have you any suggestions (beyond an engagingly written email) on how can we effectively get gallerists to watch?

Many thanks,

Jeffrey Collins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey Collins said...

Hello Joanne. Fantastic read, and thanks to all the posters on here who have given their thoughts too.

My question is, when you have sent in the info about your art. Be it internet or snail mail. How long do you think you should wait before calling the gallery. And just how should one get in touch to schedule an appointment.

I'm in the class of...I respect gallery owners...I respect them soo much that I leave them alone and don't wanna bother them.

I believe in my work greatly, but don't ever like feeling like i'm imposing on a gallery. Such as the old adage, treat others as you wish to be treated.


Joanne Mattera said...

Hey, All--

Thanks for your good comments, suggestions and questions.

Bettina, I know very little about digital art, nothing about Machinima. Sorry.

Jeffrey, I think "don't call us, we'll call you" applies here. In my experience, if a dealer is interested s/he will respond right away. If not, s/he's probably not interested. (But situations change: the gallery could get a new director, for instance, or your work evolves in a way the gallery likes. So keep up the postcards. Visit the gallery.)

Unknown said...

Hi, I only just discovered your blog, and have now spent several hours soaking it up. Thank you tremendously for all of this. Any advice for an American artist who lives abroad and can't visit galleries in person? It is hard to do, but I try my best. I am careful and considerate with writing and sending information, and I do a lot of research on the gallery website to understand the gallery, the submission guidelines and who to address. What do you write when you cannot figure out who to address? And, I know this might sound like a silly question, but are folded letters okay? And why would a gallery state that they are only interested in artists who maintain studios in the US. Is it because of shipping costs and hassles?

The Practical Art World said...

This is a great post!

My top "what not to do"s:

-Don't mass email the same thing to several different galleries. Especially if you "cc" instead of "bcc" your recipients! If it's obvious you've put no individual effort into each gallery, why should they bother spending time on you?

-Don't be pushy! You've already covered this in your post, but seriously. I don't understand why artists think this is necessary. All you do is annoy the staff. Very few galleries are hurting for art submissions... they get to pick and choose. You shouldn't be doing anything that will hurt your chances.

Christi Nielsen said...

Bettina -
Assuming you've found out if the gallery shows video, find out if they prefer a playable DVD (something that auto plays on either a computer or a dvd player) or a data DVD (just the file that opens with Quicktime, Windows Media Player, etc on a computer). I've never had a gallery requests links, but you might find that as well.

Regarding machinima, I've never found a gallery that knows what that is unless they are tied to a university. It's very difficult to submit a video outside of the virtual world because good works are usually created inherent to that space. But keep searching. You'll find it eventually.

Just FYI, we were able to show works in Second Life at the Dallas Museum of Art because they work closely with UT Dallas, who has a great Arts & Technology program. I think the more we start seeing things like that, the easier it will be to find willing venues. Hang in there.

Anthem Salgado said...

This really resonates with me. As a (former?) visual artist, I find this advice is applicable to many art fields, and professions for that matter. Great, great post. The takeaway I suppose is to use the uncommon gift of common sense, and follow basic social cues. Thank you for sharing this. I've reposted on Twitter! :)

Anonymous said...

What is the deal with galleries which state "we do not accept unsolicited submissions" on their website? Is it still OK to contact them and ask for an interview, or do they just wish not to be bothered?

Anonymous said...

Hi Joanne,

This post is great! I'm both an artist and an art dealer who runs a small gallery, and I tell you that your approach can make our break an accepted submission, sometimes even more than the artwork. These are some of the automatic deal breaker tactics I've received from submitting artists.

1. "My artwork will look great in your gallery. You don't know what your client wants, so try it"

2. Constantly calling & emailing. I politely tell artists that portfolios take a few weeks to review, and they still insist on harassing me constantly.

3. Though showing up in person isn't a "deal breaker" per say, it is very annoying as we're extremely busy and won't have time. A respectful artist will do their research on submission guidelines for a particular gallery (ours, like most, are listed very clearly on our website).

4. Extreme narcissism. Some artists walk into the gallery with their nose in the air and proclaim "I'm an ARTIST" like I should fall to my knees and drop everything. Then they continue to babble on about how great they are for an hour straight, regardless of how busy I appear.

Hope this helps!

Bastian Contrarian said...

This is an excellent post and an element I was also going to touch on in my own blog, particularly about being too pushy and approaching gallery owners when they're busy or at trade shows - very bad move.

I've also written an article on approaching art galleries, which covers how to submit work, artist statements and CVs, etc. I hope you don't mind me sharing, but I thought the artists following this feed might find it useful.

decoflamingo said...

Thank you for your blog. It was very informative and somewhat entertaining. Your description of backing into the wall had me in stitches literally. I see this all the time. And it reminded me of something I did over 30 years ago as an artist. We can be very persistent. lol
Thank you again.
Sid Daniels

Anonymous said...

How do you describe a digital art form that composes of surrealism, expressionism, and optical illusion to a curator and how all of the art forms even though they do not look a like and look like various different artists made them are a cohesive collection, because they revolve around the same principal and that same idea of symbolism interconnects with the other pieces that shouldn't really go together to create one story that interconnects with another piece forming a line of pieces that revolve around the same story line but intermingle with each other in different styles of art but yet all expressionistic and symbolic at the same time with the choice of words that create these pieces and link them to each other despite how very un-cohesive each picture might be to the other.