Marketing Mondays: Reciprocity

Recently for Marketing Mondays, I wrote about The Art Network. Reciprocity is the connective tissue of the art network, a give and take that cements friendships and solidifies working relationships. Many of the opportunities I’ve gotten over the course of my career have come because someone I know referred or recommended me. The other half of that equation is what I have done in return. Reciprocity. In the old days, the expression would have been “one hand washes the other.”

My friend Susan is a great example of how reciprocity works. A midcareer artist with a long resume, she understands how to network and she has the contacts to do it well. Because she’s secure in her career, she knows that sharing information or recommending someone will not diminish her achievements. On more than one occasion she has given my name and website to one of her dealers. I have done the same for her. Result: I’m with a gallery on her referral, and she on mine. We’ve each expanded our careers that much more by the simple act of mutual support.

It doesn’t always have to be quid pro quo. Eight years ago I wrote a book on encaustic painting, the first contemporary treatment of the topic. I showed the work of 50 artists. A number of them invited me to exhibit with them in subsequent shows. I loved that! And many of the artists who teach invited me to their institutions to speak. I’ve been a “visiting lecturer,” a “visiting artist,” a “distinguished visiting lecturer” (my favorite title), and an “artist in residence.” The jobs lasted from an afternoon to a week. As a working artist I really appreciated these opportunities when they came.
(Image from

Reciprocating at the Same Level
As I write “same level” I’m thinking of an off-the-wall exception:
the man who traded a paper clip for a house. But typically reciprocity works best when the parties are at the same level of achievement—and have an equal degree of willingness to share—even if the quid is not the same as the quo, as I described in the previous paragraph. Here’s another example: I recommended my friend Jackie for a good exhibition in the Midwest; sometime thereafter she recommended me for a teaching gig in the Northeast. How cool is that?
If an emerging artist were to invite me to show at a tiny academic gallery in Podunk, I’d appreciate the gesture but have no reason to accept. But I'll bet an emerging artist in Podunk would jump at the chance. That’s one reason I always encourage emerging artists to establish their networks early on and to be generous with situations and opportunities. As they all grow in their careers, the reciprocal opportunities get better.
Teaching, Mentoring, Consulting
Sometimes you end up helping or referring someone who has not reached your level of achievement. Typically that happens when you teach, mentor or consult. That’s OK; it’s part of the job. Besides, the art world consists of down the road as well as here and now. Students may go on to all kinds of successes, like the one who became a dealer and invited her former teacher to be part of the gallery roster.
What If You’re Not in a Position to Reciprocate?
It happens. Life is not a giant tit for tat. But just because you don't reciprocate in kind doesn't mean you don't respond.
. Were you curated into a show? Acknowledge the curator in your promotional efforts. That promotion could be as valuable for the curator as for you. And by all means note the curator on your resume
. Did someone in your field write you a letter of recommendation or reference? Thank them, of course, and keep them in the loop, even if it’s to say, “Despite your generous words, I was not successful in getting the grant.” And if you do get the grant, let them know first. If it's a hefty chunk of change, treat them to lunch at a nice restaurant. (Lunch: when the same good food you get for dinner is half the price.)
. Did you get a great review? I’m not from the school of good-review-merits-a-small-painting (and neither are reputable journalists), but a thank you is never inappropriate. Down the road maybe you’ll find an opportunity to invite that critic to speak or do an end-of-semester crit, with honorarium—or recommend that critic to someone who’s in a position to do so. This is not only a good thank you, its good networking for the both of you
. A note about speaking invitations: Don't assume critics and curators (or even dealers) are rolling in dough. Most are freelance and/or poorly paid, so a visiting artist gig that pays a decent fee is a lovely reciprocal gesture
. Did a more career-advanced artist help you with a statement and resume? Thank her or him. But don’t then use your newly polished resume to pursue all the same galleries that the mentoring artist is in, the same teaching opportunities, or any other venue that that artist spent years cultivating
As the previous example suggests, it would be grossly unreciprocal to abuse a generosity. How far to go with what you’ve been given? To be honest, it's a gray area. Ambitious people do appreciate ambition in others. But if you feel uncomfortable telling a mentor or adviser what you are doing/have done, you’ve probably abused their generosity. And if you as an adviser feel have been taken advantage of, you probably have.

Reciprocity is a valuable career tool. In its ideal incarnation it's like the t'ai chi symbol at left, which unites the giver and the taker in reciprocity.
Just be wary of the pathologically ambitious; they’ll suck you dry and never offer a drop in return. You'll hear about them through the art network: "Oh, the one who sat next to me at lunch and asked too many questions," or "He came for a studio visit and now I'm seeing 'my' paintings in his show"--that kind of thing. Best to let them find their own way.
What are your comments and stories of reciprocity?
Update 4.8.09: A spirited discussion over at eageageag


nathaniel said...

Something I frequently say in my artist talks is that if art is meant to be a dialogue, then you have to make people want to speak with you: generosity is key, and it bleeds from the work into the career and into everyday reciprocity as well.

My own favorite story here was the guy who I thought looked lonely in the corner of a party on my first trip to South Africa. I started up a conversation without recognizing him, chatting about art and politics and my trip. At the time, after I realized who he was, I told him I loved his work - it was actually quite embarrassing. But 4 years later, I wound up consulting on a project for him at the Guggenheim; it was William Kentridge.

Anonymous said...

Loved Nathanial's post. Whether he intended it or not, in addition to being very satisfying, it's quite spiritual. Thanks Nathanial!
Joanne, I think these Marketing Mondays might be your next book!

Jason Messinger said...

I agree, these Marketing Mondays columns are not only informative for artists, but they are thoughtfully written, a book it should be!

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Jason, but no more books for me.

However, Jackie Battenield has a book coming out in a couple of months on the topic: The Artist's Guide. Info (and a ton of good corollary info) here:

For an upcoming Marketing Mondays, I'll do an interview with Jackie, or a review--or something timely and informative--as soon as the books is available.

Donna Dodson said...

I've reciprocated to curators by inviting them into my social circle via dinner parties and writing them into group shows I am curating or with dealers and gallerists, promoting their gallery and its publications to my artist friends.

Eva said...

Helping other artists is good karma.

And one tends to remember the artists who work in just the opposite fashion, who walk past the artists who helped them, who forget as they go up the ladder. When I was running a gallery, I was introduced to one artist via another and eventually wished to show them together. He then went on to try to negotiate a higher percentage than hers, to not have her name on the postcard or other media, etc etc. How quickly they forget! And those are the kind of artists you also want to stop helping.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Living on a small island you understand how quickly karma comes around. Giving of yourself makes you part of an art community and what a great group of people to be around.

Joanne, thanks for the beautiful post about Morandi. It has touched me for days. A great reminder about what is truly important and why we all started creating art.

CMC said...

Great post, Joanne...keep'm coming. Also, reminded me that I'd been meaning to recommend an artist friend to a gallery.

Joanne Mattera said...

Eva says: ". . .those are the kind of artists you also want to stop helping."

Yes, we've all met those. (You know who you are.)

The funny thing is that just as I'm wondering what makes me wary of a particular artist--and it doesn't happen often--a colleague will ask, "Do you know so and so? What's her/his story? S/he has no boundaries (ethics, respect, whatever). Usually your initial judgment is spot on.

You have to learn to trust that little voice.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joanne,

I enjoy your blog tremendously. (Of course I enjoy your work too.) Thank you for sharing so much good information on technique, artists,and business. I particularly liked the article on women artists.
(Koons great artist?!) The Reciprocity article was refreshing. When I was in school most of the visiting artists said that "It's all who you know." The way they talked of the art world made me very sad. Their focus seemed dishonest and cynical to me, about what they could gain. I am glad to know that there are artists like you out there that are so accomplished in their careers and think this way.


Hylla said...

To Anonymous, above,

Joanne doesn't only think this way and talk this way. She lives by it and has been tremendously helpful to countless artists as their careers grow. As far as I can tell, she finds comfort in knowing she is doing the right and helpful thing for others. Anyone who would ever take advantage of Joanne's generosity would earn the wariness of all of us.
Art is not a competitive sport. We are here to help one another. Anyone who abuses that helping hand surely is not a proud artist.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a comment to thank Joanne for this great blog with all the good information she shares. We haven't met but I can see from her writing that she is an authentic person. I thought that she might like to know she has affected and is appreciated by people she hasn't met and may not meet.