Marketing Mondays: "How Do I Get a Curator to Look at My Work?"

Material Color, curated by Mary Birmingham for the Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton, New Jersey; October 5, 2008- January 21, 2009
Foreground: Carlos Estrada Vega
Background from left: Peter Fox painting, two sculptures by Markus Linnenbrink; three small paintings by me

Several readers have asked Marketing Mondays to address the issue of how to get on a curator's radar, and even more specifically, how to get a curator to look at work. Let me share with you what I've learned.

Over the past few years, I've spoken with a number of museum curators about my work. Other curators, over the course of several semesters, have spoken to a careers class I teach. Because the discourse in these situations was not meant for publication, I've quoted the curators without identifying them specifically. The quotes recall the spirit if not the exact letter of the conversation.

Mary Birmingham, a curator I have worked with, has agreed to talk on the record. Birmingham is the Exhibition Director at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey. She is quoted verbatim. Here's what she and the others have to say:

Send Postcards
It seems contrary, but a 19th-century means of communication remains one of the most powerful ways of getting a curator's (or dealer's) attention today. Everyone looks at a postcard, if only fleetingly. Put on your mailing list those curators you want to be aware of your work. Many curators save the postcards that appeal to them.

Here's A, an academic curator in New England with a busy schedule and a history of producing challenging exhibitions that get reviewed regularly: "I keep folders by category—abstraction, installation, sculpture, whatever. I file every postcard that appeals to me. Whenever I have some free time, usually in the summer when school is not in session, I take out the folders and see what I've accumulated. The biggest folders get my attention first. And if I find that I've saved several postcards from one artist, I take time to look at that artist's work online. I may then call to request a studio visit."
Adds Birmingham, "I agree that postcards are effective attention grabbers, and they are an easy way to 'store' ideas. But don't overlook the value of an e-card; it doesn't have to be a snail mail version to be noticed."

Enter Shows Juried by a Curator You Want to Notice Your Work
Some of my colleagues don’t think this is such a great idea because, let's be honest, a curator isn't going to remember all that much out of a sea of submissions. But if the curator selected your work for inclusion in a show, and particularly if she awarded it a prize, by all means send a note to thank her for including you in the show or giving you that award.

Then stay in touch. Send an occasional postcard to announce an upcoming show. And if something really wonderful happens to you as a result of that juried exhibition, a note to the juror serves two functions: 1) It reinforces to the juror that her positive response to your work is shared by others; 2) It allows the juror to stay aware your career. Curators often follow artists' careers from a distance. You think those invitations to show in a museum happen overnight?

Maintain a Strong Web Presence
"I am a huge user of the Internet when I am mulling over exhibition possibilities," says Birmingham. "It's a great way to look for artists, and I find that one name usually leads to another." Google’s image feature allows her or any curator to cut right to the chase.
Birmingham doesn't want to waste time with a site that's difficult to navigate or out of date. "It's important to maintain a working and workable site. For me it's a great way to preview an artist's work before committing to a studio visit. While I acknowledge that NOTHING takes the place of seeing the work in person, your website should at least give me an indication of your point of view. A good site will intrigue me enough to want to see more (and a bad one will seal the deal in another direction)."
Show, Show, Show
Curators make a point of visiting galleries in their area, and they routinely hit the galleries in their nearest large city. Sooner or later all of them get to New York. The more you show, the greater your chances are of having your work seen—and you never know when or by whom.

"I saw 60 shows this past weekend," said B, a Boston museum curator who routinely makes quick trips into Manhattan. Will he remember everything? Well, not everything, but as he pointed out, "Part of my job is see a lot and to remember what I have seen."
Curators Visit the Art Fairs
"I love art fairs," says Birmingham. "For me, working on the outskirts of New York City, they are a way to connect with multiple sources in a concentrated time and place. If I spend the day visiting galleries in New York, I'll usually target a particular neighborhood (the Lower East Side, Chelsea, etc.) to look at work for specific projects. It can be limiting. But at art fairs it's easier to stay loose--and be open to new ideas--while seeing a much greater volume of work. Since I'm always working on several shows simultaneously, art fairs allow me to easily and frequently 'switch gears' and think of several projects at once."
Birmingham describes the fairs as "a particularly efficient way for me to see larger trends emerging." She is definitely not alone. A very large slice of the art world is taking notes and pictures at these events. And it’s worth noting that if you show with a small regional gallery, and that gallery takes a booth at one of the fairs, your work will be seen by curators (and dealers and other artists) from a geographically broad swath of the planet.
Another example: A few years ago, at the Aqua Art hotel fair in Miami, I was in one of the rooms when a woman walked in, looked around and introduced herself to the person who looked to be in charge. “Hi, I’m [she said her name] from the [an Ohio]Art Museum.” For the duration of her time in the room, the dealer gave her his full attention as she looked at work and asked questions about this artist or that. I saw her in several other rooms that evening, each with the same scenario.
Should You Send a Package to a Curator?
“There is six months' worth of packages in a box in my office and I have no time to look at them,” lamented C, a New England curator. Small museums may be short staffed even in the best of times. A cold-call package may stay in the box for some time.

But this is not always true. "I look at everything that's addressed to me," said the Boston curator. Has he ever included an artist in a show this way? "Not yet," he admitted, but studio visits have come about as a result of the contact. Ask around to see what the viewing preferences are of the curators you wish to reach.
"This is helpful advice," says Birmingham, agreeing with the previous statement. "'Know thy curator' should be your comandment." She offers this example: "Since I work for a small regional museum, I would be unlikely to choose an artist from Texas as the recipient of a solo show. And with a limited shipping budget, I usually limit myself to choosing work within driving distance."
So if you live in the region and you've got a sense of the museum, should you send her a package? "I have some strong opinions and advice here!" says Birmingham. "When artists contact my museum, they are told that they may send a package (or an email) to me, but that they should not expect an answer; that I will contact them if I require additional information. This is key! What I don't want is someone calling me to ask for feedback, or to 'follow up.'
"Once you send a package to a curator you should think of the ball as being in their court. Leave them alone and let them do their thing. One word of advice: Patience. I can only speak for myself, but if you have impressed me I will probably remember your work. I may not give you a solo show right away or include you in a current exhibition, but I will definitely keep you in mind. If I don’t have a relevant project perhaps a friend or colleague does, in which case I may recommend you. Or perhaps I’m working on a show in two years for which you are perfect. Give me a chance to become acquainted with you and your work on my time frame. The fastest way off of my 'artists of interest' list is to hound me."
Understand the Hierarchy
While the top curators in any big institution are going after the big names to create the blockbusters, the big surveys, and the all-star thematic shows, the associate and assistant curators are looking in the smaller venues for work to present to the higher ups, as well as for art to advance their own agenda. Like artists, emerging curators need to distinguish themselves with shows that receive critical attention and word-of-mouth buzz. Follow their work—and put them on your mailing list so that they might follow yours. Often these are the curators tapped to jury shows. They have nowhere to go but up, often moving from one museum to another as they go. If they respond to your work, you may find your career trajectory arc upward along with theirs.

Great show, but the MoMa curators, Starr Figura with Kathy Curry, didn't have to look outside the museum. Geo/Metric: Prints and Drawings from the Collection, June 11-August 18, 2008
Foreground: Bridget Riley

Location, Location, Location
I’m oversimplifying, but I think I can safely say that New York curators, who have a huge world of choices in their own hometown, don’t need to travel to regional or local museums to find artists.

If you are an artist who has not shown regularly in New York, you can certainly send postcards to the curators here whom you want to know about your work. But you’re more likely to get more traction with the curators of your local and regional museums, as Birmingham points out. Part of their mandate is to visit the galleries in their region and to show the work of artists who have a connection to the region; if you show regularly, chances are they’ve already seen your work.

Many curators hit the openings in their area, knowing they’ll see not just art but the people who make it and sell it. Learn who the curators are. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Openings are a great democratizer, the opportunity to talk without a degree or a desk separating you in conversation.

Once you’ve gotten a local museum show and ideally an exhibition catalog and the support of a curator who has championed your work, you’ll be ready to broaden your exhibition base. Curators--like dealers, critics and artists--have their professional organizations. A reference from one curator may help you at another institution.

Networking: A Key to Getting on the List
Here's Birmingham describing how an exhibition comes into being: "Something stimulates my thinking. Then I start collecting names. There are usually additional names—referrals, suggestions—from the original artists on my list."

One artist on her list might have been in a show that turns up another couple of names. There are colleagues who travel and bring back postcards or exhibition information from shows they’ve liked. There's the dealer who suggests one of his artists; the artist friend who turns the curator on to a new gallery loaded with artists doing exactly the kind of work the curator responds to; the neighbor with a great eye; the brother's girlfriend's best friend who’s dating an artist; the friends of that artist.

Keep Showing
If you’re getting your work out there, it's entirely possible that curators have already seen your work. Often it’s repetition that makes the difference. A curator sees your work in a show, you’re mentioned by a dealer or another artist, there's a positive review in a regional magazine, a blog post by or about you gets circulated and, boom, you get a call or an e-mail from a curator who was nudged into action by the synchronicity. Similarly, inquiries timed to take advantage of a current show or good review may get you a quick response, perhaps even an invitation for a studio visit.
Wrapping Up
"One final note," says Birmingham: "If a curator has given you positive feedback, by all means continue to update them by email. I’ll be happy to hear about your latest show or award or residency, as long as you realize I may not be able to respond personally. Remember that it’s a symbiotic relationship; curators need contact with artists (among others) in order to do their jobs effectively. We really do need each other. The trick is in striking the right balance. "

Next week: Birmingham explains how she selected the artists for a recent exhibition


Matthew Beall said...

Very nice to get such insight. It helps to take away some of the mystery so to speak. It also shows that it isn't an easy road to travel, but it's possible to drive on it.

lisa said...

Very helpful post. Thanks to Mary for her insight.

anne mcgovern said...

You are providing an education to us all. Many thanks for all your work!

Pamela Farrell said...

Wow...great post, Joanne. And thanks to Mary for her generosity in sharing her perspective.

KRCampbellArt said...

Thank you so much for this post. It is very helpful in thinking about how, or how not, to approach curators.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Possibly my favorite Market Monday post. You continue to up your game. Thanks

Nancy Natale said...

Great info and advice - as per usual!

Diane McGregor said...

Excellent inside info! Many thanks to you Joanne, and to the curators who offered advice. I'm especially appreciative to learn that "following up" is not useful or desired.

Claudia Waters said...

Thank you Joanne, and also thank you Mary, for all the excellent information.

Unknown said...

Echoing the thank you's- Joanne, I have gotten so much out of Marketing Mondays. And the Hunterdon is a beautiful little museum, with interesting shows- well worth making the trip to Clinton.

Unknown said...

You are so generous to share this with all of us. Thanks, Joanne.

Lorene Ann Taurerewa said...

I am a artist new to New York and found this article very interesting. Thank you!!

Lorene Taurerewa

beth simpson said...

I just added your blog. very well written ... thanks for the advice

Christine Soccio said...

Great information. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks :)

Vilma Mare said...

Good community building issues. Thank you.