Marketing Mondays: The Invitational

Q: “How do I get invited to show in an invitational?” 

An invitational exhibition is simply a curated show, and curated shows bring together a number of artists whose work fits a particular theme. The people who put together invitationals are institution-affiliated curators, independent curators, art dealers, entrepreneurial artists aligned with an institution or working independently, as well as artists' cooperatives looking to broaden their scope.

At a museum you expect a curated show—that’s what the curators do. At art galleries, the dealer is the curator; having an “invitational” is simply an interesting way to spin what a dealer does all the time, especially when she’s putting together a group show that includes artists in addition to the ones she represents.

Paving the Way for an Invitation
The best way to get invited to an invitational is to get your work out into the art world so that it can be seen by the people who do the inviting. If you are not showing regularly at a gallery, there are many places where your work might be seen.

. Open studios, juried shows, DIYs and pop-ups are all places where an independent curator or an ambitious assistant curator at an art museum might find artists to work with. These curators are looking to make their mark, so they’re out looking for new artists, since it’s not easy for relatively unknown curators to get the big names (everyone deals with hierarchical issues).

. The art fairs attract curators and dealers at many levels because everyone is looking for the next big thing in the art world. The beauty of the smaller fairs is that small galleries from small cities participate in them. You don’t necessarily have to live in New York City or other large metropolitan area, or be represented by a gallery there, for your work to be seen.
Dealers may be on the lookout for an artist or two to round out their roster or to complete an exhibition lineup, or they may be following an artist whose work interests them. Curators may be looking to acquire work for their institutions or simply to see who's showing, what's new and how the dots connect. Curator Mary Birmingham spoke about this last year in a two-part post on MM, How Do I Get a Curator to Look at My Work? Birmingham is now the curator at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey. (I have co-curated a show with her, Textility which is up now. See here, here, here and here.)

. Referrals by others dealers or curators, by the artists they represent or have shown, perhaps even by their collectors or friends, are ways for a dealer or curator to learn of unaffiliated artists doing interesting work. Go to the openings in your region. Talk to people. Become part of the art world in your part of the world.

Speaking as an artist who occasionally curates, I can tell you that I make the Chelsea rounds regularly, an activity that requires several days if I’m doing it thoroughly, plus another several days for shows and openings throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. I also travel a good deal. I see art from up and down the East Coast, mostly Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and I try to get to Chicago once a year as well, maybe San Francisco. That’s a lot of art. I take a lot of pictures and I remember what I see. I look at a lot of blogs, too. And did I mention that pretty much everything I've seen in every art fair in Miami or during Armory Week in New York City for the past seven years is imprinted on my cerebellum?
I particularly remember the work of artists when I see their work more than once in different venues. The more you show, the more your work is likely to be seen by the people you want to see it. Don’t underestimate the power of repetition, of critical mass. A curator or dealer might like your work but then forget about it. She might see it again and it sparks another little flame. Then you send a postcard announcing a show, a website update, something, and the spark gets bigger. When someone else mentions your name, the mere mention may ignite a conflagration of thinking. That’s why some artists seem to get all the attention while others get none. Attention begets attention, and success begets success. You have to get that train rolling by getting the work out there.

In preparation for the show I co-curated recently with Birmingham, I compiled a list of artists whose work I thought would be appropriate. In many instances I pulled photographs from my files, or I went to the websites of artists whose work was familiar from all my looking. (If you don’t have a Google-able website, you’re making yourself invisible, and if you don’t allow images to be saved from your website, you’re making it difficult for a curator to keep a dossier on you. Just saying.)

Here's a specific answer:
Show, show, show, show, show: "We are visual people. Administrative duties aside, my job is to see a lot and remember what I have seen," says a Boston curator. Of course he doesn't act on everything he has seen, but he has to see it to remember it. Does he look at only the gallery shows? "I look at everything. I've been to open studios, pop-ups, apartment galleries, non-profits, academic galleries. You name it, I've been there."

Here's another specific answer:
Repetition is effective: Recently, a dealer told me how he came to work with a particular artist.
. He was on her postcard mailing list, so he had seen about three images of her work over the previous 18 months
. Her work was curated into a group show at a local non-profit gallery, which he saw and liked ("The work in the show confirmed what I'd seen and liked in a postcard image.")
. Her work was in one of the regional editions of New American Paintings, which he saw
. Several people mentioned her work to him in conversation, confirming that his interest in her work was shared by, in this case, other dealers and collectors
. He invited her to participate in a summer invitational at his gallery
. Post script: Critical response to her work, along with sales, prompted him to offer her a solo show

And another specific answer:
Email announcements can be effective. Shortly after I'd completed my final list for the Textility show, I received an e-announcement from an artist whose work I'd completely forgotten about. Seeing the images this artist had sent, I remembered the thrill of seing it for the first time at an art fair and was reminded of how much I liked it--and more importantly, how well it would work in the exhibition. My co-curator liked it as much as I did, so we made room for this artist's work in the show. .

And another:
Postcard announcements are also effective. "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."
The previous quote was from an academic curator. Unlike dealers, who work with a roster of artists, showing the work of one or more from the roster each month, curators begin the process anew with each exhibition. Many keep files of images and artists whose work interests them. While the curatorial process is different for each curator, it is sparked by repetition, and repetition may be achieved by postcard images.
Do Your Homework
Invitational exhibitions take place at all kinds of venues, whether at a local art center, a metropolitan-area gallery, a regional museum or an international event. You’d be smart to gear your effort to the level you’re working at. A local or regional museum may be a better goal to aim for rather than MoMA. Then again, big leaps don’t come from tiny steps, so only you can decide how you want to proceed.
Readers: Please add what you know, expand upon a topic, or disagree if you wish. Just know that I won't publish any negative anonymous comments. You're welcome to be negative but have the courage of your convitions and identify yourself. (There have been too many trolls and flamers lately; I'm keeping them out.)

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Jhina Alvarado said...

Nice post! I was recently contacted for a show by someone who saw my work at the NY Affordable Art Fair in 2010. The curator loved my work so when she was putting together a show titled "Anonymous: The Contemporary Portrait", she thought my paintings would be perfect for it and invited me to participate. I've also been invited to be in other shows by curators seeing my work in other galleries. Making sure your work is visible in a number of places/ ways (and having a distinct style helps!) is key.

Diane Englander said...

This is such a good post. Does anyone have advice about identifying independent curators, other than show by show?

Catherine Carter said...

Another thought: take a page from Joanne's terrific D.I.Y. blog post last week, and curate a show yourself! There are many decent venues that solicit curatorial proposals (and they don't all involve attending long explanatory lectures and submitting 10 copies of each document - although some do) ...

Joanne Mattera said...

Jhina: COngratulations.

Catherine: Yes, curate!

Diane and Catherine: There's a FB group called "Artists and Curators" that's open to artists who curate, and curators who make art. There are some interesting conversations and connections being made there.

Christian Sarono said...

Wow! I really enjoyed in reading this post. I woke up my brain as if like I want all those information stored on my mind. It’s really interesting. I like it, thanks a lot for sharing it.

Kesha Bruce said...

1. Thanks for the tip about the Artists and Curators group on Facebook!

2. "Repetition is effective" pretty much says it all!

Anonymous said...

I was invited to an Invitational some time ago- a dealer had suggested I show my work to another gallery. That gallery made a studio visit and then nothing. A year later I visited the second gallery, signed the sign-in book, the dealer saw my name and remembered my work and made another studio visit which resulted in the Invitational. Now I sign the books for good luck!

DeborahS said...

Thanks for the tip and for all you do on this blog. I am an artist who curates and I was looking for the FB group, but the one I found said Artists and Curators ME, which could be Maine. Is that the one? It looked a little small and I wasn't sure.

Joanne Mattera said...

Deborah S: