My Art Belongs in Museums, How do I Get it There?
The museum is the Hall of Fame for artists, the apogee of apogees, where the best art gets trophied up for all to behold-- preserved, protected, exalted, and honored in perpetuity. Beyond any doubt, artists want their art in museums-- museum acquisition is the ultimate validation of everything artists live and work for. The curators, those high pulpiteers of aesthetic discernment say, "We want this." You say, "Take it." And the rest, as they say, is history.
So you make art; you think you're pretty good-- well, better than pretty good-- you think you're good enough to be in museums. Nope; that's not strong enough. You KNOW you're good enough to be in museums. Now what? How do you get your masterworks where they rightfully belong?
The easy part is that the art world is reasonably compact and well defined. In other words, you don't have to go far to get noticed, and the best way to do that is to immerse yourself in the local scene. Go to art events and shows and get to know the players-- artists, dealers, gallery owners, critics, collectors, writers, bloggers, curators, and so on. Then gradually get involved, participate, help out, join in, and generally make yourself available, keeping in mind-- and this is important-- that the journey is not all about you. Concern for the big picture, while at the same time exercising discretion around advancing your personal agenda, pay big dividends over time and are essential to get you where you want to go.
Like it or not, politics and immersion in the community play significant roles in any artist's art world ascent, at least initially, and yes, it's true that some artists may have advantages over others in that regard. For example, doing the networking dance ahead of time in grad school is an effective, albeit expensive way to get in the mix, but it's not essential. No matter what kind of connections you have going in, talent and vision ultimately prevail, not who you know. That said, knowing people is better than not knowing them, so make the rounds and familiarize yourself with the players.
When those moments come to show your art or talk it up-- and they will-- make it snappy, soft peddle the outcome, back off and let it be. Don't glom on to people and inflict 'em with a heavy sell, drone endlessly, force feed, or otherwise wax parasitic. Yes, people have to understand your work to like it, but if they have questions, they'll ask. Start leaning on them and they'll sense the neediness, even when it's not overt, so make your intro, practice restraint and move on to the next contestant. Remember, people have to like you as well as your art, and the basics come in mighty handy here like being polite, respectful, sensitive to the considerations of others, and doing all those other things your parents taught you when you were little. That's the truth; believe it.
Now don't worry; we're not losing sight of the museums here. Your initial goal and an essential step along the way, accomplished in large part by doing all of what's being talked about above, is to get your art out in front of the public. This typically starts with invitations to participate in group shows, but group shows can be challenging in terms of getting your message out; they don't necessarily provide adequate context for those in the know to assess your full range of talents. Nevertheless, inclusion in group shows is absolutely a step in the right direction and the more such shows you're a part of, the better. At the same time, you definitely want to move toward solo opportunities. This next step along your journey to the top typically takes a little more time, but once those solo shows start, you'll be much better positioned to make an impression.
What's interesting is that as you become increasingly ensconced in the local scene and develop a bit of a profile, you don't necessarily have to rely on established galleries to get your art seen, and this is where schmoozing and showing intersect. You can solo at an alternative space or even at a space nobody knows, IF you can turn out the right people-- all the ones you've met and treated kindly in your art world adventures-- and IF your art's got moxie, this could be the official bona fide beginning of something big. You see, the main way art ends up in established galleries (and subsequently, in museums) is that dealers get tips from artists, collectors, and other in-the-loopers who like you, come to your show at some strange space the middle of oblivion, see your potential and talk you up... and once that starts happening, word travels fast.
As an aside, traditional methods of promoting yourself-- like holing up in the studio and sending out information packets-- are pretty much myths or at best crapshoots, especially when you send your stuff to galleries who've never heard of you and have no idea who you are. For anything like this to work, your art has to be so astonishingly unbelievably remarkably amazing that a gallery has no choice but to take you on-- and that's astonishingly unbelievably remarkably rare. Not to belabor the point, but personal contact is the ticket, or at least personal referrals, because then all parties know each other, trust each other, and are more inclined to take recommendations seriously than they are direct contact from artists who approach them with no introductions. These days, the competition between good artists to get shows at good galleries is extreme, and sending packets off into the cosmos without an official introduction is simply too abstract and remote a way to make a dent.
"But I'm still not in museums, and you promised..."
OK. OK. Curators. Let's talk curators. In the overwhelming majority of cases, museum ascendancy starts with galleries and dealers, and in order for your art to make it to museum curators, it first has to pass muster with dealers. Gallery owners spend their lives looking at art, they survive by selling art, and that means they're extremely good at spotting quality works of art that people perceive as having value. Museum curators know this. They also know (as should you) which galleries have good or better track records of locating the kinds of art that museums like the most. You know how curators know which galleries these are? One big reason is that the gallery owners spend years, often decades, doing the same art scene shoulder-rub that you're going to start doing as soon as you finish this article. See how it all connects up?
Anyway, now things get serious. When a gallery owner pitches art or an artist to a museum curator (usually done gingerly-- hard sells don't work with curators either), that dealer's reputation is on the line. But wait; there's more. The curator's reputation is also on the line, because the curator, in turn, pitches the art to the museum's director and/or board of directors. And if a curator's record of acquiring art plays out as substandard over time, that curator will be repositioned somewhere on the outer edge of the galaxy or otherwise relegated to nowhere. So you see, this business of getting art into museums is not taken lightly. Everyone's got skin in the game, everyone's got to believe, and believe strongly enough, to bump your art up to the next level of scrutiny-- culminating with critics, fellow curators, writers, historians, scholars, and of course, the general public-- those museum goers who pay to see the picks.
That's how this museum deal works. Now here are a few extra wheel-greasers to get you there faster:
* Be able to explain and discuss your art and support it intellectually, especially if it's cerebrally driven. When people ask, you have to answer. Dealers and curators are not in the business of filling in blanks-- that's your job. They want polished finished products, not works in progress, cognitively or otherwise.
* Different museums (and museum curators) acquire different types of art. Additionally, curatorial acquisitions are made within the contexts of the histories of the museums or collections they're acquired for. Learn which institutions are most favorable to your type of art. While you're at it, do the same with dealers.
* Many curators (and dealers) tend to follow the leads of other curators, critics, dealers, and influential collectors. Learn the hierarchy and gravitate toward the leaders.
* Get press. The more coverage you get and the better it is, the more comfortable curators (or anybody else) will feel about talking you up and promoting your work. Prepackaged proof of your significances means those who notice you and are impressed by your art have to spend less time concocting justifications for getting behind what you're doing.
* Get a following. The greater the demand for your art, the more dealers who represent you, the more active those dealers are, the more willing those dealers are to haul your art from Basel to Biennale, the sooner you'll hit the museums. Curators notice artists with international profiles. They also notice the dealers responsible for creating those profiles.
* Be aware that, in addition to the merits of your art, dealers and curators make decisions based on your personality, asking prices, and how easy you are to work with.
* Artists occasionally receive support in the form of grants or residencies based on potential to produce museum-worthy work; they convince with their visions in advance of their output. If your art's not quite there yet, but you know where you're going, can conceptualize it out, convey your master plan, and people like what they hear, speculative funding may be in the offing.
Dealers, collectors, critics, and other art scene insiders continually beat the bushes for fresh art and talented artists. In addition, they continually evaluate already established artists in terms of how their careers are in the process of playing out, whether they continue to evolve, whether their latest work advances beyond all previous work, and how their art and their progress stack up against the art and progress of all the other artists out there. In other words, everybody watches everybody and everything all the time, and you, dear artist, are on that radar.
"But everybody's seen my art and I'm still not in museums. What's with that?"
Could be time to step back, reassess, regroup, or even lower your expectations. You want a little perspective? Pick up an old issue of Art in America or Art News or equivalent publication-- maybe five, maybe ten years back. You'll soon begin to see that yesterday's yawners may be today's toppers while countless rookie wonders flame out. For every artist that survives, many more go poof. Museum accessions are no different. Just because art makes it into museums today doesn't mean it stays there forever. Styles change, trends fizzle, today's big poop becomes tomorrow's white elephant, artists vanish, curators make mistakes, some artists are better talkers than arters and it takes time for everybody to figure that ruse out, and so on.
Then again, you may be so far ahead of the game you'll be dust before anybody totally gets your essence. Don't laugh; it happens. If your art's got the chops, it ultimately ends up exactly where it belongs, and if that's in museums, so be it. Or if your art's already museum-quality, but you're an antisocial misfit riddled with syndromes and nobody can get near you, chances are decent that you'll be enthroned in absentia as well. The good news? Posthumous accessions stay accessed far more often than art that gets politicked in now while everyone's still alive and self-serving. Small consolation, huh? In the meantime, go about your business, don't be a nudge, make the best art you can possibly make for as long as you can possibly make it, and take pride in the fact that at least you're holding up your end of the deal.
Thanks to Catharine Clark and Jack Hanley for their help with this article.
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