How to Show Your Art at Galleries...
and Make the Most of Your Openings
Q: How do I show my art to my best advantage? I have an art show and opening coming up at a gallery. I've had gallery shows before, but this one is more important. I want everything to go as well as it possibly can.
A: Every art show opening marks a milestone in your career as an artist. It's a premier, a beginning, a critical instant of opportunity. It may only last a few hours, but it's like everything you've ever worked for and accomplished microcosmically concentrated into a one shot whack at forging your destiny. Why? Because anything can happen-- and it often does-- which means you gotta be there, be on and be ready.
Your art never looks as good as it does at your opening. It's pristine, perfect, and at the threshold of a new beginning. Everyone is optimistic about prospects for favorable reactions, healthy sales and great reviews. But the most important ingredient is you, and the more aware you are of the implications of the impending onslaught, the better the chances to upwardly alter the course of your success.
I'm amazed at how many artists completely disregard their openings. They spend weeks, months or years creating the art, but not ten minutes reflecting on how they'll present themselves at its public debut. They show up, stand around, smile, chit chat, schmooze with friends, sip wine, shake hands, respond, react, go home and forget about it. What don't they do? Prepare with purpose.
You can do better than that, much better, so in case there's an art opening in your future, maybe consider incorporating the following gambits into your repertoire. You'll be glad you did.
The number one rule of art opening protocol is to BE THERE from the opening bell to the closing clink. If you have to leave for any reason, tell whomever's in charge where you're going, how long you'll be gone and when you'll be back. This way, people who want to meet you know exactly how long they'll have to wait. You see, anyone can show up at anytime with any agenda, and your duty is to be available or accounted for 100% of that time. Better yet, unless it's an emergency, stick around. Remember, we're talking several hours at most, not days.
Now that you're there, make yourself available, especially to people you don't know. Don't hang with your friends, let one or two gasbags monopolize your time, or get cornered by some wannabe who talks tall but has no intention of buying. One of the most common mistakes artists make at their openings is spending way too much time with people who are least likely to buy their art. It's not easy to tell who's who at first, but the more art show experience you get, the easier it'll become to jettison the time wasters. As for those who already know and love you, you can bathe in the white light your sycophants anytime, so save that for later.
Keep the traffic moving; keep conversations simple and answers brief; keep the potential buyer pool as large as possible. Speak in everyday language that anyone can understand (if you need help with this, practice before the opening). Avoid telling people more than they want to hear; avoid answering questions in unintelligible insider art jargon gibberish. Best procedure is to answer all questions in thirty seconds or less (if you think that's too short, time yourself and see how much you can say in thirty seconds-- you'll be amazed). The longer your answers, the fewer people you'll have time to talk to. If someone wants to hear your life story, tell it later, after the show.
Pay attention to everyone you talk to; make sure they understand what you're saying. Speak at their level and don't act like you know much more about art than they do (even when you do). If you see they don't get it, slow down, back up, ask what they don't get, try a simpler approach or ask if they have questions. Most importantly, avoid the tendency to be argumentative or to correct anyone who misinterprets your art or sees it differently than you do.
So here you are; the stampede is on. Everyone's looking good, wanting a piece of the action, to be part of "it," to rub elbows, get somewhere, be somebody, feel special, whatever. But you've got the wildcards too, people who come because they're curious, they've come with friends, they like parties, they're walking by and look in the window, they like crowds, they like to look at art without being noticed, and so on. It makes absolutely no difference whether they've heard of you or seen your art. Anybody can be a potential buyer. Anybody can decide for whatever reason or at any moment that they like your art enough to get serious. And in order to facilitate that seriousness to culminate in a sale, you've got to make the process of identifying with, connecting with and buying your art as easy as buying a quart of milk at the grocery store.
When you feel it's appropriate, walk up and briefly introduce yourself to anyone who's actively scoping your art, your resume, your statement or your price list for any length of time. That's all you have to do; introduce yourself-- no pressure, no nothing. A simple "hello" will do it. You can tell real fast whether they're interested in starting a conversation. If you get a cool reception, politely excuse yourself and move on. Remember, all kinds of people want to talk to you for all kinds of reasons, but many either don't know what you look like or are afraid to ask. Best procedure is to assume everyone's too shy to say hi and would much rather have you go first. When you guess right and deepen their connections to you and your art, you win buyers.
Avoid stock answers. For example, when someone asks you to explain your art or asks a question about the meaning or significance of your art, don't tell them it means whatever they want it to mean. Guess what? They already know that. They wanna know what YOU think it means. Be responsive and considerate, no matter how uninformed their questions may be. Imagine yourself in their shoes. When you ask questions about stuff you don't understand to people who understand it really well, you sound uninformed too.
It's OK for people to like something they know little or nothing about, and when that something is your art, you're in luck. Tons of people who like art know little or nothing about it; some of them turn out to be buyers and some of them will hopefully buy yours. To increase the chances of that happening, have entry-level explanations and answers that keep them in the game. We all have to start somewhere, right?
You see, people spook easily around art. Sure, they love it and may well want to own it-- everybody does-- but as soon as they don't understand something or feel the least bit confused or uncomfortable, they run the other way. In order to increase the fan base and make the sales, you have to unspook them, or better yet, don't give them a chance to get spooked in the first place. Keep it simple right from the start, because that's how we like it. Simple. Entry-level. We're at an art opening sipping wine, appreciating art and having a good time, not at a postgraduate seminar.
As for the curators, critics, reporters, bloggers, photographers, and videographers in the crowd, no matter how insignificant their publications or websites or how much you may disagree with their views, give them absolutely everything they ask for (within a reasonable time limit). You want coverage and reviews, so know your players and chat them up. Publicity is always good, no matter where it appears or what it says; every time someone writes about your art, that means your art's worth writing about. And that rapscallion who writes for iliketoblatheraboutart.com-- he may one day become the art critic for The New York Times. In the meantime, you never know who'll stumble across his coverage of your show on iliketoblatheraboutart.com, like what they see and decide to take action.
A few additional pointers:
* Be respectful. If someone doesn't know who you are or isn't familiar with your art, be kind and bear with them.
* Don't act aloof, inaccessible, or appear preoccupied.
* Make sure everything is priced and that prices are visible for everyone to see. Forcing people to ask how much your art costs eliminates potential buyers who for whatever reasons feel uncomfortable asking.
* Keep an eye on the crowd. If you're busy, but see people who look like they need help or have questions, point them out to gallery personnel. When you need help and nobody helps you, you leave, right? You don't want that.
* If you're talking to someone you know and someone you don't know comes up and wants to talk to you, politely tell the someone-you-know that you'll be delighted to continue the conversation later, and then talk to the someone-you-don't-know. Keep the someone-you-don't-know waiting for as little time as possible. The most important people at your opening may turn out to be ones you don't know-- yet.
* Make sure you've got plenty of copies of your statement, resume, and price list available. Nobody likes having to look over other people's shoulders, having other people look over their shoulders, waiting for someone to put the ferkin' thing down, or reaching for it and having someone else grab it first.
* Be careful not to pressure people or oversell (this is not usually a problem with artists, but it does happen from time to time).
* Be positive. No complaining. No whining. No trashing other artists, collectors, galleries or anybody or anything else. Whatever you say, make sure it's nice. Imagine someone saying the same things about you or your art. How would you feel?
* Stay sober. You'll have plenty of time for substance abuse later.
Now that you know what TO do at your art events, you can read about what NOT to do here: How Not to Act at Your Art Shows and Gallery Openings
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