Are You Ready for the Big Time?

Showing Your Art Nationally or Internationally

Q: I'm looking for galleries or exhibition opportunities in major art centers like New York, London, Los Angeles and China. How can I show my art in places like this? The local art scene here where I live is not very good, people don't appreciate my art, and it doesn't sell well. What I need is to get my art in front of larger audiences to increase sales. Please tell me the best ways to approach galleries in big cities here and internationally.

A: Many artists believe that all they have to do to get known is to show their art in major national or international art centers, and somehow some way, collectors will discover and love it immediately. Continuing with this magical thinking, they fantasize that the exposure will result in instant recognition, a steady stream of sales, and the beginning of a great career. Why do they think this? It's kind of a "grass is greener on the other side" phenomenon having to do with the mistaken belief that their art is not in front of the "right people," that the only reason they aren't selling is that there's not much of an art scene in their hometowns or wherever they happen to live, and that hardly anybody who lives there buys art. The truth is that people do buy art, they buy it everywhere, online as well as in person, and the hometown does count. So enough about fantasy thinking; let's take a look at the facts.

The problem with the "I can't sell locally and need a larger audience" approach is that in order for galleries outside your local area to be interested in your art, they need good reasons to take you on in the first place. Usually this means having an established reputation and proven track record of successfully showing at galleries somewhere-- usually in or around where you live. Or you can get that reputation online through social media or third-party website appearances like features, news stories or profiles about you and your art. Regardless of how you do it, you need at least some semblance of a resume, fan base or profile somewhere before you take your show on the road. You have a great reason for contacting out-of-town galleries-- that you want to advance in your career. But is that also a great reason for them? The fact that they're in good locations and you're not, and that you need sales because you're not making them now, are not great reasons.

Think about it. If you can't put together a decent track record of shows or sales in the city or area where you live, or online through social media, then on what basis do you expect a gallery in a city where you don't live (and likely have few if any contacts, access, or experience) to seriously consider your art? For one thing, major art centers already have plenty of artists who live and work in the vicinity. Based on logistics alone, galleries prefer showing local artists for a variety of reasons, especially those that show artists who are relatively early in their careers. Among other things, they have an easier time getting to know local artists, communicating with them, following their work, meeting with them in person, visiting their studios, introducing them to potential buyers, and transporting their art from location to location. Art by artists from the immediate area is also easier for galleries to sell mainly because potential buyers are often much more familiar with the local art scene than they are with artists from elsewhere, especially ones they've never heard of. In other words, galleries generally have a lot less explaining and convincing to do when they show local artists.

On the flip side, plenty of galleries show artists from faraway places. Over the years I've spoken with tons of gallery owners who do, and have asked the same two questions over and over again. In fact, I've asked them so many times, I don't have to ask them anymore because the answers are always the same.

Question 1: "How did you hear about this artist?"
Many times they find out online, but also by seeing the art at other galleries or by meeting face-to-face. Then they tell me about the artist's reputation and accomplishments where they live and work. They tell me why the artist is known, how they became known, what types of awards or distinctions or publicity they've received so far during their careers, where they've exhibited, what collections their art is in, what their online profiles are like, how large their fan bases are, and so on. And then they show me the documentation to back it up.

Question 2: "Why did you decide to give them a show?"
Here they talk about why they believe the art deserves to be seen by people in other parts of the world, particularly their part, and more importantly, why that art is worth paying attention to, and more importantly yet, why it's worth owning. They tell me why the art is significant enough and noteworthy enough to be shown to wider audiences who don't yet know them, but who should.

When you can come up with reasons like these for people to pay attention to your art, your chances for getting shows at out-of-town galleries will increase dramatically. Without those reasons, there's not much galleries can do. Whenever a gallery shows art by any artist, especially one who's from outside the area, they have to present the work in ways that convince their buyers and collectors it's worth owning. Art buyers need to feel comfortable spending their hard-earned money on artists whose work they're not familiar with. They need encouragement, aka concrete documented facts, figures, resumes, and other forms of proof. Liking the art is a good start, but like alone is generally not enough to get them to whip out the checkbooks.

What does that mean for you as an artist? First and foremost, use your home-field advantage. Get your art out there where you live, where people know you and are the most sympathetic to your cause. Start by convincing them. At the same time, cultivate your profile on social media starting with those closest to you. Grow your following from there. Bulk up your resume by showing your art every chance you get, and do whatever you have to do to start making regular sales. As you get greater traction and acceptance with those closest to you, gradually expand out and introduce your work to larger and larger audiences. All along the way, show that your art is worth paying attention to. This is pretty much how every artist has to do it; there are no shortcuts to success.

Speaking of shortcuts, some artists think all they have to do is show their art in a major art center, regardless of their resumes or sales histories, and success will be theirs. In so doing, they become susceptible to paying for it, and there is no shortage of entities willing to take their money in exchange gallery shows, art fair exposure, representation, to be listed in books, to have their art posted on websites, and so on. They base their business models on how eager and even desperate many artists are to show their work in big cities, and for a fee, will gladly indulge the fantasies of any artist who thinks that in order to live happily ever after, this is all they have to do. The bottom line here? You can't buy your way to success; you have to work for it just like everybody else.

Never forget that advancing in your career as an artist is like advancing in any other profession-- it's a long hard step-by-step process. So keep making art, be persistent, show your work wherever and whenever you get the opportunity, and most importantly, never give up. With dogged dedication and perseverance, sooner or later people will begin to take notice, you'll gradually bulk that resume and increase sales, and as time goes on, you'll get more offers to show your work at increasingly significant galleries-- both at home and beyond.

A final point to keep in mind, before attempting to contact any gallery anywhere, is that you should be able to clearly explain why they should consider adding you to their roster, not only in terms of why your art is relevant to that gallery, but also to the people who live in the area where the gallery is located. If you make a convincing enough presentation and a gallery decides to take you on, the reasons you convinced them with will be the exact same ones they'll tell prospective buyers about why they should add your art to their collections.

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