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 and 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 a combination of getting active online-- particularly on social media-- and immersing yourself in your local or regional art scene. As for the local scene, get on gallery and museum announcement lists, follow them on social media, and when possible, go to their art events and shows. Get to know the players-- artists, dealers, gallery owners, critics, collectors, writers, bloggers, curators, consultants, and so on. Gradually increase your involvement in the art community, online as well as in real life.
Generally make yourself available, participate, help out, join in, volunteer, and post or comment on matters when relevant to the topic at hand, all the while keeping in mind-- and this is important-- that the journey is not all about you. Being aware of and expressing interest in the activities and perspectives of others, and not always making it about 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, learning the networking dance ahead of time in undergrad or 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, your talent and vision as an artist ultimately prevail, not who you know. That said, knowing people who may be able to help you in various ways at some point is better than not knowing them. So follow them on social media, make the gallery rounds, regularly visit and participate in museum activities, panel discussions, and talks both online and in person, and familiarize yourself with those you think might ultimately take an interest in your art.
When those moments come to show your art or talk it up-- and they will-- make it quick, go easy, and be sure the other party is as interested in continuing the conversation as you are. Whether in person or online, don't glom on, do a hard sell, force people to listen, or otherwise overstay your welcome. Yes, people have to understand a certain amount about your work in order to really appreciate and connect with it, but let them lead the conversations and ask the questions. Practicing restraint in the early phases of any art world relationship is definitely recommended. It's always good when they like you as much as your art.
Now don't worry; we're not losing sight of the museums here. The reason you're doing all this is to gradually raise awareness about your art, both online and in real life, and hopefully start getting opportunities to show. This usually begins with invitations to participate in group shows, but group shows can be challenging in terms of getting your message out. They're not great for showing your full range of talents, but they're definitely a step in the right direction. The more group shows you participate in and the more people who see your art, the better. At the same time, you want to be on the lookout for 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 impress.
As you become increasingly involved in your local or regional or online scene, be creative about different ways to get larger selections of your art seen. Save the more established galleries for when the time is right. For example, solo at an alternative space or even a space nobody knows. If you can curate a good solid cohesive body of your work, turn out people you've met and gotten along with, and also effectively present these events on social media, this could be the beginning of something big. You see, the main way art ends up in established galleries (and subsequently in museums) is that the owners get tips from artists, collectors, and other in-the-loopers who either come to your shows wherever they happen to be, follow you or see your posts online, like what they're looking at, see your potential, and start spreading the word.
As an aside, holing up in the studio or only occasionally posting or contacting people directly or on social media without actively participating in the scene and making face-to-face contact is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. The same goes for approaching 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 making all those personal contacts and connections is an essential part of the game. These days, the competition between good artists to get shows at good galleries is so intensely competitive that having any kind of advantage, even if its only name recognition or a referral, really really helps.
"But I'm still not in museums, and you promised..."
OK. Let's talk museum curators. In the overwhelming majority of cases, museum ascendancy starts with galleries, and in order for your art to make it to their curators, it first has to pass muster with dealers. Gallery owners spend their lives looking at art, they live and breathe art, they survive by selling art, and that means they're extremely good at spotting quality work that has merit and value. Museum curators know this. They also know (as should you) which galleries have good or better track records of showing the kinds of art that their 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 community schmooze 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 talks up art or an artist to a museum curator, that dealer's reputation is on the line. The curator's reputation is also on the line, because they, in turn, may introduce or formally present the art to the museum's director and/or board of directors. All these people are looking for art that fits with the museum's mission and guidelines, and reflects favorably on their abilities to pick art that not only impacts in the moment, but even more importantly, has a reasonable chance to stand the test of time.
On the flip side, if a curator's track record of presenting new talent plays out as substandard over time, their responsibilities in that regard will likely be reduced or even eliminated altogether. So you see, this business of getting art into museums is serious. Everyone's got skin in the game and must believe strongly enough in your art to move it up the ladder of success. Hopefully along the way, it will also get the seal of approval from critics, fellow curators, influential professionals, and of course, the general public-- those museum goers who pay to see the picks.
That's how museum accession works. Now here are a few extra pointers to help speed up the process:
* Be able to explain and dialogue about your art to anyone who shows interest. When they ask, you have to answer. Dealers and curators are not in the business of filling in blanks-- that's your job. Quality work in combination with an effective presentation is key.
* Different museums (and museum curators) focus on and acquire different types of art. Acquisitions are made within the contexts of the histories and collections of the museums they're acquired for. Learn which institutions are most favorable to your type of art. While you're at it, do the same with galleries.
* Many curators (and dealers) tend to follow the leads of other curators, critics, dealers, and influential collectors. Learn the hierarchy and pay attention to the leaders.
* Get press. The more coverage you get and the better it is, online or otherwise, the more comfortable curators (or anybody else) will feel about talking you up and promoting your work. Ongoing media attention also means new people who get introduced to your art can inform themselves faster on what you're up to.
* Cultivate a following. The larger your fan base, the greater the demand usually is for your art. The more galleries that represent you, the more active they are on your behalf, and the more significant art fairs you appear in, and the more successes you have, the sooner museums will take notice. Repeated exposures to your art in favorable circumstances gets you noticed by those who count.
* Be aware that, in addition to the merits of your art, galleries and curators make decisions based on how much art you create, how hard you work, how productive you are, how you price, and how easy you are to work with.
* Promising artists often receive support in the form of grants or residencies based on potential to produce noteworthy work. Funding is based not only on what they've accomplished so far, but also on what their visions are for the future. If your art's not necessarily sellable at galleries, but you know where you're going, can convey that to others, have a plan for how to get there, and grant-based organizations like what they hear, cash awards may be in the offing.
Dealers, collectors, galleries, critics, and other art scene insiders continually beat the bushes for fresh art and talented artists, especially online, and especially especially on social media. In addition, they continually evaluate already established artists in terms of how their careers are progressing, whether they continue to evolve, whether their latest work advances beyond all previous work, and how their art and 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 take a step back, reassess, regroup, or even lower your expectations. You want a little perspective? Pick up an old issue of Art in America, Artforum, Art News, or any equivalent publication-- maybe five, maybe ten, maybe twenty years back. You'll soon begin to realize how fast artists can come and go. For every artist who survives, many more disappear into oblivion. 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 acquisition may become tomorrow's white elephant sale special, artists vanish, curators make mistakes, some artists are better talkers than arters, it takes time for everybody to figure all these things out, and so on.
Then again, you may be so far ahead of the game you'll be dust before anybody totally gets what you're up to. Don't laugh; it happens on rare occasions. 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 museum-quality, but your personality gets in the way, chances are good that you'll eventually be enthroned as well. Perhaps not in your lifetime, but posthumous accessions tend to stay accessed far more often than art that gets politicked in while everyone's still alive and jockeying for attention. In the meantime, go about your business, 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.
(light art by Leo Villareal)
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