Navigating the Art World

An Introduction

As astounding as this may seem, there's a structure and order to the art world, and to the gallery system in particular. It's a system that's been in place pretty much as long as buying and selling art has been around, and it's not about to change. So the quicker you learn the basics, the more time, effort, money and especially heartache you'll save when searching for galleries that are right for your art. The good news is that once you understand how things work, you can purposefully and effectively navigate your way through artland in order to get where you want to go, wherever that may be.

Artists progress from show to show and gallery to gallery during the course of their careers in entirely orderly and predictable manners; nothing is random. There are always good reasons why certain artists and certain kinds of art end up at certain galleries, institutions, museums and other established art venues. Likewise, art careers progress and advance step-by-step, deliberately, incrementally and over extended periods of time. Sure, an occasional art star appears suddenly out of nowhere, but this is by far the exception rather than the rule. Even these occasional anomalies become orderly and predictable once the surprise wears off.

When you're just starting out, you begin by getting yourself and your art out there online, especially on social media. As for showing the work at physical locations, like any other profession, you begin at the beginning as well. In the art world that means showing your art pretty much anywhere anyone will have you. The only criteria for showing your art at this point are that the venues are complimentary to your art and that people will see it, particularly ones who've never seen it before. We're not necessarily talking galleries here; there'll be plenty of time for them later. Possible locations include hotels, tech firms, public rooms in office spaces, coffee shops, restaurants, furniture or interior design showrooms, fashion boutiques, tattoo shops, hair salons, lobbies of commercial buildings, renting an exhibition space with artist friends, private viewings at someone's home or apartment, juried or non-juried shows, open studios, and anywhere else you can get warm bodies through the door-- that's the key.

Not only do these early efforts to show your art provide valuable experience and feedback in terms of seeing how others react to the work, but they also maximize the number of people who'll have opportunities to see it in person. The more people who see your art this way, the greater the chances someone will tell someone will tell someone how much they like it. And one of those someone's might own a gallery or know someone who owns a gallery and be impressed enough to either want to make contact with you or convince someone else to contact you. And so on and so forth along the networking grapevine. That's how gallery shows often originate.

Admittedly, those of you who've graduated from art school have an edge on the competition, at least during the early stages of your careers, meaning that during the course of your studies, you've likely been introduced or exposed to local gallery owners, critics, curators, collectors and other notable members of the art community-- so you kind of know who's who. Learning your area art scene geography is one of the great benefits of a formal art education, but it doesn't mean any of these people are going to do anything for you, and it sure doesn't mean you can walk into Triple A Fine Arts and get yourself a show just because you met the owner once. You've got to work your way up the ladder just like everyone else, but at least you know where to find the ladder.

Those of you who've acquired your art-making skills outside the academic realm or are self-taught (and there are tons of you out there) can circumvent this logistical disadvantage simply by immersing yourself in your local art communities and getting active on social media. Get on gallery email lists and follow them on social media, go to gallery openings and museum shows (especially for local or regional art and artists), and also attend talks, tours, open studios, art fairs and other significant area art events. Openings and art fairs are especially good because you get to see large numbers of art people all at once. Don't go to one or two events and think you've done your duty; go to plenty and keep on going.

If you're the shy type, you don't necessarily have to talk to anyone while you're there, although striking up a conversation every now and again is better. Either way, the upshot of repeatedly seeing and being seen is that (a) you begin to see the same people over and over again, (b) sooner or later you find out who they are, (c) sooner or later they find out who you are, (d) conversations eventually break out, (e) you share information, (f) you slowly figure out how to navigate the art scene just like everybody else, and (g) opportunities gradually begin to present themselves.

Perhaps an even greater benefit to getting out there and being seen, in addition to becoming known, is that you demonstrate your desire to participate, get involved, and show you're serious about becoming successful as an artist and committed to doing whatever's necessary to achieve that end. So many artists think all they have to do to get shows is send occasional emails, casually post on social media, periodically hit up the local or area galleries for shows, invite random art people to look at their websites, make occasional calls or visits to galleries, and generally invest minimal time and effort to get their art out into the public. They think all they have to do is hunker down in the studio and that opportunities for exposure will mysteriously appear out of nowhere. This "If I make it, they will come" approach to getting shows is guaranteed not to get you anywhere fast, and in fact, will likely get you nowhere at all. There is no substitute for getting yourself and your art out in public, frequenting local art venues and events, and meeting as many people as possible along the way-- wherever and whenever you can.

So let's say you advance from the "show anything anywhere" phase to participating in a handful of group shows at decent local galleries to maybe getting a solo show or two at entry-level galleries that specialize in emerging artists to maybe even having your art favorably reviewed online or by influencers in the local community. Even a successful show or two does not mean you're ready to approach better galleries, either in your area or anywhere else. As in the non-art world, you don't go directly from entry-level positions to head of the company or from being a local bar band to playing Madison Square Garden. You progress step-by-step and show-by-show; that's how artists get known. Are you beginning to see how this hierarchy works? Excellent.

For those of you who need a little more in the way of explanation, let's take a moment to look at how and why the best galleries come to show the artists they do. To begin with, these galleries do not randomly select artists who happen to walk through the door or make contact in casual ways like by email, social media, mail or phone (hardly any galleries anywhere do that). They don't even select artists based solely on whether they like the art or even on how good it is. That's the shocking part-- your art can be really good-- I mean really really good-- and prominent galleries will not show you no matter what. Why? In order to show at better galleries YOU as well as your art have to be a total match. The quality of your art is only one step in the process. There's also your resume, reputation, experience, accomplishments, awards, standing in the art community, social media following, your overall online profile, how you are to work with, your sales history, the quality of critical reviews of your past shows, and much more.

Simply put, the best galleries show the best artists. That's why they're the best galleries. Who are the best artists, you ask? They're artists who have proven themselves over time, who started at the beginning showing wherever they could, painstakingly building their resumes one line at a time, establishing consistent track records of successful shows, convincing those who count that they're committed to making art, favorably impressing the curators and critics, demonstrating that they're capable of doing what's expected when it's expected, selling well, selling consistently, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. In short, they're artists with firmly established reputations. And here's the important part-- they established those reputations themselves. And here's the really important part-- galleries don't establish artists' reputations; they only enhance them. It's your job and yours alone to prove that your reputation is worth enhancing. And that's how the gallery system works.

Additional tips for getting yourself and your art out there:

* Make sure you get the word out about your shows in as many ways as possible including local and regional arts and events calendars, websites that are relevant to your art, social media, blogs, newspapers, and at physical locations where art people tend to congregate. Exposing your art to as many first-timers as possible and continually expanding your fan base, following, and audience is critical to your success.

* Get to know those in the art community who are most involved with your type of art. When you meet or get introduced to these people, go slow, take it easy and talk about whatever makes sense within the context of the conversation. If someone asks about your art, fine, but save any kind of hard sell for later. Good relationships take time to develop.

* Intern or volunteer at local galleries, non-profit organizations that are involved with art similar to yours, or at local museums. These are excellent ways to meet people and get involved with the area art community.

* Intern or volunteer to work with established artists whose art you like and respect.

* Regularly update your website, post and participate on social media, and keep your overall online profile current. These days, pretty much the first thing anyone does who's interested in your art and wants to know more-- whether they meet you in person or not-- is look you up online.


(art by Keith Haring)

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