If you’re anything like me, the prospect of putting yourself out there and approaching galleries can be particularly daunting. Just the thought of it once left me with sweaty palms and flashbacks of standing up at the head of the class and attempting to stumble my way through a presentation, mouth dry, words trembling and breathless as I feebly try to control “the shakes.”
Stage fright. It’s something all of us experience at one point or another and is nothing to be ashamed of. But it does eventually need to be addressed and conquered. Confidence is a must in this business. Charming as it may be for an artist to approach a gallery introverted and obviously intimidated, it certainly won’t leave a positive impression on a gallery owner – it is a must to project a confidence in one’s self and one’s own work. Otherwise how can you expect a gallery to take you seriously enough to represent your work?
Yes. I know this is much easier said than done. I’m not kidding when I say I was scared to death of being put on the spot like that. I had to get past it. It was October of 2003, and I had heard about an artist statement slam at Oni Gallery in Boston, MA. It would require me not only to stand up on stage in front of hundreds of gallery goers and recite my artist statement but also to actually be judged on it. I toiled for weeks preparing it, and was so intimidated by it that I couldn’t sleep the night before. I saw it as a purification. Meeting my fears head on, like someone with a fear of heights jumping from a plane. Making a leap.
I was petrified.
If I was going to do it, I was going for broke. I painted myself blue and purple and dyed my hair to match. I wore a cape. Seriously. As I stepped on stage the lights blinded me and I began to sweat, some of my makeup melted and smeared. The judges, who were from the Guggenheim, MoMA, and Montserrat College of Art, glared up at me and winced through the high pitch squeal of the microphone as I stepped too close. I began. Shaking and breathless I made my way through my statement, quivering and fumbling words as I went. I nearly tripped coming off the stage. I sat back down, knowing it could have gone better, but I felt an immense sense of relief and personal accomplishment. I tackled my fear head on. Nothing could be more liberating than making the fool I made of myself that day, because nothing would ever be that outrageous in the real world. I had to expose myself completely to feel comfortable in my skin and confident to present myself and my work.
Now, this might not be all that practical for you. I mean, it’s not everyday you get the right chance to paint yourself up like a fool and stand up on stage to get past your fears, but it’s crucial to challenge yourself and climb that mountain so you can focus on confidently presenting yourself and your work to a prospective gallery.
Presenting yourself and your work to a gallery.
So you’ve gotten past your initial fears – what now? How do you go about presenting yourself and your work to a curator?
First, scout out prospective galleries. You don’t want to waste a curator’s (and your own!) time by presenting your charming watercolor botanicals to a gallery specializing in meaty abstracts. You don’t want to schlep your predominantly impasto expressionist musings around town and present it off hand to a gallery owner only interested in black and white photography. Do your homework. Attend gallery openings. Many galleries have embraced the technological age – with the click of a mouse you can get an overview of a gallery you’re interested in, from past exhibitions to open calls to information on the owners and curators. Doing the leg work will ensure you will be able to target galleries more efficiently. It also ensures you walk in more prepared, confident (because you know something about the venue) and professional. First impressions are everything!
Now that you’ve found galleries suited to your particular work, don’t just then walk in off the street with your portfolio. Always set up an appointment. Walking in “cold” might give the impression you don’t value the curator’s time. They might have a hectic schedule and might not be able to fit you in the moment you walk in. They might be with a client. They might be out to lunch. They might be in the bathroom… Calling beforehand is a professional approach and shows the curators you appreciate their busy schedules (whether they’re busy or not!).
You’ve handpicked the right galleries. You’ve made your appointments. What should you have with you?
Well, obviously you should have your portfolio in hand – which you should be prepared to leave with the gallery. Your portfolio should consist of your resume, bio, business card and 8-10 prints of your work. You might choose to bring slides or a CD as well. Do have prints on hand though, they offer instant gratification for the gallery owner. Instead of holding a tiny slide up to the light and squinting to catch a glimpse of your super realist details or expressive mark making, they can admire a glossy high quality print of your offerings in all their glory. Make sure the images you present are of pieces you have available. If a curator falls in love with one of your pieces from a print it’s going to be somewhat embarrassing if you then tell them they cant have it because it’s been sold. Try and bring a few of your original pieces as well. Don’t bring too many though – gallery owners might not appreciate your tossing a stack of your work on the table in front of them. Bring 2 or 3 of your best pieces with you so they can see the real deal in real life.
What to wear?
Well, we artists do get away with more…shall I say…eccentric garb than any other “interviewee,” but that doesn’t mean we should walk in with a tie dye shirt and Swiss cheese jeans. Allow your personality to shine through your chosen outfit, but don’t be messy. You don’t need to be “stuffy” either, clad in a business suit and heals, though if that’s you, then by all means go for it. Point is? Don’t pretend. When you are uncomfortable it shows. Just be yourself. Dressing like “you” will help set you at ease and it will show through your interactions with the gallery owner / curator. When you’re at ease, they’re at ease.
Biggest thing to remember when speaking to a gallery owner?They’re people too. They understand you might be nervous. They don’t expect you to be super artist. The less pressure you put on yourself the more enjoyable the meeting will be for the both of you.
I did it! I got a show! Oh no. I got a show!
Breathe. It’s true the only thing more intimidating than approaching a gallery is putting on your first show. Be honest and ask questions. No one expects you to know everything. My first show I stumbled around like a bit of a fool during set up. Find out the procedure for hanging a show. Every gallery is different and you aren’t going to know if you don’t ask. Some galleries leave it to you to hang the work and present it. One show I had to bring all of the hardware, including a hammer. Others take your work and you don’t see them till the opening. The biggest issue is not being prepared – that’s why asking questions and being informed is imperative. You want to be able to work the room the day of the opening instead of running around, sweaty and defeated, trying to locate a missing hanger….
Although the prospect of talking up your work for a handful of hours might be slightly scary, this is your moment to shine! Take it all in. Get to know your prospective patrons. You can learn a lot from them. This is your chance to learn something about yourself, your work, your audience, and your chosen venue. It’s a marvelous adventure! Go for broke.
Though I don’t particularly recommend painting yourself up blue and purple and wearing a cape. That’s just weird.
Have you overcome an art career fear? Share your story in the comments.
Aja Apa-Soura, owner of Sagittarius Gallery, has been a fine artist since 1999. She has been selling her work online since 2003. As a member of the Etsy community, she’s known for helping new sellers find their footing.