Episode 15 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Interview – Betty Cuningham

The Interview – Betty Cuningham

Carey: I want to talk about your gallery and its history. What show do you have up now?

Cuningham: Right now we have Gordon Moore up. He’s an abstract painter. I’ve worked with him for a long time.

Carey: Rackstraw Downes is also someone you’ve been working with for a long time. Is that correct?

Cuningham: Since ’82, that’s when I had a gallery in the 70s and then I joined with Hirschl & Adler, and I had a couple kids. And Rackstraw was at Hirschl & Adler—he joined probably around the same time I did, probably ’82. And Philip Pearlstein and several others who I’ve worked with at Hirschl & Adler are also here.

Carey: So let’s go back a little bit to the beginning of the gallery because it seems there hasn’t been many galleries that have done such consistent shows for so long. What was it that got you involved in wanting to open a gallery in the first place in the seventies?

Cuningham: I guess I’ve always been interested in art and I was doing my masters in nineteenth century American art at Hunter and I switched to doing it on the attitude of collecting contemporary art upon the appointment of Henry Geldzahler. So I got involved with the contemporary field and I switched only because I was getting a museum credit at the same time I was getting my masters and they wanted me to do something about a museum. So I got my masters at Hunter which was just unbelievable because I had great people for my teachers, like Tony Smith was my painting instructor, and I had Leo Steinberg and Bill Reuben, Howard Davis. Davis was the renaissance scholar.

Carey: That’s incredible!

Cuningham: It is incredible because I was doing it at night. I was extremely lucky because I had been working in a law firm and I met this lawyer who said we had to save art in Europe which of course I was interested in because of the nineteenth century studies in art. All the professors at Hunter were interested in what was going on. The flood had hit Florence, Italy and I was over in Florence doing the publicity for them and got to work for some amazing renaissance scholars but at the same time, I’m still taking my masters. So I had a lot of things going on at the same time.

Carey: The flood seemed absolutely devastating. I remember seeing images of that, Renaissance paintings floating, an incredible amount of damage. That was emotionally overwhelming, those pictures I saw.

Cuningham: It was, it was. There was a wonderful film, I did not create it. I wasn’t part of it but I was responsible for moving this film which was a 35mm film narrated by Richard Burton. It was called Florence’s State of Destruction about the flood and was about what was going on. Foreign camps from American universities were over there putting talcum powder between the pages in the Bibliotheque nationale, working on the Cimabues and all these things.

Carey: What was the next step for you after that?

Cuningham: I moved back up here (New York City) because I wanted to get back to New York and I was very clear that I wanted to go for-profit, not nonprofit—not because I thought I’d make money, but because I thought I knew I had the energy to figure that out. I became a registrar at Marlborough for about a month and they hired me and I was only there three months until Jim Harris asked me to come down to work and that’s how I started out. Jim quit and Dave Hickey came in and Dave remained a good friend and we worked together and God knows what else hit but a lot of things hit. We had the blood show, we had so many things going on. About a year and a half later and I walked across the street and I said to a friend, “What am I gonna do?” and he said, “You’re moving upstairs.” So that’s what I did and I was there for a long time.

Carey: And moving upstairs means what exactly?

Cuningham: I had a gallery from 1972 to 1982.

Carey: So you’re just beginning. It wasn’t something you understood before and what was the blood show, was that Herman Nitsche?

Cuningham: Nitsche came to that, it was a John Freeman show. After that, I guess he continued his art somewhat but it was something that Jim Harris wanted to do. John Freeman brought in buckets of blood. Containers of blood from the stock yards in Chicago and he had catheters of blood. One of the catheters of blood exploded and it went through the floors. And it covered one person’s paintings, his name is Jerry Hunt. He’s a British painter. It covered his paintings and it covered the paintings of another artist, and meanwhile, Jim Harris has quit. There were horrible reactions including the health department and the editorial against us in the New York Times. And so those two artists really suffered a loss and oddly, Jerry Hunt did these paintings that were all white with very fine lines. He comes upstairs, I’m alone in the gallery. We have four floors. We had what turned into J Crew and then eventually the hotel and we had the next door space as well. And we had two basements. He comes out from the basement, his face is covered with blood. He’s crying and I think he’s like thirty-eight. He said he will have his representative call me about the loss of his paintings and I go downstairs and literally, the paintings were a gutter of blood. So we poured the blood into a tin can or a tin waste paper basket, it’s a really long story. Anyway, the bottom line is he goes back to London and his representative calls me and I pick up the phone and it’s a lot of talk, and I guess he was going to try to get some money back for Jerry Hunt and I don’t know what happened it was just like chaos. Anyway, I moved across the street and I took over the space.

Carey: How did that go? What was your first show then?

Cuningham: We called it Betty’s Bowling Alley, it was very narrow and it was just a funky little space and I showed five artists and then I went on and I showed some other people, we showed a lot of people. We had some good shows, mostly painting.

Carey: What are the years that we’re talking about here? This is 1972 until 1982, correct?

Cuningham: Yes.

Carey: So that’s a time of pivotal change in the art world. There are more galleries popping up in New York, it’s still a small art world, and its gathering place is the Broome Street Bar in SoHo. All these things were happening and then that’s moving into the eighties where there’s another shift, which is that the art market becomes something that it wasn’t before. How did you manage that shift in the growth of the art market so to speak?

Cuningham: I would give myself way too much credit for understanding what was going on. It’s very ironic because I think of myself as a pinball machine you know. I hit the side then I go the other direction, I hit the side then I go the other direction.

There was Robert and Ethel Scull who had been collecting works of art, and when the sale of their work came up, what happened in the world was that suddenly contemporary art became liquid. It was liquid money, you could invest in it. And you can get an instant return by putting it up at auction and that really changed the art world. I would like to say that I knew this was going to be the change in the art world. I didn’t have any idea. And I think that the Scull sale was the change. And then when that happened, people became more generally informed that art was an investment.

I remember the resentment of artists about auctions and how they were terrified to go there. It was like a meat factory, like selling a bull off the land or something, you know. None of them would show up for any of the auctions and then they would sometimes try to get another artist to buy something if it ever came up because if they get no bids it would not look good. But that was the beginning of what changed this into a money commodity which is really depersonalized. I mean that the individual artist became kind of lost, he became less important to the art world and the art became more important.

Carey: As the eighties moved forward, you continued to have exhibitions and were there noticeable changes in how they were being mounted or sold?

Cuningham: I think for me it was a change because I joined Hirschl & Adler and they were showing representational art, which is never shown, which is really ironic if you look at what I do today. I had mostly been involved with abstract things.

So when I went to Hirschl & Adler. I remember seeing some things on the wall—and I won’t name the artist, he’d kill me—and I thought, “Oh God, what is this all about.” But it was a very, very good thing for me because it really gave me something.

I had one child who was just born and I had another child when I was in Hirschl & Adler. We had some amazing shows and I was lucky to be part of them. At that time, I met Pearlstein and Rackstraw, whom I adore and they’re both really brilliant and they’re really stimulating to talk to about art and painting and they’re generous to talk to. They like other people’s work whether it’s like theirs or not.

And so I got to know a lot of these people and it made me realize how important it was for artists to do what they have to do rather than what is expected of them. It’s important that each person in the gallery has his own voice and that the gallery doesn’t reflect only one voice. And so what I try to think about is that mostly the artists in my gallery have a type of energy, an independence, and are risk takers. In other words, they’re willing to do something that the world doesn’t ask them to do. They’re going down their own path and I find that it’s absolutely super exciting.

Carey: Your current space in Chelsea is beautiful—how did you find the space?

Cuningham: I got this space with the help of some backing.I started this place in 2004 and we’re now at the end of our lease here so as of this moment, we’re negotiating my lease. [Gallery moved and is now located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.]

Carey: Is the pressure of sales changing the way art is handled?

Cuningham: I think the economic pressures make you make decisions that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. I don’t think it’s healthy for the market because it becomes, well, it becomes “What’s the easiest thing to sell?” I had a visitor to the gallery just the other day who said something to me which I really hadn’t thought about. He made a comment about one of the artists we now show, and he said, “You know, this will be worth more, you sell it at $35,000 but tomorrow it will be $135,000, and the next day it’ll be $150,000, or maybe it will be $250.000.” He only said that because of the Christopher Wool that just sold at a very high price.

I certainly don’t look to my market place and give them what they want. I mean people that come in and say, “Do you do something like flowers or something?” and I think, “God, that’s right, I don’t.”

Although I guess there’s a flower now and then. I think there is an art market and I think there is an art world. And the people on the outside are really interested and I think these kids that come in and enter art school are rightly being told how to manage their career. But maybe they should try to think about their work more.

Carey: Of course you’re right, perhaps artists are coming out of school thinking of the market and focusing on the market too much, which brings us to the last point—where does that leave artists today and how do they move into this new world that is so focused on the market and also has certain amount of pressure, as you were saying, and stay focused on their work?

Cuningham: I think there are a couple things. Years ago, we used to say, never give up your day job. Of course today it’s hard enough to get jobs—but anyway, that was one thing so that you can paint what you wanted to paint. You go to your studio and you have one side of the studio which is what the artist is trying to figure out, the excitement of what they want to do, experiments, and then you have the other side where the artist thinks, “This will sell.”

And I don’t mean that my artists say that to me, but one thing that came up recently—I was hanging a show here and the artist that I was showing was saying, “Why did you take all out of those works? I thought they were the most salable.” And I thought, “I didn’t think of that. I didn’t even think of that.”

But I’m thinking now what’s happening, and this is the younger artist who said this. I think now what’s happening is that the artist is also feeling this pressure that they have to fit in, which is a totally non-creative art point of view. But they feel that they have to, they need to.

First of all they have to pay the rent and that makes them suddenly realize that they have to be able to make this work and then their parents say, “Oh my God, don’t be an artist. If you are going to be an artist, you better do this.” So when a young group comes in here, students, I tell them never be afraid of what you’re going after. That would be the first thing. And never let anybody tell you you’re not going after the right thing in your painting. I mean let them tell you, but you know there’s a great story about Chuck Close who got told he wasn’t doing the right thing by Al Held. Al Held started painting on one of his paintings at Yale and Chuck never let Al Held come back into his studio. But a lot of kids at Yale get that, they start trying to paint like whoever was there.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with graduate school, but I do think that there’s something wrong with the emphasis on marketing and career, because, after all, painters should be doing what they really love and be excited by it, and they have to figure out how to pay their way in a very expensive world and still have the freedom to do what they really want do.

Carey: Do you often visit artists’ studios?

Cuningham: I find it really interesting, going to studio visits. If I understand it right away, OK, and if I don’t understand it, that’s more exciting.

Carey: Betty, thanks so much for talking with us today. What you just said was very powerful and it reminds me of what you said a little bit earlier in our talk around the time of Hirschl & Adler, when you were talking about the emotion of an artist being not so much part of a group or a trend in thinking. You didn’t use those words, but that they each kind of created their own sphere of thinking and it seems to me to be about artists’ choices as the opposite of what may be taught often in schools and MFA programs—which is that there’s a way to do things, a way to approach things, when in fact it should be the opposite.

Cuningham: Absolutely, and beyond that, I’ve often said that once a movement is named, whether it’s “pop art” or something else, it’s over.

Carey: Any advice to the artist reading this?

Cuningham: Just be yourself. I mean as a dealer, I hope I stay myself. No matter how big the space is or how small the space, I hope I stay myself. Never let the gallery be bigger than you are. Never let the person next to you tell you what to do. The truth of the matter is, Yale doesn’t make artists. They are who they are. That’s what I feel.

Carey: I know the question that everyone’s going to ask or think about. They’ll read this interview and think, “It’s wonderful. Betty sounds like a great person and that she would be a great gallery to be working with.” How do you handle artists being interested in talking to you or having a studio visit? What is your policy on that and how would you suggest to anyone who may be thinking after this interview of coming to see your shows and contacting you handle that situation?

Cuningham: Why am I in this business? Because I really do believe in artists and maybe if I were lucky, I would have been an artist myself, though I don’t think I would’ve been a good one. Right now we’re saying we’re not looking. So that would be the first thing to say, to tell you that I’m not looking. But the truth is I look all the time and I try to look and see things. But right now, my time is much more stretched out unfortunately, like everybody else.

What would I advise? I would go back to the other thing, get a day job. Do I think it’s important to live in New York? It’s nice to be available, because it really does make a difference if I have to go to a far off place to see an artist. But I don’t think it’s essential anymore and I’m not sure that New York is the center anymore. I think the center is in your studio.

That interview was a direct account of what one gallerist went through and is still going through in a very important gallery in New York City. I think the important points from what she said are the fact that she continues to look at art, even if she says she doesn’t. She also emphasizes a point that is often heard: be true to your art, because an artistic compromise is failure. I think it is worth noting how Cuningham saw the market and how her space is not just about making money, though she of course must pay the rent and survive.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 14 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Mid-Career Artists

Mid-Career Artists

I have interviewed many artists about how they got their first gallery and there is a very wide range of responses. I have interviewed emerging artists and artists that have major careers. If you are an artist that is already mid-career and had a gallery once, you may think that this is not the method for you. Perhaps it isn’t, but in all the research and interviews I have conducted there are not many options. Sometimes if there is a particular gallery you are interested in, you can see who the artists are that show there, and if you make friends with one artist, it is possible they can introduce you to the gallerist. However, introductions by artists are not always effective since the gallery owner may assume that the artists do not necessarily know what the vision of the gallery owner is or what sells. But connections have been made this way. It is not an easy task for the mid-career artist that once had a gallery but no longer does, because pride is often an issue. It is easy to think that you are above that kind of door-to-door asking.

When I was working with one mid-career artist who was in her early sixties, she told me she had not made art in several years due to life tragedies and wanted to get back in the scene but didn’t know anyone anymore. She did what I explained above, going to different galleries and she did in fact find a gallery and is now represented and having shows all over the world.

The lesson is that she also felt it was a daunting task, and was not the way she wanted to do it. But with practice she got what she wanted, and it helped that she was consciously upbeat when going into a gallery and her enthusiasm helped.

Let me share another case of an artist that did not work at all. She was also in her early sixties and living in the same city. She, too, had a career with one gallery for many years and then the gallerist closed her gallery and she had no where to turn, but kept painting for several years. No one came and knocked on her door asking for a show. So she asked me for help, and though I tried, I could not help her, and this is what happened.

Failure

First I suggested that she have an open studio and invite people on her mailing list from the past who might have been collectors to see her new work and rekindle relationships that could help her. She countered that writing to people would sound desperate, and she didn’t like the idea. As much as I tried to convince her that she needed to begin making relationships with people who liked her art from the past, she refused. I understand that everyone has different methods, so I let that go and suggested a different road. This time I suggested she walk into galleries and ask them if they look at the work of new artists. She said that was not for her. So then I suggested she just walk into galleries and write down the galleries that she felt would be a good fit for her work. She did do that. She also told me it was depressing to see all these artists showing work in galleries because it wasn’t good work for the most part. I understood her feelings, and we looked at her list and talked about methods to approach those galleries. She would not walk in again so we decided to send them letters instead, which she was also reluctant to do. In the end she sent emails and told me that no one had written back. I explained how to follow up, but she said she didn’t like the idea of chasing people. So we dropped that too for the moment.

I was trying to find a way she could meet people on her own, so I suggested going to openings and meeting people or finding poetry readings where I knew there would be people that would help her. In the end she said she didn’t have the time for that kind of thing.

I have a lot of success stories that I will tell throughout this book, but she was not one of them. I share it here so you don’t think that everyone I talk to succeeds (her art was excellent by the way). She did have collectors and a gallery in the past, but was now hindered by pride or other issues I could not penetrate. I am used to success when I work with artists so this was hard for me to see, but it is a reality that many artists must confront. I usually don’t see this kind of artist because when people come to me they are usually ready to take risks and go into areas outside their comfort zone.

Barriers and a Gallerist Interview

I am sure you see what her barriers were, and probably relate to aspects of them as well. However, there are always ways around situations like this if you are determined to find them, and next I will discuss blazing your own path, your own way, with your own gallery. But first, here is an interview with the legendary gallery Betty Cuningham in New York City. Cuningham not only explains how she operates, she gives us a concise history of the art world since the 1960s.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 13 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Small to Mid-size Fine Art Galleries

Small to Mid-size Fine Art Galleries

The galleries that are in the middle of this range are probably the ones you are looking for. These are the galleries with white walls, a largely empty space with a small desk in the corner for a receptionist, and art on the walls that does not have prices hanging from it, but instead, there is a price sheet at the desk.

These types of galleries also have a range in quality and ambition. They may all look similar and be in gallery districts or even in rural areas, but have different management policies. Again the idea of what “they” want doesn’t apply here because they are all run by different people who are making up the rules of their own business. So some of them will offer a contract while others will not, and some will be friendly and open to submissions while others will not be. The advantage to the “white box” gallery described here is that their primary business is selling art. There are no frames or posters or boutique items, they are simply selling art. That is something you generally want in a gallery. Of course, nonprofit galleries and museums are another story and generally do not sell work at all, as that is not their mission, but we talked about that in the previous chapter and will discuss it more later in the book.

If this is the type of gallery you want to pursue, then one thing to keep in mind is that it is ideal to have several galleries like this as opposed to one. Most galleries will sell some work some of the time. That means when you have a show with them your work may sell but probably not on a steady basis after your show. And even if the gallery represents you, that does not mean that they will sell your work on a regular basis, so if you have different galleries in different areas of one state or geographical area, you have a better chance at making a consistent income. Also, if one gallery closes, you are not out in the cold, and do not need to start looking for a gallery again. Most artists that are selling work on a regular basis are managing their work at several galleries.

The method for approaching galleries is something on which you will hear different opinions, which makes sense since there is nothing regulated or common in how they run their business. I have worked with many artists over the years and have seen many of them begin doing business with one or more galleries from start to finish. This is the method I would suggest.

Method for Approaching Galleries

Approaching a gallery with your work is now done with new technology and simple words. I would like to preface this by saying that when you approach a gallery, you are not concerned with whether or not they “like” your work. That is not the issue, and if you are bringing work to a gallery, you already know that it is good work. To ask a gallery if the work is good in some form or another is to prejudice how they will perceive you no matter what your work looks like. The reason is that when you ask a form of the question, “What do you think of my work?” it is similar to saying, how do I look? That question is so fraught with subjective assessment and awkward overtones that it would be hard to get a clear answer.

Rather than ever saying something like that, keep in mind you are trying to sell your work to the gallery, so they in turn can sell your work. Can you imagine a salesperson of any kind saying, “Do you think this is a good product?” Or being on a first date and saying, “Do you like me?” That would usually be awkward and would put the person in a difficult position. Instead, the attitude and approach you want to have is that you are looking to sell your work. You want to know if they are interested in selling it. This is the simple and straightforward way of doing just that.

The Question to Ask

You can walk into a gallery (the white box kind) and say to the person at the desk these exact words, “Do you look at the work of new artists?” In almost all cases, believe it or not, they will say “yes.” However, if their answer is no, then you can just say “thank you” and look around the gallery and leave. There is no harm in a “no” as it does not have anything to do with your work, it simply means they are not looking. The more popular response to the simple question, “Do you look at the work of new artists?” is “Yes.” I will give a case history in a moment, but let me explain the process in detail.

Asking at the Front Desk of a Gallery

If after asking that question above, the person at the desk says “Yes” then your response should be, “Who would I send work to?” Usually they will give you a name and an email. If they give you a name only or an email only, ask for the other so you have both. The final question to ask if it has not already been answered is, “How do they like to see work, JPEGs or a website?” The reason to ask this is that most galleries do not want a website, they want to see a few images attached to an email. The probable reason for this is that they can tell in just a few seconds of looking at three of your images if they can sell the work or not, and would then ask for more information if interested. If you follow this script repeatedly, I guarantee you will have many people saying yes, and then your next step is to email them and follow up.

There are a few other things that might happen in that first conversation when asking if they look at work or not. One is that you might be asking this question to the owner or director even though they look like they could be anyone sitting at that front desk. As is often the case, if the gallery is empty, that person might ask you what kind of work you do. You can then say what is that you do, and begin a conversation, then ask if they would like to see a sample of it? If they say yes, there are two preferred ways of showing work in this situation. One is a tablet like an iPad, the other is a decent size smartphone. Be prepared for this possibility.

The way to prepare is not to go onto your website and begin showing work because that can be problematic if there isn’t a good connection at that moment. I would suggest making a folder on your phone or tablet with six to ten images of work you think is your best. That way you can easily bring up the work and quickly look at images. By quickly I mean that they will take no time to load and appear, but take your time looking through them. As the first one comes up, say what the size and medium is and, if you can, describe the image itself or what your ideas were behind the work and wait for a response. The idea is to just show a few images and have a conversation and you will be able to tell right away if there is interest. You may be asked what the prices are and be ready to name a price. If you don’t name a price it is the sign of an amateur, so be sure to name a price even if you haven’t sold many in the past. And if there is indeed interest, get his or her card and say you will follow up.

The very important thing to remember about that last piece of advice is not to show work to someone who does not ask to see it. You could experiment and break this rule, but unless you are asked to show work I would suggest you do not offer. What you can normally expect is that when you ask if they look at the work of new artists, they will probably say yes, then ask how to send work and to whom, and get a card or write down the name and email of that person.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 12 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Galleries

Galleries

As a young artist in the New York art world, I asked many questions and got few answers from other artists and art administrators about access to the art world. I assumed it was impossible to get into unless you were “picked” by a curator or had a windfall of opportunity. This chapter will discuss phrases like what it means to be “discovered” and/or “chosen” by a gallery, as well as the notion of the “starving artist,” the “struggling artist,” and other catchwords and phrases that make success in the art world seem difficult or impossible.

Gallery Types and Tiers

I hear so many questions about how to get into galleries from artists: “What do they want to see?”; “How do they choose artists?”; “Do they want to see one body of work, or more?”; “How many images do they want to see?”; and the list goes on.

Galleries are a mystery to most artists, and there is definitely not a clear book of rules. However, if you look at the questions above, there is one flaw in how they are being asked. Artists tend to group all galleries together into a common or at least very similar institution. Thus the word “they” in all of those questions doesn’t really apply, because galleries have very little in common with each other as well as no standards of practice. Some galleries want contracts with artists, others refuse to sign contracts, some galleries want to see a consistent body of work, while others do not. In short, the word “they” does not apply to these questions because there is no “they”—all galleries are run according to different business models.

Top Tier Galleries

Consider the top tier galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner in New York City. Those two galleries as well as others like them (selling work for over $100,000) are not looking for artists at all, in the traditional sense. They do not review work. The way they find artists is by looking at other galleries that have hot artists and then stealing them! They are not in the business of taking any risk. It is the highest level of the art world, and they are like traders in fine antiquities; they know exactly what they want and pursue it. Every other level of the art world is accessible. Having said that, it is possible though not probable to be in one of those galleries under special circumstances. Perhaps you know one of these gallerists, or have a connection to them through a collector. It may be like trying to meet the Pope, but if you can get a meeting with someone like that, it is possible that you could make a proposal that is powerful enough to gain their interest. One possible proposal is that you want to stage a one-day event that you feel will garner tremendous press. Even though the gallery will probably not sell work on that day, if you convince them that it could generate a lot of attention, then it is indeed possibly valuable to the gallerist. That may be a long shot, but it is one way to achieve the impossible. If that succeeds, then you are getting the attention of that gallerist and a door may open.

Possibilities

Let’s look at galleries that are not top tier, where more possibilities lie. As I said earlier, there are no standards among galleries for the most part, because there is not a protocol that they need to abide by, unlike museums and nonprofits. I’m sure you have seen it yourself in the wide variety of galleries out there. There is the frame shop-gallery, that makes framing its main business but sells art on the side. Those galleries do not have traditional shows, the work just changes every so often on the walls. The frame-shop gallery is usually not pushing the sale of art, they are selling frames. Could you show in a gallery like this? Yes, probably. They do not want to see a body of work, or a philosophy, or a great idea for an event, they want to see art that can sell in their price range.

You can walk in to one of those places and simply ask who the owner is, or who is in charge of selling the art. Then you can ask if they would like to look at your art for selling in their shop. It is very straight forward, there is nothing you need to do but be confident and show your work—ideally work on paper or small canvases.

Commercial Galleries

Then there are galleries that sell everything from vintage posters to signed prints by Warhol and contemporary art as well, all jammed together on a wall. These galleries can be aggressive in their sales techniques, to the point of being tacky, but it works for them. This is probably not the kind of place you want to be in, unless you see art on the walls that is similar to yours. Like the framing shop, these owners are hard ball business people most likely, and if they like what you have, and they think they can sell it, then they will. No need to be shy here, just walk in and say that you have art you are interested in selling and you want to talk to the person that handles that.

You can show originals if they are small enough to carry, or images on an iPad or phone. Like all galleries, even the most commercial never buy art directly from you; they usually take it on consignment and take anywhere from a 10–50% commission. There are dozens of variations on this type of gallery, which is essentially a straight-forward store that also sells art.

There is no shame in selling art in these places, though it will not be a stepping stone to biennials and larger galleries in most cases.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 11 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Break Rules, Try Something Different

Images

Incidentally, I never showed any images in that first meeting. I could have brought some, but I thought it was better to focus on the ideas of what I was doing rather than images, and as you can see, that worked out fine. When I had the subsequent meeting with the chief curator, working out all the details, I brought one image of a rough mock-up. Truthfully, that image showed very little of anything, but that was intentional on my part, because I was not sure how the whole show would come together, and that image was obsessed over by the curators, who were trying to read more into it. Essentially what I did is something you can do—talk about your ideas and why they matter.

Your First Letter

In your initial letter to the curator you have chosen, I would write something that shows you know who they are. Mention a show they curated or something they have done and then explain that you would like to meet them and discuss a proposal. If they write back that they would like to see the proposal first, then send them a letter about your idea and be brief but ideally interesting and engaging so you get the meeting to explain more.

Break Rules, Try Something Different

That was how I did it and still do. My overall tone is always polite and persistent. I never get upset if turned down, and even when breaking the so-called “rules” of presentation, I do it politely, which has worked wonders for me.

The late James Lee Byars is an artist I admire, and he cameto New York City in his late twenties in the 1970s and wanted to meet Mark Rothko. He went to the Museum of Modern art and asked how this could be arranged. They could not meet his request, but he did meet a curator on that day named Dorothy Miller. He talked to her and must have had a strong yet effective way of talking since she later wrote about him that he had “certain very sound ideas about simplicity and directness, both in art and in living.”

Byars began writing her letters regularly, often enclosing small drawings. He asked her for a show, and was refused. Then he asked her to consider a show of his drawings in the emergency stairwell at the museum. As odd a request as that was, he was doing what I have been suggesting—get to know the curator, and know where you might actually have a chance of exhibiting, like a special project room, or an unused portion of the museum. He did get that show in the stairwell, and after his death there was an exhibit at MOMA that showcased his letters. Byars wrote his letters on shaped, textured, folded, or packaging paper. He often used different kinds and colors of tissue paper, and handmade Japanese paper.

Today this method would still be very effective in the age of email where so few people get letters that are handwritten. If you have a specific curator that you wanted to meet, this would be an effective way of reaching out and starting a relationship.

I often hear artists asking if there is a list of curators somewherethat they could send packets to in bulk. If there is such a list and you do such a thing, what could possibly be the result? Perhaps something will come of it, but you are not building a real relationship with someone, you are sending out work like it is a product to be picked in a multiple choice test. So consider something more rewarding, more intimate, and more satisfying, like writing real letters over time and developing relationships that will last.

One artist I was working with wrote a nice letter to another artist—James Turrell. Almost a year later he responded with a phone call and after that they began talking and texting. That is not uncommon. If you write a real letter that is from the heart, so to speak, it is likely you will get a response. Wouldn’t you write back to a nice letter that is thoughtful? Everything I advise in this book is essentially about creating lasting relationships that can benefit your career. It is what every artist that has achieved any level of success has. Your personality can enter into it, and you can be quirky as well, but always polite and respectful.

Next I will talk about galleries and will also feature an interview from a dealer that explains her history, the history of the art world, as well as how she likes to talk to artists. In her case, she favors artists who are their own character, who create their own world, and even those who are eccentric because that is interesting—as opposed to a straight, bland, and undermining question such as, “Do you like my work?”

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 10 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Exhibiting at a Museum

Exhibiting at a Museum

If you started with an educational proposal for a museum and produced that, it is a good way of getting to know the museum staff. Then the next step might be a curatorial proposal. That is, you want an exhibit of some kind. The first step is to determine which museum you are approaching (university or public) and then contact the museum by email and arrange a meeting with a curator. To make the meeting and get the curator’s email address and phone number, you must do some research. First, after deciding on the museum you will pursue, research their curatorial staff, and decide who you would like to talk to. Perhaps you want to talk to the chief curator of the museum. I would suggest that rather than talking to the top curator, you choose a lower level curator. The reason is that, in my experience, talking to the top curator, who is often very busy, is harder than doing the same with a new curator that is just starting at the museum or someone who does not have as demanding a role.

Writing to the Curator

So after careful research, write to the curator. If you don’t have the curator’s email, there is a fairly easy way to get it. All museums as well as most nonprofit institutions in general have the same format of email for all employees. You can easily see the format by seeing just one email address from the museum. If you can’t find one on their website, call the membership department and ask for information to be emailed to you and you will see the address of the person writing to you. The format will be something like, first initial, a period, then last name, at the name of the organization]. For example, using my name, that one would be b.carey@museum.org, or it could be something else, like brainardcarey@museum.org or brainard_c@museum.org—but whatever it is, that will be the format for every email address in the museum. So let’s say you find that it is first initial then last name at the museum name. All you need to do is know the curator’s name you are after. Let’s say the name is Susan James, then her email address is sjames@museum.org.

Now that you know how to get any curator’s email, it is time to write a letter to the curator that you think is not too busy at the institution that you are writing to. By busy, I mean what I said earlier—not the top curator, but someone who is newer or has less power and is not so sought after.

Also, think about where in the museum you could actually exhibit. If you have found a space that would be appropriate, meaning that you have seen other artists similar to yourself exhibit there, then that might be the place you are proposing. But be sure the spot in the museum actually shows contemporary work. When I proposed a show to the Whitney Museum in New York, it was for their Altria space. I emailed the curator of live events, someone who was new to the Whitney at the time and was not a star like the chief curators. In the letter I wrote to that curator, I asked for a meeting in the museum café for fifteen minutes to discuss a proposal. She agreed and we met. I had three proposals prepared, a small one, a medium one, and my ideal one—a very large installation that would use the entire Altria space.

When I sat down with the curator she asked me what I was up to, and I told her there were three projects (exhibits) that I wanted to have. After I explained the smallest one ( a group of prints) and what I thought it was about, I asked her if she knew of any appropriate venues for that. Then I paused. By asking her if she knew of a venue, I didn’t back her into a corner by asking about the museum—that way she could think about the possibilities she might know. After she gave me a few names of nonprofit institutions that I might propose to, I thanked her and we moved on to my second proposal, which was small sculptures and prints, and I asked her again if she knew of possible venues, and she again named a few. Then I told her about the dream project—a large installation with sculptural and architectural elements and explained that it would need at least five thousand square feet. I spoke with great enthusiasm about this idea. Again I asked if she knew of possible venues for this. Then she mentioned the Altria space and said the top curator might be interested, Shamim Momin. Then she told me she could mention it to Shamim, or I could send her something about it to pass along. When I got home I wrote up a description of it for her to pass to Ms. Momin, the Whitney curator of the Altria space. After several meetings with Ms. Momin, the show was on.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 9 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Proposing a Public Program to a Museum

Proposing a Public Program to a Museum

If you are interested in proposing a public project to a museum, I strongly encourage it, because it is a great way to get involved with a museum. You would be engaging the museum’s educational department, which is separate from the curatorial department as I said previously. Both are still under one roof and communicate with each other, so a gig in the educational department increases your visibility in general with the museum. It is also usually a paid gig. Here is how it could work.

First choose the museum you are interested in, preferably one fairly close to you, and look at their website to see how they describe their public programming. It is most likely a range of activities from museum tours to lectures, panel discussions, workshops for children and/or adults, and other educational possibilities. Those are in the range of what you can propose to the museum. That means that if you want to do a workshop or a lecture, look carefully at how the museum describes their current and previous workshops or lectures, because you want to propose one with similar language to what they are using on their website.

Your Proposal

When deciding what to propose a lecture or workshop about, first look into the museum’s future. See what exhibits the museum has going on in year from now, or at least six to eight months from now. Let’s say there are several exhibits, but one draws your attention—an exhibit of Surrealist drawings from the museum’s permanent collection. Let’s just say that peaks your interest. Now if you design a lecture, workshop, or another similar program, it could be designed to be offered during that exhibit of Surrealist drawings to support that show. Perhaps you became interested in that show because your photographs or paintings have often referenced Surrealist work. There should be some reason that you are interested in a particular show in the future of the museum. The next step is to describe your workshop, lecture, or seminar in the same way that the museum describes the same on their website.

In the example I am giving, perhaps you propose a workshop to students or adults using photography and dreams to help the participants make and understand Surrealist images. You could also propose a lecture as well, but personally, I like workshops because they are hands-on and you can choose whatever age-group you prefer.

Contacting the Museum

Now call up the museum and ask who is in charge of public programming in their educational department. You might be able to find that person’s name on the website as well. Once you have the person’s name, either email them or call and ask for their email address from the museum. In your letter explain that you would like to discuss a public program proposal that would coincide with a museum exhibit (state the date and name of that) in the future. Explain that you would like to meet with the person you are writing to about this. I would suggest a meeting in the museum café or something very close to the museum.

There are two advantages to doing this type of proposal. One is that it can turn into something enjoyable, and, as in the example, let’s say you did a workshop on creating Surrealist imagery, that might have something to do with your art, and it might stimulate your own process—and you will also get paid. The second advantage to doing this type of proposal is that if the museum accepts it and pays you, then you now have a relationship with the museum. You can propose more workshops in the future, and you will also have a chance to meet more museum staff including curators and will learn the details of how this museum operates and what the possibilities are for exhibiting there in the future.

Curatorial Department / Asking for a show

Regarding museums and other nonprofits, I have just written about getting your work potentially acquired by a museum, challenging nonprofits to be accountable, and proposing a workshop or lecture for a public education program at a museum, but we haven’t talked about proposing a show at a museum. Now I will tell you the method I would suggest for getting a show and the story of my own proposal and how it worked.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 8 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / How Museums Work

How Museums Work

Museums are nonprofit institutions that are regulated under strict tax guidelines from the government. In Europe it is very similar; they have to operate under a strict set of guidelines in order to maintain their tax-exempt status.

Unlike galleries, they are not free to choose how policies are interpreted and how they manage their staff and audience. As a nonprofit institution, their activities are a matter of public record and their mission is to serve the public—which of course is quite different than galleries, whose mission is simply to sell art. The essential mission of any museum and nonprofit is education. It is the education of the art-going public. These institutions are not there to judge or validate your art, they are there to potentially meet you and learn from you as an artist.

Exhibiting at a Museum

To have an exhibition at a museum requires an understanding of what exhibition spaces are available at museums. In most cases museums have a schedule that is booked for two to three years in advance. However, museums also have what they call “special project” spaces where shows can be installed and are sometimes more flexible spaces that are not booked years in advance. Research the museum(s) close to you carefully, and look at what their exhibition schedule has been like for the past year or so. You might find that they have mostly major artists being exhibited. But look carefully to see if they work with other spaces; sometimes it’s other nonprofits, sometimes it’s even commercial establishments who want to give part of their space to the museum for exhibiting artwork.

For example, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York generally exhibits major artists in its museum space. But for several years they were using the lobby of what is called the Altria, a space that is essentially a corporate building owned by Phillip Morris, the cigarette manufacturer. In agreement with the corporation and the owners of the building, the museum would mount different exhibits within this lobby space. The reason they did that was because it allowed them to have more flexibility in programming. They could have live events there as well as visual art exhibits. It allowed them to show the work of younger artists as well.

Most museums have something like the space at the Altria, but if not, it is possible to propose a collaboration if you are so inclined. For example, it is possible to suggest to the museum that they mount a show in collaboration with another institution. The lobbies of office buildings are one possibility, but there could be others. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art was asked if they wanted to collaborate with a nonprofit exhibition space in a former school called PS1. They did indeed collaborate with them because it gave them the ability to showcase new and emerging talent. After several years the museum entered into a full partnership with the former school, and now that alternative space is called MOMA PS1.

More details on exactly how to propose a show to a curator at a museum will be discussed right after I explain educational proposals in detail.

Public Education

Museums are always trying to expand their audience, so collaboration with other institutions is one way to do it. As I said, the mission of museums is to educate the public about the arts, and anyway they can accomplish that is of interest to the museum. That does not mean that they will partner with any alternative space, but it does mean that they might be interested.

In order to get the attention of a museum, besides wanting a work of yours bought by them, one way would be to propose an exhibit and explain its educational value. Galleries also want to educate the public to some degree; but it is important to understand that museums have a fundamentally different role, and that is to serve the public, whereas galleries can essentially do whatever they like and are not regulated by the government in any way. When a nonprofit institution or a museum receives tax-exempt status from the government, the guidelines are quite clear. In most cases, nonprofit status is given to institutions whose goal is primarily education, and moreover, there has to be a board of directors, as opposed to an individual, in charge. So the way a museum or nonprofit must be designed is to state their mission and what they are contributing in terms of education, and then they must assemble a board of directors, which will guide the museum and its policies. In most cases, that board of directors is composed of at least seven people who are also donors to the museum.

They are people who are interested in the arts, probably have art collections of their own, and believe in the power of art as an educational tool and as a cultural force. Again, this is very different than galleries which will be discussed in the next chapter.

One way to get involved with a museum is to propose something for their educational department. As opposed to their curatorial department which is focused on exhibits only, the educational department focuses on workshops and lectures for the public. If you have a question about exactly what this means, just go the website of your local museum and look for their “public programs” which will give you a list of events, workshops, and probably lectures for the public.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 7 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Museum Purchase

Museum Purchase

It happened shortly after I graduated college, and like the above example, I was a little green in many ways about how things worked. Now I would handle it very differently, but this case illustrates how a passionate and even an emotional response can get quite a bit accomplished sometimes.

I was just a few years out of college and had moved to Rhode Island. I went to the first museum I could find, which was a university museum, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, or RISD. I went to the front desk and asked if the museum ever bought the work of new artists, and they said, yes, sometimes. Then I asked who was responsible for that and they said different curators were responsible, depending on the medium. I was making monoprints at the time and they gave me the name of the print curator.

Meeting the Curator

I called the number on the card and the curator of prints answered. I explained I was a local artist and wanted to show her prints for possible acquisition. The curator was very polite and kind and told me to come down and show her my art. So we made a date and time and I brought a portfolio of several large monoprints that I was working on. She looked over the prints and we talked about the process and how the prints were made and she said she liked them very much and was interested—she said she’d like to hold on to three or four of them because she would like to have them for the museum and would contact me at a later date when a final decision was made. She said the price I asked was fine, which at that time was $1,500 for each 20 x 30 print.

The Decision

I received a call from the curator about two weeks later and she left a voicemail that thanked me for bringing the prints by, and then asked that I stop in to pick them up, that she didn’t have to be there as she’d left a note for me, and that the museum did not want to acquire the prints.

I was surprised, shocked, and saddened. I felt that she was going to buy the prints and perhaps I was being a little bit naïve but that was how I experienced the conversation—she seemed quite interested and I assumed that the museum would purchase the prints. I was torn about what to do and I thought I should just go down there and pick up the prints and get it over with, but at the same time I wanted to call the curator back and ask her what happened or at least tell her how I felt. So I decided to call the curator and I left a voicemail for her because she didn’t pick up the phone. In the voicemail I said I received her message and I was upset by her decision since I thought she was interested in the prints. I was saddened and frustrated that the museum decided not to acquire the prints because I had assumed by her interest in our conversation that the museum was indeed interested.

Decision Reversed

The next day I received a call from the curator that said she received my voice message and that she would like me to come down—she was sorry that I was disappointed. I returned to the museum and to my surprise she said she was purchasing the four prints for the price that I had asked.I was thrilled that she bought the prints, and it was trulyunexpected given her initial voicemail, but what it taught me was that everything is very personal—the curator took it personally that I voiced my dissatisfaction and that I was upset. As in many interpersonal relationships, when someone is upset the other person tries to make them happy or comfortable in some way because that’s what is comfortable for all of us. In this case, the curator of the museum acquired my prints based on my emotional response in part, and in the case of the nonprofit that I mentioned above, my sincere and emotional response about the management of the organization resulted in a paid position. To be clear, this is not the way I handle situations now, and as I write this it sounds to me like the passionate response of a very young artist; however, it illustrates a point that I think remains true no matter what your strategy is, which is that personal relationships carry an enormous amount of weight and sincerity communicates very clearly and directly.

Museum Meetings

Now that I have exhibited more and made much more work, my approach to museums is quite different and what I would recommend to artists in general would be quite different. I still think speaking your mind and being clear about how you feel is important, but now I see there are many other things at play and that there is a polite and professional way to have access to museum staff.

The museum staff at most major institutions is composed of people who either went to school for administrative management in nonprofit institutions or volunteers and people who are interested in the arts. The curators in most cases have degrees in art history as well as curatorial studies, and are sometimes artists as well.

In the case of the museum I mentioned, it was a college museum (RISD), and an important one. There are many college museums throughout the United States and the world that have wonderful collections and can be approached in a similar manner. You can simply ask at the front desk or call and talk to the curator who is in charge of acquiring prints, paintings, sculpture, or photographs—whatever it is that you make. Major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Guggenheim Museums around the world and other large scale museums can also be easily reached but maybe not quite as easily as the university museums.

For major museums you can still look at their staff and decide who is it that you want to meet. You may think that you want to meet the top curator of painting or sculpture, but that is usually the person that’s hardest to get in touch with. I would suggest meeting with a curator that is at a lower level—someone who is more accessible, like a curator of events or an assistant curator.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 6 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Museums and Nonprofit Institutions

Museums and Nonprofit Institutions

How do museums operate and what do they hide in terms of policy and access to artists?

In this chapter, I will discuss the public role of the museum and the ways in which an artist has access to the museum. How do museums and their staff work with artists? Do you need to be well-known to be in a museum? How do nonprofits work or residencies and cash grants—and is it competitive?

Museums are filled with public servants and you have a right to access and speak with staff in my opinion. That does not mean that you can be rude or arrogant, of course, but it does mean that the staff of a museum and a nonprofit institution in general should be accessible. If they are not accessible, I think you have the right to say so. I believe in fairness and access, and once I was tested and was surprised at what I found. Let me tell you the story of how I brought a non profit to its knees begging for my help! It’s an odd story that illustrates how much power an artist can have when dealing with institutions.

Manhattan

I have always applied to different residencies and awards and exhibits through nonprofit organizations in Manhattan, where I live. It is a competitive process, but not as competitive as you might think. For example, the Guggenheim Foundation, which gives grants of up to forty thousand dollars of unrestricted funds to artists, gets about eight hundred applicants a year for the fine arts category, and picks about thirty winners. Other organizations that are lesser known sometimes get more applicants. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council gives artists residencies (studios) every year, and last I checked has roughly three thousand applicants for about one hundred spots. That is about as competitive as it gets, but it is still not as tough as most top colleges, and this is New York, where there is a huge concentration of artists. Almost half of most application-oriented opportunities are dismissed because of a lack of material provided, so the odds are better that what they appear to be.

Confrontation

Once I applied for a grant from a nonprofit organization in New York that gave studio space and exhibition opportunities to artists. I had won the grant in the past with them, more than once. Then one day I wanted to call the director of the organization and talk to him about an idea I had for making their website look better. I went to their website to find his direct number or email. I was surprised to find out that there was not a listing for a contact for the director. I was surprised and called them to ask for his email or number and was told they do not give that out and he does not have a direct line. I was shocked because, in my view, here was an organization meant to serve artists and yet the director was so difficult to reach. I felt this was hypocritical and it got me upset and determined to not only access him but to tell him why I thought it was wrong to have no email address for him on the website.

The Email That Was Sent

Since I could not gain access to the person I wanted, I sent an email to the secretary whom I had called and asked her to pass the letter onto the director. In the subject I wrote “Critic of (organization name withheld).” That way, without opening the email, it could be easily seen that I was the equivalent of an unhappy customer. In the email I explained that I was very unhappy with how the organization was structured, and if they wanted to help artists, they needed to change a number of things, and I needed to talk to the director about this. I got a quick response from the director saying he was sorry I was unhappy and asked me what the problem was. I said I had to tell him in person. I said that because I felt the issue was personal, and that it was about a style of management, most likely his. I explained I wanted a meeting with him. He made a date to talk to me and I arrived in his office on time.

A Nervous Meeting

I was apprehensive before the meeting and wondered why I was being so confrontational, and what I had gotten myself into, but I said to myself that I believed in fairness and access to all artists and detested what I perceived as elitism in this organization. When I went to his office I found the entire staff of the organization was present, which took me by surprise. I shook the director’s hand and sat down. I told him this was a personal issue about management style and I didn’t think he would want the whole staff here for the conversation. He dismissed the staff and we were alone. I thanked him for the meeting and explained that I was upset by the lack of contact information for him personally. He said, “Is that all?” I said that was the main part, but that it started with how difficult their website was to navigate, and on a more personal note, how difficult he was to be access, which to me smacked of elitism, because this organization was here to serve artists, so how could they justify not being easily accessible? He got defensive, but was polite and savvy. He said that they were going through changes and he also thought the website was bad.

I countered that it was a deeper problem to resolve than website design, because the organization should give the overall impression of a welcome mat for artists. He listened to me and asked what they could do to change that. It caught me off guard to be asked for a solution, but I began to brainstorm. I said his own voice on the voicemail might help, and something that was truly friendly on the website that invited more people to interact. He said he thought those were good ideas and asked if I would help the organization, and he would pay me for my services. I accepted his offer, and was quite surprised at the result of the meeting.

Lesson Learned

That meeting taught me a few things about the world of nonprofit organizations which also applies to museums. The lesson for me was that everyone is accessible if asked the right questions, and in this case it was being a critic that drew attention and got me a meeting and a freelance job. Even a large retail business doesn’t want a vocal critic, so if you have an issue, the top employees and managers want to solve it before you make a publicity problem for them. In this case I was also paid to give them ideas for a better interaction with the public and artists in particular. I have rarely been so confrontational since then, but I haven’t had the need to do that very often. In the case I mentioned, my relationship continued to evolve with the organization in positive ways. I am not saying the way to access nonprofits and museums is through confrontation, but if it is necessary and you see something wrong, why not? After all, who else will bring light to an unjust process or even one that is just a bit arrogant? Next is a similar lesson with a museum that ended up with them buying one of my Artworks.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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