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?”