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.
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.