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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Episode 5 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Right Questions

Interviews

The interviews at the beginning of this book are a prime example of two major figures in the art world who aren’t pulling any punches and are saying truly useful things for artists. Conversely, the less accomplished the artist or administrator of whom you ask questions, the more likely you will get a response that is the opposite of helpful. It can be summed up in the paradigm of scarcity versus abundance: if you are afraid there will not be enough career opportunities for you, then you will think it is not helpful to share; and if you think there is plenty for you (as evidenced by success on your terms), then you will be happy to share knowledge and expertise. So perhaps the art world is seen as a mysterious place because many people in it do not understand what is happening there, and worse, they are insecure about the power of their artwork or their job, and thus they purposefully mystify a situation to feel more powerful.

It is a strange behavior, but a common one—when in doubt, act arrogant. It works on a superficial level, but soon it wears thin, and no level of arrogance can replace real knowledge and real connections with people who care about you and want to see your art career grow. As you search for answers and information, asking the right questions is important, as well as sensitivity and generosity.

The Right Questions

In most cases, if you ask a question very directly, after a few preliminary questions to break the ice, you can get almost any information you need. It is a technique used by people who are pros at asking questions, like Oprah or Barbara Walters. Their technique is to first build trust. Ask a few questions that are easy to answer and are genuine and sincere. Then slowly but directly move to the harder questions. In the case of major celebrity interviews, the celebrities are often well prepared to deflect a question, and it is usually asked again if it is not answered.

Raising Money

I once worked with an artist who also happened to be a private banker and owned several companies, but couldn’t get his art exhibited or sold. His job, not unlike some artists, was to raise money. Unlike artists, he raised money for companies that he thought needed more funds for research on scientific ideas he thought would be profitable. His job was to find people with money to invest and then “ask them the right questions.” The reason that he could not just tell them about the exciting research, and ask if they would be interested in investing, is that he would sound like every other person wanting money and it would not be persuasive enough. To improve his chances, his strategy was to ask the “right questions” and get the person he was after engaged in a conversation, thus building a relationship and giving him the opportunity to present his idea and ask for funding. Of course you are wondering what the right question is. That is the area where my client had to be creative. As a side note, I have to say working with this particular client taught me a lot about how creative the business world is, especially on the highest levels of financial engagement. For this particular man, the first step was not convincing the person he wants to meet to invest or watch his presentation, but to simply engage him in a conversation. As Dale Carnegie said, “You will make more friends in two months by taking an interest in someone then you will in two years by telling them to take an interest in you.”

The right questions tend to begin with what truly interests the person you are asking. The more research you do on them (via the web), the better prepared you are for developing the right questions.

Business World vs. Art World

Even though this person was in the high-level business world, it is no different for artists because it is not enough to just have great art, or a great business investment; you must also be able to engage a potential gallerist, curator, or art buyer with the right questions. We will get to those questions soon with specific samples, but it is up you and your personality to create questions that reflect who you are and what you want to accomplish. And it comes down to a personal style that is truly sincere when asking people questions about who they are and what they do.

I was working with a young emerging artist who would go around meeting gallerists and after asking about their gallery and what they did, he would go home and take notes about details—like the names of their children, favorite artists they mentioned, and other tidbits. Then when he would see them again at an opening he could say, “How are the twins?” and that got a very warm response indeed!

Am I Good Enough? Do You Like my Work?

The artist that I mentioned who was a successful business manwanted to exhibit and sell his work. He hired me as a mentor. At first the answer seemed obvious to me—if he applied his business skills to his art, he would be very successful. If he used his charm, his good questions, and his huge beautiful

Manhattan studio, he would get far. However, things did not progress that easily. He found many stumbling blocks in his way. When he had calls to make or galleries to visit, he often was too busy to do it. When he did meet people and introduced himself, it started off well, but he tended not to follow-up, and even when he did, rather than “asking the right questions” he would ask the person he was talking to if they liked his work.

They would not know what to say, and then he faltered and became less interested in networking. He would say, “I didn’t like their response, they didn’t seem to like my work enough.”

One reason is that the absolute wrong question to ask is,“Do you like my work?” Because it does not matter initially if the collector or gallerist likes your work, what matters is if they want to buy it or, in the case of a gallery, if they want to sell it. The other reason this man was retreating was that his self-esteem was getting lower every time he went out to meet people and didn’t get the answer he wanted. When I explained to him that he was getting in his own way, he recognized that and we worked hard to move through that by examining what he was doing and carefully changing the language he was using. Once he began asking the right questions, not the wrong ones, and presenting plans and ideas, his success grew dramatically.

Building Your Own Hurdles

What was he doing wrong? What did I mean when I said hewas getting in his own way? In that case I meant that although he was doing all the right things, he was undermining his potential success by self-sabotaging his situation. This is not uncommon for artists to do, or, for that matter, anyone to do, but it is particularly common with people in creative fields.

Unlike most jobs, being an artist means you have to believe in your own work, and you have to truly believe that it is good and worthwhile to pursue. In the case of the businessman, he seemed to have no doubt that his work was good, even great—but did he really believe that? I feel that he did not believe in his work entirely. In some respects, this is the job of the ego and how it gets in the way or helps. We all have doubts about one thing or another and sometimes, to compensate, we act as if we have no doubts at all, perhaps even acting arrogant in some way. That is natural,but can also be problematic because underneath what appears to be a confident ego is a doubt, a crack in the façade that is being generated, and when that is exposed we retreat. This is most likely familiar to the reader, if you are an artist. The businessman/artist was acting confident, but did not truly believe his work was valuable, unlike his belief in the companies he represented.

Personal Strategies

I have noticed a similar pattern with many artists that I work with. At first when I design a strategy with them to reach their goals, which may be getting a gallery show or a grant, everyone is excited and ready to do the work. As they put themselves out into the world, and begin to apply for grants or submit work to galleries or invite more people to their studios, inevitably it begins well—and then there is a rejection.

The rejection may be subtle, like an email or phone call not returned, or less subtle, like not getting the grant, or a gallery that says they are not interested at this time. This can cause a tailspin, and all the energy they had to go out into the world fades. If they were selling cupcakes they might not feel so bad, because sales involves rejection, any salesperson knows that, but in this case it is their own art and it is so closely associated with the artists’ personalities that the rejection is taken personally.

The crack is then revealed—you have a doubt—and the ego protests and fires back that there is no doubt, it is the gallerist that is wrong. The conclusion, even if not consciously revealed, is that the world is against you. You react so strongly because the mistake you made in thinking about yourself seems to have been revealed. That is a painful experience that everyone has felt. It is also a mistake in thinking, because the galleries and granting agencies are not rejecting you—it is not personal, and it is not a judgment on the quality of your art.

Confidence Game

Confidence is one of the more profound aspects of building your career; how do you get out of your own way? How do you shatter your own glass ceiling? It is an issue in practically all fields of commerce, and the methods to move forward and up in spite of yourself are various and often culturally-specific.

An artist’s worth in terms of prices that artwork has sold for, is a barometer of how the artist perceives the marketplace of art and their place in it. However, we have all seen artwork that you know to be substandard, fetch huge prices and vice versa, so there is something more at play in terms of how an artist prices their work and gains confidence. Consider the following case history of one artist I worked with.

Case History #1

Jim is an artist that made small paintings on wood panels.He worked at more than one job, working at a restaurant, at a bar, and as an artist’s assistant. He lived in a borough of New York City and found a gallery that sold his beautiful small paintings for about 1,200 each. The gallery would sell three or four a year, sometimes more, which made him happy at first, but was hardly a salary. He assumed the rate of sales would naturally increase. He would ask the gallery to raise the prices but they said customers wouldn’t pay anymore. The gallery began selling fewer paintings as time went on and Jim got frustrated. His jobs were not paying much and he moved back to his hometown in the Midwest. He felt that he had not “made it” in New York, and just wanted to live an easier life with his wife and children.

Bold Move

Back at home he became a carpenter’s helper. A friend came byand looked at his work and asked how much a small painting was that he had recently finished. He thought about the sales in New York and what he really wanted, and he thought about how good that little painting was, and he said confidently, “That painting is eight thousand dollars.” As he told me, he thought, “What do I have to lose?” The friend said he wanted to think about it, and thanked him. Jim assumed that was the end of the sale, especially since the friend did not have much money, but he felt good about saying what he thought it was worth.

A day later the friend came back and bought the paintings for the eight thousand dollars that was asked. That friend was not rich, and had to figure out how to get the money for something he really wanted. And if you really want something, you can usually find the money, even if it is by using a credit card or getting a loan or liquidating an asset. Isn’t that how so many go to college and afford new cars? In this specific case, the friend liquidated some of his retirement savings. Since then, Jim’s career has grown and his prices have not gone down. He does sell original wood block prints for under two hundred dollars, but the paintings remain the same price or higher. The turning point for Jim was not just raising his prices but feeling good about it. I often work with artists to raise their prices, but if the artist is not ready they will not do it. They might feel that they will lose customers or simply not make sales anymore, but unless you really want to change your prices, it won’t happen on its own. His old gallery would not raise the prices because they did not have the ability to sell at that range or the belief in his work. He had no choice but to leave that gallery.

Mystery

The game of selling art is not so mysterious, but our personal reasons for lacking confidence often are. As you read on, you will see various institutions and jobs within the art world deconstructed so you can navigate this world easier. There will also be more help in discovering and overcoming your own mysterious issues that come from unknown sources, but as sure as there are words on this page, your career can be remedied with patience and practice. The case I just mentioned was unique and special, just as yours is. What is not unique is a lack of confidence and overcoming it. Patience is needed because it doesn’t happen overnight, and practice is needed because it takes doing a task repeatedly to make it work and to believe in it—like raising your prices. In this case, practice comes in the form of asking multiple galleries over and over if they want to work with you.

One common myth that will be explored is the idea that a gallery can do it all for you and then you are set and sales will roll in. In reality, you do most of the work, because you do not want one gallery, you want several galleries representing your work in different states or countries. When you have several galleries selling your art, it is easier to actually make a living—whereas one gallery, even if it’s successful, can ruin your career if it closes. The mystery of the inner workings of sales is easy to dispel, but the hard work on your part comes in the form of building new relationships—and many of them. Museums are a world that seems inaccessible to most artists, and the hardest to break into, so next I will talk about exactly how to do that.

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 4 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Letters Not Answered

Letters Not Answered

Hopefully those interviews have lent some insight into the workings of the critic and the artist, and later in this book we will discuss more about what Currin said, but for the artists, the practical side—which this book is devoted to—may come down to something fairly mundane: like what happens when you send a curator (or any professional) a letter and he or she does not write back for over a week. On one hand this may seem simple—the curator doesn’t like your work—but on the other hand, there are many possible reasons for a lack of immediate response. However, there are two ways of looking at this example.

One is psychological, and the other is practical and professional.On the practical side, there is a professional way to handle this situation until you get a response of either yes or

On the psychological side, it is much more complex. When someone doesn’t respond, just like a date you may have had,we all begin to project our fears and insecurities onto what the silence means: “She or he doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like my work. She saw my Etsy page and was turned off. I knew I shouldn’t have made that page. I did something wrong.” We can all go on and on with reasons why we were given the cold shoulder. In this particular case, there are several things to consider.

Fear vs. Possible Realities

In a situation where we do not hear from someone, like a curator, the mysteries of the art world rise up. What does a curator want to hear anyway? To begin with, there are two aspects that must be considered carefully. One is the professional response and how to write to someone and follow up when you don’t hear from them. The other is the information you need to know about what the person you are writing to wants to hear and how to craft that letter. The minor aspects to consider, which can often be huge hurdles, are the psychological issues of what it means to reach your goals and also what it means to feel rejected or to simply be turned down. There is your own fear of rejection, and then there is what is actually happening on the other end of the equation, and the truth of what an unanswered letter means or does not mean.

Answers to Expect from this book

This book will discuss all of those issues and will explain how the various aspects of the art world work so that you will know how to approach galleries, museums, curators, and many other aspects that are new and growing.

Then there is the opposing strategy that is not about networking. Alternatives include the possibility of not having major shows but smaller ones, and perhaps being exposed online and finding awards, grants, residencies, and other ways of sharing your work without the prime directive of making a living or a serious income, but instead, just living the life of a professional artist supported by another job as well as supported by a community of artists and those who appreciate art.

Since networking is the focus of this book, not the option above, you will understand how to get a letter answered, how to make friends with curators, dealers, patrons, and more. You will read interviews with artists who have struggled and succeeded on their own terms, and you will hear directly from the gallerists and curators.

 

Chapter 2

Why So Mysterious?

I am an artist myself and have also worked with hundreds of artists over the past ten years through my online courses and mentoring with my website, www.theartworlddemystified.com. One of the questions I hear most often is, “Why is the art world so mysterious?” It is a question that is troubling to most artists and one that has no easy answer. However, we can ask the same question of other vocations or ways of living. For example, “Why is creating an online business so difficult?” or “Why is publishing a book fraught with defeat and rejection?” or “Why is life not more simple, more straight forward?” The truth is that it is not difficult to understand, just as starting a business or publishing a book is not as difficult as it seems when we are familiar with the process and the steps to take.

If you are reading this book, you probably know what the term “art world” means to you, but for the sake of everything I am about to write, it is worth defining. The “art world” is a relatively new term. Arthur Danto, the late art critic and philosopher, coined the term in 1964 in an essay in the Journal of Philosophy, where he was also defining what art mean—because at that time, with Andy Warhol making silk screens of soup labels that were considered art, many people began to wonder where art began and ended. You know what art is because you are more than likely an artist yourself—or as George Rickey, the sculptor, once said, “Art, my dear, is what I make.”

For the moment, that will suffice to define art, but the art world itself is another matter. The artists that I work with define it as the commercial as well as non-commercial aspects of exchanging artwork, and the entities and persons who represent and facilitate those exchanges. That means not only galleries, gallery owners, and other online sellers of artwork, but it includes perhaps most importantly the world of nonprofit institutions and exhibitions.

Those nonprofit exhibitions such as the Venice Biennial, where artists are chosen to represent their entire country with an exhibit, are a big part of the art world because it is a way for artists to become known internationally to all the other entities that sell art and write about it. The Venice Biennial is the pinnacle of artistic success in the world of nonprofits, but there are now biennials all over the world and art centers that allow artists to exhibit work that is most often chosen by a jury. Critics who write about art, including artist–critics, are also part of the art world because that is also how the work of an artist is spread far and wide. The two aspects of commercial sales and nonprofit exhibits contain the whole of what we now call the art world. This book will continue with defining those elements and how to interact with them.

My Career

I began my career as an artist when I graduated from college after studying art. I went to SUNY Purchase in New York, and it was during the graduation ceremony when I heard the artist George Rickey recite the quotation above—that the definition of art was simply the art that he made. As a young artist I loved hearing that because it gave me total freedom to make what I wanted and not to think of external validation. I also liked his humor and mild arrogance because he felt so secure about what he was doing. Like many artists I wanted to feel more secure about my work and direction in life.

Block Island

Then I moved to Block Island, a small community where I used to spend summers, and I opened a gallery and published a small magazine—knowing nothing about either industry, and without any financial backing (though I did learn to ask for donations, sell ads, raise money)—and also worked as a carpenter throughout the winter months. I learned a great deal by having a gallery and seeing things from the other side of the desk as artists gave me images and statements to review.

New York City

When I moved back to New York in the late nineties, I washungry to find a gallery or museum and get exhibited. I continued to do carpentry in New York City as a “handyman” to make a living. Every moment I had free I eagerly went to nonprofit spaces and asked artists and administrators of nonprofit spaces how it all worked. The answers I received were disappointing.

Even the nonprofit centers were very inarticulate about how to get a show. The general feeling I received was that it was difficult to nearly impossible to be an artist in New York City. Through my experience over the next ten years, I learned that this was not true at all, as I figured out how to get exhibited in galleries and even museums, and was invited to be in the Whitney Biennial a few years later. I also learned how to find and build relationships with patrons that supported my art. But why did I not get better information when I asked?

Information Deficit

The reason the information was not easy to get, I believe, was partly because of the egos involved in the art world. Also, it depends on how questions are phrased and asked. Now I have a radio show at Yale University and I interview artists who have represented their country in the Venice Biennial and asked them exactly how that happened and they explain it to I have gotten better at asking the exact questions I need answered. Also, when I talk to artists who have very satisfied egos (like the ones who make a full-time living off their work, or even the unknown artists who make a living online), they tend to be more generous with their knowledge because they generally know that there is plenty for everyone. By that I mean that when you ask people who work at nonprofit centers and who may be frustrated artists themselves, or when you ask artists who are just beginning to have some success in their careers, they are not yet feeling secure about their choices, and the response you will get when asking them about the process of success will probably be coming from a place of insecurity about their identity and they will give you a negative response or one that lacks sufficient information. Thus, the more accomplished and satisfied the professional is that you are talking to, the more likely it is that you will get a useful response.

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 3 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Interview

The Interview with John Currin

This an interview I did with John Currin, who is one of the most successful artists today, with paintings selling in the high six-figure range. He is a figurative painter, does not paint what is popular, and has not turned his practice into a more conceptual mode; he is simply making the paintings he wants to make and has met with criticism as well as great success with the subject matter he has chosen. In the interview with Robert Storr, when I mention this interview and how John Currin worked with his friends to build his career, Storr said his story was a common one—that is, gathering support from your peers can be a key to success and what it means to “network” within the art world.

Carey: You gave a lecture recently and talked about living in Hoboken when you graduated school. That’s where you had your first studio and were living, is that the case?

Currin: Yes, I was sharing it with Lisa Yuskavage and Matvey Levenstein. I think they hadn’t married yet but they were living together there, and they’re the ones who first got a place because I stuck around painting houses for a year. They moved out there. They had a room, so it got me out of New Haven, although it wasn’t exactly New York City, but I could see New York City from my studio so that was the good part and the bad part, I guess.

Carey: So you were you doing house painting—how did youget your first show? You’re an artist, you’re in Hoboken, you can see New York, what were you doing to try to get a show? How did the first one come about?

Currin: Well, I didn’t get a show when I was out there. Lisaand Matvey looked at my work and we kind of starved and starved and froze together there. All of my other friends had moved to Manhattan, to the Lower East Side and I was painting a house one day and, you know, literally had tears rolling down my cheeks on the top of the ladder. I’m thinking like, “What have I done? I’m such a loser.” I remember looking into a Village Voice and getting a sublet on Ludlow Street and when I moved there I was sort of hanging out with people and I guess maybe Julian Pretto, who was an art dealer, and he’s the first art dealer to come to my studio ever.

Carey: That was your first studio visit in Manhattan?

Currin: Yes, I think so, he came to my studio and I don’t know if he was interested or whatever but he told Bill Arning who was running White Columns to come over. So I got to sort of jump the line of kids waiting to have him come over and I got a show at White Columns.

Also, there was a kind of crummy gallery that took a bunch of my paintings, you now, the crummy Broadway gallery. And then when I got the thing at White Columns, Bill said, “I’ll give you a show at White Columns if you don’t do a show at that gallery.”

So my friend, Sean Landers, and I kind of did a commandor aid on the gallery, we just kind of showed up at the back of the gallery and broke into it and walked into the back and took all my paintings out. So that’s how I got my first show.

Carey: And you remember how Julian Pretto came to you at the studio? How were you getting people in the studio at that time?

Currin: I think probably because I was a good looking guy and Julian liked good looking guys. I mean, I think that was part of it and just being in the cohort of people that kind of knew him. You know, it was really just a kind of a social thing actually.

It was going to parties and going to openings and kind of standing around and hanging with your friends and then you end up knowing more and more people. Just kind of like that. I met Andrea Rosen at that time through that same circle of people.

Carey: So tell me a little bit about that, you had the show at White Column which was really your first show in the art world and that’s a great space. Bill Arning’s a really good guy. How did that show go? That was before you had any other gallery shows in the city, is that correct?

Currin: Yeah. I had been doing paintings, more joke paintings. Kind of all over the place and every painting in a different style and which—actually, it was kind of a good thing when I had that studio because it was entertaining, I think, for the people who came over just to see this kind of stupid, different, silly paintings—but actually when I got that show at White Columns, I decided to do like five paintings of the same style and those were those ones I did from my high school yearbook.

I kind of decided to play it really straight with those and just to see what would happen if I made kind of anonymous looking paintings rather than super goofy looking ones. They turned out to be more interesting, and weirder than anything I had been doing. I think they got noticed when I did that show—it was a great response and I sold them. I sold paintings. For the first time I started making a little bit of money.

Carey: You sold them through White Columns, which is kind of unusual because they don’t really sell work there, it’s a nonprofit space.

Currin: I think it was a place where younger collectors would go and buy things. It certainly got you exposed to art collectors. I think Andrea Rosen probably was helping. She didn’t have a gallery yet, but I think she sent people over and arranged a whole lot of sales. It was only five paintings, and they were really cheap, but it was probably her doing more than anything.

Carey: Somehow she was helping or suggesting to collectors to buy work there and White Columns wasn’t taking a percentage?

Currin: Well, no. I think they did take a commission. I can’t remember. It was like $1,300, you know what I mean. I was so excited to be selling something that it didn’t matter to me. Then I had a show about a year later at Andrea Rosen’s, and that went really well, too.

Carey: That was one of her first shows obviously.

Currin: She opened up in SoHo and started with Felix Gonzalez Torres, who immediately became a big star. That got the gallery a lot of attention and it meant that when I had a show there, it was a place people walked into. I started selling paintings and I could get off of the ladder and get out of the house painting jobs.

Carey: Can you tell me a little bit what a studio visit is like? When you had your first studio visit, how did that go? People are coming in now, looking at your work, that’s kind of difficult for a lot of artists. How did you manage that or handle that?

Currin: I would say that—to give a sort of plug to Yale—it helped for me to try to make funny paintings that would be easy to talk about, which I guess sounds cynical but it wasn’t. I enjoyed it. I wasn’t nervous about it. I think it was just because from just so much of the talk, talk, talk at Yale it seemed pretty easy. And I just felt really excited that somebody was there. I mean, I’ve had some studio visits that people just didn’t like, but see, again, after Yale I was used to that.

Carey: How did you manage that? That’s also an interesting thing to talk about because that’s difficult for artists. You do a studio visit, people don’t like the work.

Currin: Or worse, somebody buys, somebody takes something to their house—this happened once—somebody took a painting to their house and then called me like a week later and I had to go get it. They didn’t want it and I had to go up there and take a cab back with my painting in my lap. It was really humiliating but, you know, that didn’t happen that much.

One time I had to meet Andrea Rosen and this art collector for lunch, right around that time, in a really expensive restaurant. I was really excited to be taken to lunch by the collector and everything. It was a really expensive restaurant, and lunch was over and neither of them had a credit card and I had to pay. It was like a week’s earnings. I had to pay for the lunch! But generally there were no terrible experiences that way.

I was just happy to be an artist again, to have people, to have a studio, you know, such as it was. With a futon in the corner but people were coming to see work.

Carey: John, that’s an amazing story. They take you out to a beautiful lunch and they don’t have credit cards. How do you account for that?

Currin: You know even one of them was like, “I don’t carry any cash.” So it’s like, you know, but imagine it’s like the movie scene where the girl ends up doing porn or something instead of the modeling shoot and that was my really low-key version of that, I guess.

Carey: Were you showing with Andrea then or that was before that?

Currin: I don’t think I was officially showing with Andrea butI kind of was. Like—that’s another thing, it never was really like an official thing, it just sort of became the norm that I showed there.

Carey: So she never said to you at one point, “you are now represented,” or anything like that?

Currin: We were boyfriend and girlfriend for like a year and a half and so it kind of happened like that. Then we broke up but I still showed there. We were still friends and everything, so I kind of slept my way into the art world, I guess.

I imagine for young artists it’s a lot more official now when you get taken on or when you join a gallery. It’s kind of a big deal, but there really wasn’t anything official in any of my dealings, there wasn’t. Later on there was, but not then.

Carey: That sounds a bit official. The dealer became your girlfriend, right?

Currin: She wasn’t a dealer at the time but she became one—it’s more like she became my girlfriend and then, lucky for me, she became an art dealer with a really good gallery. So it was a lucky thing that way, but I knew her anyway.

Carey: You were out there looking for friends though, so to speak.

Currin: I’ll bet if you’re a pretty good artist, people are hungry for that, and if you sort of hang out and nurse your drink all night—I think it’s the way you get noticed—people will notice you if you’re good.

Carey: People also have to come to your studio first. So you’re nursing a drink all night—people are wondering where to go to nurse those drinks and who to invite to their studio. That’s kind of a key. I mean in a way things may happen naturally, socially, but you’re after something and you’re trying to go to places where there are interesting people to talk to.

Currin: Well, I also met a lot of different artists. That was another thing—that was most of what my studio was—there were just other artists coming over. They were my core group of friends that would come everyday because we all lived in the same neighborhood.

I kind of remember a guy named John who became a friend. He was a writer at the time for art magazines that don’t exist now, but he came over and then that’s probably how Julian Pretto came over, it was through John. Julian Prieto was the first real art dealer and he had a little gallery that showed a lot of young art. I never showed there but it was like you talked to people, and it was very casual, but it worked. I don’t want to make myself out to be like Patti Smith or something—“Oh yeah, me and Robert Mapplethorpe just sort of hung out at the Bottom Line and then I became a rock star.” It was a lot more casual.

Carey: It was your friends—a group of friends that were supporting you—but also you’re saying that still happens now. Going to openings and events and hanging out with people, talking to people and showing your work is still what it’s about really.

Currin: Yes, and your friends from school. They were the only people I knew in New York. That’s also actually how I got jobs. That’s how I initially got house painting jobs, was through the Yale network as well. The sculptors all became carpenters and the painters all became housepainters.

A girl who went to Yale with me, her husband turned out to be a contractor and I did a lot of plaster work with him, which was a big deal. It meant I could kind of work when I wanted to. I didn’t have to have a real job.

Carey: How do you see the world of artists now? It was a different world when you were entering into it. Now with online and social networking, do you think there’s more advantages to artists reaching out and meeting collectors?

Currin: I don’t really know. It’s so much bigger now than when I started—that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. I think it’s harder to hang out and develop in kind of secrecy. So if you’re thirty or thirty-two, I think there’s much moreon people to try to make it very quickly. And it’s so much more expensive that they do need to make it more quickly. You’ll starve if you hang out in New York without a way to make money.

There are probably five times as many galleries as there were then, maybe ten times. The other thing is that right around that time, there was a big crash right when I started into the art world. When Saddam invaded Kuwait and all the galleries closed in like two weeks. It was really amazing. They all just shut down especially all the galleries who’d been showing young people. It just got real quiet for like three or four years. That’s another aspect of when I was young, I guess. I was very lucky to have Andrea through that time.

Carey: Right, because it’s similar now in some ways. I mean there was a crash, things are coming back, but artists are grappling with an economic tightening in New York. It’s more expensive to rent space in New York but I think many opportunities and, certainly, some of what you’re talking about is possible.

To conclude, is there something that you want to say to artists that are out there? Some of them have been out of school for several years, some not; some living in New York, some aren’t.

Currin: I think the most important thing is in a way what people say, “Oh, it’s who you know. It’s who you know.” Well, it is who you know because that’s what’s going to make you a better artist, having friends that are interested in what you do.

I think it’s very important for people to work at their art—even if they have a job, to work at night. And try not to get too wrapped up in your day job—try to stay full of shit in your day job and full of ambition and seriousness about painting.

It’s a very daunting and a hard thing to enter the art world in New York but it can be done. The most important thing is your friends, really, it is the other artists you know. That’s more important than knowing collectors and art dealers because if you have a group of people that push you, you’ll get noticed no matter what.

Carey: That’s a really great point. Some people separate from their friends after school, some people don’t, but you’re saying to cultivate that, to keep those friends together and to keep visiting everybody’s studios. Is that what you’re saying?

Currin: What I mean is friendship based on being ambitious—don’t feel bad about being ambitious and wanting to be successful and a famous artist. That’s the whole point. You should want that. There’s no real point in moving to New York if you don’t want that. Having a group of friends who are also ambitious and also struggling is incredibly important, I think, psychologically and emotionally, to make it in New York.

I know I’m sort of talking only about money and making it but that’s all I thought about when I moved here. It was, “How the hell can I do this? How can I not sink?”

That interview of John Currin was one of the interviews that I think most clearly lays out the steps for an artist on his or her path and how you can go from a housepainter to one of the best-selling painters in the world. The details are all at the beginning. He moved to place where he could meet more people and he was not afraid of being ambitious and wanting a lot. By talking to people, going to galleries, and getting small shows in nonprofit spaces, he was noticed and then got the exhibits he needed. It couldn’t be clearer as to the path an artist can take, but the variables are in the relationships that you make by hanging out in galleries and even bars, as he says, while nursing a drink all night.

You could say there is an element of luck involved, but that luck was created by being in places where new relationships could start. It is also the case study that proves what Robert Storr was saying in his interview about the importance of friends in your success. The networking that John Currin was doing paid off.

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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