Episode 22 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The quote from Beuys

One example of an embellishment would be to tell a personal story and add more drama to it, maybe even something incredulous. Joseph Beuys is a well-known pioneer of conceptual art, and he wrote an artist’s statement worthy of revisiting. I have used this example before concerning artists’ statements, but I reprint here to compare it to Duchamp, whom I have not written about before.

The quote from Beuys is as follows:

“Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts, and favoured neither side. I had already struck up a good relationship with them, and often wandered off to sit with them. ‘Du nix njemcky,’ they would say, ‘du Tartar,’ and try to persuade me to join their clan. Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet, it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness.

The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in—I always preferred free movement to safety belts . . . My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact—there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying ‘Voda’ (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat, and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.”

It is a wonderful story, isn’t it? But it never happened. Perhapsit is not a “wonderful story” but a memorable one, and helped people to understand his work and turn him into the cult figure he became. But now I want to compare that to Marcel Duchamp and Chris Burden, both legendary artists, now deceased.

Marcel Duchamp was a highly intelligent man, a chess master at a young age and an avid reader of mathematical theories. He felt that in general, what he called “retinal” art was art that was seen with the eyes and was dull in that respect, because the eyes were so easily tricked, as was the mind. As his work is revisited and reevaluated, he begins to have things in common with Beuys, especially telling half-truths or total falsities in order to engage, mystify, and create a cult of himself. He often made works that he said were ready-mades, as if he took them off the shelf and just exhibited them, but on further investigation, he altered almost every object he showed, though it was not always apparent. Rhonda Roland Shearer, a Duchamp collector and art historian, first explained this to me.

She had numerous examples of his art in her collection to show that what Duchamp said the artwork was, it in fact was not, but everyone believed him nonetheless. One example will suffice. In one work called 3 Standard Stoppages, Duchamp dropped three one meter threads, he said, and preserved their shape in glass and wood. It sounds simple enough, and who would investigate this? But historians have, and those three lengths were of different sizes, and not equal in length as he said. The reason this is important, is that long after his death, people are still debating about why he would say one thing and do another. Not unlike Beuys, he was creating a mystery that would survive long after his death.

Chris Burden is a sculptor that died in 2015. One of his mythic performances of the seventies was when he had himself nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen, crucified in fact by driving nails through his hands and into the car’s roof. There are images of this, but it is hard to see the actual nails going through his hands, though most people believe it happened. There are images of him on the car in black and white and though it looks like he is crucified on there and it is a memorable image, it is hard to see the details. But we will never know if it actually happened. Burden, like Beuys and Duchamp is a cult-like figure whose following hinged on mysteries like this that have taken on historical significance.

These may or may not be things you want to try. I would not suggest you crucify yourself! But there are ways of creating mystery and a lasting impression that may fall somewhere between Basquiat, Beuys, and Duchamp. I know it seems bold and even unethical to some to use this type of technique, but it also is effective marketing. There are YouTube videos using a similar technique all the time.

Have you ever seen the video of the cell phones placed ona table near kernels of popping corn? The video shows the phones ringing at once and then the kernels pop. It is an illustration to show how cell phones emit radiation strong enough to pop popcorn. It also went viral and was completely fake. Another video was made to show how it was done, resulting in yet another popular video.

I make the comparison between high and low (Duchamp versus popcorn video) because similar tactics are used no matter what the content is. There are more ways to create a mystery, so next I will talk about a type that involves less gray area than these examples of half-truths.

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 21 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Whitney Biennial

The Reaction

That was long enough and probably filled with so much information that was so personal in some parts, that either the curator skimmed through it or decided that based on our conversation and work she had seen that she either liked us or not. It is an example of simply not giving away all your information in a resumé. The curator did call a few weeks later and invited us to be part of the Whitney Biennial, which was indeed a glorious moment in our careers and lives.

You may be wondering if you should have your resumé on your website now, or if you should be giving it out so easily. In general, I think it is not needed on a website because all that information is not called for when evaluating art. You can always say that your CV or resumé is available upon request. Again, think of dating websites. Are there résumés on there? You might want to know if they have been divorced before or how much they earn a year, which is exactly why that information is left out. Instead, you have room to describe yourself in a way that sounds charming and will attract the right type of person without revealing details.

The same is true for presenting yourself on the web. Why give away so much information? Isn’t it enough that visitors can see you make beautiful art? If they want to know if you went to Yale or a community college, they can ask. Like dating, you want to generate interest—questions can be asked later. Of course you can adjust this idea to suit your needs, but keep in mind that the less you say is to your advantage, because, after all, you are a visual artist.

One thing you can post is a short biography if you are feeling that you must say something. I would avoid an artist statement as that is problematic, but I will talk later in the book about that. For a brief biography, consider the form that authors use. On most book jackets there is a brief biography about the author. That is a wonderful form for an artist to use. It is usually less than two paragraphs and can either be very straight or laced with humor. It is enough to give a potential fan of the author enough information to understand where they are coming from in general terms.

Other Forms of Generating Mystery

While I do not want to overuse the online dating format, it is important to note that there are many things you can say about yourself that are half-truths that can generate a powerful response. It can of course be as creative as you like, and ideally something you can follow through on in person.

Other forms of creating a mystery can be more deliberate. Graffiti artists have practically made a recipe out of this that takes different forms. The well-known artist Banksy has made a career of not revealing his identity, which helped to generate interest, especially as his work began popping up everywhere as graffiti in public places. After he had already achieved fame, in 2013 he came to New York City and among other public murals, he had a vendor in Central Park selling his work from a stand for about sixty dollars a drawing. It was not announced, and no one knew if it was by Banksy for sure. Later it was announced through a press release that the drawings the vendor sold were indeed by Banksy and that very few people bought them even though there were worth ten times what they were being sold for! That is a good example of how a mystery can also be a media coup.

Other graffiti artists have done the same thing with their own twist. When the late Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career in New York City as a graffiti artist, his images were themselves mysteries, like a rebus puzzle that you couldn’t figure out. As they appeared in different places, it stood out. The late graffiti artist Keith Haring did something similar with his graffiti, for which he also became a famous contemporary artist, much like Basquiat.

The idea of doing something that is out of the ordinary of what we might expect is a way of generating mystery and drawing attention to something. The graffiti artists I just mentioned did that, but so did Andy Warhol and others. Memory experts say that it is easier to remember something when it is odd, or out of the ordinary scheme of things.

That technique has been employed by artists as I have mentioned, but there are innumerable ways of interpreting that. The latest trend in making YouTube videos memorable, it to use odd non sequiturs or strange cuts. I was just watching a video of one business coach who is using this technique. She is talking about time management and saying what most people say about it—make blocks of time available in your calendar, and make to-do lists. She also said to remember that time is on your side, as opposed to the opposite. The talk might not have been so interesting if she hadn’t cut to funny illustrations. When talking about time, she cuts to a quick clip of her singing with friends, “time, ah, ah, ah, is on your side, yes it is,” and it caught my attention. This is not directly creating a mystery, but it is creating a memorable impression that has little to do with content, and more to do with delivery and humor.

Artists have also simply made up stories entirely! Events that never took place, relationships that never happened, accidents that never occurred. There are also embellishments—perhaps the event was real, but it becomes exaggerated and made into something much larger.

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 20 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Erased Biographies of Praxis

These are the biographies that were sent to the curator who ultimately chose Praxis (my wife and I) to be in the biennial. We choose this title the document this way since we had already said we did not believe in the past:

The Erased Biographies of Praxis (partially recovered from a damaged hard drive)

Delia Bajo was born in Madrid, Spain in 1974. Her mother was (is) a dancer and a psychic and her father an airline engineer. The last daughter of six children, she came of age in the post-Franco Spain.

She began studying Ballet at the age of three and continued to practice through her adolescence. Attending Catholic schools, she was known as a rebel, challenging authority and asking too many questions. At ten years old, she asked why the Pope was wearing so many rings and surrounded with such luxury if he was trying to emulate the life of Jesus.

She was an undergraduate at Escuela Superior de Artesy Espectaculos. She studied acting in Spain under various mentors and began working in experimental theater. Some of the theater groups she worked with include, Grupos Oscuro, Compañia de Teatro Tierra, and Gran Teatro de Ayer.

At twelve she began meditating on a regular basis and reading philosophy to move herself into a world that she found more peaceful. Developing a love for all animals she also became a vegan and adopted numerous cats.

In 1995, she moved to New York City to live and work. Her first job as a waitress in a restaurant didn’t last long because her English wasn’t fluent and she asked all her customers to write down their order, which she would hand to the chef. She studied theater at the Raul Julia Training Unit and continued her focus on it, while making a living as a lounge singer and dancer.

Performing her compositions unscheduled on the street became some of her first “actions,” which would lead to more street performances that she did alone. Composing “Symphonic Flamenco” music became a passion for her as she began collaborating with other artists. 

Moving into a larger studio so she could work more on paintings, her work began to incorporate various media creating “theatrical” installations.

Viewing all her work as “in progress” she did not pursue gallery representation. Rather, she viewed her processes as hermetic and wanted to safeguard them as well as let new ideas germinate freely.

Her sister had also moved to New York City and together they began designing avant garde clothes under the label of Elena Bajo. Delia helped organize and create elaborate multi-media runway shows and always performed in them. The clothing line became successful and the shows received much press attention. Throughout this period she would often draw portraits of subway passengers and sketch intensely in public. She began to write about all the behavior she was witnessing and combined it with her drawings. This was the beginning of what she would later call her “Sangré Period.”

In the spring of 1999 she met Brainard Carey and almost immediately began performing with him in the streets as well as at other venues.

As their work and lives began evolving together, she devoted herself entirely to developing a new language for communications. This meant reading about gestures and languages from cultures all over the world to improvisational experiments that helped her create a new way of understanding body language through intuitive and analytical processes.

In the last three years she has continued her collaboration with Brainard Carey creating Praxis and performing extensively on the street as well as in their studio.

Brainard Carey was born in Manhattan in 1968. His father is a composer as well as a doctor in music. His mother is a musician and teacher. He was the third and last child.

As a young child, some of his favorite pastimes were talking to himself and his secret friend, following around his older brother hoping for a ride on his go-cart, and taunting his older sister in various ways. His older brother died at fifteen years of age when Brainard was seven years old. This death had a profound impact on him that would manifest itself in artwork later in life.

Attending an alternative high school which taught a process of learning without classrooms, he began to explore bookmaking and photography.

Upon graduation, he attended SUNY Purchase for undergraduate work. There he created a multidisciplinary degree. He wrote a thesis on the homeless in NYC, which included a participant study of the homeless whom he lived among for two weeks. The sociology department was Marxist and this formed the basis of his critical thinking. He also wrote a second thesis on performance art which included a video of several performances he did as a student as well as paintings that were used during the performances. He worked with Antonio Frasconi and created many artist books at that time.

He performed and acted as God Killing Himself (star) in the cult film Begotten by Elias Merhige, who was also the director of the recent Shadow of the Vampire. He moved to Block Island, RI. There he founded a small gallery and began publishing a magazine and also created a lecture series focusing on freedom of expression. He did a collaborative text installation with the poet and priest Daniel Berrigan.

The magazine became a cultural examiner. That is, by exploring through texts and photographs he continually pursued the documenting of the community he was living within. The gallery was an anachronism in a community that had never seen installations or performance, nor cared much for them.

He photographed several performances he executed in private. Most notably, in Burial, he self-documented himself burying objects all over the island.

On Block Island he completed two major projects. The first was a series of cement tablets which he poured every week for five years. He would invite anyone from the community to come down to his studio and after a short period of unguided silence all present could write whatever they wished in the fresh tablets using a nail. When the tablets dried, he arranged them in a rough wall shape that began winding over hills and through fields. In all, approximately one thousand tablets were poured.

The other major project was the hand copying of theBook of Job. Making a unique edition of one, he used ink and a seagull feather he hand cut to transcribe twenty-eight lines a day. This project took eighteen months to complete. It was exhibited at Granary Books in NYC, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and is now being showcased in a collector’s home. This projects received much press attention including the NY Times as well as magazine features.

Both projects and Burial were emblematic of his dualistic approach; social and interactive as well as hermetic and meditative. At this time he also developed a language and an invented alphabet. With a look similar to Arabic cursive writing, he would create large canvases which resembled book pages which he never translated to the public. Scrolls of this new text were also made. In several performances at alternative spaces in and around the New York area, he would read from these scrolls to audiences creating sounds that made a new context for the language, but still did not translate the texts literally.

In NYC in 1997 he created Radical Anxiety Termination in his 10th Street studio with DJ Olive. RAT was a monthly event that allowed passerby to play with turntables with a limited amount of records in a temporary installation. These events were all recorded creating social soundscapes. The sounds of these “amateur DJs” made a compilation that among other things questioned the “skills” of DJ culture and illustrated the freshness of “beginner’s mind.”

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 19 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Myth-Making Basics

Myth-Making Basics

This chapter will discuss how artists as well as curators create mystery around their work and projects so that it intrigues and engages the viewer.

Historically, this is what artists have done for ages to create interest in their work, and you will learn how to do this yourself, in your own words, so that you can add mystery in a meaningful way. Mystery may mean simply that you have a truly interesting idea or way of working, or that there is a lingering question about whether or not something actually happened.

I say all of that with a smile, because as much as it seems the art world is “mysterious” and this book is meant to “demystify,” I believe that sincerity is always the best policy in business relationships like working with a gallery or museum, or presenting your ideas. Nevertheless, there is a place for mystery, and it can be done in very creative ways. Allow me to use the example of a relationship between a man and a woman.

Initially, while courting each other, the man and woman do not want to reveal everything about themselves. It would be “too much information” and a turn off in most cases. So instead of going through their resumés of past relationships and family life and what they do for a living, they talk about something else. That “something else” is what builds your personal mystery and makes you potentially attractive.

Of course this is about your personality and style. So if we stay with the dating analogy for a little longer, how would you spin a little mystery without divulging all? Perhaps you would tell a story, or even better, ask questions. If you tell stories, they should be brief since this is a conversation, not a lecture. Maybe a story you tell will be about something funny that happened to you yesterday. In the telling of it, you are giving details about who you are by the way you deliver the story, and the observations you make point to what is important to you and how you see the world. If it is an entertaining story that makes someone laugh, it is immediately attractive because laughter puts us at ease and we let our guard down.

The other method is to ask questions of the person you are dating. The questions do not have to be about who they are or what they do, but could be more philosophical questions about life, or about the origin of language or anything you are interested in. The notion of asking questions creates a mystery and an interest in who you are. Because when you ask questions, the other person must answer or at least think about those questions. It moves the conversation and the relationship into a mutual territory where ideas are shared instead of personal information. In a sense, the ideas you are sharing with each other carry hints of your personal preferences and interests, but not directly.

This is also true of presenting yourself as an artist and creating a mystery. When I was writing letters to museums and the Whitney Biennial curator asked for an interview, she said to bring a resumé. Instead of bringing a resumé, I went empty-handed. Part of the reason I didn’t bring a resumé was because I did not want her to know all about my past. It wasn’t that glorious, and I wasn’t represented by a gallery though I had owned a gallery for several years. At the interview my wife and I were both asked to attend since we work as a collaborative, the curator asked for our resumés, and when we said we didn’t bring them, she asked about our past.

The reply we thought of in advance was that we would tell her we didn’t believe in the past, and that we were only looking to the future. We told her this and she smiled and was also probably a bit frustrated. This was a big interview, and I knew it could be the show of a lifetime. The truth is that my wife and I are very sincere and straight-forward people. We do not appear arrogant to most people and will easily give the details of a situation if asked. However, we were being calculating in this instance, even mystifying by not revealing our past. Just as in the dating analogy—you might not want to explain all your past relationships—we did not want to talk about past shows, largely because we didn’t have too many of them.

The curator asked us different things about how we made art together and how we started this project, which we answered in a very straight-forward way. But by not revealing our past or discussing it, there was a mystery in the air about who we were and where we came from.

At the time we were living in New York City and the last thing I wanted to say was that I was on Block Island for several years where I owned a gallery and frequently gave myself shows. In retrospect, if I was doing this today, that might be a good thing to say because galleries in urban areas curated by artists are in vogue now. As the conversation progressed and we avoided talking about our past, she ended the interview by handing us her card and saying to keep in touch, and if we could send her something (with a tone of exasperation) about our past, such as universities we have attended, she would appreciate it.

We left feeling excited and nervous, but had to think of how to respond to the question asking us about our past. Do we just give her a resumé? We decided to write something that was not a resumé but more of a biography. What we sent is below, and though it is all true, it is our interpretation of events and presents our life and work in an unconventional format.

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 18 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Print Sales and Pricing Techniques

Print Sales and Pricing Techniques

To continue with the Peter Lik story, he has several galleries operating: twelve in total as of this writing in 2016. What he did and still does, is hire a sales team that he trains to sell his work. Since everything he does is photography in limited editions, he used a system that galleries have been using for years. If an artist creates a photograph or any work on paper for that matter, they are usually in limited editions of seven or twenty-five or a number that is determined by the artist depending on the process for printing. In most higher-end galleries there is tiered or “elevator” pricing, which means that if a photograph is made in an edition of seven, the price increases as the photo sells.

For example, if the photograph starts at five hundred forthe first print in the edition, the second one might be six hundred and the third seven hundred until the last print is more than double the price of the first. All the prints are virtually identical, but the reason that the pricing goes up is carefully calculated. In one sense, the buyer who is first, is taking the biggest risk—he or she does not know if this will be a popular print or an investment, so they get the bonus of a lower price for taking a risk and being the first. The second buyer still gets it for less than the rest of the buyers, but the last buyer of the edition pays the most because they are taking the least risk of all and are jumping on a bandwagon that is already rolling, so to speak.

The reason this sale is effective and used by many photography galleries is because once someone is interested in an image, it is easier to sell them that image by saying it will be worth more the next time they come in. Peter Lik trained a team of sellers in all his galleries toemploy this method aggressively. When someone was interested in a print, the salesperson would explain how wonderful it is, what good taste they have, and if they didn’t buy it right now, it would cost more the next time they came in. That is his whole sales technique which you can read about if you search the New York Times online for his name. Again, the New York Times pokes fun at him because he is a millionaire artist that is not known in the museum world or the at world, at all. However, whatever you think of his images or his sales techniques, this is one method that truly works.

My Own Gallery

When I opened up my own gallery, I didn’t know any of this. I wasn’t really sure how to sell anything, I just knew what I wanted the gallery to look like and I hung shows that looked good and had a price list available. My experience in terms of making sales was mixed. While I didn’t actively “sell” people, what I did do was hang plenty of work in the gallery and in most cases, about two-thirds of the work would sell, but not always. Since it was in a community that had a lot of traffic in the summer, I had openings every two weeks which was a lot of work, but also kept the sales coming in. The irony was that even though I was selling a lot of work at my gallery in the first year, I wasn’t paying all the bills or making much of a profit!

The reason I wasn’t making a profit was because my overhead costs were high. The rent on the gallery for the summer, which included spring and fall, was seven thousand dollars. The spring and fall were not as active as the summer. So I had about ten shows each season and the artwork was priced between $300 and $1500, which seemed like a reasonable range to me. What I didn’t factor in was how much I actually needed to make in order to thrive. I was not alone in my naïve thinking, because many new entrepreneurs and store owners make this mistake. Instead of actually figuring out how you are going to make a profit, you just get excited and fill up your space and start selling and base your sales sense on what you see in other stores or galleries.

Here is the financial breakdown of why the gallery wasn’t profiting. The rent was $7,000, then the costs of openings (ten of them) was about $150 an opening for wine and snacks, then there was electricity and sales tax, and I didn’t include a salary for myself or my girlfriend who were the owners—I just figured we would split the profit.

So the total overhead was about $10,000 for the season, and I sold about $2,000 worth of art at every show (which seemed good to me, that’s $1,000 a week). Most of the work sold, as I said—about two-thirds of what was on the wall. I found that when a show was more than half sold, people tended to think that the best pieces were taken, and maybe they were right.

Back to the figures—I was totaling about $20,000 in sales, and my overhead was $10,000 without salaries. After the artists got their cut (50%), my profit was a little more than $10,000 since I always showed and sold my own artwork, as did my girlfriend and partner at the time. So I was left with $10,000 profit which just paid for my overhead—I had broken even. Then there was sales tax and other minor costs like repainting the gallery regularly to make it look good, and I was now losing money. I ended the year in debt even though the artists made money and the gallery appeared to be successful.

My error was that I needed much more work to sell! In every show, I should have had twice the amount of work as I had to sell. That means I should have been able to pull work out of the back room or take it down as soon as it was sold and replaced it. I wanted the gallery to operate like ones I had seen in New York, where the work stayed on the wall until the end of the show. The problem with that model is that you need to either sell work for high prices or have much more in the back room.

This was a big lesson for me because when I saw work selling every week, I assumed I was doing very well, but in fact I wasn’t. The next year of the gallery did better. The prices of all the art was raised, and there was much more on hand to show people. I began to earn a profit and the gallery lasted for several years.

As you can see, there are many ways to engage a gallery, and this last way is one where you can start your own gallery, and is a very different model that is being used more and more these days. If you look up the story of Peter Lik in the New York Times, you will see his recipe for success in this arena explained quite clearly. If that is something you are interested in, I would suggest you consider having a partner or two in the business.

For all the other methods of finding a gallery that are mentioned in this chapter, keep in mind that it is ideal to have several galleries showing your work and not just one. I often hear artists saying a version of, “I have sent them work and am waiting to hear the response,” but do not wait to hear the response of one gallery: keep following up until you get a response. As I have said, there is nothing uniform or regular about what galleries want, so don’t hesitate to walk in and just begin talking to people and asking if they look at the work of new artists. There is no harm in asking, and the truth is, the more ambitious you are and the more you ask, the better your chances will be at showing and selling work through a gallery.

Be bold, get out there, and don’t ask for advice from galleries or ask if your work is good; just be enthusiastic, use your charm, and know that your work is good already and the only question that has to be answered is if the gallery wants to sell it.

If you are still wondering if having “the right introduction” is what you need, or “knowing the right people” or something like that, then you might be waiting a long time. To get a gallery now, and see things happen soon, you need to pursue the galleries you want; and if you want an introduction, then become friends with an artist in that gallery—otherwise you might be waiting a long time, and who has time to wait? You need to exhibit now!

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 17 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Starting a Commercial Gallery

Starting a Commercial Gallery

Another alternative is to start your own commercial gallery in a storefront or garage, or any place where you can draw traffic. In this model, which I will explain in detail, you can launch your career and possibly the careers of other artists while earning money off gallery sales. The difference here is that you must know how to sell art, which is a skill that can be learned, but usually does not happen on its own.

After I graduated college with a BFA, I began to submit my art to different juried shows and had very little luck in the first six months. I was naïve, but I was also feeling a bit desperate since I had told my parents this was going to be my career. I was looking everywhere for answers on how to begin my career but was finding little to support my quest. That summer I went to Block Island, a small vacation community with a residential population of eight hundred just off the coast of Rhode Island, a place where I vacationed with my parents in the summer.

Both my parents were teachers, and the house we lived in for the summer was modest to say the least. It had an outhouse for a bathroom, no running water (a hand-pump on the sink and a system that collected rainwater for drinking), and was falling apart. I say this to be clear that I did not come from wealth; my parents were middle class teachers who had a bohemian streak and found a way to buy land and live inexpensively on this small island. However, the island drew a large summer crowd that did have money, and they rented homes for the summer and spent days on the beach.

As a young teenager, I spent my summers there and worked at restaurants to earn some money. Now that I had graduated, I spent a summer working and thinking about my next steps. I decided to open a gallery with my girlfriend there, and we called it Square One Gallery. I learned a great deal from this experience, and it is a model that you could do as well. The gallery flourished, and it gave me enough money to survive easily and continue to make art.

I will explain exactly how that worked, but first I want to tell a story that Dave Hickey, the art critic, told me during an interview I did with him. Early in his career he opened a gallery called A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Austin, Texas. He said he knew little to nothing about selling art, so he asked his friend Leo Castelli, who was one of the great art dealers of all time, how to sell art. This is what Leo Castelli told him. Dave Hickey explained the method of selling art included a “poser” and a “hoser,” which is a rather crude way of saying a salesperson and someone as a type of bait. He explained the process of a sale. He was in the position of the “poser,” and that meant that when someone walked into the gallery that looked like they had money, he would begin to talk about the work with them. As they honed in on one piece in particular, it was his job to explain that although the work was beautiful, it was already on hold by the Prince of Wales who had called in. He would compliment the buyer on their taste, saying he wished he could sell it to them, but that it was taken by a prestigious buyer. Then he would call to the back room and ask his wife or whoever was the “closer” or “hoser” and they would come out and say, “Yes, it is sold— oh wait, it is on hold actually, should I call the Prince? This was his last day on hold.” And thus, a sale was made. Does this sound unethical to you?

I was not nearly as tough or manipulative as a salesman, but this is a technique that works. Dave Hickey is a respected writer and art critic and his stint as a gallery owner included this sales technique, which is what was happening in New York in the biggest galleries. Leo Castelli was a great dealer and had a fantastic gallery, so think about that when considering this hard ball technique for selling. Dave Hickey is a powerful thinker and no lowly salesman, but he too used this technique to his advantage. As you are contemplating the ethics of this, let me tell you about a current artist and salesman that is making millions off of his photographs and has his own galleries. These are like high and low stories of selling art. Leo Castelli is perhaps as high-brow as it gets, while David Hickey was just a rung below that, and then of course I was way below that and very naïve in my sales techniques, and the photographer I am about to discuss is Peter Lik, who only shows his own work in his own galleries but sells them at a tremendous pace.

If you are going to open a commercial gallery, you might as well make money. This is one way it is done, and it is as close to a recipe as you can get. Peter Lik is a photographer of mostly landscapes; he started out his photography career by working for a tourism company, and then he made a line of postcards that were successful. A few years after that he opened up a gallery selling his art, and the gallery failed. Then he opened up another gallery on Maui, Hawaii, and it was very successful. He was selling his photographs of landscapes, and although he was unknown in the art world, meaning galleries and museums, he was selling through his gallery that only sold his work. That gallery on Maui was opened in 2003, and since then he has opened up several more galleries. In 2014, he sold one single image for just over six million dollars. That sale was a record for photography and he received an incredible amount of international press from that. The New York Times wrote a piece on him that essentially made fun of him for being so focused on sales, which in my opinion is unfortunate and hypocritical because the late Leo Castelli was never faulted on his hard ball sales tactics, and between the auction world and retail galleries there is plenty of unethical business dealings going on; because art is not an easy sell, and the buyer must often be taught how to collect and how to appreciate a work of art. Having said that, please understand that I present these techniques so that you can modify them to your liking, but also so that you can choose as a financial goal to make hundreds, thousands, or millions through your gallery. You will see it’s possible with this example, and then you have to decide how far you want to go, because, especially in the art world, almost anything is possible.

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 16 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Starting Your Own Gallery

Garage/Apartment Galleries: Starting Your Own Gallery

There are so many stories of artists starting their own galleries in collaborations with other artists as a way to show their work when other galleries wouldn’t, and also as a way to launch their career. You could call this a pop-up show, but it was done before that term existed.

Recently I was interviewing Jorge Pardo, an internationally renowned artist who has won a MacArthur Grant and is represented by one of the most prestigious galleries in New York City. When he graduated college, after working a few years in a library, he wanted to have a show with friends, but there were few galleries that he felt would show his work then.

He decided to work with a few friends and open an exhibit in one of their homes. The house was not in a commercial area, but they just did it. He credits those shows with launching his career and the careers of other artist as well.

Michelle Grabner, a young artist who was also a curator in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the prestigious show hosted by the Whitney Museum of American Art, launched her career and her public profile by not just making art, but by curating shows in the suburbs because she and her husband felt that there can be good avant garde art in the suburbs. Her first gallery that she launched as a not-for-profit venture in 1999 was The Suburban, in Oak Park Illinois. From 2009 until the present, she created an exhibition area and a residency for artists called The Poor Farm, which is in Wisconsin. Both of these ideas were essentially nonprofit galleries that were far away from any major city. The idea was not to become a dealer, but to showcase interesting work. Those efforts got her very, very far. She was the first artist ever to be co-curator of a Whitney Biennial. She is interviewed later in this book.

There are more examples of galleries in garages, apartments, and homes, but you get the idea—find a place and make it happen. The reason why this is a good model is that you do not have to wait for any gallery to look at your work or sell it. You can show work with friends in a setting that you control. This has many advantages, including the opportunity for you to be “discovered” by a gallery or curator. There are many ways to create this model, and you can be as creative with this as you would like. Artists have created group shows and solo shows with friends in warehouses, storage units, unoccupied real estate, museum bathrooms, and as mentioned; garages, homes, apartments, and even abandoned buildings and public parking garages.

Working with friends on something like this is a good idea because it makes the work easier and it also draws a bigger crowd. Graffiti artists have done this, as well as contemporary artists of all rank and medium. It puts the power in the artists’ hands. If you do create a show like this, the next step after hanging it all is to promote it and get some people there who can spread the word and “discover” you.

Promotion

When thinking about promotion these days there is the obvious: a Facebook event that targets a local audience. You can run an ad for an event that will only show up on the pages of people who are near the event. Another way to promote the event is to create a spectacle of some kind—a performance, a local band, or something much more wild! There was a graffiti artist recently whose signature style was a painting of the man on the game of Monopoly holding cash. He painted it everywhere, and at his first self-made show, he sold the paintings for thousands of dollars—but only accepted Monopoly money! Stunts like that can get you press and attention.

Of course it is not necessary to create a stunt, but it helps. If you want to get a particular collector there, invite them. You never know who will show up, and the more you make it sound like a special and unusual event, the more likely it will draw curiosity and an audience.

You can of course sell art at these types of shows, but in most cases you are creating what amounts to a nonprofit showcase, so that the art looks its best and might get reviewed and sometimes bought. Another version of this is to start your own commercial gallery.

 

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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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