Friday, August 05, 2005

Studio Visit Best Practices

Last night I attended the birthday party for the ravishing and brilliant art historian, Jane Harris, where the equally lovely and talented artist Austin Thomas was kind enough to say she enjoys the blog, noting that artists are always seeking information. I had an artist ask me recently what "best practices" he should consider for an upcoming studio visit. My pre-caffienated mind has concluded it might be interesting for some if I expand on my thoughts about those best practices here a bit. Mind you, more experienced artists pretty much know what works for them, so these thoughts are designed to be things emerging artists might consider.

General concerns about studio visits include

  1. timing and conditions
  2. duration
  3. volume of work shown
  4. chronology
  5. documentation
  6. follow-up
I'm discussing these here in the context of a studio visit arranged by appointment in advance, not an open studio setting.

Timing and conditions: Although you can't always dictate when a visit happens, be sure to consider the environment of your studio when arranging your visits (likewise, respect for the visitor's schedule is an important consideration, because not showing it pretty much damns your chances of developing a good relationship from the get-go). If you don't have air conditioning, or if your work is better seen in daylight, or if the neighborhood is a bit scary after dark, do take those things into consideration and let your visitor know when the optimal time of day is or what to expect if that's not convenient. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about the conditions, but surprises like boiling studios, glaring reflections from windows, or being harassed on the way to or from a visit impact the visitor's impressions, right or wrong, of your work. Just be aware of it.

Suggestions: I've had artists offer to meet me in their car at a subway station or arrange early morning visits if they don't have AC. Comfort is a consideration. Neglecting it pretty much guarantees your visitor won't give your work their full attention. Also, if it's hot or visitors must climb a number of flights to get to your studio, have a cold beverage ready and let them relax a few moments if they show signs they might need to. Again, you want their full attention when the discussion turns to your work.

Duration: There's a pair of curators in the NY art scene who, I've been told, walk into a studio, asking the artist to be quiet, and make a decision about whether they want to work with that artist in the space of 5 minutes. Clearly, they trust their eye, and---one must assume---they're incredibly busy, but personally, I think they're putzes, but you will encounter that.

My average studio visit lasts 45 minutes to an hour. You have to play each visit by ear, but, I'd say, be prepared to conclude a visit within a half hour, but also be prepared to have it last much longer. If the visit has lasted more than half an hour already, be concious of that and ask if your visitor still has time before launching into a new series or discussion. Don't trap your visitor. I had a studio visit where after agreeing to watch a few videos before I left, the artist and I discussed her drawings for an hour and a half. At that point I really didn't appreciate the assumption that I had another half hour to watch the videos, but I was too polite to disappoint her, so I stayed, all the while paying more attention to the time than her videos.

Suggestions: Have a conversation about timing before you begin your presentation. Be direct about how much time you think it will take to show the visitor what you want to show them when they arrive and ask if that's OK. Also, be direct about your own scheduling concerns. If you have some other place you have to be but your chatty visitor isn't taking the hint, offer to send them more information via email or snail mail while turning out some lights.

Volume of work shown: To a large degree you need to take your clues from each visitor, but in my experience, you're best off being strategic here. What do you hope to gain from this studio visit? For a curator looking for a piece or two for inclusion in a group exhibition, you may want to limit what you show them to work that fits what you've discussed about the particular show, directing them toward the work you have available for that (but still offering a few options). For a dealer who you'd like to be represented by, a more thorough overview of your work is probably appropriate. For a collector (i.e., a sale is your goal), focussing on only a few pieces and hiding everything else might make sense. Some visitors will be pushier than others with regard to seeing more, and you do run the risk of giving the impression you don't make much work if you're too stingy about showing more, but in general, you don't want to overwhelm any of the three types of visitors mentioned. Control the narrative as best you can based on your goals with this person.

Suggestions: Take time beforehand to consider what you want from the visit. Often for emerging artists a visit is exploratory (the dealer or curator really doesn't know what you do). In those cases showing more is probably better, especially with an eye toward illuminating your process. But incomplete work is probably not a good idea, nor is using the visit as therapy by showing everything you've ever made. I had a studio visit once where I expected next the artist was going to bring out a cocktail napkin they had jotted a doodle on once, so overwhelmed was I by each scrap of paper being flung at me. This comes off as desperate. As in any potential relationship, desperate or needy is a turn off.

Chronology: This goes along with volume somewhat, but specifically it concerns what you show your visitor when. I'm of the school that a studio visit should unfold like a story. Have in mind a beginning, a middle, and an end (be ready to improvise, yes, but guide your visitor along with a narrative). You want the visitor to leave with a better sense of your project than they came in with, and it doesn't hurt if they go on to rave about your work to others. Providing them a story as a means for discussing your work helps a great deal here. I'm being rather vague about that, I know, because each artist is different. Perhaps this will help though:

I had a very pleasant studio visit once where the painter had turned all of her canvases around in the room except one and proceeded by revealing them one by one in a way that showed me more about her process than I would have absorbed had I entered to find them all in view. The last one was so complicated that had I seen it first, I'm not sure I would have had much interest in the previous ones. Having spent time with them before seeing where they led, though, I had grown to appreciate them. That may not make sense for you, but do give thought to the order in which your visitor sees the work.

Suggestions: Reassure your visitor with at least one completed piece installed when they enter. Some narratives/processes will require an artist to begin with sketches or other preliminary materials, but the story shouldn't be a suspense novel. You're connecting the dots for them in a way that reveals why they should become fans of your work. Each line of your narrative should underline that goal. Surprises can undermine it. If you work in various media, consider the time restaints when preparing your chronology. Don't leave an important, but longish video for the end of the visit unless you know your visitor has the time to spend. (See the impression that made on me, I'm obsessed.)

Documentation: Here again it depends on what your goal with a studio visit may be, but handouts are generally a good idea. Even just a few images and a bio to take away are helpful. For more important visitors, perhaps a catalog of your work, if you have one. Your visitor may refuse documentation (it does become a bit much when you're doing lots of visits), but having a folder prepared that you can offer them at the conclusion of the visit is a good idea. Having two sets of documents put aside might be a good idea as well. That way you can judge according to the interest they showed in the work and what you might get from them in return how much to offer them. Documentation ain't free, I know.

Suggestions: Don't waste your hard-earned money handing out slides unless someone requests them. I have more slides from studio visits that I'll never look at again than I'd like to admit. Most people are happy to accept CDs or DVDs these days, and they're a lot cheaper. Do update your bio and CDs if you're handing them out. This means don't make too many copies in advance. Up-to-date information is impressive. Out-of-date information hurts you.

Follow-up: This is the trickiest part of the studio visit. Playing this right can make a very good impression; getting it wrong can annoy the hell out of your visitor. In general, everyone likes getting a thank you e-mail or note. I'd recommend email, because more visitors are likely to respond to that than mail you a letter. If you had promised to send any images or other information, let the visitor know when to expect those if they're not available right away (this also gives you two opportunities to contact them...but don't contrive want to move beyond this stage). Unfortunately, you can follow-up yourself into a visitor's bad graces, so be patient.

Suggestions: Switch gears at this point if you can, and put your love for your art aside. This part of the process is about professionalism. Your visitors more than likely already decided whether or not they like your work, so you're not going to convince them at this stage. (Seriously, you won't, no matter how hard you try.) Having said that, dealers and curators are often extremely busy, and you should definitely follow-up on sending additional information/images and any customary communications with regards to ensuring they received such materials. Through it all, keep in mind that if you're still interested in building a relationship with this person, neediness and desperation are turn offs.

OK, so this is way too long already, so I'll wrap it up by saying these are just my impressions. Each visitor will bring their own. Being prepared is important, but being flexible is more important.

PS. Yes, that image is from one of my
artists, but that piece sold long ago, so I'm not that much of a blog whore.

PPS. I just realized I left out any advice about the actual discussion. (Caffiene kicking in.) I'll consider that some more and offer my opinions in another post.


Anonymous crionna said...

make a decision about whether they want to work with that artist in the space of 5 minutes. Clearly, they trust their eye, and---one must assume---they're incredibly busy, but personally, I think they're putzes, but you will encounter that.

Have you read Blink yet? Gladwell might disagree with your attitude ;)

8/05/2005 03:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you very much for the info Ed. what about tea, coffee and food offerings. is it expected or is it a bit much?

8/05/2005 04:49:00 PM  
Anonymous LA artist said...

I'd also like to throw smell into the equation. A studio which smells toxic or like cat pee is not good.

As always, a good post.

8/05/2005 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Very good post, lots of good pointers. If space allows present some work on a clean well lit wall. I often forget I'm the only one that can see the work thru the paint splattered surroundings.

8/05/2005 05:41:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Can a studio be so small that it can bias you against the work? And do out-of-town gallery visits tend to be out-of-the-question?

Bill Gusky

8/05/2005 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

what about tea, coffee and food offerings. is it expected or is it a bit much?

I'd say it's too much for a first visit. Keep the focus on your work.

I'd also like to throw smell into the equation. A studio which smells toxic or like cat pee is not good.

Never had one like that, but you're right, that would be a distraction. Again, do consider the overall environment and do what you can (here's my mantra) to help the viewer focus on the work.

If space allows present some work on a clean well lit wall.

Excellent suggestion. I'm often impressed by installation solutions whereby the artist can do this (some use shelves, others a series of holes in the wall predetermined to place the work at the optimal height for the lighting. All of this keeps the story moving and the focus... you know.

Can a studio be so small that it can bias you against the work?

Yes, depending. There's definitely a series of judgements made about an artist's commitment to their work based on the overall environment. I've done studio visits in studio apartments where it's clear the artist must clear off their kitchen table to make work. That's fine if the work is awesome (Tara Donovan started like that, I've been told), but it's definitely a distraction (or, more precisely, suggests a lack of belief in one's self) if the work is still developing.

And do out-of-town gallery visits tend to be out-of-the-question?

Depends. I have learned to ask where an artist's studio is before committing to a visit, having agreed to one once just to learn it was a bus, and then train, and then taxi ride totalling two hours each way. Here again, offering the visitor some help in that (picking them up at the train station or arranging to include dinner in the outing) helps.

It's not a requirement obviously, but if you're an emerging artist and the visitor has no idea how good you are, it's sometimes advantageous.

Or just send them images of your best work and let them decide they have to do what's necessary to get there.

8/05/2005 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger mountain man said...

I loved reading this post and the comments. Thanks for being helpful to artists.

8/06/2005 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger carol es said...

excellent post and great comments, and follow-ups even! thanks ed. the clean white wall is good advice. i always keep one wall clean so can hang a "focus" piece. i usally only speak about the one that is on that wall and let the rest of the visit grow organically from there. depending on where the conversation goes, i know what to pull out. an up-to-date disc on their way out is important too.

something i keep in mind is that you can not control much of the visit in terms of what your visitor likes and dislikes. this surrender can take off that angst some artists have about putting a lot of effort in a place that is pointless. focus on how it's going in the moment and roll with it. allow the work to do most of the talking. (sometimes i ramble when i get nervous and i have to stop myself. i have to try to remember to allow for airspace, as that can help the visitor to think.) saying less is better than talking too much. easier said than done. doh!

8/06/2005 09:15:00 PM  

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