Thursday, November 17, 2005

Artists at Art Fairs

I attended a few openings in Chelsea last night (two I'll recommend: Gary Petersen at Michael Steinberg's and James Siena at Pace Wildenstein ... painting lovers will love them both), and each time I asked an artist if we'd see them in Miami, most shared some hesitation about putting themselves through that experience.

Of course there are some artists who, like me, thrive in such settings, being very social and getting off on the energy. But last night, again and again, I heard..."Ahh, I'm not sure. I don't like how I feel at those things." And the more "those things" become the new biennials, where there's less of a distinction between the commerce and conceptual aspects of the art business, the more difficult it becomes to decide whether to attend.

There's a line in the movie Heathers that comes to mind when I step back and imagine how I must look trying to advise artists about this. The flaky high school teacher is "counseling" Veronica and says: "Deciding whether or not to commit suicide is one of the most important decisions a teenager has to make."

I mean, let's face it...seeing hundreds and hundreds of works of art for sale cannot help but make you feel a bit like a number in a cold, hard system. Even if you're currently in the midst of your 15 minutes of fame, or reasonably established, there are many other artists at that same stage, and they've all got work in that same fair, sometimes selling for more than yours. It can be discouraging. Unless....

What I tell my artists who ask whether they should attend an art fair is only if they're prepared to take off their creative hat and put on their business hat. An art fair is about the business of selling art. If you're going there looking for artistic validation, you're likely going to come away discouraged. This is not the place to focus on your work's conceptual or aesthetic integrity. It had better have that to spare and then some here. In this setting, your work is a product. The buyers are incredibly knowledgeable, and the competition is über-fierce.

In yesterday's thread, Anonymous asked "Do you think that an artist that is not represented by another gallery should not attend the fair at all?"

That's a good question: If you don't yet have a gallery or only have a gallery in one city and wish to expand the number of spaces you're working with, what are your chances of starting up a productive conversation with a gallery participating in that fair? It depends on so many factors. The better you understand how the whole thing works (really works, I mean), the greater your chances of success are here.

Before anything else, I'd suggest you consider how much pressure a gallerist is under during an art fair, so you don't misinterpret their response to being approached. First of all, it's a horrendous amount of work getting there, getting set up, living out of a suitcase but working twice as hard as you normally have to, networking half your ass off each night just to get up and work off the other half each day. It's emotionally and physically draining. Personally, I love it, but most of my friends who are gallerists see it as a necessary evil. It's hardly a vacation. Secondly, gallerists must, must, must pay for their expenses and often times are counting on making a chunk of change to get them through the leaner months to come. In other words, they're a bit desperate.

So before approaching a gallerist, imagine that they've not sold a single thing yet. They've shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to get here, but collectors just aren't buying, and they're calculating how many of those empty Coke cans they saw in the garbage out back they can return to the supermarket to buy a Greyhound bus ticket home at this point. This is certainly a worst-case scenario, but I've worked art fairs for other galleries before where it was not that far from the truth. Now imagine that into this setting enters you, with no prior introduction, wanting the dealer to shift their focus from their dire situation and have a look at your portfolio. That blank look on their face that greets you is caused by their wondering if your body will fit in the extra crate in the back.

This is most likely not the situation for many galleries in Miami, especially now that the market's as strong as it is, but I guarantee it will be for some.

But there they are...all in one place...the art dealers who you've been dying to meet and have over to your studio. Surely, if you could just get them to look at one image, it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Well, perhaps it could. But remember what I said above: "An art fair is about the business of selling art," so be a total professional. Here are some guidelines for how to approach a gallery at a fair, if you must.
  1. Do you homework. Know something about the galleries you want to talk to before you go. Your best opening comment is always an informed statement about some aspect of their program. The more knowledgeable and positive you are the better, and if you can't honestly compliment their program, this probably isn't the gallery for you.
  2. Choose your moment. Your schedule will likely be just as hectic as anyone else's, but the most dangerous place at any fair is the space between a dealer and the collector he/she wants to talk to. Getting in between them will not make a good impression. Later in the fair, when the dealers have (hopefully) sold most their work is probably better than earlier. The last day can be better, but not late in the day, as the only thing the dealer's thinking about then is packing up.
  3. Read the signs. If the dealer is clearly distracted or not interested, say "Good luck," sign their book, leave your card, and follow up a few weeks later. Don't push your luck. Like I said yesterday, we have a black list, and artists we had kind of liked before they demanded attention at a fair, we now cross the street to avoid if we see them.
  4. Reach out before hand. A gallerist is much more likely to take some time to talk if they recognize your name or your work. If you had sent your slides and got a form rejection letter though, you might want to wait until there's a better introductory point. If you have a gallery already, have them email the other gallery you're interested in and let them know you'll be by. Some level of previous recognition goes a long way here.
  5. Use your best connections. If you're friends with a well-known collector or museum director, ask them to visit the gallery's booth with you. I really shouldn't share this info (and apologize to my gallerist friends in advance), but this is undoubtedly your best avenue to introducing yourself. The association will stick in the gallerist's mind.
  6. Meet dealers at the fair's parties before visiting their booths. Some of this begins to get obvious, in that this is how networking is done, but generally everyone is very happy to see the "life of last night's party" in their booth the next day. But this leads into perhaps the most important advice I can give...
  7. Keep it short. All you can really hope for, unless the gallery approaches you and/or invites you to breakfast to discuss future plans together, is to make a good impression and follow-up later. Fairs are fast and furious, and no matter how happy the dealer is to see you, there are hundreds of people behind you they're just as anxious to meet. A good impression is a good day's work. Make it and go.
  8. Consider not doing this. After all that, I hate to throw cold water over all this, but in general, if you ask any dealer, meeting previously unknown artists is about 10th or 11th on their priority list for art fairs. That doesn't mean they're not happy to see your work in some other gallery's booth, just that they're so busy and the experience is so intense, they're happier about making connections on their own terms.

Enjoy the fair.


Anonymous W.W. said...

Dear Ed,

I've been reading your blog for several weeks now (a friend recommended it), and I am continuously surprised and impressed by your generosity. This post is not only helpful, but factual, realistic, and kind. Yesterday, when I saw Anonymous' post asking how to network in Miami, I thought, "this dude's in for a rude awakening." And although he probably is, you provided a list of appropriate actions anyway. It's inspiring to see someone who is willing to take the time. It's rare and a really, really cool thing to do.

11/18/2005 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a dude.
thank you so much ed for this advice. It's so helpful and I agree with w.w. it is hard to come by. I'll see you (brief hello) in Miami.

11/18/2005 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


thanks for the kind words about the blog. It makes it worth the effort.


we need a gender specific alternative to anonymous, perhaps...or you could just choose an obviously feminine alias. I assume all anon's are masculine as well, for some reason...probably cultural prejudice.

Do say hi in Miami.


11/18/2005 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous W.W. said...

"Dude" is no longer gender-specific, man. Besides, it's better if people think it's a guy asking how to make it in the art world.

11/18/2005 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous female said...

Why is it better if people think it's a guy asking how to make it in the art world. I am curious.

PS - In agreement about Ed's generosity on his blog. Really unique and special.

11/18/2005 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous W.W. said...

I was making a joke. I like to imagine that guys are stuggling harder than we are. I was relishing the picture of an anonymous dude sitting around wondering how to "break in." Now that I know you're an anonymous female I'm just plain sympathetic. I'm joking again, sort of.

11/18/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Ed, you should compile these helpful blogs and make a book. Seriously. They are very helpful and kind without being, you know, maudlin. Most of the artist books are aimed at weekend hobbyists who want to sell their work. It would be good to have one geared to serious artists who want to sell their work. If you are interested, I can share a contact at Abrams.

11/18/2005 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

hmmmm :) book huh?? that's an idea

11/18/2005 04:30:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

Let's make Ed required reading in all art schools!!

11/18/2005 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...'re thinking 15% agent's fee, aren't you bambino?

That's very flattering, ML, but I'm not sure it's worth anyone's paying for it.

Having said that, are you coming to Miami? If so, stop in and let's talk...I'll buy your a mojito.


11/18/2005 04:35:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

No, I'm one of those artists who have no marketing hats to put on, so you won't see me. But, truly, think about the book. If not this year, in a few, after most of the chapters have been written on the blog.

11/18/2005 05:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Mountain Man said...

I have assigned Ed's blog as homework in my class of art school seniors...the students found it very helpful. I think a book would be perfect!

11/18/2005 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

This Thanksgiving I'm thankful for the backlash against the Neocons, lower gas prices, and most of all... THIS BLOG!!!

Thanks, Mr. W.!

11/18/2005 05:41:00 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

What about artists who come to your booth and demand that you pose for a thumbs-up photo with one of their paintings?


Also, what about artists just setting up on the sidewalk?

11/18/2005 06:53:00 PM  
Blogger AFC said...

This, Edward, is an excellent post. Bravo!

11/18/2005 09:05:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

many thanks for all the positive comments folks...really appreciate them.

What about artists who come to your booth and demand that you pose for a thumbs-up photo with one of their paintings?


I remember. We'll see you soon Martin.

Also, what about artists just setting up on the sidewalk?

Can you believe the New York Times picked up that story. Kudos to James and Barry and Eric for getting it out there.

11/18/2005 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger Paula Manning-Lewis said...

I have been reading your blog for about a month now and would also like to thank you. I am a working artist in Albuquerque, New Mexico and to read your insightful blogs about NYC and the art world in general has been more than enlightening. I made my first visit to NYC a couple of summers ago thinking I would visit galleries, talk with some dealers, etc. However, once I arrived, I was completely intimidated! I doubt I will be next time, now that I have read your blog! Thank you for being so very generous with your invaluable information!

11/19/2005 09:46:00 AM  
Anonymous jc said...

Thanks for the great info, Ed. I am going to Miami for the first time, and my work will be there as well (yea!).

I've had a very hard time with art fairs in the past, for the reasons you give. Not only is it all about buying and selling, collectors and dealers, but it's also a place where an emerging artist can experience how insignificant they really are in the grand scheme of things. It's not just an artist's position vis-a-vis the commerce scene, it's also the artist's ranking among other artists. An emerging artist can feel like quite a little fish.

That said, I'm going to try to make the most of the opportunity. One specific question: what if one of my goals is to connect with mid- to high-level curators. It's not so clear how one might identify them or find an opportunity to approach them. They aren't sitting in booths that clearly mark who they are! Any ideas?

As for your blog, I have to agree with all the posts here; I do love it and read it (almmost) every day. I even showed it to a friend the other day--a non-artist--who is thinking of starting a blog. I showed it as an example of really great blog writing (and thinking) on interesting topics.

see you in Miami!

11/19/2005 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

One specific question: what if one of my goals is to connect with mid- to high-level curators. It's not so clear how one might identify them or find an opportunity to approach them. They aren't sitting in booths that clearly mark who they are! Any ideas?

I'm in the same boat, actually. I want to meet them too and often don't recognize them until they've left our booth (because they've signed our book or left their card).

Here again, the networking outside the fairs is a good place to start. I'd recommend leaving some time to hang at the bar/court for the "containers" at Art Basel. It's the most laid-back, social of all Basel's locations and eventually everyone makes it through there. You will likely benefit from someone who knows the art world a bit better sitting with you making introductions. It's much easier in the parties and such, believe me.

Bottom line is there's no receiving line. It's catch as catch can. With curators in particular, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Having said that, 5 of the best mid- to upper-level independent/institutional curators in the country are joining forces to curate a show in the design district. I don't have details yet, but I'm having dinner with one of them later and will find out and try to remember to post it. That opening would be a good place to be. Finding other such openings is a good idea as well.

Cash in those favors. Get invited to the parties!

One other tidbit. Most art folks will eventually make a day of it on the beach, so hanging out there in the morning, again with your best art world not a bad idea.

11/19/2005 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is this curation you speak happening in "a living room?"

11/19/2005 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my work is regularly exhibited at the art fairs and i have no desire to go to them, i think they are not for artists, and the dealers i know do not want to see artists, sometimes even their own artists, they are too busy trying to sell the work. unless there is a real reason to go, like participation in an exhibition in the same town or something, i feel it is a waste of time. also the other thing i find annoying is that some artists put art fairs on their resume, what is that about? also i am a woman anonymous.

11/21/2005 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon -

I felt similarly to the way you do, but found that sometimes going to the art fairs is very helpful. Even if you don't do a lot of aggressive shmoozing, you occasionally meet people who can help you out later on, in ways that you can't always foresee. And while you should definitely not hang around your gallery's booth too much, sometimes even (a bit) of that is good. Some collectors like to meet the artist and that pushes along a sale. Or if you meet someone somewhere else (like in the cafe) and you start up a conversation and they ask and you tell them you have some work in so-and-so's booth, they go and look at it, or you exchange business cards and later send them an email when you're in a show. Just that, expanding your email list, is helpful. It's so much better to be able to say, "hi, we met at the Armory show... I'd like to let you know about a show I'm having..." than sending out a mass mailing to people you've never met. Yes, one could argue that all this is stuff that your gallery "should" be doing for you, but guess what - unless you're pretty high in the gallery's stable, they don't. If you do it for yourself, more or less in partnership with your gallery, you can help yourself.

Just my 2 cents.


11/21/2005 11:56:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Oh, dear God...I'm totally screwed. That was my initial reaction when reading this informative post, Edward. (And, like all the folks before me, I feel your honesty and kindness should be commended.)

Like a lot of artists, I dread the "selling" portion of the endeavor. I don't enjoy talking about my work because I'm relatively inarticulate on the subject. In attempting to describe my goals or motivations, I jump all over the place - mild ADD, I suppose - quickly becoming frustrated with my inability to communicate effectively. (I prefer to write, a mode which allows for rumination and more thoughtful, exact phrasing; I find artist statements a breeze - even enjoyable - to write.)

Add to this verbal washout a distaste for championing myself and studio visits - even those with dealers/curators I already know and am comfortable with - are bound to be torturous. My palms sweaty, my voice cracking, the exchanges are stilted and awkward; I often need to lie down when the visitor has departed. Art World networking, whether at an opening or an art fair, is even more challenging. I often rush out of these events laughing nervously - at times even maniacally; obvious displacement behavior, like the yawning of a punished dog - because I feel awful about the exchanges. It's not that I'm a shy person, but I do loathe self-aggrandizement. Of my own work, I am incapable of saying anything more than, "Yeah, I'm pretty happy with that's a good start." Most art sucks. Most of my art sucks, too. Artists make lots of shit in order to produce a few gems. That's just how it works and I can not bring myself to lie about it, especially to people who know better.

I really appreciate posts like this one, Edward, but I read them with a sinking realization that, while I may be well suited to "art making" (or burdened with the impetus, depending on the day's outlook), the Art World system does not fit well. I used to believe that dealers and curators would whisk me off my feet and carry me across the Art World threshold, even if I kicked, screamed and poked them in the eyes, taking care of everything beyond the studio practice. This just isn't the case, of course, nor should it be. Unfortunately, those of us who prefer the quiet, less social approach will have to find other paths, whatever they may be, and shouldn't put too much stock in the gallery/museum system.

I don't mean to be a downer - and this post isn't meant as a condemnation of the Art World, as I thoroughly enjoy these orbits, constricted though they may be - but the schmoozing needed to "make it" is something I've never been comfortable with. Reading your post's excellent advice, I find myself nodding, but also thinking to myself, "Yes, but why do I suddenly feel so cold and weak?"

11/21/2005 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

is this curation you speak happening in "a living room?"

Why is. I'll have details tomorrow. Are you participating?


this advice is not meant to be one-size fits all. As much as you fret interacting or schmoozing like this, though, other artists become equally anxious if they can't be involved in this aspect of their career. For every artist who wants the gallery to take care of everything, there's one who really wants/needs to be involved in those decisions/tasks.

11/21/2005 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...


Absolutely, I realize that many artists thrive in the social milieu. I was just bitching and moaning, selfishly. And don't misunderstand, I wouldn't want the gallery to "take care of everything." That's just unfair. Artists should be active partners in the gallery/artist's just the schmoozing that rubs me the wrong way, which is, from my perspective, the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

11/21/2005 05:42:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Hyena, your comment underscores my point earlier about the entire infrastructure for bringing art into the culture. It needs to be updated.

11/21/2005 07:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I say, Cut out the middle man!

no, wait...that's me.

11/21/2005 08:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your frank advices are welcome and much appreciated.

To my fellow artists, however, may I respectfully submit that we should not, actually, be so concerned with the opinions of gallerists and curators.

I am not suggesting an adversarial stance. I am simply disappointed that we seem to have forgotten that we are the talent.

I do not at all suggest that we do not desperately need advocates and sounding boards such as critics, curators and gallerists. However, so much concern over contacting and impressing and receiving validation from people who should, in an ideal world, be our partners rather than bosses has led to artists without teeth.

Enough already with jockeying for position. How about we spend more time in our studios (or on location, or in the editing bay, etc.) and less time sipping gallery opening wine.

Instead of shooting slides of half-baked work, how about we wait until it's fully cooked and allow it to find an outlet through more organic means.**

I submit that artists continue to publish their work to websites, establish critique groups, figure drawing groups, and art collectives.

I request that curators and gallerists resist the urge to continue mining the popular lands of MFA programs and already established flatfiles and spend a bit more time investigating overlooked yet thriving communities operating outside the milieu of self conscious art socialites.

If curators were looking more carefully and taking more chances, maybe artists wouldn't be so panicked as to plot their moment for an impromptu and inappropriate portfolio review.

If artists would make more work instead of slide/digipacs, maybe curators wouldn't be so afraid to ask what we are up to.

**If you are an accomplished artist who still has not gotten a show and you are about to comment that your work is fully realized, then hey, you are creative, figure out an outlet on your own.

11/22/2005 12:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Anonymous (#6?),

Excellent comment. In fact it's very good to keep in mind that the system is designed to be a tool / support network for artists, not a roadblock. And you're absolutely right that the system is nothing without artists (in fact, there's a rather stinging parody within that notion just waiting for someone to run with it).

The period (frustration?) leading up to getting a gallery does not define the entire system, although it must certainly seem that way when you're looking for a gallery.

There are realities that dealers/museums/etc. face that sometimes cause us to lose sight of why we're all doing what we do, and those realities can kick our asses pretty damn hard at times, but, for me at least, there's nothing within the whole system that comes close to seeing what only great artists can show us.

I wish there was some guarantee that the frustration has an end period...some magic combination of hard work and desire that always led to a satisfying art career, but since there's not, I always fall back on the following: if being in your studio and making what you make is not its own reward already, you might not be an "artist" to begin with, because that is, as they say, "it". Everything after that is gravy.

Easy for me to say, I know.

11/22/2005 06:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you anon #6. i too feel disgusted by the continuous jockying for position to meet curators etc. i agree that if working in your studio is not the first thing on your plate, and you are more concerned with "getting out there", there is a problem, that is not to say i am not concerned with these things, but there has to be some sanity in all of this madness, and its the fact that if my gallery drops me tomorrow, i know that i may have a harder time, and be extremely upset etc. i wll continue to make work, and will do what is necessary to get back on my feet. doing what is necessary is not necessarily going to an art fair to try to meet the right people, its making great work and being confident in the work. Some Artists do not like to party or schmooze, its not part of their genetic makeup, and these people are at a disadvantage, but sometime in talking to curators, dealers etc. they do not always have respect for the people you see out at everything, they have more respect for the artists who are staying home working. It may look on the outside as if there are all these connexions being made and fabulous parties being had, but the desperation inherent in these artists trying to meet the right people is really upsetting. There are a lot of good realized artists who are left out of the dialogue because they just cant do it, the socializing, scheming etc. its really sad because some of them have a lot to say. the art world does feel like high school at the moment, with the cool kids being invited to the party, but in the end its you and your work.

11/22/2005 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

"...cut out the middleman..."

Mr. W., what you do here, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago for a number of reasons, is part of the solution. You open a dialog that seems very sincere to me. Something else needs to happen IMHO -- not sure what -- in a culture where choices are valued more than ever, 90% of choices are cut out at the door due to the way the system must work.

Some Artists do not like to party or schmooze, its not part of their genetic makeup, and these people are at a disadvantage...

The thing I'm thinking is that the culture at large may very well be at the disadvantage. I'm thinking that the work we'll never see may very well be the strongest, potentially most influential.

11/22/2005 05:52:00 PM  
Blogger Buckeye Sculptor said...

Very nice blog, truly enjoyed reading it. hope you have a safe holiday wekend

11/24/2005 05:50:00 PM  

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