Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Mysteries of the Press, Part II

On the heels of this post last week, Jerry Saltz offers some advice for dealers in his latest "Ask an Art Critic" column that even after nearly 10 years in the business I wasn't entirely clear on. Here's the bulk of it:

My No. 1 rule for dealers is: Never use your sales pitch on a critic. Ever.

I can’t tell you how much I hate it, and it happens constantly. I’m looking at art in a gallery, and after two or three minutes the dealer strides out to say hello. He (or she) then starts explaining. He tells me what the artist says the work is about. He repeats some pithy thing the artist said, or recites a text the artist thinks viewers need to know to understand the work. Curator X was just here, I learn, while the art was being packed for Biennial Y. "Artists especially" like this work -- Chuck Close, or Chris Ofili, or Maurizio or Klaus or Brice. (I always want to say "Maurizio likes everything," but I don’t.) Some dealers talk about who’s buying the work, which museum-purchase committees are considering it, how much it sells for.

All this erases me as a critic and as a person. I want to say to the dealer, "Be quiet: I can’t hear myself see."
This is a real service that Jerry's providing here. The truth of the matter is many dealers are unsure what the exact protocol is for interacting with art critics. Of course, simply leaving them alone is always an option (I know one high-profile critic who confessed that the folks at [Gallery X] always completely ignored him whenever he visited there and that he really respected that).

But what Jerry and the other critics may not (or may) appreciate is that some of that behavior is driven by how much younger galleries in particular are praying (that's right, not just hoping, but actually praying) for press for their artists or at the very least something they can report back to their artists who, seeing the critic's signature in the sign-in book, will later grill them for any feedback at all: "Did she say anything? How long did she look at it? Did you get the sense that she was going to write about it? Did she take the press release? Did you tell her about [this or that aspect of the work]?" Ask any dealer, and they'll tell you that during these grillings the voice inside their head is saying two things: "I want this review as much as you do, trust me" and "What do I look like, a mind reader?"

In a way, adopting the "simply leave the critics alone" option as a gallery rule would help reduce those rather painful exchanges. "We never bother the critics while they're looking. So we'll both just need to wait and see if he writes about it." Of course, many artists will still want a play-by-play account of how much time they spent, whether they took the press release, etc.

To be honest, though, there can be (not always, but sometimes) tell-tale signs that a critic is going to write about a show (in addition to how some of them simply come right out and say so, although different publications work differently I understand, with some critics being assigned what to review and others coming back to their editors with suggestions of their own). These signs are never conclusive, but often provide some clue. They include: if they visit the exhibition more than once, if they're taking notes while viewing, if they ask directly for a press release or checklist...things like that. Anything short of that (combined with a rather quick viewing) tends to mean no review is forthcoming.

And this is only one part of the uncertainty younger dealers have with how to interact with the press. Many I know are completely unsure what is the proper response if they do get a review. Is it appropriate to write a thank you note? Is it a faux pas not to? What if they got something wrong in the review; should you point that out? Should you pass along the artists' appreciation or encourage them to do so themselves?

Early on in our gallery's existence a critic wrote a very nice profile of one of our artists in a major magazine. The next time I saw that critic I was asked whether I had read the article. I said "Yes" but was then admonished because I had never let the critic know that I had read it (i.e., I had never thanked that critic). I understand that that is not typical of most art critics, but it lead me to try to remember to always send at least a quick thanks for reviews we get. I certainly am thankful when it happens, so this seems natural to me. I was simply unsure in the early days and afraid of making a faux pas, so I didn't do it.

Another major critic has told me that it's OK by them if the artist or gallery write to disagree with something they wrote (but noted that it's very much appreciated if it's done with tact). I don't think I have ever done that directly, but do appreciate that that means feedback on their review is not viewed as entirely off limits. Which leads me to assume a thank you note is OK as well.

Ultimately, though, Jerry offers his best advice with this bit:
[L]ately, I’ve taken to looking directly at the dealer and saying, "Trust me. I’m a professional. I know how to look at art alone." If I say this to you, back off a bit. Let me look at your show. If it’s good, I’ll know.
Painful as it is for me to admit this (thinking through how many times I've walked into the main gallery to see if a critic had any questions [I do attempt, and often succeed, in restraining myself, for the record]), Jerry's right here. If a show doesn't speak for itself to a professional art viewer, then no additional explanations or career path anecdotes will make up for that. Of course, I still reserve the right to feel privately that they simply didn't get it :-), but it's not like any chatter on my part is going to change their mind.

Labels: art criticism, press


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an artist, I received a particularly glowing review of my piece in a group show. The gallery director sent me the review, along with the contact information of the critic. I sent a thank you note and received a "Please take me off your mailing list." in response.

As a curator and gallery employee, we have had a lot of local interest from the press, but cannot get the New York press interested (we are close to New York). The local press tends to ignore the work and concentrates on asking how we keep the gallery afloat and who the local artists are in a show and how other LOCAL artists can be shown. Our program is not focused on local artists, nor do we wish to talk about the gallery's funding situation. We have had stories run that make up what we did not provide and they tend to dumb down any "fancy" art terms or intellectual concepts. (They claim their readership gets confused and cannot relate.)

I have heard that any press is good press, but after experiencing the local art reviews, I'm not so sure.

11/03/2010 09:55:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In a vacuum (not knowing the critic or the contents of your note), I'd say anyone who responds to a thank you note with "Please take me off your mailing list" is a boor.

Hang tough out there "close to New York"...the Center is dissipating. Any press is press, and press is good. That's not the same as saying any press is good press, bad press stings, but it does remind me that the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about.

11/03/2010 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

If a show doesn't speak for itself to a professional art viewer, then no additional explanations or career path anecdotes will make up for that. Of course, I still reserve the right to feel privately that they simply didn't get it

Or maybe they did, were uninterested or had something else they liked better and decided to not say anything.

On the other hand, if they hated the work - contrary opinion would indicate that might be a good sign.

What we need is a Teaparty to read all these leaves.

11/03/2010 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

Critics are as odd as artists. Some appreciate thank yous; others will get huffy because they are just doing their job. Some appreciate alternative interpretations of work they have reviewed; others will never speak to you again and avoid future shows,regardless of how polite the artist is.

No rule covers all.

11/03/2010 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

No rule covers all.

"Don't be a dick." - Wil Wheaton

As a critic I don't mind getting the sales pitch. Sometimes you learn telling clues about the framework of beliefs that surround the exhibition. A press person took me around the Leonardo Drew show that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago and provided a couple of talking points that I was able to hang the review around. You should just keep in mind that the things you say may come back to haunt you.

11/03/2010 05:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an artist, I always want the review. I remember once when I was younger, stumbling onto a critic when I stopped in on one of my shows. I generally appreciated his work and approached him to meet him, he recoiled in horror, saying, "I Never talk to artists!" Since then, I've never tried to talk to critics in a public setting. The few that I know as friends don't write about me nor would I expect them to.

There is definitely such a thing as bad press. A scathing review throws cold water on sales and the creative process. As artists we have to get very thick skin. How to stay porous and open and receptive for our creative selves, but tough as nails for our public selves is the trick. Basically, we want reviews, but in the end we have to have a strong enough ego to withstand the trouncing we'll inevitably take, without letting our egos get the better of us, and skew the way we perceive reality. I imagine, the same holds true for curators, gallerists, and critics, too.

11/03/2010 06:28:00 PM  
Anonymous JP said...

As a journeyman in the criticism game, I am so very aware of my relationship to the gallery. I don't want them to know why I'm there, but do want the info. I feel lucky that I'm incognito to most, yet I wish others would notice me.

I prefer an engagement with the artist more than the gallery. Both want to sell, but the artist is willing to be questioned about the why's and wherefore's. Ideas bounce around more than credentials.

And every critic and gallery is different. Navigating the personalities is just like any office's culture. Sometimes you avoid writing about a show because you know that the owner or artist and you don't understand each other or it doesn't fit into the objective of the paper/journal/.com you write for.

11/03/2010 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger dlkcollection said...

As a photography collector and critic, I too often duck gallery staff in an attempt to see the work without a layer of schmooze and spin. But I think this is a sad reality. Critics should be eager to interact with artists and gallery owners, to get more context and background about the work on view, to engage in meaningful dialogues. But I have come to learn that this all-too-common salesy exchange is often empty and self-serving (also time wasting for everyone), and so often I retreat into my shell of silence or wave off a kind welcome.

I will say that there is nothing that I like better than a well constructed show checklist and some kind of meaningful backgrounder (artist statement or other) that provides useful information without a lot of fuss; if done right, these can be a terrific substitute for the sales pitch. Also, at least for me, the language of press releases has generally become so obtuse that these texts are no longer good conveyors of contextual information.

Lastly, I for one certainly welcome direct engagement after the fact, either positive or negative. The goal shouldn't be to blast a consumable review out and never think about it again; on the contrary, I would like to think that a review can be the opening to a larger and more complex discussion.

11/03/2010 07:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

reminds me of some comments made in your posting a while back on advice on how to approach a gallery .... just change the gallerist and artist for critic and gallerist and it seems to come back again to ... 'its an expanded conversation about art' ... the interest flows both ways, instead of filling up the critic, maybe its about offering them the opportunity to engage their engagement with the work.

It seems funny somehow, the galleries need to be about the artist and their body of work, while the critic is more about the experience with the art ... being hustled during that experience would be annoying -tipping the experience towards an immersive commercial -

arts seems to still be about dialogue,
internal/external discovered/revealed sheltered/shared
enhancing all those aspects seems key to all art lovers, whatever their current cap they wear (artist,gallerist,critic,curator,patron,afficiando, ...), the short changing of any portion of them seems to be a loss

11/04/2010 07:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ashamed, that everyone is having to walk on eggshells
in a profession that should be light and meaningful. Edward, I like your openness and matter of fact reactions to the unspoken codes of ethics in the art world. Thanks, SB

11/04/2010 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Crystal Rassi said...

I'm a bit flabbergasted that a critic wouldn't just tell the gallery owner - "hey, I'm here for a review, if I need anything, I'll ask", and why wouldn't the critic ask? Why wouldn't the critic want to know more about the artist and the meaning of the work? Wouldn't that make for a more concise review?

In this article, there seems to be a divide in the communication between the critic and everyone else. Why is that?

11/04/2010 02:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Bob Ragland said...

I learned along time ago, to never talk to critics.
I get press and new buyers, by talking to reporters and journalists.
They write what you tell em'.
All of my success has been made this way.
I have not had a critic pay a bill in my art life ever.I ain't starving either.
See me by
Bob Ragland

11/04/2010 05:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Jerry Saltz even thought about stepping into my gallery, my goons would throw his sorry ass into traffic.

11/08/2010 12:04:00 AM  

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