Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
This question follows your recent Help Desk article “Underrepresentation.” I appreciated that answer so much, since I know many artists who feel the same. I got stuck on this simple sentence though: “Start by identifying at least one other gallery in your city that you’d rather work with, and invite the director(s) for a visit.” Any word of advice on the best way to go about this? Of course go to the openings, show face, etc.—but time and time again I hear what a faux pas it is for an artist to contact a gallery directly. If you are an artist who didn’t go to grad school in the city you live in, and/or is not a mover and shaker by nature, therefore not likely to quickly make friends with people who are “in the know” and can introduce you, what is the best method of approaching a gallery for a studio visit?
Let’s start with a tiny shift in perspective: Unless you plan to work with some kind of faceless consortium of finance bros who have LLC’d together to open an art space, you’re not asking a gallery for a studio visit, you’re asking a person—in other words, you’re looking for a human being with whom to build a long-term, mutually beneficial professional relationship. This change to your outlook is important, because a person (a.k.a. the gallerist) has preferences and needs just like you, and you want to make sure you’re a good match for each other. The best place to start is with research: Does your work fit the program? This is perhaps the most important part of your behind-the-scenes work, because a dealer who sells plein air paintings is never going to be interested in conceptual video. Also, what are the gallerist’s priorities? A dealer who spends the entire year at art fairs may not be keen to work with an artist who only makes large-scale installations. Take the time to study the galleries’ programs.
It’s true that an introduction is still the best way in, but even this strategy has potential pitfalls. One Los Angeles dealer read your question and said, “Personal introductions do go a long way. I recommend taking a solid look at your social network to determine if anyone can introduce you to someone at the gallery (even if not the director) to utilize that connection to reach the powers that be.” However, another gallerist from the same city tempers this advice: “I hate it when artists show up at the gallery and say something like ‘Dealer X sent me, thought you might like my work’ or ‘Artist Y sent me, said you might…’ Dealers and artists should share websites with gallerists rather than ever send an artist over to a gallery—that’s the worst, or at least it’s not good…” So even if you score an introduction, don’t put the dealer on the spot by requesting a studio visit in person; ask your connection to send an email with the pertinent information.
If you can’t secure an introduction, is it really a bad idea to approach a dealer directly? Gallerist Number Two told me, “It’s not a faux pas to approach dealers directly, but the approach must grow out of a pattern of sincere support and engagement. Gallerists appreciate support (show up to our shit, etc). When an artist comes out repeatedly and says something sincere and interesting about the shows (suggesting that they actually are enjoying the programming), and they keep coming back, I always end up feeling grateful and find that my conversations with the artist starts to change after a while, and I’ve often said, ‘Maybe we could do a studio visit’ (unless I know the work and know it’s not for me). Sincere support of a gallery program is the best way to go when there is no inside relationship. It has definitely worked to get studio visits with me.”
Dealer Number One has some further recommendations: “If an introduction is not an option, then timing is everything. Wait until there is a sense of urgency. Email the gallerist when you are about to ship works out for another major show and ask them if they’d like to see the work before it leaves the studio. That way they know that your career has some momentum, and that they have a call to action with a time limit in place. And be patient. Sometimes it takes someone seeing your work three to five times before they really take interest. Remain as active as possible and share your exhibitions and studio updates appropriately on social media and through emails, etc.”
Throughout this process of checking out programs and meeting dealers, I encourage you to bear in mind that the artist-gallerist connection is a two-way street; the personality of the gallerist you choose to work with will shape your working relationship for many years, so trust your instincts. When talking to the dealer, note your impressions. Is she approachable? Knowledgeable? Articulate? Enthusiastic? If you are making strong work, then with research, persistence, and patience you can find a gallerist that you feel is the right match. Good luck!