Courting the Dealers
To the young or emerging artist, the art world may seem like a forbidding maze, a complicated circuitry of inside contacts and arcane codes almost impossible for the newcomer to crack. How can the artist without affiliations approach a dealer? What’s the best way to find representation? And what are some steps to take to assure a long and fruitful association?
Though the number of art venues will wax and wane depending on the economy, dealers say you need to do your homework no matter when you enter the market. The first step is to canvass the territory. Get to know the galleries in your area or, if you have your sights set on making a career in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, cruise the dealers in different neighborhoods and buildings to become familiar with their aesthetic. Study dealer websites to understand what kind of work they represent. “Young artists think there are so many galleries, there has to be one for me,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Galerie Lelong in Chelsea. “It’s really like love. There probably is one person for you, but you have to find that person the hard way. You can’t just speed date.”
“Young artists think there are so many galleries, there has to be one for me,” says one dealer. “It’s really like love. There probably is one person for you, but you have to find that person the hard way. You can’t just speed date.”
Networking can also be critical to getting your work looked at and your name and face known to the community. When she first moved to New York, armed with a law degree to ensure her support while she found her way as a painter, Ellen Harvey went to as many openings as she could. A naturally gregarious and outgoing person of considerable warmth, Harvey had little trouble making friends and finding a support system while she was still in her twenties. Two decades later, she now has a long list of museum shows and commissioned works behind her, in addition to several books books about her work. (Listen to our podcast with Ellen here).
If you’ve found a couple of galleries that may seem a good fit for you, take the time to get to know them better. “Come to openings, get to know my artists. At the very least look at the website,” says Kim Foster of the Kim Foster Gallery in New York. “I can think of a couple of artists who came to be affiliated with me in this way. It wasn’t like they just walked in cold to the gallery.” Art fairs can be a good way to review a number of dealers all at one fell swoop, but they’re terrible places to approach the personnel. “Do not try to corner a dealer at an art fair,” admonishes Margaret Thatcher of Margaret Thatcher Projects in New York. “Our time and energy there is devoted to selling art, and when you’ve got more than $25,000 invested to show at an art fair, the last thing you want to do is talk to an aspiring artist.”
Most dealers say they are motivated to look at new work because of recommendations from artists they already know and respect, collectors whose taste they trust, museum curators, and even other galleries. “I’m most intrigued when an artist affiliated with the gallery says to me, You really should see this work,” says Sabbatino. Foster says she decided in part to take on one of her newer artists, Sydney Blum, because of a recommendation from Petah Coyne, who is not part of her stable but has a long and respectable track record of museum shows and critical notice. (For this reason, even if your star is not rising as quickly as you’d like, it’s wise to stay in touch with colleagues whose careers may be on a faster trajectory than yours.)
“I’m most intrigued when an artist affiliated with the gallery says to me, You really should see this work,”
As for approaching a dealer for the first time, some say it’s fine to come into the gallery with a piece of art in hand. “If you have a representative sample of your work that’s small enough to carry around with you, first make certain that the dealer is not busy—wait for a moment when the telephone’s not ringing, when she’s not involved with other people—and then make your introductions,” says Nance Frank, owner and director of the Gallery on Greene in Key West, FL. “Some might immediately say, You’ll have to make an appointment,” she continues. “But if you’ve got a piece of work in your hands, most are going to look at it.”
Others, however, discourage this tactic. “Definitely not,” says Katharina Rich Perlow of the New York gallery by the same name. “Most galleries are usually very busy and it’s embarrassing if you have to reject someone on the spot.” And others are somewhat on the fence. “Last year we picked up one painter who just walked into the gallery,” says Andrew Liss, assistant director of Gallery Henoch in New York. “He actually had the work in hand, and it was terrific, but I wouldn’t generally encourage people to make an approach that way.”
In the days before digital, most artists dropped off or mailed a packet of slides with a cover letter and perhaps a biography. Now dealers say they will look at CDs and sometimes images sent via email. “But have a printout of the images,” says Liss. “I don’t mind looking at a CD, but I really like to have a few digital printouts first before I go through a disk full of work.” Liss says he will never look at emailed images that require downloading because of the number of viruses out there. “But if they’re already in the body of the message or if the sender can direct me to a website, I will generally be tempted to look.” The subject line, Liss adds, is important: don’t say you’re part of some ephemeral or nonexistent movement, like “Transient Post-Expressionism,” but if you can find a way of catching a dealer’s eye—“Richard Serra Recommended I Get in Touch” or “Intriguing Portraits in Stained Glass”—you stand a better chance of getting your missive read.
Some dealers, though, say they don’t want to be bothered with email at all. “It feels intrusive to me if I get an email submission from someone I don’t know at all,” Sabbatino claims. The best way to find out how a gallery prefers to be approached is to stop by and ask the assistant at the front desk or make a phone call. “Don’t be intimidated, but don’t be pushy,” says Liss. And if you’re told a gallery is not looking at new work, move on. It’s nothing personal, but most likely just an indication that an establishment already has a full roster of artists and has already scheduled shows for more than a year in advance. For that reason, most dealers advise that young artists look for young galleries, places where both can grow together.
Virtually everyone in the business says that it’s critical for artists to maintain a website, particularly at the outset of their careers. It’s a kind of calling card, a sign of professionalism and seriousness. “I simply expect a young artist to have a website as part of their portfolio. It’s just like slides were at one point mandatory,” explains Liss. “We’re also looking for people who are not trying to leave all the attention-getting up to us.” Once an artist has established a relationship with a gallery, and has images on that dealer’s site, maintaining a separate site becomes a more delicate proposition. “I think it’s important for galleries to have the artists’ work on their websites,” says Key West dealer Nance Frank. “I always say that an artist’s website is competition for me, and I hate that.” But if the dealer’s site and that of the individual artist are linked, the playing field is not only level but also wider and more equitable (since most reputable dealers ask for a percentage of the sales an artist makes on his own).
If you’re told a gallery is not looking at new work, move on.
After you’ve submitted examples of your work, be patient. Galleries may take months to look at work, but most will eventually check you out. “I try to set aside one or two days a month to review material that comes in,” says Liss. Wait a couple of weeks before following up and do so by phone; an email is likely to get overlooked. When a gallery is truly interested, someone will most likely ask to make a studio visit or see samples of your work. The usual procedure is to put an emerging artist in a group show and see how collectors and critics react. And don’t be devastated if you’re turned down. “’No’ doesn’t mean you’re a bad artist,” says Foster. “It more often means your work may not be right for this space or it doesn’t mesh with my sensibilities.”
And when you’ve determined that a dealer is seriously interested in you and your work, look out for your own welfare. “Once you get that important interview, be sure you’re doing an interview of your own,” advises Frank. Some questions to ask, she says, are: Do you have insurance? When and how often can you give me a show? How often do you pay and what is my percentage of sales? How much of my work will be exposed? What can you do to advance my career? You also need to know what responsibilities are yours. If you will be asked to shell out for advertising (always a warning sign that a dealer may not be as serious as you’d like), for example, or for announcements and other “extras.” In addition to your confidence in your work, how you present yourself at all times may determine how you much respect you can claim in the end. “When you walk in the door or send an email or drop off your work, think about how you would like to be treated,” says Frank. “Try to present that to the person in charge.”
This report was originally published in Accelerating on the Curves: The Artists’ Road Map to Success (Katharine T. Carter and Associates, 2011), but the information still seems so timely I present it here with minimal changes. My thanks to Katharine Carter for her permission to reproduce the material on Vasari21.