Friday Tips For Artists: Your First Public Shows

JJ’s, Kansas City; paintings by Mike Savage

When I first started my art business in the basement of my house, in 1991, I had no public space for my artists. Did this mean that the work wasn�t any good? Of course not. I was happy with much of it, and grateful that these artists had entrusted me with their careers. The challenge was to get them public exposure until I could afford to open the gallery�which came two years later.

Consequently, I set up exhibits in corporate lobbies, upscale restaurants, and in the homes of wealthy socialites (which inspired Matt Kirby to remark: “Oh sure, we’ll get a bunch of rich folks and throw them through the door.”) I also entered the artists in select juried shows all over the country. The initial sales we made in the restaurants weren�t numerous, since no sales staff was on hand. To deal with that, I offered the wait staff a 10 percent commission on every prospect they brought me, which increased sales–not a bad beginning.

Please understand, displaying in venues such as these doesn�t make you look less credible. You�re in the process of establishing a following and collectors. Any appropriate venue is fine. After all, a gallery will look on you more favorably if you�ve sold several works than if you haven�t.

Regarding restaurants: These can work well for selling your art over time, but only if the lighting is good and the setting upscale. It also helps if the managers and wait staff feel genuine passion for what you do. Just make sure that you provide plenty of professionally laid out postcards printed with your contact information and, if possible, try to have an opening that�s listed in the paper. Beyond that, simply enjoy the gig. When done well, it can be a major step toward gallery representation. In fact, I discovered one of my best young painters–Allan Chow–in a Malaysian restaurant a couple of years ago. This turned out to be a very good thing for both of us.

Sure, you don’t want to stay in the restaurant-display gig too long, since this is only a step toward bigger things. But it can be a worthwhile step, which you shouldn’t shy away from just because the snobs look down on it. Snobs look down on everything, including each other. What do they know about making it as an artist? Very little. I advise you ignore them and do what you have to in developing your career. Please just make sure you have some fun along the way. The snobs will applaud you after you’ve succeeded; that’s how they work anyway.

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