“Woven Piece,” Blown Glass on Hickory, Drew Hine, Ed Tranin, and Paul Dorrell. University of Kansas Hospital.
Here’s the first half of another chapter. Hope you enjoy it.
Where to Show in the Beginning
If you’re not in a thriving gallery yet, how do you get your work before the public? Easy. In fact here’s a list of possibilities.
Corporate Offices: Every corporation has a group of art lovers within, and potential clients throughout. There are thousands of corporations throughout this country, and in most other nations for that matter. This means that no matter where you live, there are several corporations in relative proximity to you. Choose the ones you want to work with, and contact the person responsible for displaying art. Sometimes this is an executive assistant, sometimes an office manager. Of course most corporations have never done this. Great! This is your chance to introduce them to something new.
You can install your work in the executive offices, main lobby, or elevator lobbies. Wherever you install it, you want it seen by the largest number of people possible. Price and title each piece, and put out a resume with your contact information on it. Make sure the area where you install is secure, and if possible, have the corporation insure the works, though they’ll likely resist that.
After installing, organize an opening. Invite your friends, their friends, their business associates, etc. Try to make sure that people who can afford art attend, along with your usual cast of characters. Make yourself accessible at the opening. Don’t be aloof or drunk, and never worry about being nervous—that’s a perfectly human and endearing quality. But mostly, engage others. You don’t need to talk exclusively about your work, although if you want to sell, conversation will have to gravitate in that direction, and you or someone who is with you will have to try to close on sales. The easiest way to do this is to allow people to take a piece home for consideration; if they like it, it probably won’t come back. Equally, you must try to get the corporation to buy a couple of pieces before the show comes down. If a private collector or the corporation resist buying, offer to come down ten percent on the price, twenty percent if you must, but no more. Coming down too far demeans the work, and you.
Even so, don’t make discussion of your work the sole focus of the evening. Relax. Tell a few jokes. Have a few glasses of wine. Have fun. Fun, like trust, leads to sales.
Restaurants: Any well-patronized, well-lighted restaurant will do. Talk to the owner. Chances are, if they’re not exhibiting art, they’ll be thrilled to have your work there—assuming they respond to it. If they don’t, talk them into it anyway. You’re not selling to the owner, who may have no appreciation of art whatsoever, but to her customers. They’re the ones you want to reach. Try to choose a restaurant of some affluence, since that will make sales more likely. Then call a meeting with the wait staff, offering each a ten percent commission for every buyer they send you. If they’re passionate about your work, they’ll be happy to discuss it, hand out postcards, and send clients your way. Naturally they should be rewarded for going to the trouble.
City Offices: Many city halls and administrative buildings are open to exhibiting art. You may not get many sales, but at least it’s a venue and a line on your resume. If you’re a painter but are not allowed to hang work on the walls, use easels. If you can’t afford to buy easels, build some. Lumber is cheap, and anyway your designs will likely be more interesting than those of the store-bought variety.
Other Venues: Churches, university galleries, upscale bookstores, upscale hair salons, hotels, architecture firms, interior design firms, law firms, convention centers, airports, private clubs, or a showing in some socialite’s home. You don’t know any rich socialites? Tap someone who does. This may lead to introductions, which may lead to interest, which may lead to sales.
Cooperative Galleries: You could always try to start one of these if you like. They are essential to the art world, and for over a century have contributed to America’s understanding of, and coming to terms with, art. They’re fascinating, can be a great deal of fun, and almost always lose money.
If you do start one of these, make sure the director has sound business as well as aesthetic sense. Rarely does an artist have the former, since we don’t tend to be wired that way—although there are always exceptions, Dale Chihuly being a case in point. So if you don’t have business experience, no matter, there are many other ways you can assist—you can hang the shows, you can paint the walls, you can update the website. But please assign the bulk of the business and marketing decisions to someone with appropriate talent. If that happens to be you, fantastic. However this role is filled, it’s best if more than one person participates, since it takes a qualified team, with cooperative attitudes, to effect winning strategies.
If you do start a cooperative gallery, I salute you. It’s a noble undertaking with ample difficulties: organizing shows, attempting to interest collectors, paying rent and a multitude of other expenses, dealing with marketing and staffing, and trying to ensure that everyone gets along. It’s no easy task. Should that gallery wind up closing, it’s quite possible that you’ll be tired of the art business by then, and that those who started the cooperative will no longer be speaking. That’s all right. Get it out of your system, admit your trespasses, forgive the trespasses of others, and move on. We’ve all had to do that in one way or another, including me.
Whether it succeeds or fails, opening a cooperative gallery can teach you valuable lessons about the art world in general, the art business in particular, and the challenges of both. If the cooperative doesn’t fold, everyone gets along swimmingly, and you even turn a profit, please tell me how you did this. It’s rare.
When I first opened my gallery, I immediately set about learning the art of the press release, and developing relationships with journalists that were based on mutual respect. It would take years of accomplishment for those relationships to bear fruit, since no journalist wants to cover you unless you have a worthwhile story to tell. Eventually we would have dozens of stories to tell, but in the beginning no one wanted to cover an unknown gallery—and without press in the arts, you die.
To compound this, I regularly got the response from certain papers that they could cover my artists completing a commission, but not the gallery, because that would seem as though they were plugging us. I couldn’t believe my freaking ears. Here I’d busted my butt to land the commissions, risked every cent I had to promote regional artists, worked as project manager and sometimes co-designer, and the media couldn’t give us credit? Not a day went by that they didn’t give credit to H&R Block, Hallmark or Sprint for their successes, but apparently we were supposed to go unmentioned.
This was my introduction to one of the curses of the gallery business, meaning, if your artists are applauded the gallery is often ignored, as if it had nothing to do with their success. In fact a gallery will sometimes be condemned for trying to turn a profit from art, as if that’s an evil practice. The hypocrisy of these attitudes goes a long way toward explaining why so many galleries fail. In my view, neither the gallery nor the artist is more important than the other: they are equal partners who must work together to succeed.
But if a gallery can’t get credit for its work, it will indeed fail. This will cause the culture in your region to suffer. Why? Because when an artist can make income from their work, they’ll stay in the area and contribute to it. But if no one buys from the gallery that reps them—which amounts to making an investment in that artist—they’ll flee. That act of fleeing has been a practice in the provinces for over 200 years, where few serious artists stayed, since their own regions refused to support them. I was determined to help reverse this trend, but knew that I would need the help of journalists to do it. First, however, I had to convince them that if it was okay to write about Garmin, it was okay to write about us. Eventually I did and they’ve been fantastic allies ever since—especially the Kansas City Star—recognizing that what we were doing was both culturally and financially important for the region.
All told, getting press is not that difficult. Journalists are creative people and tend to respect artists. Thanks to them, my artists and I have appeared in over one hundred articles, and have been interviewed on TV and radio dozens of times. Did this happen by luck? I wish it had; that would have saved me hundreds of hours writing releases and making phone calls.
Anytime you organize a show or major installation, you should try to get it covered. That will prove a pleasant diversion for the journalist, who may otherwise have to cover political scandals, robberies, and murders. How do you get their attention? With a press release, accompanied by solid photos.
Below is a release I sent out to area papers and TV stations as one of my projects neared completion. My releases tend to read more like a letter than a form, since I prefer addressing each journalist personally. Note that I open with the essential facts, since journalists have time for nothing else.
Earlier this year H&R Block commissioned dozens of regional artists to execute site-specific works—some of them enormous—for the new H&R Block Center. Installation of the lobby and exterior works will begin on 10/16 at 9:00, concluding on 10/18.
Some of the artists whose works we’ll be installing: Lisa Grossman, STRETCH, Lonnie Powell, Leslie Reuther, Vernon Brejcha, William Lobdell, Dierk Van Keppel, Brent Collins, Adolfo Martinez, Dave Regier, and seventy others.
We only used regional artists for this project, with the intent of advancing culture in our area. I hope you’ll help us celebrate this collective achievement, which we feel will garner national praise. If you have any questions, just let me know.
You can send this via email or postal service. I alternately use both methods, depending on the journalist I’m working with, and their level of inundation. With the advent of email, some journalists received up 200 queries a day. You don’t want to get lost in the hubbub. In those instances, a mailed release with visuals will likely get closer scrutiny, followed up by email once the journalist knows who you are.
With most stories I’ve landed, follow-up has been necessary to ensure that the journalist received the release, and to learn if they’re interested. By politely persisting, you may get your story, but please note the word polite. Journalists owe us nothing, are overworked in a demanding profession that is going through convulsive changes, and they often receive only moderate pay. It’s important to try to understand the realities they cope with. In addition, if they feel your current story doesn’t warrant coverage, you have to let it go. Never try to force coverage, as that will earn you disdain—although you can always pitch the same story to a writer in a different department.
You don’t have to be involved in an event as large as Block to get a story. We’ve gotten press on single murals, a single outdoor sculpture, or an emerging artist having her first show…