I think I’m ready to approach a gallery about showing my work, and maybe even ask them to represent me as an artist. I’ve heard from older artists that it’s sort of like dating. Is that true? And if it is, how do I know if I’m ready to date, and are there any creeps I should avoid?
Rick, San Antonio
Congrats! What an exciting time for you—exciting, but scary, too! I’m glad you came to me with this question; I have been in your very situation and have much to say on this topic.
First of all, Rick, I am going to disagree with these “older artists” of which you speak. Looking for gallery representation is not “sort of” like dating—it’s exactly like dating. I’ve been through the process on both fronts, and I am here to tell you that finding a dealer is just like finding a man. Years ago I stumbled upon a very popular book called “The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right,” by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. Well, that baby changed my life! It helped me land Doug, the debonair and handsome man of my dreams, and I’m certain that its wisdom, thoroughly ingrained, secured me a position with the dealer I cherish and work with to this day.
With you in mind, Rick, I went to the self-help section of my home library and took down this personal Bible. I think that if you adhere to the guidelines (with a bit of creative license), the path to the perfect dealer will be as clear, easy and fun as finding a mate!
Here are just a few examples you will definitely want to practice:
Don’t Talk to a Man [Gallerist] First and Don’t Ask Him [or Her] to Dance [Visit Your Studio]
The best way to accomplish this visually is to look cool and unavailable. Think James Franco, Chloe Sevigny, or anyone else you know who strikes you as smart, talented and way more hip than you could ever dream of becoming. I recommend that you shop at American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, or perhaps some overpriced but strategically located used clothing store like Buffalo Exchange. Study the fine art of being a hipster. Don ironic eyewear and skinny jeans, and mess up your hair so people will think, no matter what time it is, that you just rolled out of bed. If you must dye your hair, make sure it’s a deep blood red or Smurf blue. Natural looking hair color only says, “I’m desperate and I just piled out of a minivan.”
Be bored. Really bored. Do not show any expression or enthusiasm, and make sure these gallerists know that you don’t care about anything, especially their ridiculous art spaces filled with their ridiculous and tired bourgeois clutter. Talk a lot about being late for band practice if you could even recall when band practice was going to start, and if a dealer tries to set up a studio visit with you, make it nearly impossible to come to an agreed time. If you do happen to schedule something, stand him or her up. When he or she asks you why you didn’t show, tell him that a) your friend, without your knowledge, put LSD in your Ramen noodle cup and you were battling zombies on a mental lunar scape; b) you’re still devastated by 9/11 (Cambodian genocide, Columbine, Occupy Wall Street, and poor circulation in any body part will also do); or c) your girlfriend/boyfriend left you for a girl/guy with a car. Use your imagination! The more arbitrary and trivial the excuse, the better.
Once you’ve mastered your look, be sure to follow these handy specifications:
Don’t: Talk too Much, Call Him, or Accept a Saturday Night Date After Wednesday. Do: Rarely Return His Calls and Always End Phone Calls First.
If you’ve mastered the hipster highway, none of this should be difficult. If, however, you are perennially cheerful and are unable to glide around with a moony Miranda July look on your face and don’t own a pair of ballerina flats, just try to adhere to the “Saturday Night Date” rule. I don’t care if Larry Gagosian bangs on your door—if he wants work for a show (especially a group show) with less than three months notice, send him packing. You and your work are far too important for any last-minute bullshit, and no dealer (or guy) is going to respect you if you give it up too easily.
I think you get the gist here, Rick. Go ahead and check out the list of rules in full—you will wonder how you ever achieved anything without pearls of wisdom like:
Don’t Tell Him [The Dealer] What to Do [With Your Work—or Anything], Let Him Take the Lead, and Don’t Expect a Man [Dealer] to Change or Try to Change Him.
What it all amounts to, Rick, is that you’re the bitch here and you always will be. There is no Hegelian Master-Slave thing going on here, so don’t think that if you cooperate you will ever achieve a little bit of power on your own. There are no creeps to avoid, as the whole business is kind of creepy, but when you get a dealer of your own, he or she will be your creep, and you will overlook all of his or her shortcomings just because you won’t want to be one of those uncool kids who doesn’t get asked to the prom. All of this makes it sound like a horrible thing, but once you settle in to the idea that you’ll be giving half your earnings to someone who might very well sell you down the river for the price of a bottle of Pine-Sol (but will give you a wall the size of a postage stamp to hang your work), you’ll be happy as a clam.
Bear in mind that the final Rule, #32, Be Easy To Live With, is probably the most important. Be agreeable, Rick. If a dealer says that your paintings would be better if you put unicorns on them, do it without argument. If he or she sells one of your works to a collector who forgets to pay, don’t make a fuss. The type of people who have enough money to buy art are plenty important, and if you stick your nose in there and remind them that they are, in effect, stealing your livelihood by not paying for the item that they are very happy to display openly on their walls, well, you’re just being disagreeable!
I’ve listed a few favorites from my favorite how-to book for you; I suggest that if you really want things to go well, you pick up a copy of “The Rules” yourself! You will see that getting your art on the market is as easy as reading a generic and irrelevant text that’s sure to infantilize you and bludgeon you into a passive state that will make you as malleable as a teenaged geisha or an orphan in a Dickensian-style workhouse.
Of course, for every rule there’s an exception, so be aware that there are plenty of artists out there who go rogue and who survive in the art world not because they are complacent, but because they have talent and a mutually respectful relationship with their dealers. They will make being a happily represented artist look effortless, and you should treat them like barnyard oddities or sideshow geeks.
I myself am happily represented by a dealer who’s not a creep at all, and thankfully, I didn’t have to look like Ellen Page to get him. I consider myself fortunate, and I know that there are quite a few “nice” boys and girls out there who will make you the star you deserve to be without the rules, as crazy as that sounds. So get reading, Rick. When you’re through, you’ll probably be very self aware and you will know if you’re ready to jump in the dealer-dating pool. And remember—get yourself in by curfew, never pick up the tab, and I don’t care what “everybody” is doing these days—none of the butt stuff.