STAY IN TOUCH
If an artist wishes to stay part of the ongoing narrative of ideas that is part of the intellectual life of curators, gallerists, and art patrons, they need to stay in touch. You can’t presume that people will know what you are doing – or even that you still actively work as an artist – simply because you have a disciplined, productive studio practice and you regularly exhibit your work. In contemporary life there is a lot of competition for attention. It helps to occasionally remind people about your work.
How do you stay in touch? Possibly the best way is to send announcements of your exhibitions. Paper announcements with personal notes are the most effective. Personal e-mails are better than bulk e-mails; bulk-emails are better than Facebook (gallerists like myself have so many friends that our feeds don’t include everything our friends post). If you tend to be in group shows rather than one-person shows, you can always print an announcement for a show with your image on the front. Postcards are inexpensive today.
More elaborately, some artists send holiday greetings with original art (this has been happening as long as there has been a United States Postal Service). Every year I’ve received a small holiday silk-screen print from John Pearson and Audra Skuodas. From Chris Pekoc, sometimes a New Year’s Card shows up. From Martha Posner, I receive a print copy of a digital Valentine.
While the world moves more and more digital, announcements sent by electronic media often receive only a glance. Paper media are more often saved. However, always do what you think works best for you and your work.
How often? You should send out announcements of all one-person and important group shows. Even if you are staying in touch with someone who is living far away, the announcement can remind that you are actively exhibiting. (And often enough, your northeast Ohio patrons will travel as far as New York to see an exhibition of your work.) For curators or gallerists, you might send a group of images when your work takes a new direction. Sending too much too often dulls interest as much as not enough.
Don’t always expect immediate response. Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson was selected in 2006 to have a studio visit as part of MOCA Cleveland’s Nesnadny + Schwartz Visiting Curator/Critics Program. The visitor, Katy Siegel, a curator at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, was positive and encouraging. Hildur responded by sending, about once a year, images of her current work and a note about her current exhibitions. Typically, curators receive a lot of mail, electronic and otherwise, but they often pay attention to everything, even though they may not necessarily respond. Hildur, did not expect response – her contact was not about personal relationship but about doing the job of an artist to keep in touch. Almost a decade later, Hildur was contacted by Katy Siegel, inviting her to be in the 2015 exhibition Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthlaler at the Rose Art Museum. It was an influential and important exhibition, widely reviewed and discussed.
I first met Brinsley Tyrell in 1980, when I was Director of the New Organization for the Visual Arts. We talked regularly and I attended exhibitions of his work from time to time, but other than a group show or two, I never invited him to be a gallery artist. In 2006 he began a series of large glass enamels, and suggested I take a look at a commission that he was completing with this new body of work. I stopped at the West 117th Street Rapid Station where he was installing and then visited his studio to see more of the works in that series. It seemed a good fit for my gallery for a number of reasons, and in 2008 I presented the first of his four successful shows there.
From my point of view as a curator and as an art dealer, I always had an interest in what Brinsley was doing, but I never felt an urgency to show it. With the enamels, it seemed the right body of work at the right time. As it turned out, both artistically and in terms of sales, it was the right decision. In part because of renewed attention that he received for that body of work, Brinsley Tyrrell won the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
I had a studio visit with Thomas Frontini based, in part, upon his works in the 1990 May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The work did not seem to be right for me at that time. I remained aware of his work through his exhibition announcements. He stayed in touch. Ten years later, with his work changing over time and my eye changing over time, I had another studio visit. I then scheduled the first of what led to several popular one-person shows.
Curating is as mysterious a process as making art. There’s a lot of paying attention to detail, gathering of information, paying attention to contemporary currents, and then, at the end, intuition. Often enough I made good choices at the right time. Several times, however, the artists were making the right art at the right time but for some reason I could not see what they were doing. I’ve cautioned classes of younger artists that if they are truly doing wonderfully creative work that is pushing the contemporary edge as well as being completely honest, I probably will not like it when I first see it. New art takes time to understand. I am grateful that many artists stayed in touch over time, so by seeing their process and development, I learned to understand what they were doing.
Who do you stay in touch with?
My father told me a story about a friend of his that was looking for a job. It was just after World War II and a recession made it difficult to find a job. He applied to an insurance company, for a job selling life insurance and other investment products. After several interviews he was called back again and found himself speaking to an executive who was responsible for his region. After a short discussion, the executive asked him for 25 more references. My dad’s friend was stunned, and had to admit he did not have that information offhand. The executive handed him a phone book (which had all phone numbers and addresses). The friend went to an outer office and completed his task, mildly irritated. He handed the paper to the executive who just handed it back: “You are hired. Here is a list of your prospects.”
Your contact list starts with people that you know. For artists at the beginning of their careers, the people who are most likely to purchase their work are people that they have known through their lives – everyone from their babysitter who had blue hair and a ring in her nose to their Aunt Martha who crocheted tea cozies in fuchsia and ivory. Add your Doctor and Dentist and Tax Preparer too. People that you know are more likely to be interested in your work than people that you don’t know. Even if they don’t know much about art or have much interest in art, they know you and your work will often have a way of speaking to them.
As your career develops, add to your list the people who have purchased your work. People who are likeliest to purchase the work of an artist are people who already own work by that artist. It is true that “most likely” may not be very likely at all – but, still, more likely than a list of reputed art patrons who don’t know you. Eventually many artists find a patron or patrons who collect their work on a regular basis. I know of one Cleveland artist who had patrons purchase hundreds of works; on a much smaller scale, I have work by Michael Loderstedt in almost every room of my house. Stay in touch with your collectors and they will promote your work to the people that they know. Be patient even if it feels like someone who enthuses about your work is never going to be a buyer. Sometimes a patron is waiting for the right piece (for them) to purchase and invite into their home. And sometimes the patron is saving up (aside from all of life’s other obligations) to have enough money to make a purchase.
Any curator or gallerist who has included your work in a show should be on your list. Sometimes a curator’s or gallerist’s interest is waiting for the right exhibition to include your work; sometimes they are waiting for the right body of work in your career. Be patient. There’s an annoying habit of critics and curators to be minimally responsive before they decide to do something with an artist’s work and then to be outlandishly enthusiastic afterwards. There are good reasons for this. Unless and until a gallerist or curator is sure of their intention to work with an artist, it is misleading, and, in some ways unprofessional, to raise expectations.
Stay in touch even if you are not sure you wish to work with a gallerist or curator. In 2009 William Busta Gallery artist Tim Callaghan curated a show of artists who he knew when he was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I was especially taken with the work of one of the artists, and complimented and encouraged. Although I usually only represented artists who lived in northeast Ohio and this artist lived elsewhere, I started thinking about the gallery representing his work. However, I never heard from the artist again, even when he had a show in Cleveland two years later. I understand that some artists might reasonably have chosen to not exhibit in my gallery. There have been several artists, with their own good reasons that made that choice – but that was not the case for this artist. As I later learned, it was just bad manners.
Staying in touch means creating and maintaining a good contact list with everyone who has expressed interest in you or your work. As much as possible, have land mail, e-mail, and telephone information. When an artist starts to work with a gallery, one of the most important assets that they bring is their list of people who have purchased or otherwise indicated an interest in their work.
Up to this point in this series (Make Art, Spring 2017; Know Art, Summer 2017; Show Up, Fall 2017) I have written about what I have observed that most successful artists do. This article is a departure. Many successful artists do stay in touch, but many don’t as well. Whether because of indolence or disinterest, many don’t pay much attention to the creation and maintenance of their contact list. Artists miss a lot of sales that way. They also miss a lot of opportunities. Keeping in touch can be the difference between a modest career and a successful career.
It does not take that many patrons and curators and gallerists and critics to make an artists’ career. It does not take that many patrons and critics to support an art gallery. Over the course of 26 years selling art, fewer than 100 patrons accounted for 80% of my sales. It is a person-to-person business for artists as well as gallerists. Maintaining my mailing list and staying in contact was one of the most important parts of my work. Unlike many other exhibition places, I regularly added people to my mailings who never asked. I also regularly dropped people from my list who had not purchased and never showed interest in doing so. It was something I worked on several days a week.
But when editing your contact list, be careful as you subtract. Curators who lose their jobs often pop up somewhere else and are influential again. Patrons who stop buying start buying again. Gallerists who close galleries often open galleries again. Even retired gallerists sometimes have some residual influence. Stay in touch.
Stay in Touch is the fourth in a series of articles based on lectures William Busta presented at art schools and universities in northeast Ohio over the past 25 years. Busta says “The series is not so much advice, as what I observed that most successful artists did.” Other titles in the series are: Make Art (Spring, 2017), Know Art (Summer, 2017) and Show Up (Fall, 2017).