Growing the Pie, Part IV: New Towns, Other Galleries Can Help Artists Grow Careers

Cleveland artist John Carlson was in Manhattan years ago, pounding the pavement to make connections in galleries he hoped might show his paintings. Buoyed by recent acceptance into a well-respected show in Ohio, he made a point of dropping into a gallery owned by the very selective New Yorker who had juried him into it.

Carlson introduced himself to the woman working the gallery floor, chatted for a bit, and handed her his business card. On his way out the door, he thought of something he meant to ask. He turned around just in time to see her toss his business card in the wastebasket.

“I walked outside and had that hollow, weird feeling in the pit of my stomach like you got when you were a kid and you were busted for something,” Carlson said.


Gut-wrenching as the experience was, he has had plenty of successes since then. In August, his work was accepted into the Bowery Gallery Annual Juried Competition in New York. Closer to home, the Massillon Museum in May presented Paintings and Drawings by John W. Carlson. He remembers the thrill of receiving an acceptance letter for his proposal for the solo show. “It’s a museum,” he says.

Plenty of Cleveland artists would like to follow a similar path in broadening their audience. The good news is that there is an almost endless list of venues with strong reputations that are also receptive to new talent.

Judith Brandon has made a career selling her large, ethereal drawings and paintings based on nature and weather. She racks up a busy exhibition schedule with shows in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and beyond.

“Honestly, it’s my belief that most greater Ohio galleries are willing to look at proposals from Cleveland artists,” Brandon says. Off the bat, she cites the Coburn Gallery at Ashland University, Mercyhurst University in Erie and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in Lancaster, as well as the Southern Ohio Museum, Parkersburg Art Center in West Virginia and Sinclair Community College in Dayton.

Those are in addition to venues like the Canton Museum of Art, the Mansfield Art Center and the Youngstown-based Butler Institute of American Art, where Dr. Louis Zona says Ohio artists are shown right alongside national exhibitions.

The Massillon Museum, which hosted Carlson’s solo show, last year invited 10 artists from across Ohio to make work using museum objects or archives as inspiration. “Due to the concentration of talent and the receptiveness of Cleveland artists to the call for participation, half of the artists in the exhibition hailed from the Cleveland area: Dana Depew, Kristen Cliffel, George Kozmon, Melissa Daubert, and Gina Washington,” said curator Heather Haden.

In Oberlin, the Firelands Association for the Visual Arts presents juried and invitational shows, and has a strong track record of exhibiting Cleveland artists. Reid Wood, a founding member of FAVA who also sits on the exhibitions committee, mentions Michelangelo Lovelace, George Mauersberger, Susan Danko, and Kevin Kautenburger as among Clevelanders who have shown work there recently.

“In 2009, we had a group show of glass artists, who I believe were all from Cleveland or the area,” he said. “In 2016, we had a group show of glass artists and paper artists, all of whom were from Cleveland.”

Wood says the exhibitions committee reviews proposals at twice-yearly meetings, and he also seeks artist suggestions from Cleveland-area venues such as The Sculpture Center, the Morgan Conservatory and Zygote Press.

Farther afield, at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana, spokeswoman Kaitlin Binkley says the team involved with exhibitions is open to new artists in two different ways: display in the museum or representation in the Paradigm Gallery.

“We rarely select artists for [museum] exhibition by way of their solicitation,” Binkley says. “That’s not been proven to be as quality a source of exhibition content, as most national-level artists are not actively soliciting for exhibits.”

But as for representation in the museum’s Paradigm Gallery, “We do find most of our artists by visiting art fairs and artwork submissions,” Binkley says. “We are looking for excellence in craft, and we judge submissions based on our confidence in the work selling. For example, an artist working in glass must be a master at what he or she does and the work must be priced to sell. Work that sells in the Paradigm Gallery generally includes work that could be displayed in an office or a home and is reasonably priced for what it is.”

Many galleries and museums publish guidelines for artist proposals—or statements indicating that they don’t accept any. Websites don’t always include details on how artists can put their work in the best light, but gallerists advise knowing the basics of professionalism.

“I think this advice applies to any venue an artist is approaching for an exhibition,” says Reid Wood. “Visuals of the work should be well shot—not out-of-focus, not poorly lit, not with distracting images in the background. A corresponding numbered list of the artworks should be included with title, size, date, medium for each work; a CV and resume should be included. A proposal statement should be included.”

In addition to expanding their reach via geography, artists may benefit from engaging in well-chosen special projects or by presenting work in non-traditional settings. Judith Brandon’s first large-scale solo show, A Crash of Rhinos, featured 72 works at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. It grew out of a year’s worth of drawing at the zoo, including making footprint art with the resident baby black rhino, she says.

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The exhibition proved to be a seminal experience. “I was able to give a portion of the money to the International Rhino Foundation. Giving back and raising awareness of imminent extinction was the intent of the show,” she says. “I made connections to a public that normally would not step into a gallery. And yes, they bought art.”

“It’s important for young artists to know that you can create anything you want to, but you have to make a commitment to yourself to do it and know that if it’s going to be great, you will most likely be very uncomfortable,” Brandon says. “Showing at the zoo didn’t win me points in the arts community, but it gave me an experience that still resonates strongly in my life.”

Carlson has a few words of advice, too. He’s believes in visiting galleries and museums before asking them to show his work. He makes notes about artwork that catches his eye so he can converse thoughtfully when he does approach a director or curator.

“A lot of gallery owners put a lot of work into what they do, and they’re proud of it,” Carlson says.

And although personality alone won’t get an artist a solo show, it doesn’t hurt to be social and personable. “That has worked wonders for me, being nice,” Carlson says. “It has carried me through.”

This is the fourth in a series of articles called “Growing the Pie.” Through this series, from the perspectives of commercial galleries, individual artists, major efforts like FRONT International, and through opportunities available at regional institutions, CAN has been exploring efforts to reach beyond the Cleveland art market—by taking Cleveland art to other places, bringing it to the attention of collectors beyond Northeast Ohio and by bringing them here. Our intent is to help artists understand the possibilities, and learn from what others have tried and learned in the process. “Growing the Pie” is supported by a project grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

Sources & References for this story:

John Carlson

Judith Brandon

Coburn Gallery at Ashland University

Mercyhurst University (Erie)

Decorative Arts Center of Ohio (Lancaster)

Southern Ohio Museum (Portsmouth)

Parkersburg Art Center (West Virginia)