After working in a fancy gallery (with art priced from $195 to $48,000) for a few months, I made a few observations about gallery culture. There is one that trumps the rest.
A great first impression is too important to mess up.
You will be less respected if you present yourself as a dirty, scatter-brained artist with no tailored mannerisms. If your clothes are all stained and torn, your posture sucks and your attitude isn’t authentically charming, you’re an easy write-off. Especially if your art is less than the most amazing thing people have ever seen.
There are always exceptions and exceptional people who can pull anything off. But in general, if you want to play it safe, do know that when a gallery takes you on, they’re investing in the future of their business. They will want you to have staying power. If you are to one day, say, have a solo show, they don’t want to have an embarrassment on their hands. Don’t get wasted at the opening and cuss someone out cause they thought your jellybean sculpture was part of the hor-d’oeuvres.
The gallery has to maintain its relationship with collectors, and so you have to be able to hold up your end while mingling with them, and whoever else shows up to the opening. So there’s more to it than how well you can mix colors. Get good at engaging with people, even if you find them boring or offensive. Approach them with a playful spirit, like you’re up for whatever they can throw at you.
I can’t think of a better way to brush up than Andy Warhol’s Party Book.
I thank God I found it on a friend’s bookshelf. Essentially, it’s nuanced lessons in party anthropology, with lots of interviews. Andy co-wrote it with a friend right before he died, looking back on his art career, all the great parties he went to, and what made them so successful. What is the difference between people at a party and people at work or at home?
People don’t go to openings because you bared your soul through some pigments on a hard surface—or because you tore up your baby clothes and wrapped the strips of fabric around a bunch of crucifixes and then burned it on your pro-life, racist neighbor’s lawn at 3am, took large-format photos of it all, got arrested and bailed out, then printed the negatives, and your ex-girlfriend’s brother agreed to build frames at just a fraction of the price from the frame shop.
Although that helps.
They go because it’s a social outing, they want to have a good time, and art happens to be one their favorite things.
Like the late great curator Walter Hopps is often quoted for saying, “Art offers the possibility for love with strangers.” Notice he didn’t say, “Art offers the possibility of annoying run-ins with whiny wimps.”
A small number of gallery-goers will be scouting for their next great purchase to enhance their collection. Or their bathroom. People who attend gallery events want to walk into a room full of work that feels powerful in some way. They want to be blown away. Like how we all want a great, magic partner in our lives, not some mediocre needy nag, right? Same with art. Cause otherwise, what’s the point in getting dolled up, checking your bank account and inviting your friends to come along? Not worth it for a bunch of boring crap.
So strive to be super-amazing at your art career—now that you’re working among the 50 trillion other art school graduates vying for their part in the movement of today’s relevant works.
The world needs great art. There are so many opportunities out there for artists, so go seize some!
All images from Wikimedia Commons.