It was a dark and stormy night. Last Thursday, I mean. In Brooklyn, anyway. A storm that brought the kind of hard, windy rain that makes you want to stay home and drink tea. But I didn’t. I snuck into the back of the exhibition space at 3rd Ward instead, sodden and dripping after jogging four blocks from the bus stop without an umbrella, to catch a panel discussion moderated by curator and gallery director Krista Saunders called “Intro to the NY Art World.” The discussion, part of Saunders’ workshop on the same topic, included panelists Lori Zimmer (art person/founder of Art Nerd New York), artist Suzanne Broughel, art advisor and public art administrator Lisa Kim, artist Tattfoo Tan, and entrepreneur and curator Dexter Wimberly. Together with Saunders, the panelists’ past and present professional experiences span the NY art world — journalism, PR, galleries, curating, art advising, entrepreneurship, art administration, and of course, art making.
I am always surprised when artists tell me their BA or MFA program did not offer basic skills classes to help them learn the fundamentals of being a professional in such an incredibly competitive field. So it seems essential for artists and even creative freelancers to seek opportunities to attend public events like this, especially when they’re free.
I have to be honest: I have no idea what the panel talked about early in the discussion, while I was still standing in a bus shelter with a lot of soggy, grumpy-faced people. But I did arrive in time to hear panelists answer the million-dollar question: “How do galleries find their artists?” They gave heartfelt advice on organizing an art life and shared candid strategies, resources and shortcuts that take artists years to figure out on their own. Also, it was Brooklyn, so there was free PBR.
Here are five ways you can help yourself as an artist, courtesy of Krista Saunders and the “Intro to the New York Art World” panel:
1. Write an effective artist statement (and bio, résumé, application essay, etc).
If you know you’re not a confident writer, hire someone and work with that person to create a strong set of professional documents that will go wherever your portfolio goes. (Disclosure: this is what I do, and I love it. Call me.)
2. Make sure your work is seen.
Invite people to your studio. If you don’t have a studio, borrow or rent someone else’s space once or twice a month. Have conversations about your work in front of your work. If not at a studio, then exhibit your work; there are countless creative ways to do this on a budget. But it only counts when people show up. If you send a press release—follow up with an invite or a personal note. Offer free alcohol, people are always willing to show up and look at art if they can also drink free booze.
3. Reach out. No, more. Now keep doing it.
Do not spam anyone, but seek out and connect with people you respect. Attend artist talks, ask for things, submit to things, propose things, request things. You never know.
4. Stop sending unsolicited submissions.
Truth: Most curators and gallery directors do not find new artists through unsolicited submissions, because just receive too many and because life is short and because you are a stranger. When gallerists are seeking new talent, they turn first to the people they trust in their networks—their own artists, their collectors, curators they know. Building relationships with people you genuinely have an affinity for within this network is therefore a far wiser investment of your time than sending your portfolio to strangers.
5. Set priorities according to your values: create a business plan.
There are lots of opportunities you could pursue, but which ones will bring you closer to your goals? At its simplest, a business plan is a document that lays out the steps to your goals, identifies your resources, and builds a timeline for achieving these goals. An art career is like a business—you should have a plan.