Artists don’t require gallery collaborations or representations – they can establish successful, perfectly satisfied lives on their own. Nevertheless, most artists dream of the possibilities that emerge from gallery collaborations; they signify art world appreciation, and prestige by association. In this way, galleries symbolize hope: for increased visibility and sales, for an expanded network of gatekeepers, and for being able to more fully focus one’s artistic practice. How then to find a gallery, when they differ so drastically from one another, and are generally understood to be so highly unapproachable?
The basic strategy to find a gallery requires knowledge about your work, and about the gallery’s focus:
- Have a presentable body of work: You need to have a concise body of work in order to be interesting to a gallery. This doesn’t mean that you should show your work or portfolio when visiting the gallery; rather, consider it as the general prerequisite for gallery collaborations. Note that establishing gallery relations does not require you to already have a full body of work: solid relations are usually built on the feelings, energies and unique compatibilities between humans – not the judgements of art. You can start building relations to galleries today, and it will likely help you down the road, when you feel more confident about your work.
- Understand your work, and be able to discuss it: Pursuing your art practice throughout the years usually results in you having a good understanding of its characteristics. This should help you in discussing your work in various depths: what’s the one-sentence-description that you feel comfortable with, but doesn’t feel like a sales pitch. What is your work about, what art historical or contemporary references are relevant for you and your work. This knowledge can be your basis for conversations surrounding the gallery courting phase; while you’re unlikely to have such conversations right away, understanding your work and being able to discuss it with ease will send the right signals to gallery directors once they are curious about you. Understand that a deep knowledge of your work doesn’t mean that you should push it into conversations; but being well-prepared allows you to drop information when the conversation’s flow leads to it.
- Understand the gallery in question: You need both a general understanding of galleries, and a specific understanding of the gallery in question. How do galleries work, and how does this specific gallery compare to that? What fairs does the gallery attend, what sort of artists are represented there (emerging, established, deceased); is there a specific semantic or media focus (performance, photography, figuration, abstraction etc), what price level do they operate in, what sort of clientele do they attract, how well-presented are the shows there, etc. Understanding a gallery lets you put your work in context: would it be a good fit? If so, it makes sense to try to establish a deeper connection with the gallery staff.
To better understand a gallery, visit them with the sole intention to check out their space and current exhibition – not to initiate contact. This relieves you of the pressure to act (and be judged), resulting in an atmosphere where it’s you that can judge (the exhibition, the display, the works, etc) – where you’re in some sort of power. Whenever you visit a gallery, consider their expectations upon seeing a stranger entering their business: in the best of cases, you might be a new customer. Wanting to highlight or discuss your work can quickly make you a nuisance, with energies immediately being imbalanced. If you instead repeatedly visit them over a year, to see their shows outside of the openings, they’re bound to notice your curiosity.
The basic strategy to approach a gallery depends on whether you’re already represented or not:
- If you’re already represented: Contact your gallery and ask them about the gallery you’d like to get in touch. Is there an existing connection that lets the gallery reach out with ease? Do both galleries attend similar art fairs or other industry events? Does someone of your galleries’ closer network know someone at the aspired gallery? Find out whether an organic way of contacting the new gallery is feasible – eg. through a mutual curatorial project, a joint booth at an art fair, etc.
- If you’re not yet represented: Establish organic ways of connecting to the gallery staff – by visiting their openings, artist talks, project openings etc. Instead of expecting quick results, you need to understand these steps as part of a courting phase that can easily take more than a year. While frustratingly slow to some, this phase lets you understand, compare and judge the galleries in question. You will get to see the differences in emotionality and professionalism, and get to know their closer surroundings; attending gallery events also enables you to connect to artists and gatekeepers, which in itself can be rewarding; they might tell you about the gallery, or even become collaborators or friends.
Your goal is to raise awareness of you and your work, ideally without being pushy. Resist the urge to contact the gallery directly (by sending an email, or visiting it in their office hours, to hand over a portfolio to the gallery director or staff). While doing so might sound pragmatic, it also shows your desperation, and lack of knowledge about etiquette and implicit industry standards. Courting is a dance that can rarely be skipped. Once a gallery is curious, it will find ways to see your work: the challenge is to spark their curiosity.
Understand that no matter how close you get, no matter how strong your urge to collaborate, galleries might have no interest: they might have enough artists already, might be downsizing, might not like your work, might not like you, might not see its economic feasibility for their current context, might see your work as too similar to another one of their artist’s work, or too distant from what they do. If you experience disinterest in basic conversations (no curiosity whatsoever), then it will likely be smart to accept this as rejection. You can still stay in touch and visit their shows, since this will strengthen your network: it’s good to know people. But don’t sulk: as in unrealized love relationships, you have to look further. If your dream about a collaboration simply isn’t per se founded in the reality of mutual business interests, there’s little you can do. Always remember: there are many other galleries out there to explore and connect to – but the ratio of artists to galleries is extremely uneven: it’s impossible for every artist to be represented.