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What do I do at art events – specifically at gallery or art fair openings?

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The fine arts industry offers all sorts of event types: gallery brunches, artist talks and preview dinners; work screenings, press conferences and afterparties; finissages, closed collector events etc. Exhibition openings and art fairs are the industries’ flagship events, and can feel intimidating because of their open social architecture. Whether they happen at galleries, art fairs, non-profits, museums or elsewhere, they don’t specify or demand a specific way of interaction. Primarily, openings exist for the public to be able to experience an artist’s manifested vision, their universe. Yet openings are just as much about the hosting institution, which the public gets to see in its newest form, its latest incarnation – which can be especially true in the case of curated group shows: who gets exhibited by which curator, and what does it imply about the current state of the venue?

Art events are social gatherings, and thus inherently feature randomly shifting opportunities.

While art events are usually based on the idea of experiencing art, they always also include social interactions at their core. This highlights the reality of the art world, which combines the idealism of artistic expression, with the realities of curiosity, networking and the art market. Newbies will quickly realize how rare it is for visitors to actually care about the exhibited work. People can be superficial, unfriendly or rude, which can overwhelm inexperienced or sensitive younglings. Might it be healthier to disregard openings altogether? After all, the studio offers a focused comfort zone with the possibility to pursue art making: where studios seem to incorporate pure idealism, art events can at worst feel to simply incorporate the bad breath of alcohol and capitalism. 

Both statements are based in clichés though: essentially, both domains offer their own challenges. To progress, you need to both work and network, in order to steadily establish both your oeuvre and your visibility. Depending on your character and fears, your inexperience and insecurities can cloud your judgement: if you don’t know anyone in a scene, it will be unclear what to do, and how to ever belong. But as always, there’s value in expanding into the unknown.

Understand openings as free networking events that you can ride like waves, and experiment to find your place within them.

Understand openings as free networking events that you can ride like waves, and experiment to find your place within them: witness and note which people actually consider the exhibited art, who knows whom, and how crowds will form groups of attitude and mutual consent. See openings as opportunities to learn about your industry (about its various interaction modes, languages and key players), and appropriate them to become another part of your networking strategy. See them as what they are: events where people get to meet each other, unique because of their open social architecture that allows people to arrive randomly, unexpectedly, and without commitment. Use them to get to know your peers, who might turn out to become business acquaintances, artist collaborators, friends or lovers – and to ultimately find your flow of moving from one opening to the next: randomly, unexpectedly, and with the commitment you see fit. See them as opportunities to transcend your comfort zone and your knowledge of art, and to expand your social circle.

To reduce the threshold of attending to art events, consider forming a group of like-minded peers. This lets you schedule the event upfront, and will result in everyone being more motivated to attend. It also reduces the risk of being unaware of important events, since your peer group creates a heightened awareness of them. You can meet in someone’s studio or for a drink, then head to the event together, and end the evening discussing your experiences.

Here are various things to do at art openings (or other art events):

  • Experience the artworks, and expand your knowledge about them: With art right in front of you, of course you’ll want to see whether there’s anything to learn from the exhibited pieces. What do you feel? What do you experience? Has the work been done sloppily or is it well-crafted? Is the artist known or emerging? Do you know how the gallery got to collaborate with them? What are your thoughts about the specific way the works have been installed? What would you have done differently, and why? An event’s exhibited artworks represent the core connection to your own artistic practice, independently of whether you understand or enjoy it.

  • Study the handouts: Every exhibition will have handouts with prices, the artist’s CV and a text about the show. Read these to expand your knowledge about both art and gallery: what do you think about it? Is it written clearly and concisely? Are there new words or phrases you can remember and incorporate for your artist statement? Does the text use ideas that you can adapt? Do you know the person who wrote the text? If you enjoy the text, remember who wrote it – you might one day ask them to write about your own work.

  • Scout and Connect: Try to scout the attendants to understand who they are, what role they have, and whether they might be interesting to you. This can include fellow artists, collectors, critics, the gallery team (owner, gallery director, staff), the general public, etc. Try to understand who attracts you for their sensitivity or verbal finesse, who’s there only to get seen, who’s needy and pushy. Scouting isn’t about getting to know the right person, but to understand each person’s relevance to the art world, and to discover your potential mutual relevance. By increasing your knowledge about the scene’s players, you’ll also increase awareness of how you might eventually fit in.
    Art events always also attract stereotypes: rich collectors, arrogant art students, know-it-all art critics and curators; but what about the others, the individuals that don’t fulfill a cliché? Find them, and see what happens once you connect.

  • Converse (“network”): Try to understand who’s interesting to you, and start a conversation with them – knowing that as a newbie, you’ll ​be invisible to most others for a while. That’s OK, since you don’t want anything from anyone: you’re not looking for an exhibition, a review, a solo show: you’re just here to understand and get to know others: to network. You can do that by talking about anything that’s interesting to both of you: the exhibited art and artist(s), the gallery; personal projects and challenges, etc. Be authentic and enjoy the other person’s presence. If you feel that they don’t enjoy yours, simply move on.

    Stay sensitive of others stealing your focus and time: some people will push themselves between you and the event (sometimes even physically), and won’t stop monologizing about themselves. For whatever reason, they use you – they might be intoxicated, narcissistic, or just plain weird. Remember that you’re under no obligation to stick with them, and will sometimes have to excuse yourself in order to pursue your actual mission of getting to know and actually engage with people.

    In case of interesting discussions, consider asking for contact information. This enables you to stay in touch via mail, or by simply forwarding your most recent newsletter. This gives the recipient the chance to see your work, and to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • Aim for the kill: If you want to approach someone who doesn’t know you, take a step back and calmly judge the situation: would you bother them by introducing yourself (they might be in an important conversation, could be intoxicated or simply busy)? Is there someone who could introduce you easily? Approach them sensitively and smartly, considering these circumstances: tell them who you are and that you appreciate their work, and whether they’d have a spare minute. Be humble and authentic, and stay open to the possibility of them not having time or energy for you – if this happens, ask them whether you could mail your request. Ask for their business card, and hand them yours.

  • Stay: This last point might be quintessential: don’t leave. Art events are social gatherings, and thus inherently feature randomly shifting opportunities. Instead of leaving once you experienced the exhibited art, stay and see what happens. This usually creates stronger opportunities that heading back home, and establishes yourself (to yourself) as someone who cares about both artworks and networking. You’ll notice new people arriving over time, and further opportunities with them. If the gallery is embedded in a local gallery network, consider visiting their neighbors as well.

How should I tackle life? What are general strategies?

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Since every life differs, there can’t be a specific route that applies to everyone. Instead, here are three general, structural approaches to tackling life. It’s up to each of us to derive strategies from them that are individually relevant.

  • Accumulate experiences. Life creates experiences, which help us develop strategies to confront upcoming challenges. We adapt these strategies throughout our lives: we fail, are embarrassed or unlucky, and try to fail better next time – until we succeed or turn away. Even the most horrible experiences can serve as stepping stones to better understand ourselves and the world. We might not want them, but it’s up to each of us to make use of them.
    Experiences happen all the time, and don’t require a specific setting. They happen when meeting people, reading books, watching movies. They don’t even require external input, since our minds can produce them based on previous experiences, through thinking and introspection. They even happen through our dreams, where our subconscious automatically processes previous events. Life constantly shows us new things, and introspection can happen everywhere – in front of an older work of yours, or the daily commute. Accumulate and use your experiences to make sense of life.

  • Accumulate friends. Life usually starts in the small circle of trusted family members. We slowly increase our social reach: kindergarten, school and hobbies, work or university. Along the way we find like-minded people who represent a safe haven, and allow for self-doubt, truth inquiries, growth. They help us make sense of our experiences, to develop strategies and handle upcoming challenges. We reciprocate and help them make sense of their lives. Some friends become collaborators in our professional projects, others listen from further away; some are in our lives only temporarily, others more permanently – yet all of them are important. While some of us lead continuous inner dialogs to reflect their experiences, others need external stimuli, other people for this. Either way, we need friends to make sense of life.

  • Accumulate self-knowledge. As we grow older, understanding of our selves and our sensitivities increases – as does the knowledge about our inabilities and incompetencies. It all gets ever more obvious: whose advice suits us, what behavior harms us. Sometimes we trust the wrong individuals, and need to recalibrate our internal compasses. Sometimes we use the wrong strategies. We discover patterns of inadequate behaviors, both in others and ourselves. Some can be transcended through introspection and hard work, while others benefit from the structural approaches of psychotherapy. The more we invest in self-knowledge, the better we will understand ourselves, the world, and our place in it. The less we care, the harsher life will become: accumulate and increase your self-knowledge to make sense of life.

No matter how hard we try: our actions are always ultimately insufficient; we can’t know everything, we can’t “win” life. Eventually we all die, and that’s that. Experience, friends and self-knowledge can’t protect us from that – but they will enrich our lives. They will help us be better prepared and feel more welcome in life, and thus represent ultimate aids. They prevent us from continuously starting at Square One, which seems essential to leave a positive footprint in the world.

Life, relationships, socialization, personal growth: how does it all connect?

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Humans want to feel safe, embedded, relevant and valued. While we can create these states to certain degrees autonomously, it’s usually through interaction with others that we thrive. Social interactions are the basis of our species, but can be risky: what about misunderstandings, quarrels or fights? We need ways to judge others, and our interactions with them. Establishing​ emotional autonomy is a quintessential part of adulthood: to increase one’s capacity to self-soothe, to create a feeling of safety and to feel valued just for one’s own sake. Only those who can do this, can really care and love others – since otherwise they need a high degree of reciprocation.

This makes attention between humans a major currency (some will also feel this from animals or objects) – denial of it is immediately noticeable, and usually leads to frustration and pain: consider how social deprivation (through incarceration) is considered to be society’s strongest punishment. Since we crave others, it’s important to understand what sort of “other” is actually beneficial to us – without this understanding, unhealthy relationships will thrive.

Relationships are complex, implicit deals: they can be good, bad, and everything beyond such obvious patterns. They allow for endlessly​ intricate dynamics, way beyond schoolbook teachings, and even change over time: relationships are never static, but change according to their participants. That’s why introspection and discussion of experiences are important – they help us analyze and judge our encounters of the world, potentially turning hardships into life lessons. They help us uncover and understand the implicit, unspoken aspects of our selves and our relationships. This is extremely powerful: it can turn a victim into a proactive re-interpreter of past actions, resulting in someone with the power to influence future actions, and thus our approach to life itself. Relationships are complex puzzles that we can try to solve – perpetually.

Time Does Nothing

Depending on one’s socialization, it can take years to understand what sort of interpersonal contact is healthy and sustainable (offering safety that allows for growth). As we grow up, our unique character and style is blended with the behaviors of our educators. These usually become our first sociological and moral compass – but not necessarily one that actually suits or benefits us. Judging people and ourselves requires us to analyze our compass, which requires the deepest inquiries into our upbringing, and can uncover haunting realities. Judging people is an endless challenge, and benefits from an open mind, psychosocial knowledge, empathy, and the willingness to reflect our past behavior and interactions: time itself doesn’t turn experience into knowledge. 

You ultimately want to surround yourself with people you can benefit from. To understand what this means, you need to understand the many shapes and forms of benefits: criticism, economic support, attention, abandonment, collaboration – behavior that leads to your spiritual and emotional growth. Simply finding these in a person doesn’t imply beneficial behavior though: it’s always about a person’s attitude, their behavior and intention, and how these feel to you. The more you know yourself, the better your choices may be. At the same time, an increase in knowledge will always also blind you through arrogance: the more you think you know, the less your eyes and your mind will remain open. Finding a balance between knowledge and openness is a life challenge.

How can I increase agency to proactively handle life?

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We are all endlessly challenged by life, with a major obstacle being our frequent lack (or low degree) of agency. This also applies to artists, which is why increasing agency can often feel like a primary objective: to set up a life where your proactivity influences your fates as much and as competently as possible.

Agency is the capacity to act, and thus the result of all of a person’s experiences,  thought patterns and psychological strategies – it doesn’t come easily or for free: it’s hard to do anything when depressed. There’s little agency available to a victim. It’s often the result of years of introspection, discussions, (self-)coaching or therapy. While every child has certain decision-making freedoms, a grown-up has deeper, harder, more challenging and potentially more consequential decisions to ponder.

As an artist, you want to make use of the creativity ascribed to children – the many ideas, hopes and dreams that can result in an artwork; your most precious challenge is to use your agency to pursue your art practice. At the same time, you need a firm grasp on the world, on reality: as potentially self-employed person, you need to navigate your life through both artistic practice and personal challenges, with ever-increasing business-savviness, self-knowledge and self-care. There’s little child-like about any of this. You need to develop a balance between the potentials of your inner child, and the necessities of being grown up. Every challenge lets you refine this balance anew. Yet quite obviously, some of the situations we’ll face will simply be too much for us. They can bring us to a stand-still.

How then to approach challenges? Consider the following template:

  • Analyse the situation: What’s going on?
    • What’s the essence of the challenge? 
    • What are the intentions and goals of each of the challenges’ participants?

  • Create agency: You need to find out what room you have to maneuver the situation. Without this, there’s little space  for agency. By starting to ponder your options, your agency begins to manifest. This removes you from self-victimization, and instead lets you become proactive. Ideally, you manage to create agency
    • without causing harm to yourself (by compromising your core vision, collaborations, work, etc.), and
    • without causing harm to others.

  • Implement the steps as envisioned: Life will always interfere with the dry theory of plans. The better you visualize your strategies upfront, the easier they might play out, and the better you will likely be prepared for alterations. The stronger your experience with the specific subject matter, the better your chances in manifesting your vision: how to stretch a canvas; how to sell a sculpture; how to end a gallery collaboration; which lawyer to involve. The better your knowledge about psychological aspects of yourself and the involved people, groups and cultures, the less friction there will usually be between theory and practice.

  • Do a postmortem: Reaching the finish line sees you more experienced: you moved through (or sidestepped) challenges, and experienced successes and/or failures. Yet how did you succeed or fail specifically? What’s the anatomy of the situation and your path through the challenge(s), analyzed retrospectively? The deeper your understanding of your experiences, the better you can be prepared for similar future experiences. The wider you dig into your experience, the better you can be prepared for further, slightly different future experiences: few situations result in only one lesson to learn. Most likely, there are all sorts of things to remember, for the next time a challenge arises. Consider:
    • How spot-on was your original analysis? Were there specific aspects that unexpectedly were (in-)correct? Where did you succeed, and where did you fail miserably in understanding and anticipating the situation?

    • How good was your strategy (to create agency)?  If you understand your plan as a sum of actions with specific attributions: what were their consequences, and how could you have improved the result? Could you have reached the goal more smoothly, with less alienation or humiliation, or simply quicker or more efficiently?

    • How did your implementation actually play out? Which aspects did you not consider correctly, in regards to people, situations, materials, processes etc? Which specific collaborators or negotiation partners, likes or dislikes emerged from this episode?

Our lives are built on experiences – yet experiences themselves aren’t always to be trusted; if you don’t invest time to reflect upon them, they can stay shallow. It usually pays off to interrogate your actions (and their outcome) both radically analytically and emotionally. You need to embrace yourself, hug yourself, and then still find out why things went wrong or right. With luck, this helps you understand the world.

The deeper you know yourself, the more likely you will find goals and strategies that will make your life bearable, and potentially exciting and fun. Noone can do this for you, since everyone’s truths differ. You can surround yourself with people who help you on this way – but the will to analyze yourself has to emerge from yourself. It’s the first and final step to being a person with agency, and thus the prerequisite to succeed as an artist.