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.

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