Without a doubt, one of the questions most frequently asked by emerging artists is: “How do I get my first gallery show?”
For unknown, unconnected artists -- especially those who make street art or live outside the New York City and MFA “bubbles” -- the world of galleries and art dealers can seem intimidating, mysterious, and confusing.
It may be tempting to throw up your hands and call the whole thing a rigged game, but the truth is that outsiders and emerging artists find gallery representation and get their first gallery shows all the time. If you have great work, some business sense, and a lot of patience, it’s entirely possible for you to land your first gallery show.
Create A LOT of Artwork
It may go without saying that before you start scouring the internet in search of the perfect formula for how to get a gallery show, you should actually have work to show. After all, what use is there in going through the trouble of convincing a gallery to take a chance on you, only to find yourself unable to fill their walls?
Still, you might be surprised at how common it is for eager, well-meaning artists to worry about how to get a gallery show before they’ve actually put together the necessary portfolio. This makes sense. We all want success, validation, and the feeling that we’re making progress, but approaching your career in this way is a textbook example of putting the cart before the horse.
Committing the time needed to build a deep portfolio will not only help you to develop your craft and artistic voice, it will also showcase your commitment and professionalism to any dealers and gallerists you encounter in the future.
The first step to getting a gallery show, then, is both the simplest and most difficult: Make work -- lots of work.
That said, it’s also important to remember that quantity of work is by no means the only factor at play when you’re hoping to land your first gallery show. You also need a coherent stylistic and thematic vision. If, for example, your portfolio features a few photorealist landscapes, a few pop art prints, a giant abstract sculpture, and a couple of expressionist portraits, how in the world will any gallery know how to market and sell your work?
Learn to Tell Your Story
If you’ve already assembled a cohesive art portfolio, you should spend some time learning to talk about your work and your role as its creator. Ask yourself what you’re trying to say in your work, what’s brought you to this place in your life as an artist, and where you and your art are headed next.
It may seem obvious, but making great work and being able to speak eloquently about it are two very different things. Many of us cling to the romantic image of the brooding, mysterious, and aloof artist, interested only in their work, above the practical concerns of sales and marketing, but this is an unrealistic model. Art is a business, and before any buying or selling can be done, dealers, collectors, and visitors will need context, background, and insight from the artist about their work.
This can certainly be intimidating, but on this point, ArtBusiness, in an article on public speaking for artists, offers us a great reminder: “You happen to be the world's foremost authority on yourself and your art.”
Not only will this work prepare you for any future public speaking engagements, it is crucial in securing representation, as gallery owners will need to know that you are working with intent and have a vision for your future as an artist. The portfolio of work you’ve put together may be terrific, but where is it going?
By learning to talk about your work and where it’s headed, you are in a much better position to showcase what veteran art consultant Alan Bamberger calls, in a piece for ArtBusiness, your work’s “promise for an evolving, engaging and ongoing narrative.” You can also demonstrate that you have “some sense of a game plan, guiding principle or philosophy” and are not likely to run out of things to say or simply get bored and move on to something else.
Do Your Homework On Art Galleries (And Be Realistic)
Now that you’ve assembled a robust collection of work and are able to speak with insight and authority about it, it’s time to turn your attention to what art dealer Edward Winkleman of New York’s Winkleman Gallery calls the one of the “number one most important” steps to getting a gallery show: Doing your homework.
Before you rush off to Gagosian with your portfolio in tow, take some time to think seriously and realistically about where your work fits into the contemporary art market and which programs could best support that work. While it’s tempting to aim for the hottest, most prestigious galleries, doing so will almost certainly set you up for embarrassment, disappointment, and failure.
Not only is there no guarantee that these galleries represent the type of work you make, the harsh truth is that most of the world’s best-known galleries are simply not interested in working with emerging artists, who, by definition, have yet to prove themselves in the market. As Michael Corleone says in The Godfather: “It’s not personal..it’s strictly business.”
But don’t despair! There are plenty of exciting, innovative galleries that not only will consider working with unknown talent, but actually love to discover and support new voices.
In order to find the programs that best fit your work, it’s essential that you put in the time to research and visit galleries, speak with other artists, and take in a wide range of work and venues. Go to gallery openings and consider the work they’re showing. Does it speak to you? Can you (honestly) find a connection between this work and your own? This really shouldn’t be a difficult question. If you can’t see any solid connection, why waste your time?
There is a good fit out there. You just have to find it.
As you explore your options, keep in mind that your first gallery show is only a starting point, not the be-all and end-all of your career as an artist. As Bamberger put it, when you land your first gallery show, it is “neither the answer nor the end, but rather the beginning, a single line on your resume, and only one small step along what will hopefully turn out to be a rich and rewarding journey.”
Build (Expectation-Free) Relationships With Artists & Galleries
Once you’ve figured out where your work fits within the art market and identified a number of potential homes for it, your focus should be on building sincere relationships with the galleries and dealers whose programs you admire.
This is one of the most frequently overlooked steps to getting a gallery show, but it is perhaps the one that can most distinguish you as a serious, professional artist.
Ask any gallerist and they’re sure to have dozens of horror stories about artists who -- because of arrogance or a well-meaning but naive enthusiasm -- have spammed them with website links, sent them countless unsolicited CD’s, or, even worse, shown up in person at the gallery, puffed with unearned confidence and carrying armfuls of their work.
In his blog post, Winkleman recounts one such all-too-typical day at his gallery, when a self-sure artist marched in with a CD of his work, insisting the staff review it and consider representing him. This artist, however, had not done his homework, and was unfamiliar with the gallery’s program. The work, as you might expect, wasn’t right for the gallery, and, as Winkleman writes, “Even if it had been, we already didn't like him (because he didn't take the time to get to know us before asking us to consider him).”
Given antics like these, it’s easy to see how a gallerist could become jaded, impatient, and skeptical of new artists. But in a world full of inconsiderate, entitled, and clueless dilettantes, you have a real opportunity to make an impression with your professionalism, class, and -- silly as it may sound -- common courtesy.
As Bamberger emphasized: “Gallery owners really really appreciate artists who respect the relationship and are easy to work with. To repeat... REALLY.”
Instead of focusing only on yourself and your own goals, let the gallerists you meet know what you admire about the work they represent and the artists with whom they’ve worked. Make it clear that you appreciate their goals and are a fan, without even mentioning your own artistic ambitions. Be genuine.
Try not think of this as some sort of manipulative schmoozing. After all, if you’re a serious artist, it’s only natural that you’ll have an interest in what other artists are up to; and if a gallery really is a great fit for your work, you’re supposed to enjoy visiting the space and chatting!
Only after you’ve taken the time to develop these genuine, expectation-free relationships is it appropriate to let your contact at the gallery know that you’d appreciate it if they would consider your own work.
Winkelman recommends following up with a simple email reminding them of your previous talks, and, if they’re open to it, sending along a few images or a link to your website. He breaks this down into 3 simple steps: “1) demonstrate that you understand the gallery program; 2) make clear that you enjoyed the dialog; and 3) THEN suggest that your work seems like a good match to you.”
If the gallery is open to new artists, and if they appreciate the work you’re doing, they can guide you the rest of the way.
Trust The Art Gallery / Art Show Process
If you’ve followed the advice of fellow artists and experts like Edward Winkelman on how to get a gallery show -- if you’ve assembled a cohesive body of quality work, learned to talk about it, done your research, and built genuine relationships with galleries -- you’ve done your part. What comes next is beyond your control.
It’s important to remember that the quest to land your first gallery show can be a long and frustrating one, in which patience and perseverance are key. This process that takes time (Ivar Zeile, owner and director of Plus Gallery in Denver, advises artists to expect securing representation to take as much as a year or two), and even if your work is incredible, you may struggle to find the right fit.
Through the ups and downs of the gallery representation process, and in your own art-making, it’s always useful to in mind the power of slow, steady work, or, as entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk puts it: “Patience is a super power.”
What’s been your biggest challenge or concern as you navigate how to get a gallery show? Let us know in the comments!