Navigating the Art Gallery System: An Introduction

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As astounding as this may seem, there's a structure and a protocol to the art world, and to the gallery system in particular; it's a system that's been in place pretty much as long as galleries have been around, and one that's not about to change. So the quicker you learn the basics, the more time, effort, money and especially heartache you'll save when searching for galleries that are right for your art. The good news is that once you understand how things work, you can purposefully and effectively make your way through artland in order to get where you want to go, wherever that may be.

You see, artists proceed from exhibit to exhibit and gallery to gallery during the course of their careers in entirely orderly and predictable manners; nothing is random. There are always reasons why certain artists and certain kinds of art end up at certain galleries, institutions, museums and other established art venues. Likewise, art careers advance step-by-step, deliberately, incrementally and over extended periods of time. Sure, an occasional art star materializes suddenly out of nowhere, but this is by far the exception rather than the rule. And even these occasional materializations become orderly and predictable once the surprise wears off.

Just like in any other profession, artists early in their careers have to begin at the beginning, and in the art world that means showing your art pretty much anywhere anyone will have you. The only criteria at this point is that no matter where you show your art, be sure that some segment of the general population will see it, especially people who have never seen it before. Possible venues include coffee shops, restaurants, furniture showrooms, fashion boutiques, hair salons, lobbies of commercial buildings, renting an exhibition space with artist friends, private viewings at someone's home or apartment, juried or non-juried shows, open studios, and anywhere else you can get warm bodies through the door-- that's the key. Not only does this provide experience and feedback in terms of seeing how others react to your art, but it also maximizes the number of people who'll have opportunities to see it. And the more people who see your art, the greater the chances that someone will tell someone will tell someone, and one of those someone's might own a gallery or know someone who owns a gallery and like your art enough to either want to make contact with you or convince someone else to contact you. That's how gallery shows often originate.

Admittedly, those of you who've graduated from art school have an edge on the competition, at least during the early stages of your careers, meaning that during the course of your studies, you've likely been exposed to local gallery owners, critics, curators, collectors and other notable members of the art community-- so you kind of know who's who. Learning your area art scene geography is one of the great benefits of a formal art education, but it doesn't mean any of these people are going to do anything for you, and it sure doesn't mean you can walk into Triple A Fine Arts and get yourself a show just because you met the owner once. You've got to work your way up the ladder just like everyone else, but at least you know where to find the ladder.

Those of you who've acquired your art-making skills outside the academic realm (and there are tons of you too) can circumvent this logistical disadvantage simply by immersing yourself in your local art communities. Go to gallery openings, museum shows (especially for local or regional art and artists), talks, tours, open studios and other known art hangouts. Openings are especially good because you get to see large numbers of art people all at once. Don't go to one or two events and think you've done your duty; go to plenty and keep on going. You can either talk to people or not while you're there, although talking is better. Either way, the upshot of repeatedly seeing and being seen is that (a) you begin to see the same people over and over again, (b) sooner or later you find out who they are, (c) sooner or later they find out who you are, (d) conversations eventually break out, (e) you share information, and (f) you eventually figure out how to navigate the art scene just like everybody else . . . read more at 

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