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So what ARE curators looking for?

a MARN workshop held at Hotcakes

I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but every curator has different expectations and criteria. Think of it like dating. Some people are always attracted to the smart, nerdy type, some fall for a pretty face or a smooth talker, some just want to hang with the cool kids, some pursue who they THINK is good for them, some chase the popular girl just so they can tell their friends, and some seem to end up in the same relationship over and over. In the four and a half years I owned Hotcakes, I fell into most of those categories at one point or another. Like I said, every curator is different, but every professional curator wants to work with artists that act like professionals.

I mentioned in my first post that I also co-founded a nonprofit art service organization, the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN). MARN has an ongoing series of workshops that bring in industry experts to lecture and answer questions based on a number of topics relating to professional practice in the arts. Each year for our most popular workshop, “How to Approach Galleries,” I would bring in a couple different gallery owners and museum curators to share their very personalized techniques for choosing artists to show.

One museum curator said that for one full day every couple months, he would sit down and go through all the proposals that had accumulated on his desk. His technique was to first read an artist’s statement. He felt that if the statement wasn’t well written — if the artist couldn’t communicate about her art or her process — then she certainly couldn’t make work developed enough to merit a show in a museum. Spelling mistakes also got proposals immediately rejected.

Curators at institutions generally have a directive that is dictated by a mission statement that was written by a Board of Directors. For example, the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s mission states that, “The Museum of Wisconsin Art serves the public good by collecting, preserving, documenting, and exhibiting visual art that represents the state’s unique art history throughout the ages.” So there is no logical reason for an artist without ties to Wisconsin to apply for an exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Milwaukee gallery, The Portrait Society, posts very clearly on its website that, “Portrait Society is a contemporary art gallery devoted to portraiture. The gallery showcases both current and historic artists who work with the ideas of portrait traditions. Portrait Society is interested in project driven bodies of work that explore the concepts and ideas of making art about identity, presence and community.” Like Deb Brehmer, from The Portrait Society, most gallery owners, who have been in the art business awhile, are very clear about what they’re looking for. It’s the artist’s responsibility to do a little research, and find out what that is.

When I owned Hotcakes, I personally couldn’t care less what the artist statement said or where someone had shown in the past. I would look at images of an artist’s work, and I’d know right away if I wanted to show his/her art or not. There were obviously steps after that. The artist didn’t just get a show. It was important to me that every show at Hotcakes had at least a couple pieces for sale under $200, so next I would take a look at the artist’s pricelist. I remember a Chicago artist who sent me a proposal for a show. I had seen her work in person and loved it, but she was starting to get a little national attention and her prices reflected that. Everything she made was priced over $2000. She deserved every penny, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to the people who came into my gallery and it didn’t fit my mission of selling affordable art.

It took a couple years of getting screwed over and an in-depth understanding of the local art economy before I was able to openly express my expectations to artists and make those tough decisions. When artists came in to discuss their work with me, I always made it clear that first and foremost, I was making my decision whether or not to show their art based on if their body of work fit my mission and if I felt I could sell the art in my gallery… in my neighborhood… to my audience… for the price they wanted… based on current economic conditions. I’ve always felt strongly that there is a market for ALL art. It just may not be in MY gallery, or for as much as the artist thinks it’s worth.

Just remember, when you show at a gallery you are entering into a business relationship. You can’t just jump into a partnership without doing research about who you are tying yourself to. What if the gallery didn’t take an active role in promoting the show? What if the curator didn’t show up to the opening? What if the gallery didn’t care if it sold anything? What if at the last minute it decided it wanted to show a completely different body of work than you’d originally agreed on? You’d think it was totally unprofessional. You’d be pissed. You’d not only never work with them again, but you’d tell other people you knew in the industry not to work with them. Well, that goes both ways. The artist and the gallery are entering into a professional working agreement, and both sides need to keep up their end of the bargain. Candid communication is key.

If you present yourself well, act like a professional, and follow through on everything you said you would, curators and gallery owners will be excited to work with you. That is as long as your work sells. I often tell young artists to think of the music industry. A record label isn’t going to sign a band that doesn’t have a proven track record of sales. It costs a lot of money to promote, distribute, and showcase a band. It’s a huge investment to help build that band’s career. If the band can’t sell CDs in their hometown, to people that know them, then there’s no way they are going to sell enough worldwide for the label to recoup it’s costs. It’s simply a bad investment for the label, and that band isn’t going to get signed.

Similarly, a gallery is investing in an artist’s career. If all goes well, they may work together for decades in a mutually beneficial business partnership. But like that band, it is very unlikely that a gallery is going to invest all the time and money it takes to put on a show and help grow an artist’s career, if that artist can’t even sell a couple paintings in a local coffee shop.

So be honest with yourself about where you are in your career. Start showing in suitable venues. Always act like a professional, and give your art career the time and commitment it deserves. If you price your work accordingly and start making sales, it won’t be long before curators are begging you to show in their galleries.

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