How to Show Your Art at Galleries...

and Make the Most of Your Openings

Q: I have an art show and opening coming up at a gallery. I've had gallery shows before, but this one is really important. I want everything to go as well as possible. Any tips or pointers on how to take maximum advantage of the occasion? Please help.

A: Every art show or exhibition opening marks a milestone in your career as an artist. It's a premier, a beginning, a critical window of opportunity. It may only last a few hours, but it's like a microcosm of everything you've worked for and accomplished to this point concentrated into a one-shot whack at advancing your artistic aspirations. Why? Because anything can happen-- and it often does-- which means you gotta be there, be on, and be ready.

Your art never looks as good as it does at your opening. It's pristine, perfect and at the threshold of a new beginning. Everyone is optimistic about prospects for favorable reactions, healthy sales, and great reviews. But the most important ingredient is you, and the more aware you are of the implications of the impending onslaught of fans, followers, and art lovers, the better the chances to upwardly alter the course of your career.

I'm amazed at how many artists have little more than casual attitudes toward their openings, or worse yet, see them as inconveniences or distractions they'd rather not bother with. This makes no sense. They spend weeks, months or years creating the art for the show, but not ten minutes reflecting on how they'll present themselves at its public debut. They show up, stand around, smile, chit chat, schmooze with friends, sip wine, shake hands, respond, react, endure the imposition, go home, and forget about it. What don't they do? Prepare for the opening with purpose. So in case there's an art opening in your future, maybe consider incorporating the following gambits into your repertoire. You'll be glad you did...

The number one rule of art opening protocol is to BE THERE from the opening bell to lights-out. If you have to leave for any reason, tell whomever's in charge where you're going, how long you'll be gone, and when you'll be back. This way, people who want to meet you (especially potential buyers) know exactly how long they'll have to wait. Know that potential buyers can show up at anytime with any agenda, and your duty is to be available and accounted for 100% of the time. Better yet, unless it's urgent or an emergency, stick around the entire time. Remember, we're only talking a modest commitment of several hours at most, not days.

Now that you're there, make yourself available especially to people you don't know. The ones you don't know may well turn out to be the most important ones in the room. Don't get tangled up in talking to friends you can see anytime, let one or two gasbags monopolize the conversation, or get cornered by some pretender who talks big but has no intention of doing anything for you ever, like buying your art. One of the most common mistakes artists make at their openings is spending way too much time with people who are among those least likely to buy art or offer anything that's in any way good for their careers. It's not always easy to tell who's who at first, but the more art openings you have, the better you'll get at blowing off the time wasters. As for your biggest fans, you can bathe in the white light of their admiration anytime, so be brief and save longer interactions for later.

In general, keep the traffic moving; keep conversations basic and answers short. That way, you maximize opportunities to meet new people and add to your fan base. Be sure to speak in everyday language anyone can understand, especially when you're talking to someone you've never met before (if you need help with this, practice before the opening). Resist the urge to tell people more than they want to hear and avoid answering questions in complicated art jargon that only MFAs can understand. Best procedure is to answer all questions in thirty seconds or less (if you think that's too short, time yourself and see how much you can say in thirty seconds-- you'll be amazed). The longer your answers, the fewer people you'll have time to talk to. If someone wants to hear your life story, tell them you'll be happy to oblige them later, after the opening.

Make sure whoever you talk to understands what you're saying. Speak at their level and let them lead the conversation. If you see that they don't quite get what you're saying, slow down, back up, ask what they don't understand, and try a simpler approach. Or periodically pause the conversation and ask if they have any questions. Most importantly, avoid the tendency to be argumentative or to correct anyone who sees things differently than you do. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, especially around art.

So here you are; the stampede is on. Everyone's looking good, wanting a piece of the action, to be part of the scene, to rub elbows, get somewhere, be somebody, feel special, whatever. But you've got the wildcards too, strangers who come because they're curious, they find out about the show on art calendar websites or through social media, they're out with friends, they like art openings, they're walking by and like what they see, they like to look at art without being noticed, and so on. It makes absolutely no difference whether they have any idea who you are or have ever seen your art; anybody can become a fan, a buyer, or even help you out in your career. Anybody can decide for whatever reason and at any moment that they like your art and conversation enough to get serious. And in order to facilitate that seriousness in terms of generating sales (or more), you've got to make the process of understanding, appreciating and especially owning your art as effortless as buying a quart of milk at the grocery store.

If you feel it's appropriate, walk up and briefly introduce yourself to anyone who's actively scoping out your art, your resume, the show statement or your price list for any length of time. All you have to do is briefly say hello, introduce yourself, and move on-- no pressure, no nothing. You can tell real fast whether they're interested in talking. Remember, all kinds of people might want to talk to you for all kinds of reasons, but sometimes they either don't know what you look like or happen to be shy, intimidated, or otherwise reluctant to approach. If you give them a chance to make a connection, they may take you up on it. Deepen people's experience of your work and you win fans, followers, and maybe even collectors.

Do you best to answer questions in earnest and avoid stock answers. For example, if someone has a question about a particular piece of art or is wondering about the meaning or significance of your work, don't tell them it means whatever they want it to mean. Because guess what? They already know that. They want to know what YOU think it means. They want to understand and experience your art through your eyes. No matter how uninformed their questions may be, do your best to answer in ways they can appreciate.

It's not unusual for people to like art they know little or nothing about. Tons of people who like art know little or nothing about it; some of them turn out to be buyers and some of them may buy yours. I see this happen all the time; every buyer or collector has to start somewhere. So to increase the chances of those starts happening with your art, make sure you have entry-level explanations and answers to basic questions that keep them in the game. They'll really appreciate you for it.

You see, many people get anxious around art they may like but are not familiar with. To make matters worse, as soon as they don't understand something or feel the least bit confused or uncomfortable, they usually run the other way. In order to maximize the success of your opening, don't let that happen. Stay basic right from the start, because that's how people like getting to know new art.

As for the curators, critics, reporters, bloggers, influencers, photographers, and videographers in the crowd, no matter how insignificant their social media followings, publications, or websites or how much you may disagree with their views, give them absolutely everything they ask for (within reason, of course). You want coverage, reviews and exposure, and the more you get, the better. So if someone approaches you, introduces themselves and tells you they're with this publication or that social media platform or website, chat them up. Publicity is always good, no matter where it appears or what it says.

Every time someone writes about or posts images of your art, that means they believe your art's worth writing or posting about, and even more importantly, more people will see it, and you'll have one more search result on Google. As for that upstart with a microscopic following but who loves to write about art, they may one day become the art critic for a major publication or social media influencer par excellence. Furthermore, you never know who might stumble across their coverage, like what they see, and decide to take action. The more people who see your art in more places, the greater the chances that good things will happen.

A few additional pointers:

* If someone doesn't know who you are or isn't familiar with your art, go easy on them. Make them feel welcome at your show and answer any questions they might have.

* Even if you're uncomfortable in public, make yourself available; avoid appearing aloof or preoccupied. You only have to endure this for a few hours, and you never know who you might meet or where conversations might go.

* Make sure everything is priced and that prices are visible for everyone to see. Requiring people to ask how much your art costs eliminates potential buyers who for whatever reasons don't feel comfortable asking.

* Always keep an eye on the crowd. If you're involved in a conversation, but see someone who looks like they need help or who might have questions, either point them out to gallery personnel or briefly excuse yourself and approach them. If you need help and nobody helps you, you leave, right? You don't want that.

* If you're talking to someone you know and someone you don't know comes up and wants to talk to you, politely tell the someone-you-know that you'll be delighted to continue the conversation later. Then talk to the someone-you-don't-know. Keep the someone-you-don't-know waiting for as little time as possible. Remember, the most important people at your opening may turn out to those you don't know... yet.

* Make sure you have enough copies of your show statement, press release, and price list available at the front desk or counter. Nobody likes having to look over other people's shoulders, having other people look over their shoulders, waiting for someone to put their copy down, or reaching for one and having someone else grab it first.

* Be careful not to pressure anyone or oversell (this is not usually a problem with artists, but it is tempting from time to time).

* Be positive. No complaining. No trashing other artists, collectors, galleries or anybody or anything else. Whatever you say, keep it on the up-and-up. Negativity gets you nowhere.

* Stay sober. You'll have plenty of time to party your brains out later.


Now that you know what TO do at your art events, you can read about what NOT to do here: How Not to Act at Your Art Shows and Gallery Openings


(Art by Jane Rosen)

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