I received an email recently asking for advice about breaking into the gallery world. I get these sorts of emails on a fairly regular basis now and can't respond to them all, and thought it might make for a good blog post this week/you guys might be interested.
It's always tough for me to respond to these, because sometimes it requires being blunt in a way that isn't exactly natural for me (but I've gotten better at since I've started teaching). I think I struggle with it because it frequently seems like people want a magic pill to get into the gallery world, a secret that only the initiated are aware of, when the reality is just an crazy amount of hard work.
I hope I toed the line of both being encouraging, and blunt. I can't write as well as I can draw, but practice makes perfect?
Anyway, hope you all enjoy.
Thank you so much for reaching out! Breaking into the gallery world is tricky; and even when you get there, it's often difficult to sell work. Getting there does not necessarily mean "you've made it", and it's difficult to make enough money to live. It's very rewarding, of course, and typically a big step for each artist; but it's a whole beast in and of itself to be mastered, and is not the sole key to your success.
However, if it's something you want to do, 95% relies on your work.
Yup, I mean that. 95% is just about your work.
It's not about who you know.
It's not about how slick your website is.
It's not about being a rural versus urban artist.
The most important thing is: how is your work?
Students often express disbelief when I say this. But the thing is, galleries want to be the ones discovering the new, hot talent, bringing the exciting new artist into the world. If I'm going to be frank, it's profitable for them; they can stand to make a lot of money with a hot new artist. Good galleries really do look at their submissions, comb through the artists that come their way and take the time to reach out.
I'll go further into what making great work means, but first let's get to that last 5%. The other 5% is comprised of generally not being an idiot, and knowing how to do the basic work of promoting yourself. You would be shocked by how many artists email galleries with lines like "hey yo check out my work", don't have websites, and generally are just tragically unprofessional. If you want to be in a gallery, you need to be able to submit your work in a way that's professional, with good photos of your work, and at least have set-up social media accounts (they don't need to have a massive following, but just show that you're trying). You also need to have a thick skin, and apply to tons of galleries and publications, collecting rejection letters like trophies.
Ok, so now that we've gotten that out of the way, back to the important stuff: the work.
So what is it they are looking for, when I say that 95% relies on your work?
Ask yourself, what are you bringing to the table artistically? What is different, unique, or exciting about your work, how does it stand out? This definitely doesn't mean you cater work to a gallery, or to that purpose of "standing out" in and of itself - I never would have found my own voice creatively if I had been trying to do that.
What it does mean is that you dive so thoroughly into what it is that you love artistically, and you work relentlessly to bring that vision to life.
An exercise I always have students do is to imagine walking into a gallery and seeing the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring work they could possibly imagine. What does that work look like? Be specific, try to see as many details as possible.
That's the kind of work you should be striving to make.
It also means you're constantly working on your own taste. To do this, you need to know artists backwards and forwards, especially those you admire. How much time do you spend trying to hone your taste? How much time do you spend studying the works of artists you admire? You need to be at the point where you could recognize the piece of an artist you admire without a label, because you're so acquainted with their color palettes and overall aesthetic. You also need to be able to take the work of less capable artists (I would often use myself), put that work up against your idol, and ask why it's not as effective.
It's painful, but a great exercise both in detachment and in improving your own work.
When I was living in Brooklyn, I would go to the Pratt library and get stacks and stacks of art books on different artists, and obsessively poured over them asking myself "why is this so good" and "why do I like this" and "why does this piece work so well". A lot of the times those questions don't have clear cut answers, but the process of looking deliberately, slowly, and methodically (sometimes taking 5 minutes to stare at each piece in a book) was enormously helpful. Eventually, with persistent questioning, I started to hone my own artistic voice.
What I'm advocating is that you dive headfirst into what it is that made you love art in the first place. That you immerse yourself so completely in the art world that you have developed your own aesthetic based solely on what you love (that does not necessarily just mean "beautiful").
And then, of course, you then have to work hard to create as much work as possible, getting as close as possible to your ideal.
When you create your ideal, when you have enough work that's been made to the apex of your abilities, and then when you have them properly photographed, catalogued, posted on a website, set up social media accounts... Then, you submit your work. Then you get rejected. And then you try again, continuously improving your work according to YOUR standards, until it works.
If you keep beating at it, eventually it works. It could take 2 years, it could take 5, it could take 10, but persistence and honest evaluation of your own work always wins.
I hope this helps,
Many of us have been there. That moment when we have $182 in our checking account, we’re getting paid in a week, and we need $30 worth of paint, paper, or whatever (recent graduates in particular, I’m looking at you). In that moment, $30 is a lot of money, and you have to decide between (for example) seeing your friends at the bar, and buying the art supplies.
But you know you can’t do both.
This small, common situation is a decisive moment for all of us, though it may not seem like it.
The number of students I have had who tell me “I’ve been meaning to buy X for a while” so they can test out some new idea is staggering. “Meaning to buy it for a while” - do you know what that really means? It means that for whatever X months (and sometimes years!) you’ve been failing to pursue your dreams over 30 dollars. Over $100. Hell, over $400.
In that moment, that $30 has become a barrier to the rest of your creative life. You’re not making your work today, tonight, tomorrow, this week, next week, this month - because you’re putting off buying what you need.
It sounds crazy, right? But I can speak to this because I’ve been there myself, and it took me a long time to learn better. When I realized small actions end up being the biggest obstacles to our creativity, I made great progress in my creative practice.
Taking the time and money to get what you need, putting it ahead of other things you’d prefer doing, these are some of the biggest monsters you have to overcome as an artist… Because they’re the ones that trip up the majority of creatives, the people who always “wanted” to become an artist, but never found the time or money to pursue their dreams. They cause people to put off being an artist every month - and eventually, those months add up into decades. Don’t underestimate them.
So why do the little barriers tend to morph into the largest ones to our creativity? Frankly, I believe it’s just another form of procrastination. We’re avoiding making our idea (yet again), because we prefer to daydream about it rather than sit down and do the work to make it a reality. And the sting of spending the money on something work-related compared to the fun and comfort of seeing a friend, going to lunch, buying a book, etc, is too tempting (after all, we’re tired, and could use a break). In reality, it seems so innocuous, but it’s a formidable foe to our development.
But - it goes even deeper than that. Fundamentally, I’m talking about consciously deciding your priorities, and living accordingly.
What else are you prioritizing over your art, over your dreams? Are you mortgaging out your dreams of being an artist so you can afford better quality beer, nicer makeup, tools or hobbies?
Stop. Prioritize your dreams at all other costs. Buy the supplies, and then use them (don’t hoard them!) Then fail. Then buy more, and try again. Trust me when I say you will feel empowered, alive, and better about yourself. That malaise, that quiet anxiety you feel before bed because deep down you know you’re not doing what’s necessary to make your dreams come true - it will only be eradicated by sacrificing for what you want and believe in.
A student of mine the other day was in a classic rut - one I see in nearly every student I have. They were overwhelmed by ideas, and found themselves unable to translate them into a tangible, visual result. They had all these great theories about what their art should be communicating, but they were stuck on how to get across their ideas.
This resulted in them staring at their notebook, head full of a million thoughts, without a single sketch to speak for. I think every artist has struggled with this at one point or another.
Most artists prefer to sit and imagine their perfect work over making it. Heck - I do! It’s so much more comfortable than getting down to the gritty work of trying to make the vision a reality. But why? Why is this habit so pervasive in the art world, and so difficult to kick? Why do we tend to opt for day-dreaming over doing? And is it really so bad?
I believe we do this because we subconsciously know that when pen is put to paper, that idea becomes real, fallible, and flawed in comparison to the perfection in our minds. Reality can never hope to be as immaculate as the images in our heads.
It feels safer to let those perfect ideas stay up there, never existing, absorbing our precious time in daydreams that never lead to anything tangible. The worst part about this trap is that it feels productive. You really think you’re working through problems, making progress on your vision…. But in reality you’re not. Art is not composed of daydreams, art is composed of action, and without action there will never be any art.
So is this habit really so bad? Yes, and I would go so far as to call it tragic. It is the cancer that causes millions of creative dreams to remain unfulfilled; it’s the reason someone wants to write a book in their 20s, and by the time they reach 60 have nothing to speak for but a general sense of longing. It’s what makes established artists stagnate, unknown artists devoid of meaningful work, and I would even say it’s a cause of depression and anxiety. Or at least, it was for me.
It’s really that bad.
So what’s the solution? I’ve thought about this a lot, and the only effective thing I’ve found is as simple as it is blunt: Just. Fucking. Start.
There is nothing else, there is no other option. You just have to make the decision to do it, and then you do.
Force yourself to sit down and make sketches of your idea; draw blobs for the figures, scribble in areas of the background, make a stick drawing of the sculpture, etc.
When you notice that your mind is buzzing with murky concepts, the act of making terrible sketches solidifies it in the world, giving you a touchstone from which to start, to improve, to rehash, to build.
Once you have that down, look at the sketch and think about the next obstacles to making the piece. Write them down (don’t just think!), then, beneath those, write out potential solutions. Make a timeframe for implementing those solutions, deal with them within the next week. Action, action, action.
In the act of drawing, you actually bring this idea of yours into existence. The important part is that you’re thinking with your pencil. You’re thinking in the same way that’s necessary to actually make your idea.
Consider this: if you were to die today, all those thoughts in your head would die along with you. They will be gone, never to be shared with the world, never to exist. Only when you turn it into something tangible does it live on.
Make bad sketches. Start on that grand idea you have had for forever. Start right now.
Hello world! Welcome to my blog. I hope to make this a place where you can find inspiration, drive, or a place of understanding where you are not alone in your creative process.
I want to start off with a topic dear to my heart, failure. Something we have all dealt with, something that's crippled me at times, and other times has turned into my ultimate tool for growth.
There are some lessons that, as artists, we have to learn and re-learn repeatedly. I had one instance recently, while working on a piece that turned out to be an utter failure.
Many of us know all too well the disappointment when a piece doesn’t live up to our expectations. We go through the cycle of conceiving it in our minds; inspired, we start creating the finished work. Somehow, the shadowy concept of our newest piece is always immaculate in our minds, devoid of flaws. This time, we are going to make something really great.
This optimism is often dashed once it’s finished (or halfway finished), and we realize it’s fallen short of our perfect mental image.
I talk frequently about this part of an artists’ process, because it’s so vital to our practice. It’s a moment of pain and self-doubt, where the mind is presented with three different options for coping and moving forward; of the three, the one we choose has a massive effect on our future work.
The three potential responses in that moment:
The first: you’re despondent, unable to see beyond the piece’s failures, you need to set your work aside for a while in order to build up your self-confidence again. You jump into the next piece only after having hidden (or destroyed) the failed piece, seeing it as a indictment of your skills. Because you can’t stand to face the work, you don’t learn from it.
I would argue this is by far the most common reaction.
The second: you convince yourself it’s not bad, focus on what you did great, and tell yourself you’re an amazing artist. You fail to learn from the piece and just jump into the next one, making the same mistake over and over again.
The third: you have a more distant perspective on your work, a calculated one in which you measure the piece against your longterm visual goals. You take a minute to brush yourself off from disappointment, then study the piece and see where you fell short. You do follow-up work, determined to learn from your mistakes and apply that learning to your next piece. You improve.
I’m sure you can guess which option I find most effective. But I don’t want to lie to you guys and say I’ve had this process down pat for a while, either. I remember preparing for a show a couple years ago, and I was so upset about this piece, I wanted to call in sick to the opening because I couldn’t handle the thought of standing next to it. Of course, I went in and smiled like I’m supposed to, but on the inside I was burning with shame because of how much I disliked what I had made (by the way, the piece didn’t sell, the gallery dropped me later on, and I cried a lot for a bit).
The urge to beat yourself up for your failures will never go away. You just learn to cope better, with practice.
Why are we so hard on ourselves?
Fundamentally, I believe the first reaction is most common because most of us struggle with self-compassion. We see the work as an indictment of ourselves; after all, it came purely from us, how could we not?
Art is difficult because, in the words of the book Art and Fear, it “helps you see the gap between what you intended to do, and what you actually did”. There is something profoundly painful about trying your absolute best, and failing… To the point where people will spend their whole lives only putting half the effort in, just to protect themselves (“I could do it if I wanted to”). And sadly, they never do - just because they are afraid of letting themselves down.
But have you noticed that approaches one and two, different as they are, both are driven by ego?
Even despondency and self-hate are still about you; the third approach is the only one where you take yourself out of it, and focus instead on your creative goal.
At it’s heart, self-compassion is about “getting yourself out of the way”, it’s about accepting where you are, and not expecting to magically circumvent the process of improvement. It’s about saying “I am enough, where I am”, and turning back to the work to try to see what growth and lessons you can take from it.
It’s important to remember that no one is exempt from the hard work required to make profound art. Even people you perceive as “talented”, I promise you - they have made 10,000 failures before they got where they are now.
To get where we want to go visually, we must be willing to meet ourselves, where we are right now; it’s only through self-compassion and acceptance that we can learn to be honest with ourselves about our work, and what we want from it.