Are You Ready for the Big Time?
Showing Your Art Nationally or Internationally
Q: I'm looking for exhibition opportunities in major art centers like New York, London, Los Angeles and Asia. How can I show my art in places like this? The local art scene here where I live is not very good, people don't appreciate my art, and it doesn't sell well. What I need is more exposure in front of larger audiences to increase sales. Please tell me the best ways to approach galleries in big cities here and internationally.
A: Many artists believe that all they have to do to get known is to show their art in major national or international art centers, and somehow some way, collectors will discover and appreciate it immediately. Continuing with this magical thinking, they fantasize that the exposure will result in instant recognition, a steady stream of sales, and the beginning of a great career. Why do they think this? It's kind of a "grass is greener on the other side" mindset, often having to do with the mistaken belief that their art is not in front of the "right audience," and that the only reason they haven't been selling is that there's not much of an art scene in their hometowns or wherever they happen to live, and that hardly anybody who lives there buys art. But the truth is that people do buy art, they buy it everywhere, and the hometown does count, so let's take a look at the reality of the matter.
The problem with the "I can't sell locally / I need a better audience" approach is that in order for your art to be accepted by a gallery located other than near where you live, you have to present some sort of compelling reason as to why they should take you on. Usually this means that you have to establish a reputation and a proven track record of successfully showing at galleries somewhere-- usually in or around where you live. This being the Internet age, getting that reputation online through blogs, social media, interviews or feature stories about you and your art is also a possibility, but regardless of how you do it, you need at least some semblance of a resume somewhere before you take your show on the road. You may have a great reason for contacting out-of-town galleries, but is it also a great reason for the galleries? The fact that they're in good locations, you're not, and you need sales because you can't get them where you live, is not a great reason.
Think about it. If you can't put together a decent history of shows or sales in the city or area where you live now, or online, then on what basis do you expect a gallery in a city where you don't live (and likely have few if any contacts, access, or experience) to seriously consider your art? For one thing, major art centers already have plenty of artists who live and work in the vicinity. Based on logistics alone, galleries tend to prefer showing local artists for a variety of reasons. They have an easier time getting to know them, communicating with them, following their work, making studio visits, meeting with them in person, introducing them to potential buyers, and moving their art from location to location. Art by artists from the immediate area is also easier for galleries to sell mainly because potential buyers are often much more familiar with the local art scene than they are with artists from elsewhere who they've likely never heard of. In other words, there's a lot less explaining and convincing to do.
On the flip side, plenty of galleries show artists from faraway places, over the years I have spoken with numerous gallery owners who do, and I ask the same two questions over and over again, "How did you hear about this artist?" and "Why did you decide to give them a show?" The answer to the first question is almost always that the gallery owners hear about the artists as a result of their reputations and accomplishments where they live and work. They tell me why the artists are known, how they became known, what types of awards or distinctions or publicity they've received so far during the course of their careers, where they've exhibited, what collections their works are in, and so on.
In answer to the second question, they talk about why they believe art by these artists deserves to be seen by people in other parts of the world, particularly their parts, and more importantly, why that art is worth paying attention to, and more importantly yet, why it's worth owning. In short, they are convinced that art by these artists is significant enough and noteworthy enough to be brought to the attention of wider audiences who don't yet know them, but who should. When you can come up with reasons like that for your art, your chances for getting shows at out-of-town venues will increase dramatically.
Whenever a gallery shows art by any artist, especially artists who are not from the immediate area, that gallery has to be able to present the work in such a way as to persuade their clientele that it's worth owning. They have to provide potential buyers with compelling evidence about why they should seriously consider adding the art to their collections. A gallery would have a difficult time indeed trying to sell work by an out-of-town artist with few accomplishments or a weak sales history. Art buyers need to feel comfortable spending good money on new artists whose work they're not familiar with; they need encouragement, aka concrete documented facts and figures-- and impressive ones. Liking the art is a good start, but it's generally not enough for someone to whip out the checkbook.
So in order for you to broaden the market for your work and successfully take it outside of the immediate area where you live, you have to first establish a reputation at home (or at least online), a supportive fan base, and a respectable succession of accomplishments including regular sales. This is pretty much how every artist has to do it. You begin by convincing those closest do you-- namely the people where you live-- that your art is worth paying attention to. Call it home-field advantage; these are the people who know you the best and in spite of what you may think, are often the most sympathetic to your cause. Once you begin to get traction and acceptance with them, you can gradually start to expand your fan base and introduce your work to larger and larger audiences.
A final point to keep in mind, before attempting to contact any gallery anywhere, is that you should be able to clearly explain why they should consider adding you to their roster, not only in terms of why your art is relevant to that gallery, but also to the people who live in the area where they're located. If you make a convincing enough presentation and a gallery decides to take you on, the reasons you convinced them with will be the exact same ones they'll pass on to potential buyers when talking about why they should add your art to their collections.
Lastly, one important caution-- especially for those of you who think you can skip steps and have a successful show at a gallery in a major art center before establishing an adequate reputation elsewhere. Certain galleries in these parts of the world will be more than happy to give you shows, regardless of your resume or credentials. Why? Because the way they make their money is by charging you to exhibit there, and occasionally at costs ranging well into the thousands of dollars. Whether anyone buys your art is not that important to these galleries because they've already been paid. They are fully aware of how many artists are eager to show their work in big cities, and for a fee, will gladly indulge the fantasies of any artist who thinks that in order to live happily ever after, all they have to do is show with them because of where they happen to be located.
Never forget that advancing in your career as an artist is like advancing in any other profession-- it's a long hard step-by-step process. So keep making art, be persistent, and show your work whenever you get the opportunity. With dogged dedication and perseverance, sooner or later people will begin to take notice, you'll gradually bulk that resume, and as time goes on, you'll get more offers to show your work at increasingly significant galleries-- both at home and beyond.