Special Features

April Issue 2001

A Few Words From Down Under

by Judith McGrath

If you're a graduate from one of the top tertiary art schools in Australia, chances are you'll take a short road to a commercial gallery. The better the reputation of the school, the more opportunities you'll get and connections you'll make. Yes, talent is necessary but it's the prestige factor of the institution that opens the door for you.

But what about artists who haven't attended a nationally recognized art school? How do self-taught artists find opportunities or those who learn from artist run classes and workshops make connections? Who or what opens the doors for them?

The independently taught artist has to travel an alternate route. You have to make your own opportunities and connections as your experiences open interesting side doors that lead in different directions. If the gallery is your goal, it's a longer road on your own but with talent and planning you will arrive. Meanwhile, here's some advice, take it if you please.

The first step to the gallery is to consider yourself a professional and work, work, work. Gallery operators I've met aren't interested in hobby painters or anyone who may decide to stop painting after a good deal of time and money has been spent on promotion. Most galleries are interested in committed practitioners who work at their art every day. Artists who, when not doing art, are reading about it, talking about it, checking out new products and keeping an eye on what's happening. That's the kind of commitment they're looking for and the kind you need to make.

Next thing to do is put your ego and insecurities aside, or at least be able to control them. Tantrums and tears from newcomers are major impediments to working with a gallery. Odd and eccentric looks cute in the movies but in the real art scene it's rare and only tolerated from artists earning in the six-figure league.

Last but not least, check out the competition. Go to galleries, examine the art on display, question the staff about qualitative aspects of the work - part of their job is to explain and educate the viewing audience. Note current trends; find out what type of art each gallery prefers. In my town most galleries have a 'personality' in that each exhibits a preferred style; realistic, abstraction, appeal, cutting edge, etc. Most galleries only show works by well-known artists but a few are prepared to take a chance on a new talent. Select a gallery you feel comfortable with, one where you relate to the artwork and the staff then aim for it.

Now it's time to put yourself out there and show your work. Take small steps at first; start by exhibiting your efforts in user friendly venues close to home. Consider approaching decorator or home furnishings stores, art fairs and market stalls, or cafés that display local artwork. Keep your prices low. Figuring out how to price your work is often the first stumbling block. Don't calculate a sale price based on the size of the work, number of colors in it or time spent working at union rates. Most new artists vastly overprice their work. Start low, you're an unknown, you can always bump up your prices as your reputation grows, along with sales. The one thing you never want to have to do is drop your prices after you've made some sales.

More important then a sale in these venues is the feedback you get on your efforts. Listen to the public's comments keeping in mind that although genuine, they're more likely based on personal tastes (and there's no accounting for that) or a response to the subject, rather than on a knowledge of art. If you want informed feedback on your work go to someone who has a trained eye or who understands the complexities involved in making art. Someone who can give constructive criticism not just say whether or not they like it.

I don't advise going to other students or aspiring artists as their views are often biased toward their own style, which I suspect is an ego/insecurity thing. Instead approach alternative art professionals, people involved with the business side of art. Consider art teachers (not your own) or journalists, interior designers or commercial framers, curators or collectors, to name a few. These people deal with all types of art and can view your work in an objective light. Ask their opinion, hear what they have to say and try to see your efforts through their eyes. Should you disagree with their criticisms and/or advice, don't defend or explain your work, instead consider their suggestions as well intended. Always decide for yourself if you'll act on them.

When you feel ready to step out of your comfort zone, consider service clubs, charity groups and private schools that have open art exhibitions as fund-raisers. In Australia there are state and national art councils that have information on these events, as well as acquisition exhibitions, competitions and special award shows held around the state and country. I'm sure the same can be found in the Carolinas. Enter as many of these exhibitions as you want but do not put the same work in more than one local or regional exhibition. Gallery managers, independent art agents and astute buyers who make the rounds of these shows looking for new talent, or a bargain, don't appreciate seeing the same exhibit hanging in five shows in one year. Or for that matter, the same exhibit displayed in the same show for five consecutive years.

There are entry fees for these events but it's worth it for the experience. Your work will have to be properly framed, priced, presented at the venue ready for hanging and picked up if unsold, which may provide a lesson in freight procedures. In some instances entries go through a selection process so be prepared for the possibility that, after all your efforts and costs, your work may not be shown. If it is displayed or wins a prize, note this information on your Curriculum Vitae, or Resume, under the Mixed Exhibitions and Prizes Won headings. If it sells or is acquired by an institution, you can then add to your CV that you are represented in various Public and Private Collections, another heading.

An alternative way of putting your art out there is to have a group exhibition at a hired venue. Artist's cooperatives often have gallery space to rent as do some public halls, libraries, shopping centers and office buildings. Besides the expense of hire fees, promotion, invitations, and opening night refreshments, the major drawbacks include hanging the show, sitting with the exhibition, artistic incompatibility, and fellow exhibitors unable to keep well-intended promises.

The pluses include practical experience, exposure, professional feedback, and new additions to your Mailing List, a very important little document. You already have the names and addresses of those who have purchased your work from café, competition and charity auction, now collect the same information from all those who attend the exhibition by inviting them to sign a 'guest book'. Their presence shows an interest in art so be sure to send them invitations to future shows.

If you're lucky enough to get an article on, or review of, the exhibition in the local press, add the heading Bibliography to your CV and note the issue particulars of the paper and name of the journalist.

You're almost ready to approach a commercial gallery but before you do, take the time to look in other directions. A few artists have opted out of the gallery-go-round preferring alternative venues. One artist I know approached the owners of a well-reputed restaurant in an up-market suburb and asked if they would display his paintings in their dining room and his sculptures in the garden. Recognizing how good food, fine wine and interesting art go well together, the restaurant owner agreed and a mutually beneficial arrangement was struck. Now Len is so busy producing art that sells to the restaurant's clientele, he can't be bothered approaching a gallery. He makes a good living, controls his own commissions and enjoys a great deal of satisfaction in doing his art his way.

Wendy is also hard at work meeting the demand for her paintings. Her nude figure studies practically walk off the wall of an interior decorator's consulting room. Sometimes they don't even make it to the wall, as in more than one occasion her works were sold while being unwrapped. Wendy continues to exhibit in open exhibitions and enters competitions but finds her colorful nudes sell best when displayed in comfortable surrounds. A gallery space full of naked ladies can be rather confronting whereas perusing soft fabrics and seeing how well they blend with the colors of a particular painting is more conducive to sales.

Then too there are those few artists who prefer to remain independent. They do their own promotion and hold exhibitions in their studio or a hired venue. They are usually the ones who have a spouse that's very good at managing the business end of things while holding down a full time job thereby allowing them to just create.

These alternatives can be lucrative but be careful as they may only be short term and could place a firm barrier between you and a commercial gallery. Many galleries want exclusivity so you'll have to choose which road you want to take.

If the commercial gallery is your goal, go for it. When you have a sufficiently impressive CV as proof that you are a dedicated (and maybe a prize winning) artist, you're ready to approach a gallery. Select one you think will accept your style, one you feel you can work with and phone for an appointment to show your work and explore the possibilities of a show. Naturally they will say they're booked out for three to five years but be polite, leave your name, be persistent, call back every few months, and always be prepared.

Sometimes an artist drops out of a scheduled exhibition at the last minute and a fill-in is needed at short notice. It could be you. I know an artist who, as an unknown, was called in an emergency and, like the proverbial understudy, was discovered because the star didn't show. Good Luck!

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can read more of her writing on her web site at (http://www.artseeninwacom).

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