So, You Want to Work in the Arts?: Assuming an Identity

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Who are you?

I get it, you’re a multi-faceted person with a wide range of interests who just can’t be “typed.” You’re a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. You’ve read Barthes. Really, I get it.

However, when working in the art world (especially in the art market) it’s important to be someone. And I don’t mean that in the name-dropping sense. Rather, I mean it’s good to have a “personality” or you’re going to fall flat.

You need to develop a public self.

Now, before anyone bashes me for not championing “authenticity,” that’s not the goal here. I absolutely believe there should be authenticity in your persona. However, in just five years, I’ve realized that there is an incredible distinction between one’s private and public self, and it’s important for you, not others, to draw that line.

As a new member of this art world, to protect myself and our gallery brand, I needed to assume an identity. This identity is an extension of who I already am, but is used to both preserve my true self and promote my branded self. That’s a lot of selves to deal with. As a child of new technology, I see this as particularly important. One would assume that due to the prevalence of blogs/social media, the technological landscape of our present allows our public self and private self to converge. But that is so not the case. Hence the proliferation of articles on developing your “personal brand.” Though I initially rolled my eyes at these, I realize how important they are. Here’s a few goods ones to read: from Life After College and Camille Styles.

I came in to this business as an inexperienced 25 year-old. Kind and accommodating, I was a bit of a pushover. I didn’t have a true vision of who – or what – I wanted to be. And this made me feel a bit lost. I was easily passed over at openings and parties, no one was really interested in what I had to say. My partner, on the other hand, is a dynamic and engaging personality. Also, he’s a bit of an @$$hole (earmuffs!). He doesn’t let people dick him over, and he won’t stand for any sort of dismissal and attack on his brand. He wants to – and has – become an important person in this world. And to do so, he has to protect the side of himself that is sensitive and silly and kind. The side that I get to see every day. Because, in this high-energy industry, the “nice guys” do tend to finish last.

So, if you want to work in the Arts, I suggest taking a self-prescribed personality test. Look at yourself and the attributes that make you an asset. Your creativity, your confidence, your curatorial eye, your way with words. Eek out those things that make you feel the most you, and amplify them. I started as an introverted writer who just wants to make everyone happy. What I’ve tried to transition this into, professionally, is a listener who can take an artist’s story and transform it into something great and engaging. I’ve retained my kindness, but with an edge. I balance out my partner who is all about the bottom line. You can confide in me, but you also understand that I work in the best interest of our gallery and that I’m loyal to his decisions.

It’s a persona I cloak over myself at the gallery, at events, at dinners, and can quickly loosen as soon as I’m home around my loves and my cat videos. So, I’ll ask again, who are you?

Disclaimer: I write the “So, You Want to Work in the Arts?” series based on my own personal experiences. Which may or may not be your experience. And that’s just as wonderful as a unicorn lollipop. You can agree or disagree with me, but I think we can all agree to disagree. Agree?

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So, You Want to Work in the Arts: The Internship Do’s and Don’ts

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We are about a third of the way through our summer interns, and it’s already been a wild ride this year. Interning can be an exhilarating, boring, confusing, fun, motivating, and discouraging experience. Your experience as an intern is reliant on about 50% your environment and 50% your attitude. However, you need to make the most of that last 50%. So, here are the do’s and don’ts of interning in the Arts (probably a partial list).

But first: the art world has come under fire because of how loosely it uses the term “internship” (see that whole debacle over multi-million-dollar Marina Abramovic Institute looking for extremely qualified “volunteers”… and every episode of Gallery Girls). Some galleries take advantage, some stick to the boring basics (get me coffee, file this for the next 5 hours), and others give you an opportunity to grow. We’re in the latter category. So, like all things, understand that my tips below have a bit of a bias based on the idea that our interns are here to learn, to gain valuable skills, and to contribute to a project in some way.

Do: Ask questions (about the art, about how the gallery works, about upcoming projects).

Don’t: Ask a group of questions without first saying, “Hey, Becca. I’d love to ask you a few questions about *insert topic here*. Please let me know when you have a few minutes to go over them, or I can email them if you prefer.” If you have a question about the project you’re working on or need clarity about something I’m telling you, fine, absolutely ask right away. However, if you find yourself curious just to learn more about something regarding the business, and you know it’s going to be a bit of a conversation, have the courtesy to realize that while I love talking about our business, I have a million things to get done on any given day, and a 30-minute conversation on why we do what we do needs to be scheduled, not just launched. If I have the time right then, I’ll say I do.

Do: Take the first few weeks to really learn.

Don’t: Assume you know already the business, how it operates, and what we need to do. We had this great intern. Motivated, a real thinker, very sweet. But he/she thought he/she knew it all because of what his/her college classes taught him/her (okay, this is getting too much, let’s just go with “her”). College isn’t the real world, baby. She would present ideas on a regular basis totally unannounced and usually when I really needed to concentrate (see Don’t #1). When I or my partner would tell her, “interesting idea, but it’s really not going to work because of this and this and this,” or “we actually already tried that and it wasn’t a good fit for our business,” she would argue with us. That inability to accept criticism and/or learn was a total put-off. Needless to say, we didn’t keep her on. With that in mind…

Do: Express your ideas (about potential projects, new ways of running day-to-day operations, a better way to organize contacts).

Don’t: Express ideas without taking the time to first learn how we operate or having the ability to execute. Ideas are what fuel a business, we love it when even our interns come up with something new for us. However, in order for your ideas to have any weight or staying power, you really need to learn how our gallery works, what we’d like to accomplish in the next year, and what our main focus is. On the flip side of that, if you suggest something like “why don’t you arrange your artist image folder alphabetically?” and we say, “great! why don’t you work on that!” and you don’t have the time or know-how to execute, then basically you’re leaving us with another thing on our to-do list that we’re going to have to get done. And no one likes that. So, be prepared to execute on what you’re suggesting (don’t worry, we won’t have you do something you’re not prepared to do).

Do: Take “no” for an answer. I know, that goes against every self-help/business-of-life book, but as an intern, if I say “no” or “that won’t work for us,” this is not your opportunity to convince me otherwise. I know my business, I’ve been living and breathing and eating and sleeping it every day for five years. You just got here.

Don’t: Leave the “no” lying there or feel demoralized by it. Feel free to say, “ok. Do you think you can explain to me why it won’t work so that I can better understand how you operate?” That let’s me know you’re looking to learn and improve. Also, you need to be able to accept rejection. If it truly is an amazing idea, and your employer is just been stubborn, wait for an opportunity where you idea would be the solution to a problem he is having and mention it again then. If it’s still “no,” then make like Elsa and let it go.

Do: Occasionally stay late. The interns that impressed us the most (and that we hired/gave opportunities to/recommended for jobs) were the ones that, when we had a really big project or exhibition, stayed with us to see it through. I actually like having to tell someone, “please go home now, it’s past 5!”

Don’t: Be taken advantage of. The above said, if it’s your employer that is demanding you stay late on the regular, then speak up. As an intern, you’re presumably unpaid (especially in the Arts), and there are rules and regulations to how employers use their interns. Staying late on the night of an exhibition is one thing (and should be done – if you want to be a part of this business, you have to learn how it runs its events), but being asked on a daily basis to stay extra hours, or anything that just feels slimey, is a no-go.

Do: Get to know the artists. Ask them questions about their work, their story. Engage them in conversation at openings, ask what inspires them.

Don’t: Get to know the artists. *Ahem* It’s happened… and it’s gotten a bit gross and really awkward for everyone involved (or not involved). While I know the allure of the bohemian-artist-type, restrain yourself. Having your boss watch you stick your tongue down an artist’s throat in the corner at one of our openings does not instill the utmost confidence in your ability as a future professional. Just, let’s all keep it in our pants, shall we?

I’m sure there will be a Part 2 to this – so be sure to ask any questions in the comments!

So, You Want to Work in the Arts?: The Importance of Financially Supporting Your Local Art Institutions

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT

On Sunday, we ventured out of the city to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. While one would think, because we are in the same industry, we would frequent the Aldrich quite regularly, but that has only come to fruition in the past few months. To be quite frank, only very recently has the museum begun to put on truly intriguing exhibitions thanks to new and wonderful creative direction and curation.

We were most eager to see Robert Longo’s work (amazing charcoals that look like photographs) as the gallery has recently acquired an amazing piece from his Men in the Cities series. Longo’s work is spectacular, and I’ll talk about it at another juncture, but the purpose of this post is to highlight the importance– as an artist or gallerist– of supporting those institutions in your immediate area that exhibit the type of work you are interested in or that you produce.

It’s an easily overlooked exchange; but in this business I’ve learned that in order to get the attention of key people within the industry, you need to first give them a sign of “good faith,” and invest some skin in the game. Just showing up isn’t enough. Just attending a show’s opening, sending an email of praise, or retweeting a comment isn’t enough. In order to work with the people you want to work with (especially if they are at a higher point in their career than you) you need to demonstrate in no subtle way that you are invested in their vision and their time.

This can be as simple as paying for one dinner at the organization’s annual event, or giving a donation to the local art foundation, or simply purchasing a yearly membership to your local museum. You don’t have to spend thousands on a piece of artwork, but you can bring someone with you to an event who you know collects art or can offer connections. Despite what you may think, these things matter. We know the faces (and many of the names) of the freeloaders who habitually come to our shows strictly for the free wine and cheese.

The same works for the gallery as a business. When we approached the Aldrich, one of the questions the curator casually asked was “are you planning on becoming a member?” When seeking to partner with a fantastic art foundation last fall, the owner asked us if we would consider donating a piece to her annual auction. Another foundation asked if we’d advertised recently in the founder’s magazine. And a major collector asked us is we would be attending his fundraiser, which coincidentally came before he would be able to visit the gallery. The answer to all these questions is, irrevocably, “yes.” It took our demonstration of financial commitment to ink deals and establish solid relationships.

Though I know everyone is of different ways and means, if you are serious about working in the arts, you need to budget for those critical moments when a simple dinner ticket can open the doors to an art rock star.

So, You Want to Work in the Arts?: A Brief Reading Guide

Printing Til Exhaustion (1979) by Dora Maurer

Printing Til Exhaustion (1979) by Dora Maurer

As with any career, one of the best things you can do if you are working at a gallery/museum or aspiring to, is to soak up all that you can on contemporary art. If you create a deeper understanding of the principles of the market, you begin to learn how to become a better player in it. Beyond that, I find the best gallerist/curator/gallery assistant/artist/whatever, is a well-read one. You need to be able to contextualize your artists and/or your art within the framework of the modern market. As potentially “business-like” that sounds, it is a crucial point in any business. And, as we all know, art is a business (and those who don’t treat it as such usually won’t turn successful).

I’ve compiled a brief listing of some of my top magazines, books, and blogs that I use to keep me posted on the goings-on in the art world. Please crib from my lists and add any more suggestions in the comments!

Magazines

  • Frieze
  • Art in America
  • ARTnews
  • ARTFORUM
  • Whitewall
  • Juxtapose
  • Modern Painters

Blogs

Books

Happy reading!

So, You Want to Work in the Arts?: A Day in the Life

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One of the most common questions I’m asked when we’re interviewing a new employee or intern is, “Can you describe to me what a typical day is like?” And, without fail, I have a momentary “deer-in-headlights” look on my face. Describe a normal day? What’s normal? What’s your definition of day?

My point being that at my particular gallery in my particular position, there is no “normal day.” Each working hour is peppered with new and different (not always exciting) things that need to be handled, discussed, and executed. On a Monday we can be “taking it easy” by focusing on computer work and browsing through a studio visit, on a Tuesday we’re dressed up and rocking a corporate presentation then shuttling off to a client installation. I can get into work at 7:30, or at 10:30. I can stay until 5pm or 2:30am the next morning. In order to “track” the craziness, I wrote down a detailed diary entry/log of a “typical” day earlier in April. To give you a taste, here’s what happened:

4/6/2013

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted… and my week is far from over. If you’re going to run or even work for a gallery, be prepared for the long nights and early mornings. Even today (Saturday) I was at the gallery by 8:45am to prepare for a meeting with our accountant.

Thursday, April 4th

8:30 Arrive at gallery dressed in gym clothes with the vain hope that, yes, I’ll have a moment to take a break and get a work out in.

8:40 After making the necessary bucket of coffee, check daily agenda, to do list, and email.

8:45 Delete. Delete. Delete. Respond. Forward. Respond. Delete. Add to To Do List. Add to To Do List. Delete. Respond. Delete. Add to To Do NOW list.

9:25 Begin preparing gallery for first meeting of the morning. Remove stale toast crusts and used coffee cups. Apply thin layer of make up because, gym.

9:45-11:00 Welcome first meeting/private tour.

11:00 – 3:30pm Sit down and attack to do list. Call three artists participating in next show to schedule drop off times. Answer questions another artist has about their new contract. Give time and date to school group and private collector for the students to visit his art collection. Arrange marketing meeting with nonprofit to present brand guidelines (which, coincidentally, I’ll be developing tonight). Prepare for yet another artist who comes in to drop off work and rehang his pieces. Welcome new studio assistants to gallery and get them set up with oil paints in basement to begin prepping canvases. Apply finishing touches to press release about upcoming event and send to partner for approval (cross fingers that he doesn’t make more revisions for the 22nd time). Send out short “catching up” emails to media contacts. Reject artist submissions. Open gallery for passers-by wanting to admire the art (aka our cats). Add new bills into Quickbooks. Cut checks. Answer sales and media calls. Panic silently.

3:35 Change into real clothes because gym is obviously not happening. Realize have not yet eaten lunch, head over to favorite pizza place for soup and coffee.

4:30 Wonder if it would be all right to walk to the mall or spend some time in the sun.

4:31 Sneak peek at remaining To Do List and silently panic again.

4:45 Back at gallery, open up zip file of new logos for nonprofit project that the design team from Colombia sent. Have logo, CMYK colors, and font family in front of me. Based on those three items, begin creating a complete “Branding and Style Guide” for the nonprofit. Step one: Google “how to create a branding and style guide.”

5:30 Finally feel like I know what I’m doing. Write all content on Word document.

6:00 Make coffee.

6:15 Coffee not enough, run across street to cafe for a cookie.

7:45 Content 60% completed, essentials such as logo size restrictions, basic copywriting, and misuse of logo at least down. Now begin designing documentation and graphics in Photoshop and InDesign.

10:30 Look up at clock, realize restaurants are closing their kitchens. Pop chicken sausage in microwave and open a random jar of applesauce. Dinner of champions.

10:40 Back to work.

12:30 Call partner with a litany of questions on the “Strategic Brand Essence.” Get slightly annoyed when you realize he’s playing Fairway Golf on his iPad and you’re still working.

2:00 Sit back. Stretch. Resolve to finish entire document is dwindling. Decide that at least with the basics covered (brand identity, tone, logo use and misuse, primary colors, font family, and copywriting rules), you can pass guide off to nonprofit’s Marketing Committee so that they can begin basic implementation of the new brand. Save remaining features (collateral, web rules, presentation templates, email signatures, signage, etc) for another day. Check email advertising next exhibition that is pending in Constant Contact to be sure it will go out by 7am this morning. Close up shop.

2:40 Fall into bed.

 

So, that’s it folks. A “typical” day. I was exhausted just writing it all out again. More often than not, however, this is what a day will look like. Sick thing is… I absolutely love it.

Showmageddon (a.k.a Show Week)

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Six shows, three weeks. 3 parties, 3 publicized events, 3 installations, and 1 business trip. Gallery life is hectic, as reflected by my perfectly messy desk. Bringing order to the chaos as we speak– but it’s times like this that you truly get to experience the thrill of creation. Of putting conflicting images together in the same space so that the cause something similar to “curation.” After this month, I will have earned the long, leisurely cruise planned for me in May.

A “So, You Want to Work in the Arts?” Afternoon Brief

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The Arts are not known for being a lucrative business. They certainly have the potential to be, but the general public is stuck on the starving artist (or gallerist) trope. Working in the Arts does not typically lend itself to a traditional lifestyle (9-5, with benefits and steady pay, and a pension when you retire). However, if you are committed to making your career in this field, or any field actually, you have to remind yourself of this mantra each and every day:  “Don’t base your decisions on the advice of those who don’t have to deal with the results.”

If anyone knows where the above image came from, please let me know so that I can properly credit.