In a professional practice class at grad school another student was asking questions about what kind of galleries are the “right” kinds of galleries to be represented by. I think she had been approached by a tourist aimed place at the beach. Another student answered that she needs to consider what that would say about her work, and how it might cheapen it – “you know, like never show your work in a coffee shop.”
I have been thinking about this ever since. Until this summer during the years since I attended MICA I have really only made drawings because of space, time, and money limitations. I had always seen them as important, but just a side note to my sculpture practice. I showed my drawings a couple times at my restaurant job and sold some prints. I felt fine about this because I love the people there and felt comfortable having my work there. After a friend from my job put me in touch with someone at another restaurant in Federal Hill, this was more of a shaky situation – the guy in charge was kind of flaky and when I went to visit it was shocking how poorly their walls were taken care of, for being a place that shows local artists frequently. I learned my lesson, I should have visited before saying yes, but luckily there was a scheduling issue and it got cancelled.
Also, the owner of a shop in town was interested in selling prints at her shop and so I did, only for a short while, but the amount of money I was making off of them were not beginning to cover the cost to produce the prints. I thought for a moment, ‘Well, I guess this could be it.. I could just make drawings and show them this way and maybe that could be fulfilling enough… or maybe it could bring in some extra cash to support my practice.’ But I was never too sure… for me personally I need to be thinking about sculpture to be able to make drawings and at the time I was not devoting enough time to either to make the money worth it.
That was the long way around to asking – What do you think about artists promoting themselves in this way?
Cafe Artist For Now
Dear Cafe Artist For Now,
It sounds like you have already started to answer this question for yourself, figuring out the pros and cons of exhibiting in a non-art gallery setting through your own trial and error approach. Restaurants can sometimes be great places to exhibit and sell work and at times they can be awful. This is also true of art galleries, especially the one your grad school colleague disparaged for being touristy and, therefore, not a ‘serious’ gallery.
I think the main problem to solve here is the most central one: What do you want for your art career? You are investing in an MFA program, and this means you are making a serious investment in your practice. In an ideal world, where do you see your work and where would your work reach its intended audience?
There’s nothing wrong with showing in coffee shops, restaurants, and gift shops, if those locations provide appropriate context and audience for your work, as well as sales that sustain your practice. However, it sounds like you were settling for less in all of these situations, even at the restaurant where you worked. You seem to be justifying your exhibits in these spaces, saying the people there are so nice and that you sold some work, and indicate that you took on these exhibits out of a lack of other opportunities, or showed your less ‘serious’ work there for sales purposes. All of this is fine for some artists, but it really depends on what you want for yourself. If your eventual goal is not to exhibit in coffee shops, then there’s no point in labeling yourself in this way and certainly no point in including these spaces on your professional resume.
As your classmate at graduate school said, in some circles there is a stigma attached to showing work in ‘lesser’ environments. Art galleries sell precious commodities that no one can eat or wear. Let’s face it – art is, for practical purposes, useless. For that reason, scarcity and exclusivity are essential for art gallery sales, especially if they are doing it right. But this is all about context. If you want to be a blue chip New York artist, there is a list of ‘untouchable’ New York galleries, especially pay-to-exhibit situations, that might get you blacklisted. Every city and every art community is different, so you will need to figure out where you want to be and why. Until you are clear on this, no matter how unrealistic your goals seem, I would stop exhibiting for a while. It sounds like selling prints in a retail environment wasn’t making you any money, anyway.
You say that your ‘real’ work is your sculpture and you are a young artist. Focus on creating positive context for your sculpture and locate several galleries, probably artist-run or non-profit which are much more open to young artists, in your geographical area and do lots of research in person. Attend exhibits, meet curators, invite people to your studio. And most importantly, be able to describe how your best work functions its ideal environment. Who knows? Maybe your sculpture works best in public places or in a community-based participatory way? Galleries may not even be a fit for what you do. Take some time to figure this out and then locate artists who are doing this successfully and talk to them and read their resumes!
Most importantly, don’t settle. Just as in romantic relationships, there’s no substitute for the excitement, challenge, and chemistry that happens when the right elements come together. You can’t fake it and you can’t rush it. You have already discovered your valuable work is not appreciated in a satisfactory way when experienced in the wrong location, so focus all your energy on placing your work in the most optimal one possible, one that gives you butterflies in your stomach and fills you with thrills and terror. You will know the difference.
Best of Luck,