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September 19, 2010 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Advice for going to art openings alone when you're not in the scene but seek quality conversation? In NYC.

I'm an interested observer of contemporary art interested in learning more, and in talking to more people in that world, but don't currently run in artist/critic/gallerina circles, and don't have huge amounts of time to devote to this. I do sometimes go to artist talks and museum symposia, where occasionally I'll ask a (decently smart) question in Q&A, which can spark up some conversation afterward. But I'd also like to feel more comfortable at / get more out of show openings where people I don't know basically party in front of work. Most of this just comes down to social skills, sure, but I'd love any comments / suggestions from those who frequent such events.

(I also know that much contemporary art doesn't offer much for intellectual or sensory delectation, and that people often discourse about stuff pretentiously, but there is interesting material out there and I want to find and engage with it!)
posted by taramosalata to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Contemporary art openings are not places to seek out conversations about art; they're pretty much brightly-lit club nights. If you want to casually hang out and drink complimentary wine with young, beautiful people, go to an art opening. If you're looking for something deeper, you're barking up the wrong tree. Sure, you might be able to grab an artist's ear, but I can assure you they are (rightfully) busy trying to impress/wrangle potential investors than talk with someone about the deeper meaning of their pieces. Keep in mind that the opening is the big chance they have to not starve to death over the coming months.
posted by griphus at 12:09 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you're looking to talk to other attendees and not the artist himself or herself, art openings are actually a pretty easy place to do this. When you're standing in front of a piece with someone, strike up a conversation about it. Or, when you're standing at the free wine and cheese table, start a chat with someone there about the art. If the person you talk to isn't interested in a conversation, it will quickly become clear and you can easily say, "Have a good night" and walk away.
posted by amro at 12:17 PM on September 19, 2010


Like griphus says, I've never gone to art openings for quality conversation, per se. Frankly, these are places to see and be seen.
posted by dfriedman at 12:43 PM on September 19, 2010


Thanks for responses so far! Point taken that art openings aren't the best place for profound cogitation. Suggestions welcome on where those deeper talks can be had -- for a relative newcomer / outsider.

Most attendees of these things seem to be in attendance with others, or at least to know other attendees. I'll try to be thicker-skinned and approach random people. But sometimes there just seems to be a barrier to entry....
posted by taramosalata at 1:05 PM on September 19, 2010


there just seems to be a barrier to entry....

Mostly I think that barrier is deliberate. When I'm out at a gallery, I may take notes in a journal or tell someone later on about what I saw, but people go to these places to seek out their own personal thoughts and reactions, and the silence and insulation of the experience is what makes that possible. Also, galleries tend to be big and echoey, so even when I'm in one with friends we usually don't discuss much until we're out on the sidewalk -- and I will typically leave a gallery if there is too much chatter going in there about the artwork, because it's hard to think.

If someone approached me and started a casual conversation about the artwork, I would be completely polite and congenial about it, but I would also basically hasten to end the conversation and retreat as soon as possible.
posted by hermitosis at 1:18 PM on September 19, 2010


I guess my answer is more in response to situations that AREN'T a party. Though I agree with griphus's observation about that whole scene, though I think if you stay and mingle a sufficient amount (yes, please keep trying) you are sure to find people who want to do exactly what you want to do.
posted by hermitosis at 1:20 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


My dad's a sculptor. He's not famous or anything, but he does have shows in New York occasionally. I've been going to art openings--mainly his--my whole life. My perspective on them is probably a bit skewed (you say: "art opening," I think: "bring snacks"), but here are some things that it might be helpful to know.

First, unless you're at an opening of some hugely famous behemoth artist, your average art opening is going to consist of two major groups: random people who are interested in the artist's work, and the family and friends of the artist who have come out to support him. The ratio of these two groups varies widely at any given opening, but in terms of intimidation factor, I think it's helpful to know that everyone there is not necessarily a sophisticated art connoisseur or a New York hipster. The person you're standing next to could be the artist's aunt who came down from New Hampshire specifically for the opening.

Secondly, as far as I can tell, my dad spends his time at art openings doing four things: nervously pacing, waiting for the guests to arrive; talking to family and friends who have shown up to congratulate him; talking to random people who show up at his elbow and say, "So, what does that piece mean?"; and checking the crowd and the guestbook to make sure he doesn't miss talking to anyone important who shows up. I'm sure that some other artists spend time hustling potential buyers at openings, but my impression from the smaller openings that I've attended is that very few sales happen on the spot, and the general hope is more that someone from the press comes when there is a really good crowd and decides to review it, which would then lead to more name recognition and more sales.

Given all this, I think a good way to learn more about this scene would be to find a gallery or two who regularly shows work you really like, and start frequenting their openings. Because gallery owners have particular tastes, they will do some of the initial sorting for you. For example, I think the Winston Wächter frequently shows some interesting stuff that is not just intellectually barren show-boating. And since the kind of work determines the kind of crowd at openings, then a place like that gives you more chances at real conversations, I think.

Once you find a couple of good galleries, you'll also get more comfortable at openings, because you'll sort of know the routine, and you'll be ready to take the next step, which is starting random conversations with people. Art openings are one of the few modern spaces, I think, where it is completely acceptable to say out of nowhere to the person next to you, "Why do you think the artist decided to paint Mozart's face green in that portrait?" They might not engage with you, but there's a pretty good chance they might. And having watched my dad at openings for ~28 years, I'd say if you're genuinely curious and can figure out who the artist is, it's perfectly acceptable to try and grab his or her ear when they're not engaged in discussion and ask about their work, as long as you don't try and corner them for an hour.

Hmm. This has gotten rather long. To sum up: I'm not sure that art openings are the best place for deep discussions about art, but done right, I don't think they have to be the worst place either. Good luck!
posted by colfax at 1:20 PM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Frankly, these are places to see and be seen.

Hmm, I guess things are different in NY. The openings I used to go to frequently were in Cleveland, and you pretty much went for the free booze.
posted by amro at 1:31 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a gamut, amro, with "I wasn't even aware this is a gallery" on one side, "art-scene socialite" on the other and everyone there in attendance caught somewhere in between.
posted by griphus at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2010


Artist's aren't the only ones working an opening. Some of the attendees may be museum curators or collectors checking out the opening to spot new talent or to look for works to acquire from new or established artists. They may also have to attend more than one opening in a single night. Same is true for collectors.

If you want a more low-key gallery scene, check out Apexart, which is down by Ground Zero. Rather than sell art, their mission (as I understand it) is to provide a space for curators, and would-be curators to put together thoughtful, conceptual exhibitions. I've been to the gallery, and interviewed for a job there eons ago (which is how I found out about the space. The joke is that they are better known in Europe and South American, than in Chelsea). They have openings and usually have a talk or some other programming associated with each exhibition. I would imagine that the people who know about this place and attend openings there are more interested in the art, and the art of curating, than being seen. Speaking of which, I've had some decent conversations about art at art museum programs, such as lectures or artist's talks, both before and after the main event, so you might try checking them out. They're usually free (aside from the museum admission cost).
posted by kaybdc at 2:16 PM on September 19, 2010


First, unless you're at an opening of some hugely famous behemoth artist, your average art opening is going to consist of two major groups: random people who are interested in the artist's work, and the family and friends of the artist who have come out to support him. The ratio of these two groups varies widely at any given opening, but in terms of intimidation factor, I think it's helpful to know that everyone there is not necessarily a sophisticated art connoisseur or a New York hipster. The person you're standing next to could be the artist's aunt who came down from New Hampshire specifically for the opening.

As someone who was once involved in an arts collective, I totally agree with this. Granted we were not based in Chelsea or anything, but every opening we held, we were hoping with every fiber of our bohemian hipster souls that people would actually show up. a large portion of the attendees at any given event was friends and family of the artists, curators, collective members, etc. Which might be why it seems intimidating to interact - everybody seems to already know each other.

But when a new person would show up, we were all so excited! And it usually didn't take a lot for them to at least wind up on our mailing list, if not dating the curator or contributing to our next show.

If you memail me, I'll tell you which collective I'm referring to and hook you up with their next event, if that interests you.
posted by Sara C. at 3:45 PM on September 19, 2010


Contemporary art openings are not places to seek out conversations about art; they're pretty much brightly-lit club nights.

So this is supposed to be true of all art being made now? Because that's what contemporary means.

It's true, though... if you go to those kinds of galleries which are likely to be full of Ed-Hardy-esque shit. Even at those, though, if you look carefully you'll see someone looking at the work. Talk to them.
posted by cmoj at 5:22 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Some research helps the gallery-goer. Almost everyone involved in visual art appreciates art history..therefore, it wouldn't hurt to bone up some on famous/known contemporary artists. (It's actually a fun endeavor). If you knew something, for example, about Chuck Close and his life..you'd be able to say "I think I see a Chuck Close influence". Your personal ideas about the art is what it is all about--and it is fun to ask what others think too--I think you are smart to want to talk about the art. It makes everything more interesting when you are fully engaged. The paintings take on new meaning when they are "considered".
posted by naplesyellow at 9:14 PM on September 19, 2010


Artists hate it when you compare their work to other artists. Especially artists who are currently active or dead within the last 20-30 years. Chuck Close. Cy Twombly. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Damien Hirst. Those sorts of people.

Artists generally attend openings for their shows. Therefore, you might want to avoid casually throwing out, "This is so much like Chuck Close!" or whatever - there's a better than decent chance the artist is standing behind you and will think you're a schmuck. Which pretty much foils your plan of striking up interesting conversations at openings.

That sort of thing is much better done at museum shows where you can have fun out-pretentious-ing your friends without worrying that De Kooning is going to rise from the dead and punch you in the face for comparing him to Arshile Gorky. Or Whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 9:30 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Many helpful responses here.

hermitosis- I often take notes on what I see, too. It just feels kinda lonesome without any follow-up conversation -- so I'm very into your encouragement to "keep trying."

colfax- Lovely to be reminded that "Art openings are one of the few modern spaces [...] where it is completely acceptable to say [something] out of nowhere to the person next to you" -- and that people in attendance are more diverse than one might fear. I look forward to checking out Winston Wächter.

kaybdc- I will hit up Apexart for sure, as I'd very much like to talk with curators/critics in addition to artists.

Thanks to all who've weighed in so far!
posted by taramosalata at 2:20 PM on September 20, 2010


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