What constitutes a museum-quality artist?
October 24, 2006 10:03 PM   Subscribe

I think I am ready to begin the transition into trying to put my photography in galleries. My main question is what are the steps that artists go through to gain exposure for their work? I understand that in the case of great artists the work usually stands on its own but I also believe that it got there not on the material items merits but due the efforts of the artist to gain exposure for their work.

I consider myself more of an 'artist with a camera' than a photographer but I am informally trained on most of the technical aspects of photography. I am slightly overwhelmed by the fact that I can go to hundreds of galleries and see thousands of art pieces and know that 90% of the art will fall through the cracks regardless of quality. However, I can then pick up a photography book or contemporary art book and see works similar to the quality I see at the galleries but with a sense of esteem wherein the artist has 'attained' a level of acceptance in the art world great enough to be featured in more museum-like settings. What is the difference here? Is it the approach or something intrinsic in the work or artist? How does one's work not be a photograph amongst million pieces that people see one night and forget?
posted by occidental to Society & Culture (2 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I worked in the UK/USA art business for quite some time, and I think the second part of your question sums up a lot of the frustrations that artists have. You are now dealing with a culture machine that combines high capitalism and luxury goods with the music and fashion businesses, all wrapped in the trappings of both popular culture and academia. It's a tricky beast to analyse as there are so many ins, so many outs, exceptions for every rule. What makes a work of art? How is esteem accrued? How about your work? Is it good enough? You can't answer that question, and no one you know will be able to either. Artists get their work in galleries largely because they are determined and persistent, in addition to being talented and original. Talent and originality are subjective, and you will never second guess the predilictions of the culture machine, it's far too complicated, so focus on determination and persistance. Keep going.

You still have to make a living of course, and to answer your main question, there are two main paths. The first is via application to the 'Gallery System' and involves the artist getting a portfolio together and either trawling round the commercial galleries showing work to assistants or sending images via post (email/web sites were generally frowned upon, not sure now) and waiting for an answer. You'll pick up thousands of refusals and head-shakes and maybe an agreement from someone, somewhere to come visit your studio. In the two years I worked on the front-line of the gallery, I referred a couple of artists to my boss, who went to see precisely none of them. Submissions were left unexamined for months. Very occasionally (once every couple of years I think) they would go to a student or studio show. Nothing came of them.

The second path is more reliable, but involves a lot of work, energy and luck. You have to network, get to know other artists on the gallery scene (this basically involves ligging round openings and private views quaffing cheap wine), get to know the press, the losers and hangers-on, and slowly live through them. The inept and powerless Gallery Assistant's of today could well be the makers and setters of tomorrow. You need to be a friend to everyone. With luck and charm, you'll get something in a themed group show, and this will lead to other group shows, which will lead to interest from curators, which gets the galleries interested, and eventually you'll have a solo show and the beginnings of a decent cv. Having or doing an art degree helps this process, mainly becasue you meet people, make contacts.

So the short answer is, if you keep networking, you'll be able to claw something through a referral from an artist, a curator, just someone who's willing to help you get into a group show. The positive news is that the art business, with its openings and events (not to mention sex and alcohol) supports this networking with a basic apparatus. Many artists don't enjoy working it, and to some extent it's a young person's game, especially with the contacts one makes in art school. You also need to live close to the scene, preferably in a major city or even capital. A lot of artists choose to ignore this path and focus on making art, but there you go. Perhaps in the long run they'll find the machine knocking on their studio door. Good luck.
posted by einekleine at 3:15 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: An artist has to hit a nerve with a decent group of viewers or critics. Not all art speaks to a large enough group of people to make it popular. If your art is strong enough, all it takes to become established is to be viewed by a decent-sized and influential audience.

Take Mary Ellen Mark for example. She explores different subcultures in such a way as to draw in the viewer and gives an intimate viewpoint of who they are. Much of her work draws in the viewer through eye contact with the subject. It is hard to resist for the viewer to find some sort of identification with the subject. Viewing her work is not a passive experience. It is engaging to view her photos.

Passive artworks are easy to quickly view and forget. There must be elements in your photographs that are hard to forget.
posted by JJ86 at 6:12 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

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