The “art world” can be as elusive as it sounds. With many newcomers entering the scene, not everyone is given the opportunity to show their work in galleries, and many have no idea where to begin. Luckily, I did a lot of that aimless wandering for you.
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Many debate the importance of art school. Some will tell you it’s a waste of time and money, others will tell you it’s a treasure trove of connections. I believe it’s the latter. Although you may not need art school to “make it,” it’s an amazing way to network and learn some big necessities. I went to School of Visual Arts in NYC. All of my professors were actively working in their professions and taught once or twice a week, dedicating the rest of their time to making illustrations for various magazines. That’s where I started. I was studying illustration, and in my final year of college, as I was preparing the last of my portfolio, I realized that I didn’t want to be an illustrator. I was worried about the future of printed media and about my prospects ten years down the road, as technology advanced and less people picked up newspapers. I wanted to find ways to remain relevant and make a living with art without having to take cues from an art director. But where to begin? My professors and studio mates were able to point me in the right direction:

1. Who Do You Know?
 
It’s true when they say, “its all about who you know.” Entering the “art world” is fairly similar to entering the illustration world — you need to network.

Grease those elbows and rub them with your neighbor. Find out about events they’re attending and what those events entail. How can you get invited? Who will be there?

Just about all art shows are free and don’t require any special invitation. Art events, like gallery shows, are great ways to meet gallery owners, curators, and other like-minded individuals. Meet your favorite artists and talk to them. Look and study their work. Take notes: How many pieces does it take for a solo show? How big are their pieces? What is making the most impact? These are crucial things to consider.

What helped me a lot as well was getting an internship. But not the kind where you sit behind a desk and get coffee for people who never talk to you. Look for internships in galleries where you actually learn about shipping and handling artwork, show set-up, and other important tasks that go on inside a gallery space. I was lucky enough to get an artist internship as a side painter, filling in the artist’s pieces that he needed help finishing. I watched as he made sales with benefactors and learned how he priced his paintings. He taught me techniques that I still use today. I learned how to have open studios, which he used to invite clients over to view his newest works. He taught me about how to establish yourself with a gallery and maintain good relationships. He even showed my first few paintings in his open studio. If you can manage to find an artist willing to trust you with their day-to-day tasks, take it. Even the bigger “art stars” like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami have a team of people at their disposal. What you can gain from them is an irreplaceable wealth of knowledge.
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2. Who Are You?
 
Nowadays, an online presence is everything. If you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. Before you press the panic button, relax. Going about having a web presence is pretty simple. You don’t have to be a pro at web design or HTML.

First, buy your domain name  — it’s a very important thing to have and keep — and then look for free web-hosting services that quickly let you create a functioning website. Places like Weebly.com can be a good way to start, as it allows you to drag and drop images, make multiple pages,  and set up an online store where people can purchase your prints or originals. But if you think that’s intimidating, you can always use Tumblr. You just need a URL where people can go to view your work and see that you’re serious about what you do. And to add the cherry on top: business cards. Vistaprint.com is an affordable way to get a set. You don’t even need that many when you’re starting out, 50 to 100 is plenty! Make sure to have an image of one of your strongest pieces on it, your name, your website, and email. Maybe even an Instagram, but a professional @ccount, not a personal one.

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 3. The Approach

Okay. So you feel ready. Cards in hand, website up, now what? Where do you look?

What gallery is going to open its arms to you? In truth, not that many. At least not at first.

A gallery, especially an established one, wants to see that you have a strong CV. Whats a CV? It’s your artist resume. Look at any professional artist’s website and you’ll find their CV. This will tell you everywhere they’ve shown, the title of the show, if it was group or solo, and even where the gallery is. This is your holy grail. I stalked so many of my favorite artists when I started out, Tara McPherson being the main target of my online stalking (we’re friends now, it’s cool).

I looked at her CV and researched the galleries where she started at. I figured, this is someone who’s career I admire and who’s work isn’t the epitome of “fine art,” but is cool/sexy/interesting enough to be quite popular in the art world. It didn’t have some high end fluff to it, or snobby flair. It looked like a body of work I wanted to have, with the type of connections and opportunities I also wanted.

Magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose are pure gold. They showcase up-and-coming artists, and galleries that show their kind of art. So if you make street art, or “lowbrow” art, these magazines advertise many of those places. Earmark the pages, and start emailing. But what should you write? Here are some do’s and don’ts:

DO: Make the email formal, professional, and SHORT. Galleries receive hundreds of emails a day and you want to make sure you’re to the point.

DON’T: Attach a bunch of images to the email. They won’t have time to download it all and may not even glance at it.

DO: Add a link to your website where they can see your work. Make note of other galleries you have shown in. If it’s your first time, say you are interested in submitting for a show and ask if they accept unsolicited submissions. You should have at least 10 paintings/pieces on your site to show a decent body of work.

You’ll encounter galleries that never take unsolicited submissions, meaning, they will approach YOU. But sometimes they’ll have group shows or openings in their schedule and may let you know if you can submit to them.

DO: Research the galleries you want to submit to. If you sound like you’ve never heard of them before, it’ll show.

DO: Look up “open call for artists” on websites like artist.com and other sites. They hold competitions, and ways to get into group shows. I entered the Kinsey Institute Erotic Art festival this way. They were holding an open call for artists, and guess who was judging? Jonathan Levine! And he picked my work, along with many others, to be part of a group show. It was amazing exposure and a great opportunity that led to other galleries emailing me for shows and available work. I never would have found that if I didn’t go looking for it. So try your hand! Some open calls are completely free to submit to, and the ones that aren’t are usually $15-35 to submit three to five images. It may sound like a lot, but the money is rewarded to the “best in show” or “audience favorite.” So $15 for a chance to gain exposure and maybe win a $500 prize? Not too shabby if you ask me.
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As a side note and what I get asked a lot as well, when pricing your work don’t be afraid to go a bit higher than you normally would. It’s hard to put a price on a piece, but this may help you come to a fair deal:

Think about the size of your piece. Is it big or small? How many hours or days went into it? How much did you spend on materials? In theory, you should be selling it for enough to make back what you put into it, and then some. Remember, most galleries take 50% as their commission for getting prospective buyers to view it. So make sure you’ll be happy with your cut. Read over your contracts thoroughly.

And never EVER pay a gallery to show your work.

I almost made that mistake. A gallery stated that they loved my work and thought I’d be a “fresh new face” for their space. For $5,000, they would guarantee me solo shows, marketing, and connections. At first I thought this was reasonable because they laid out where the money would go and how it would benefit me. But that’s not how it works. If a gallery wants to represent you, it’s because they believe in your work and the ability to sell it. Not the other way around.

I hope this brief guide can help you on the road to your first show! Remember, be strong and use every media outlet you have to your disposal. Follow galleries and art magazines on Twitter and Instagram. Stay updated on your favorite artists and their upcoming shows. Go to some! Don’t be afraid to talk to people and network. To get your foot in the door, you first have to knock and say hello.

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