1. Try to set up an appointment
After you’ve sampled a sufficient number of galleries to know which you’re interested in, drop by and make an appointment to see the director—portfolio in hand. Requesting an appointment in person works better than making a call, since it’s harder for someone to refuse you if you’re standing right there. The reason you ask for an appointment is because that shows respect for the director’s time.
2. Be prepared with your portfolio and a website
The reason you want your portfolio with you as you make the appointment is that a staff member just may have time to give it a look. Or the staff may ask for your website address. Most will not, but you want to be ready for this opportunity, should it arise, with a couple of originals in your car, in case they like what they see. But I wouldn’t count on things unfolding this way.
3. Follow submission procedures
You’ll probably be able simply to inquire what the submission process is. Most galleries accept submissions via e-mail; they’ll ask you to forward a link to your website or to send them a group of images. This is why it’s essential that you have a website before approaching the galleries: It makes you seem established.
If you do an e-mail submission, I don’t advise you to send it to the gallery’s general e-mail address unless there’s no alternative. Instead, try to get the e-mail address of the staff member responsible for reviewing submissions. This is why you ask for a business card. That way, you can e-mail your submission directly to the right person. It also gives you a name to follow up with. Just keep the cover letter brief, with the major points of your career in the first paragraph and relevant links listed in the e-mail.
If the staff member tells you the director isn’t looking for new artists, try to get a card anyway. Rare is the gallery that doesn’t need a new artist who may well wind up becoming one of their rock stars. You could be one of those artists.
4. Consider a mailed-in submission
As a director, I prefer a submission that is mailed in as opposed to e-mailed. Call me old-fashioned, but I like going through a presentation folder where I can hold the photos, postcards and résumé in my hands. If your submission is snail-mailed, again keep the cover letter brief. You also want it on quality stationery, preferably letterhead that makes you look established, just as your website and postcards will. Include a business card that lists your website. All these things can be laid out so that they reflect your work.
In fact I advise that you make them look unique yet professional. You’re making the impression that you handle your career well, no matter how broke you might be. These little steps will reassure the gallery that you’ll carry your end of the business agreement. In addition, you must include a disk of your work. I don’t advise that you submit slides, since that technology has pretty much been abandoned, but if slides are all you have, that’s better than nothing.
5. Follow up and persist
Check back with a phone call a week after submitting. The first gallery rejects you? Try a second, a third and a fourth, if necessary. No matter how many rejections you get, you must persist. If you’ve got the talent and you’ve paid the dues, you’ll find the right gallery—but only if you’re persistent.
6. Make a polished, confident presentation
When finally you get an appointment to meet with a gallery director, arrive on time, be brief and show confidence in your work. Take at least five of your best originals with you. Dress any way you want—just don’t go in looking like you’re desperate. You want to look like a success, even if that success is only expressed in the mastery of your medium. Make sure your presentation is neat, organized and professional—with quality frames on your paintings if frames are needed, or refined bases on your sculpture if bases are needed.
In my gallery, when an artist walks in the door for an appointment, he or she had better be prepared or I’ll lose interest fast. Sure, I’m primarily looking at the work, but I’m also looking at the artist, gauging whether he or she will be responsible in business obligations. If I see real possibility in the work, I’ll help organize the artist’s career. But if he or she strikes me as being unreliable and undisciplined, I’ll politely decline. I simply don’t have time to personally manage my artists. Most dealers don’t.
Paul Dorrell founded Leopold Gallery in 1991 in Kansas City, Missouri. As an art consultant, he has clients that include H&R Block, the Kauffman Foundation, G.E. Aircraft Engines and the National D-Day Memorial. He’s also the author of the guidebook for artists Living the Artist’s Life. Learn more at www.pauldorrell.com.
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