It is no secret that in most fields, networking makes the world go round. This is absolutely no different in the art world where success is, unfortunately, largely about who you know. Period. While this may seem terribly unfair, there is nothing to be done about it so the only choice is to accept and conquer. The concept of networking may seem especially daunting for introverts, but you simply must find a way to get yourself out there and start shaking some hands.
Not long ago, The Art Newspaper (TAN) published an article that exposed just how closed the art world can be. The findings in the paper, written by Julia Halperin, show that artists who land major gallery exhibitions tend to be exclusively represented by what are known as “the big five.” These include, David Zwirner, Pace, Gagosian Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, and Marian Goodman. The article revealed that many artists who find themselves on display at places like Guggenheim, MoCA, L.A. MoCA, and other big name museums come from the same very small pool of those being represented by these big five.
So what does this mean for you as an artist? Fear not, all is not lost. First of all, it is only a percentage of artists exhibited at these big name museums who come from this exclusive pool, albeit an uneven percentage. And while you may not be able to just walk in the door at one of the big five and be represented on the spot, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start networking immediately in order to get yourself in the minds of as many big players in the art world as possible.
So how do you begin? These days a lot of our social interaction happens online. While Social Media may be a good launch point, particularly for the introverts among us, you simply can’t rely on it to do the work for you. Attend events. Pick and choose based on your own level of comfort—for example, if you know that an event is going to be heavily attended and you don’t like large crowds, maybe don’t put these sorts of networking opportunities at the top of your list. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out lots of smaller events rather than a few giant ones. In fact, there is a strong argument that there’s wisdom to this because you are more likely to stand out and be remembered in a smaller crowd as well as have more opportunity for real, and less shouted conversation.
Spend time working the room, so to speak. If you know who certain people are and know that they would be good people to introduce yourself to, then do it! One of the wonderful things about small children is the way in which they wander over to each other no matter where they happen to be and just start talking. No one is offended or awkward, it’s as natural as can be. While you may want to revise your technique for the grown up world, take a page from this book. If you are in a room with someone influential in your particular art circle, introduce yourself. A little flattery is never a bad thing, let someone know if their work has inspired you over the years. Whatever you do, just make your way around the room.
Another important component in any career, but in the arts world especially, is to never, ever burn a bridge. The world is a much smaller place than you realize and therefore you must treat every connection as a potential gateway to further networking. Cultivate professional connections carefully. This is not to say you should have lots of superficial or somehow insincere connections, far from it. By recognizing that your relationships in the art world are beneficial, you do no harm to the quality or potential for depth of intimacy. The point here is, treat every connection like it’s important.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or to mention when you are in the market for exhibition space or curators. The thing is, everyone in the art world knows exactly what we are talking about right now. In fact, everyone in any field knows this. It is all about networking and there should be no barriers to you asking your connections to at least give you a list of names to contact. Period. That’s the name of the game. The flip side to this is of course, as you progress in your career you must be prepared and willing to do the same. Does this mean that you need to take every artist you meet under your wing? Of course not. And you shouldn’t expect that this will happen to you either. But there is absolutely no harm in sharing names and information that could be of use to fellow artists. Just like in any business, as you climb the ladder you should expect to offer a hand to those on the rungs behind you.