As a young artist, my research into the gallery system in my town brought me to a gallery on a major downtown street. It was well located, a good space, apparently a little small for a group exhibition but perfect for a solo. I had made an appointment with the owner, who had accepted to see me because an artist she’d been courting had referred me to her. She’d asked me to bring my portfolio, which made me nervous. I’d just recently finished my first independent series of works, but there I came with it in hand, supposing she wanted to make sure I was a serious artist, not someone likely to waste her time.
I am a punctual person; I presented myself exactly as appointed. The gallery was unattended by any employee. Though the gallery’s opening hours clearly indicated it should have been open, it clearly was not. I waited, talking with someone in an adjoining gallery but keeping an eye on the door. It was a full half hour before the owner appeared. In lieu of an apology, she said, “My, artists are NEVER on time!”
She had me wait again when she disappeared into what I assumed was a storage area. While I waited, I walked around the rectangular space. From what I remember there were figurative works displayed, well executed, and with a sardonic sense of humour. The artist was clearly not impressed with authority. I was glad to see the gallery owner had the good nature to show the work.
I said as much to her when she returned. “He has a following,” she said, without looking at the work. She sat at her desk instead and indicated a chair for me, adding, “He sells well.” I had seen red dots on a few of the tags.
Eager though I might have been to show my work, I felt I wasn’t ready for it. While I had individual pieces that were impressive, and I was happy with my series, I didn’t feel I had pushed it far enough yet for it to feel complete. This is why I was again surprised when the gallery owner, looking over my portfolio, offered me a solo exhibition before I had a chance to ask her any of my questions. “I have a space coming up, you have to decide now. We’ll set up a studio visit for the end of the week, I’ll come select the work.”
Now, the art world is a difficult nut to crack so that when an opportunity is offered, it is very hard for a young person to be self-disciplined and say, ‘not yet’. What if it blacklisted me? I therefore ignored my gut as she picked and rejected work during her studio visit. How arrogant would it be for me to refuse a solo exhibition in a selling gallery? I was being offered, just like that, what other artists I knew would have salivated over. They’d accuse me of being a wimp if I refused, ‘seize the opportunity!’ they’d say.
I listened a little numb as the gallery owner told me of her extensive mailing list, her contacts with ‘very rich people’, her reputation as a no-piece-left-unsold dealer. “I’m a hustler!” she said, and I didn’t doubt it for a second; well, only for a few seconds. She then praised my work saying, “It will sell itself!” as I stood there busy visualizing the scenario she described: a fabulous opening, pieces selling like ‘hot cakes’, press coverage, interviews, commissions, international recognition, all organized by her and enjoyed by me.
It did occur to me to wonder why she asked me no questions about the imagery itself. Was my inspiration obvious? Were my themes so transparent? Did she know the medium and all the technicalities of my process? But the enthusiasm with which she talked about pricing distracted me, She likes the work, I told myself, she wants to sell it, it must mean she understands it.
She did say things that seemed objectionable but my insecurity told me I was being paranoid. For instance, while there were pieces she would not exhibit or represent, she nevertheless expected her commission if I should sell them. Did this mean she was offering me an exclusivity contract and would send clients to my studio? I asked about a contract. “Contract? Oh no!” she said, “We work on trust!”
I did have an exhibition in that gallery. I won’t go into the details. If I say that her promises were greatly exaggerated, I am being very generous. I’m afraid the experience acted as a kind of revulsion therapy against commercial galleries. It was my fault for being gullible - the signs that it was not a good place for me or for my work were obvious, but my eagerness, and I’m afraid my stroked ego blinded me. It took me a while to recover. When I did, I resumed my quest to unlock the secrets of good representation.
As a curator, I advise artists that a solo exhibition is an important step in an artist’s’ life It is a career-defining exhibition, the one that can set the tone for the artist’s relationship to her/his own work while positioning her/him professionally and in the public eye. It is crucial that an artist not enter into such an undertaking prematurely, whether as a first-time exhibitor or to show a new body of work. A good experience in a gallery is a gift; a bad association may derail the artist creatively, and maybe even professionally, for a long time.
To enter into such an undertaking, one potentially fraught with challenges like expenses, contracts, conflicting agendas or mutual expectations, divergent philosophies, inflexible timelines, misunderstandings and uncertain commercial success, the artist must at least be sure of her/his own imagery and well anchored by her/his body of work. This is the only way the artist can know if a dealer, gallery or exhibition is right for the work, because ideally, the intents should merge: the artist’s who creates the images, the curator’s who positions them in a critical framework, and the dealer’s who helps establish their market value.
If any of these three players has an incompatible understanding of, agenda for or attitude toward the work or the exhibition, the artist may be the biggest loser.