How Do Artists Get Gallery Representation?
For young artists, securing gallery representation can seem like an unobtainable goal. But it doesn’t have to be a pipe dream.
While it’s possible to go it alone, it’s hard to understate the importance of a supportive, dedicated gallery to your career. The right gallerist doubles as a sounding board while you develop your work, a public platform for your practice, and a source of income.
But whether you’re entering the art world as a self-taught creative or an MFA graduate, the road to finding representation can be perplexing. It’s no longer appropriate to stride into a gallery wielding your portfolio, expecting to be discovered—so how do you land on the radar of the galleries you already admire and respect?
First off, it helps to be honest: Blue-chip institutions like Gagosian or David Zwirner are not exactly on the hunt for unknown talent. But plenty of vital and exciting galleries on a smaller scale are. Below, we speak with a group of progressive dealers across the United States—from Catinca Tabacaru of Catinca Tabacaru Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side to Haynes Riley of Good Weather in North Little Rock, Arkansas—who primarily represent emerging artists. They weigh in on the most effective ways to get yourself on the radar.
The importance of education
Catinca Tabacaru, who opened her gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2014, first visited Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels’s on-campus studio while she was in the throes of completing her MFA at Columbia University. By the time Fels graduated, in May 2016, her first New York solo show had been scheduled for the coming December in Tabacaru’s space. Fels landed on Tabacaru’s permanent roster soon after.
Artists are encouraged to challenge and develop their work while in school. Tabacaru, in particular, was drawn to how Fels’s practice matured while at Columbia. “Art degrees have the expected effect: They advance artists by pushing them to think hard about their work and where they’re taking it,” she says.
BFA and MFA programs also serve as a platform for emerging artists to present their work to a wider community. The majority of programs offer infrastructure artists might not be able to provide for themselves: studio space and the organization and promotion of open studios and thesis shows.
Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im, who run Et al. gallery in San Francisco, are two of countless gallerists who use art schools as a resource to stay abreast of new practices. “What open studios or a thesis show have going for them is bulk. It’s a chance to see a lot of work in person in one space,” says Harbour.
Harbour and Im first saw Kate Bonner’s work in person in her studio at California College of the Arts (CCA) in 2011. There, she showed them early drawings that were the core of her practice when she entered CCA’s MFA program, along with new work—photographic-sculptural objects—that she developed while there.
The visit also doubled as a valuable evidence of Bonner’s willingness to evolve her practice: “Being struck by that work, combined with knowing that she’d taken the opportunity of grad school and transformed, meant a lot to us,” he says.
In 2013, when Harbour and Im opened Et al.’s doors with then-partner Facundo Argañaraz, they invited Bonner to show at the gallery. While at CCA, Bonner also cemented a relationship with Luis De Jesus, the gallerist who now represents her in Los Angeles.
Riley met the first artists he showed at Good Weather in North Little Rock, Arkansas, while getting his MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. While in school, Riley didn’t know he’d be inspired to open a gallery in 2012. But when he did, in the garage adjacent to his brother’s suburban Little Rock home, he tapped artists from his Cranbrook community like Tony Garbarini and John Zane Zappas launched the program.
While these gallerists recognize the value of art school to an artist’s development and exposure, they are also quick to emphasize that a degree is by no means essential criteria. “The work is the work,” says Tabacaru. “I’m drawn to self-taught artists just as much as I am artists with BFAs or MFAs.”
Chicago-based gallerist Efrain Lopez, who opened his eponymous space in 2015 and now represents 10 emerging artists, echoes the sentiment: “An MFA is an effective badge to have, but not having one doesn’t limit me from looking at someone’s work,” he explains. “There are so many avenues that artists can use to make themselves visible to gallerists and curators—degree programs are just one.”
Apply to residencies
While Lopez does make a point to remain aware of artists coming out of BFA and MFA programs (he cites Yale, Rhode Island School of Design, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Royal College of Art as schools he follows), residencies have been a more fruitful source of new talent.
In 2014, as he brainstormed the vision for his nascent space, he clicked onto ACRE’s website. ACRE, or Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions, is a non-profit run out of Chicago that organizes an annual summer program in rural Wisconsin. Over 50 artists pass through it each year. After, they’re offered a show at ACRE’s Chicago exhibition space or at one of its partner galleries.
Lopez was struck by images of current resident Melissa Leandro’s work that were on the ACRE site. He connected with the artist through her own website and she invited him to a group show that included her work; from there they proceeded to set up a studio visit. Six months later, when Lopez opened his gallery, Leandro was on the roster.
Residencies can also be a productive place to make connections and scout artists in person. Riley has participated in numerous residency programs across the country, where he’s met artists who go on to show at Good Weather. “Initially, artists who I worked with who weren’t from Cranbrook were artists I attended residencies with,” he explains. The residency program at Ox-Bow School of Art, Michigan, in particular, led to friendships and collaborations with Ezra Tessler, Jenny G, and Sondra Perry, who’ve all mounted new work at the gallery.
Find a job that’s adjacent to the art world
Landing a job in a gallery—whether as an intern, assistant, art handler, installation photographer, or graphic designer—can also expand an emerging artist’s community and act as a springboard for exposure.
Tabacaru found an artist she’d later represent when he interned at the gallery: “Xavier Robles de Medina applied for an internship with me before I even opened,” remembers Tabacaru. “He was a terrible intern, but I loved his work. So I fired him and put him on the roster!” His meticulous graphite drawings and oil paintings have been included in two group exhibitions and one solo show at Tabacaru’s space in the past three years.
Working as an established artist’s studio assistant can also be a fast-track way to meet gallerists while also gaining technical and administrative skills. The right assistant job can operate more like a mentorship program, and the artist who is employing you might be in a position to introduce your own work to his or her peers or dealers. The number of well-known artists who cut their teeth in someone else’s studio is long: from sought-after young painter Jamian Juliano-Villani, who got her start as an assistant in Erik Parker’s studio, to influential abstract painter Brice Marden, who worked in legendary neo-Dada artist Robert Rauschenberg’s studio when he was young.
Maintain an online presence
A 2016 study calculated that American adults, on average, spend a shocking amount of each day online: roughly 10 hours and 39 minutes. The same year, Facebook reported that users while away an average of 50 minutes per day on its triumvirate of social media properties: Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger.
We devour and exchange scads of information online, so it comes as no surprise that gallerists also include the internet and social media amongst their well of resources for finding new artists. In step, it’s become valuable for artists to build an online presence.
Harbour and Im have day jobs that require them to sit in front of the computer. In quieter moments, they browse art websites like Art Viewer, Contemporary Art Daily, Mousse Magazine, Terremoto, AQNB, Daily Lazy, and Tzvetnik to keep up with the goings-on of the art world beyond San Francisco. They also keep an eye out for artists whose work strikes their curiosity. “We’re constantly chatting and passing links to exhibitions or an artists’ sites back and forth during the day,” says Harbour.
Dealers look for a breadth of images of work, preferably organized by year. Clear contact details also help. “As far as information, prior work, CV, and an artist statement are great launching points,” says Lopez. Having these details “helps me navigate whether or not I want to take the next step to meet them.”
Developing a social media presence is less integral than maintaining a website. But many gallerists use Instagram, in particular, as an additional source of information on artists whose work they’re drawn to. “I’ve been skeptical of social media’s role in the art world,” says Lopez. “But I acknowledge that it’s another way for artists to make themselves discoverable and visible.”
Lopez was introduced to sculptor Lesley Jackson’s work when she began following him on Instagram. The digital encounter led Lopez to Jackson’s own feed, where he saw a cascade of bright, clean images of her pieces: elegant forms, composed of thin twigs, taut rubber bands, and burning candles, with poetic titles like “Balancing Eternity on Your Knee” and “Conjuring a Rose with the Moon.” “She understands how to present her work in that context,” he explains. “Her photography is beautiful.” A conversation via direct message followed, then a studio visit. This month, Jackson’s work was on view in Lopez’s group show.
Tabacaru also recognizes the value of spontaneously viewing or sharing a compelling piece through social media. She first saw Jasmin Charles’s work when a fellow guest at a dinner party pulled up an image of one of her paintings on Instagram. The experience kickstarted Tabacaru’s interest in the artist duo, CHARGAUX, of which Charles is one half. Not long after, Tabacaru invited them to join the gallery.
But Tabacaru is also quick to offer a caveat, when it comes to Instagram visibility and behavior. "Is Instagram influential? Yes. Is it crucial? No,” she impresses. “There’s nothing I despise more than an artist who goes around self-promoting rather than focusing on developing their work. There’s definitely a point when self-promotion goes from being useful to being gratuitous.”
Introduce yourself to galleries—tactfully
The golden rule when introducing your work to galleries is simple: Don’t bombard them. “Please don’t inundate us with phone calls and visits, or visit the gallery weekly and say ‘I sent you a submission, I haven’t heard back from you,’” explains Christy Wood, who co-owns LeMieux Gallery in New Orleans. In the past, her gallery has played host to the BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® Artisan Series opening reception showcasing emerging artists. “Remember that we have full schedules and artists already on our roster whose needs are our priority.”
But while marching into a gallery brandishing your portfolio-loaded iPad isn’t likely to pay off, there are more subtle ways to get your work into front of dealers’ eyes.
First, get to know the gallery landscape and find several whose programs you respect. Those are the spaces you want to become familiar with. If you have hopes that a gallery will eventually support your work, it makes sense to support theirs first.
“It’s less effective to just send your portfolio blindly everywhere,” says Wood. “Find a gallery or galleries that your work would fit well into, and cultivate those relationships over time.”
Both Wood and Lopez suggest attending openings as a means to get to know a gallery’s vision, artists, and staff. “Even if it’s just coming to the openings once a month, it shows that artists are interested,” says Wood.
Lopez has struck up relationships with several artists after they showed an interest in his program: “They come to my shows and that starts a conversation, which has a couple of times turned into a studio visit, and then showing in a group exhibition at the gallery.” Wood’s experience mirrors Lopez’s: “I can think of numerous artists who I met and have included in group shows because they frequented the gallery.”
Many dealers are also open to receiving portfolios or links to artist websites via email. (Though a word of caution: if a gallery website explicitly states that they “don’t accept submissions,” don’t send them.)
Tabacaru makes a point of opening any and all submissions, usually sent via email, from artists. “Sometimes I look for a few seconds and am not interested. Other times I become obsessed and explore their website for half an hour,” she says. “But no matter what, I look. I want to trust the universe that if somebody thinks I’m valuable enough to take their time to write, then I should also give them my time.”
She most recently added the young French artist Mehryl Levisse to her gallery’s roster. And she learned about his work in “what might be the most uncomfortable way for an artist to find a gallery,” she explains. “Meryl found me.”
After learning about Tabacaru’s program during his time at the Residency Unlimited residency in Brooklyn, Levisse sent Tabacaru an email, with a link to his website. She was intrigued. They set up a short meeting, and Tabacaru encouraged Levisse to update her on developments in his work. “He’d be in touch about every other month with news about what he was working on,” she remembers. “And I became more and more interested and impressed.”
About a year into their back and forth, Tabacaru asked Levisse for an exhibition proposal. Three proposals later, they set a date for Levisse’s first show, and he was added to the gallery roster.
In general, have patience: Relationships with dealers often unfold over time. The partnership “is symbiotic and usually a slow growth process,” says Lopez. “It’s important for artists to understand that and not freak out about it.”
Connect with your community
Word-of-mouth recommendations are often key. When searching for work to include in group shows or artists to add to their permanent programs, many gallerists first look to artists and peers whose vision they respect. “I’m constantly asking the artists who I represent: ‘Who are you looking at?’,” explains Lopez. “I find that talented artists surround themselves with other talented artists.”
“I ask my friends all the time, whether I’m visiting Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St. Louis, New York, Chicago, or more recently, Cologne, Athens, and Berlin, who I should meet and what practices I should be aware of,” echoes Haynes. “All of these experiences have led to meeting new people and engaging in new conversations. Two-degrees of separation become one-degree, and then zero-degrees.”
The only way for emerging artists to enter this conversation, however, is to make and maintain connections with fellow artists they meet out in the world—whether through school, residencies, group shows, openings, travel, or a great party.
“I try to encourage artists who are more introverted to engage with their community,” says Lopez. Dialogue between artists, he explains, is beneficial on many levels. It can inspire new directions and developments in the work. More strategically, it’s also an effective way to exchange information about how to navigate the gallery landscape, a way to glean info on “how artist-gallery relationships work and progress, and which galleries have interesting programs and group shows or are looking for new artists,” he adds.
Lopez found several artists included in his current group show, “Yellow Tulips,” through conversations with artists he already represents. Monika Bravo suggested Omar Barquet, whom she met through a group show in Switzerland last year. Manuela García’s work was brought to Lopez’s attention by Anuar Maauad, who helms an artist-run exhibition space and residency program in Mexico City, where García has worked and shown.
Participation in group shows—whether at small artist-run spaces or larger-scale galleries—opens artists to a larger cross-section of artists, curators, and gallerists. Gallerists, in particular, use group shows as an opportunity to get to know artists and their work.
Tabacaru routinely invites artists to curate groups exhibitions at her gallery. For Robles de Medina’s first show with Tabacaru in 2015, he asked two artists he admired to contribute work: Felix R. Cid and Rui Chafes. Tabacaru took an immediate shine to Chafes’s work, a dialogue was sparked, and earlier this year he emerged on the gallery’s roster.
“It’s important to be visible, stay visible, and understand that the art world is multifaceted,” Lopez says. He emphasizes that group shows double as a strong step towards finding or developing a more permanent relationship with a gallery. “It is as important for your work to be included in what may seem like an obscure group show as it is to have a solo show at a commercial gallery. They all work hand-in-hand to build an artist’s career.”
Open your studio
It can be nerve-wracking to open a space as intimate (and sometimes, as messy) as a studio, where an artist tests ideas and builds their practice. But the time-honored studio visit is an integral step in cultivating a gallery relationship—so being comfortable with the experience is important. Gallerists don’t just want to see your art online, or on an iPad. They’ll likely want some first-hand insight into the way you work, and where you make it.
That doesn’t mean you need to do a deep clean or reorganization of your space; gallerists generally aren’t expecting (or desiring) a polished, white-cube display. “I prefer visiting studios that aren’t highly curated,” explains Lopez. “I gravitate towards seeing the work in a more natural context.”
Riley also “likes to see a lot going on—especially work that is a bit unsettled,” he explains. He expects to see work he first discovered online, in order to “understand its materiality and scale.” But after talking through the artist’s intentions with the current work, he “steers the dialogue to the future—to what’s not quite understood or known within their practice and output.”
In this way, gallerists like Riley leave with a sense of whether or not their goals align with artist’s, and how they could work together moving forward.
Learn to speak confidently about your work
We all know that fluid communication is crucial to the success of any relationship. The same goes for the rapport between artist and gallerist, and the first step in this dialogue is fluently expressing the intentions behind your work.
As Tabacaru familiarizes herself with the work of artists she’s considering taking on she “likes understanding deeply,” she explains. “I can enjoy by just looking, but I prefer when dialogue takes me further.”
Lopez reiterates this desire. “Primarily, you’re looking at a visual language, but it definitely helps if artists are also skilled at explaining their work,” he says. “It’s important that they have a strong understanding of what they’re doing, and are at least able to communicate that.”
Of course, explaining the nuanced inspirations and objectives behind your work might not come easily. The key is practice, whether you do so by recording your thoughts in a notebook, talking through your inspirations with a friend or curator you’re comfortable with, or describing you work, yes, to a mirror.
Be comfortable, be coherent, but also don't make it a packaged 60-minute spiel filled with rigid academic speech (aka international art english). Being obtuse and pretentious won’t impress a gallerist. They want to hear how you think about your work; they want to have a conversation. “I love to have in-depth conversations with artists about the context of their practice and the landscape as a whole,” says Lopez.
Riley agrees: “I want to understand their ideologies and have experiences with them interpersonally. I want to be invested in the discourse surrounding their practice.”
Summing it up
The road to finding representation will likely be unpredictable, and include a hodgepodge of the above approaches. But several strategies will guide almost every artist’s successful search for gallery representation.
First, stay visible. Be open to showing your work (whether in group shows or online), sharing information with your community of artists, attending openings, and learning about the landscape of galleries that surrounds you.
Second, remember that building a partnership with a gallery means collaborating. Be open to dialogue about your ideas. Gallerists have experience realizing artists’ visions and selling work, and most look for artists open to advice and willing to evolve concepts together.
Finally, be patient. Keep in mind that there are lots of galleries out there, each with its own aesthetic and approach. It may take time to find the one that’s right for you—but as with any great relationship, this one is worth the effort.
Header animation: Illustration by Tomi Um for Artsy. Animation by Ale Pixel Studio.