How to Deal with the Press as an Artist
Andy Warhol interviews Kirk Douglas, 1978. Photo by Arty Pomerantz/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images.
So your art career is on a roll, and you’re ticking off all the boxes: MFA from an enviable institution; inclusion in a buzzy group show organized by a fast-talking Swiss curator; invitations to residencies in countries you’d never afford to see on your own. Still, there’s one hurdle that you’ve yet to face: the daunting, nail-biting experience of being interviewed by a journalist. This process shouldn’t be scary or anxiety-inducing, but it often is. And part of the reason is that the relationship between artists and art journalists can often seem shrouded in mystery, without any clear rules or protocols.
“Be generous, be open,” counsels journalist and artist David Colman. “Don’t be hypersensitive, and don’t have sky-high expectations—this can make you try and control the process, and nothing is more irritating to a writer.” Below, we share a few additional helpful tips as you start navigating this public phase of your career.
Get in touch
Before you have to deal with press, you’re going to have to attract the interest of the press itself. Artists who have reached a certain stage of their career might enjoy the support of a gallery or a public relations firm that handles this outreach—drafting press releases for upcoming exhibitions, and blasting them out to a virtual Rolodex of contacts. But for most ordinary artists, any press outreach will likely be a solitary, uphill battle. Don’t stress: It’s not difficult to find contact information for journalists. Most media outlets offer a generic contact email for pitches, and many writers list their email addresses online. (Pro tip: If you want to reach the imaginary writer Magda Crush at GreatArtMag.com, it’s pretty likely that she’ll be found at [email protected], [email protected], or some derivation thereof. Pop all of the possible combinations in the BCC field and cross your fingers.)
…but don’t pitch blindly
That said, any honest journalist will tell you that their inbox is a swamp teeming with unwanted and unsolicited messages, announcements, press releases, and follow-ups to all of the above. Don’t blindly spam a link to your portfolio or a notice of your upcoming solo show to every writer whose contact information you can uncover. Target your outreach and show that you’ve actually followed the work of the person you’re pitching to. That takes more effort—and it means crafting individual emails, rather than simply cut-pasting yourself into oblivion.
Margaret Carrigan, deputy art market editor at The Art Newspaper, noted that the few times she has responded to artists reaching out via social media or email, it was because “it was very clear that they were actually trying to reach me, not any writer,” she said. The artists addressed her by name and referenced something she’d written or posted that resonated with them. “Long story short, they took an interest in me and my connection to or expertise in art, rather than just expecting me to take an interest in them without any context,” Carrigan said. “It showed that they appreciated my time and work, which goes a long way toward making me want to appreciate their time and work.”
Gauge the scope of what you’re getting into
Once you have connected with a journalist for an interview, don’t barrage them with granular questions about the word count or other minutiae of the piece they’re writing. But it is a good idea to have an idea of the scope of the article in question—or if there even is a confirmed article. A journalist might simply want to swing by your studio to check things out; that could evolve into a proper story months, or even years, down the line. The journalist might only want a quick sound bite to include in a broader trend piece about the state of abstract ceramics or radical performance art. Don’t assume that the finished product will be a 10,000-word feature focused solely on your own practice. But do feel free to confirm the intended structure of the article: Is it a Q&A-style interview? A written profile? A listicle? A teeny, three-sentence exhibition preview?
What’s the purpose of an interview?
Mark Rappolt, editor-in-chief of venerable U.K. art magazine ArtReview, joked that “any good interview is like flirting. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” An astute journalist realizes that “you have to give something (personal) away, in order to get something (personal) in return.” Indeed, the resulting conversation can and should be intimate. But what is a journalist striving for in interviewing an artist, and what should the artist be aiming to project or communicate?
Carrigan emphasized that she goes into an interview to learn about the artist and their work, not critique it. “The more conversational [and] less defensive the conversation is, the better,” she offered. “I think of it a bit like going on a first date. You want to get a sense of what they’re like—their habits, their style, their background. It’s supposed to be kinda fun.”
Rappolt similarly noted that he sees interviews as opportunities to gather context around an artist’s work. “It also means we’re not so interested in talking about what an artist wanted to do, thought they were doing, or thinks we should think they were doing,” he continued. “If we do an interview, we’re interested in the person as part of the context of the work, not a surrogate for the work.…We’re not interested in intentionality so much as actuality.”
Relax, and be humble
“Don’t act like you, or your art, are God’s gift to the world,” cautioned Colman, “or like the journalist is lucky to finally be writing about a good artist. No other single thing is more off-putting.” He added that if the interview is taking place in your studio, avoid explaining your work while the journalist is viewing it. “It’ll sound like you have a spiel, and that’s not the impression you want to create,” Colman said. As an artist, he added, “I like leaving people alone in the studio for a few minutes so they can have their own experience with [the work], unmodulated.”
The journalist is not your friend (or your publicist)
If you think that the relationship between a writer and her subject is basically like a friendship, you’re in for some serious heartbreak. An art writer’s true allegiance is not to you, it’s to the story she is crafting. Realize that what ends up in that story might be frustrating, uncomfortable, or not exactly in line with the singular way you think about your own life and work. Take a deep breath; everything is going to be okay. (For more on this subject, check out Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, and then listen to this excellent conversation with profile-writer extraordinaire Taffy Brodesser-Akner.)
If you want to hire (and pay) someone to help put your personal artistic vision into words, that’s fine. Agreeing to be interviewed by a magazine or newspaper, however, is an entirely different scenario. The artist and the journalist are not equal collaborators here, and it’s not the journalist’s job to make sure that you are happy with the results.
“Most artists misunderstand the role of the writer who engages with their work,” noted Antwaun Sargent, a contributor to Artsy, as well as the New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications. “Artists, even when they say they aren’t, are looking for some kind of PR: a boost, a validation. That’s not the writer’s job. The writer’s mission is to get as close to the truth of what they see as they can.” This relationship requires a certain amount of trust, and a willingness to not be in the driver’s seat. If you’re trying to obsessively steer your own narrative, it’s going to be one rough ride.
To email, or not to email?
Perhaps you have trouble discussing your work in person, and would prefer to answer questions via email. That’s a reasonable request. But bear in mind that an excellent profile often depends on those in-person nuances, and that responses delivered in writing will likely lack the conversational zing of an actual human conversation. Or, as Colman bluntly put it, “written responses bring out everyone’s fancy vocabulary and self-importance, making them sound like controlling, pretentious jackasses (and often delivering phony-baloney quotes that are unusable, anyway).”
Regardless, if you are going to go the route of an email interview, never simply reuse or recycle responses that you’ve previously trotted out for a press release, a grant application, or another interview. That sort of self-plagiarism will put everyone in an uncomfortable position.
Never ask to see a draft of the piece before publication
This is a big one—it’s worth getting tattooed on your forearm, or at the very least, writing on a notecard and tacking to your studio wall. It’s understandable that you’d want to have a peek at an article before it’s sent out into the world; being the subject of a story involves making yourself vulnerable, after all. Maybe you’re afraid that the writer didn’t get all the facts straight…but it’s easy to vet places, dates, work materials, and so on without expecting to see the story itself. Though it varies by country, respectable publications in the United States will have a policy not to share a draft of an in-progress article with the subject. Show that you’re a true professional, as well: Don’t ask in the first place. (Note that in some countries it is common for journalists to share a draft before publication, purely for fact-checking purposes.)
Reviewing your quotes is only about accuracy—not changing your words after the fact
“But wait!” you say. “I get that the writer’s words are her business, but what about my own words? Don’t I have the right to see them in advance, and also maybe…you know…change them a little, to make them better?” This arguably gets us into more nuanced territory, but certain ground rules should still apply. While publications have their own policies and protocols around this, it’s okay to ask to vet your quotes in an article—for accuracy. Recording devices aren’t perfect, and transcriptions can be sloppy. If the writer has mistyped what you actually said, then that should certainly be corrected. But once you’ve submitted to an on-the-record interview, you have to be comfortable with letting those words stand. Resist the temptation to retroactively make yourself sound smarter. Quotes that are polished or “rewritten” after the fact lose their conversational appeal; what was initially warm, human, and relatable can swiftly become stilted, academic, and flat.
If you’re interested, share a link to the article on your social-media channels. Don’t feel the need to tag and profusely thank the writer (who, after all, is not your friend). But definitely avoid sharing the piece if your main goal in doing so is to clarify that the writer just didn’t get what you do. “Decent piece on GreatArtMag.com, though unfortunately Magda Crush totally misunderstood my practice,” for instance, is not the sort of tweet that ingratiates.
If this is all too much stress, consider opting out
One of the worst interviews I’ve ever suffered through was with an established artist who was showing at a large New York institution funded by a well-known energy drink. The artist in question kept me waiting for around 45 minutes, and when he showed up, he promptly told me that, while we could chat informally, he didn’t want to speak on the record—at all. While I sympathized to a degree (this artist had apparently felt mistreated at the hands of the press in the past), it was an utter waste of everyone’s time. If the thought of speaking to journalists—and the inability to micromanage that relationship—makes you break out in hives, remember that no one is forcing you to do so. You can happily make work, and exhibit it, without agreeing to let a nosy writer into your studio and life. And who knows? That press shyness might only add to your legend and mystique.
Clarification: This article is written based on journalism conventions in the United States. Press conventions for artists and journalists may vary by country.