Surviving versus Thriving
I guess I should begin by explaining that in my view ‘surviving’ a photographic exhibition opening involves much more than coming out of the place alive at the end of the evening. I’d like to think that maintaining a pulse over the course of a couple of hours of social interaction is most often a given, rather than a goal toward which one must actively strive. Instead, I’m combining several measures of success into the concept of survival. These measures include having a positive experience, making a good impression, getting your work noticed, learning as much as you can from others, and making effective contacts with hosts and peers. If you can accomplish all of these things at a gallery opening, then you are not just surviving; you are thriving!
Planting Early for a Bountiful Harvest
If we accept this spin on surviving an exhibition opening, then it’s easy to imagine that achieving these results requires preparation months in advance, beginning with the decision to respond to calls for entries and/or approach galleries to get your work on display. For example, I found the Southeast Center for Photography’s (sec4p) call for the Forsaken Exhibition while researching competitions online in March of this year. Many things had to happen between that time and the actual reception on August 4th before I could walk out of the gallery that evening around 8 pm feeling that the event had been a success for me. I thrived at the opening and will continue to benefit from the experience into the foreseeable future. A successful opening reception is an outcome that one cultivates over time, not something one achieves in a single evening. So, here are my top tips. There are eight of them and the first five involve preparation in advance of the event.
Tip #1: Get in a Show and Go!
When I think about photography exhibitions and openings, the first thing that comes to mind is that old gambling saying; “If you don’t play, you can’t win”. Before you can survive an opening at a venue displaying your work you must get in a show. I have read in various places that group shows are really a waste of time and that they don’t matter professionally all that much, so why invest the time and money? I disagree. I think the experience can be invaluable if you take the opportunity to learn and grow as much as you can.
Unless you plan to hold out for a solo show (it could be a long wait), and to prepare for one without any experience, you really should get into group shows in venues that make sense whenever you can. It’s outside the scope of this post to describe in detail how you identify and evaluate contests (that’s for a future post), but do research the gallery and/or organization sponsoring the contest. There are many photographic contests run by businesses that have only an online presence. In these cases, if your work gets selected for inclusion, remember that it will only be displayed on a website. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there will be no opening reception and your work will have no physical presence. If you’re like me and you believe that a photograph isn’t finished until it has taken its final form as a physical print, then venues such as these may leave you feeling unfulfilled.
Since it usually costs money to enter contests, I also think it’s safest to look for contests sponsored by brick and mortar galleries. Regular calls for entries to shows may be a basic part of the business model of many galleries these days, but when one of good reputation mounts a show, it is investing significantly in the defining concept of that exhibition and in the artists. After all, the photos will usually hang in the gallery for around a month. Remember that the work the gallery displays will impact its reputation and standing in the art world, so brick and mortar establishments have much to lose if they skimp on quality to make a quick buck. These galleries also provide a gathering place for all of those involved to meet, learn and grow together.
Tip #2: Research the Gallery Owner/Director and Juror
Your research should begin while making decisions about which calls for entries to enter or galleries to approach. Before I invested the time and money in responding to the Forsaken call, I researched the juror, Terri Cappucci. I sought out examples of her work on the internet to try to get a feel for how she might respond to my work. I also read what I could find about the sec4p and its Director/Owner, Michael Pannier. The research helped me to gauge reputation and to view the quality of work the gallery had displayed in past shows.
Research like this also pays off once you get to the opening reception. Knowing about the juror’s work can help you to understand her vision for the show, and lets her know, if you get to meet her, that you took the time in advance to get to know her. Knowing something about your host, the gallery director/owner, and engaging in conversations with him that incorporate this knowledge, communicates a lot about you and your approach to work and life. It suggests that you are interested in more than just what he can do for you. And you should be sincere in that interest. If you can’t be, then don’t bother trying to pretend, as insincerity is not the impression you want to leave with this person.
Tip #3: Spread the Word on Social Media and Include Links to the Venue
Using your social media accounts to spread the word about your upcoming exhibition does more than let you friends know that you have a photo in a show. Importantly, it also helps to demonstrate your sincere interest in the gallery and the overall success of the exhibition. It shows that you realize your fortunes are linked with the gallery’s, at least for the duration of the show. In addition, it shows the owner/director that you are not just willing to do more than promote yourself; you have the drive to follow through. Be willing to do it and then be sure to make time to do it in the weeks leading up to the reception. Remember, however, that the gallery director will only know about your efforts in this regard if you use social media effectively.
You should certainly include links to the venue website and/or the online exhibition gallery, if the photographs have been published on the venue’s website. But if you want gallery staff to know about what you are doing and to interact with your posts, you must take the time to find the gallery’s own social media accounts and to refer to them in your posts about the show. For example, the sec4p has a business page on Facebook, so I tagged that page in my posts about the Forsaken opening reception. I also “Liked” or followed the gallery’s page so that I received gallery posts on my timeline. This gave me the opportunity to Like and Share its posts. Each time I did any of these things, Michael received a notice that Angela Martin had liked and/or shared his post, or tagged his gallery in her own posts. As a result, he knew my name and something positive about me before I walked into the reception and introduced myself. His first impression of me was my photograph, American Dream. His second impression was that I am someone who enthusiastically promotes his business.
Tip #4: Prepare “Leave Behinds” and Bring Them
It might go without saying that you should take promotional materials with you to the reception, but you can only do this if you prepare in advance. Everyone knows you should have a business card to hand out, preferably one that has been professionally printed, but you can do better than that. A postcard showcasing your photograph in the show combined with a business card is a step up, but it won’t make you stand out from the crowd. I designed bifold pamphlets about two of the photographic series on which I am currently working and had them professionally printed. You can do this for a very small investment and get enough copies to last a year or more, if you use them judiciously. They are great “leave behinds” for portfolio reviews, by the way, because you can include thumbnails of various photos, a short artist’s statement and bio, and your web address and social media accounts. I love the way mine turned out.
Tip #5: Know the Exhibition Well Before You Walk in the Door
These days, it’s not unusual to have the opportunity to view all the photographs accepted into a show before the opening reception, even if the gallery isn’t local to you. Many will post the images included in the show online after the juror has made her or his selections. Presumably, you know your own work. Now take the time to get to know well the other work in the show. Think about each piece, understand what you like and what you don’t like, and why. Note the emotions they each evoke. Consider how each photo fits (or does not fit) with the theme of the show. Imagine what the juror possibly saw in each photograph, including yours. All of this makes you ‘literate’ regarding the narrative of the show and prepares you to speak with others about your work, as well as the works of your fellow artists.
Tip #6: Take Care of the Basics and Half the Battle is Won
Once all this preparation in advance is past and it’s time for the reception, I believe that if you take care of the key basics, you’ll do well. What are ‘the Basics’? Clothing, Food, Drink, and Reinforcements. One of the first concerns people have when they get the opportunity to attend an unfamiliar event is that they will not be appropriately dressed. It’s especially important if you are going to have your work on display, as you’ll need to interact with the gallery director and will likely be approached by more people viewing the show. I suppose many people will advise that you ‘dress to impress’, but I would advise instead that you dress to the venue, while wearing something that makes you feel comfortable. For example, I came across some photos of Polly Gaillard’s opening reception on the sec4p Instagram site. Most people in these photos were casually dressed, so I knew I would be okay also dressing casually, without being a pig.
You want to be comfortable over the course of the evening, so, unless you tend to always eat late, have some dinner before you go. There may or may not be finger food at the reception, but consider whether you want to spend the event stuffing your face because you’re starving, or you’d rather be mingling and talking with other guests. Furthermore, if you can avoid hovering around the food table, you will be less tempted to drink too much free wine. In fact, unless you’re someone who knows that one drink takes the edge off your social anxiety and you’re also someone who can stick to one drink only, I advise skipping the alcohol altogether in favor of water. That way, you’re guaranteed not to be the artist that got drunk at the reception and, theoretically, your breath will be a little less offensive to others.
Finally, do bring a reinforcement or two with you to the reception, especially if you won’t know any of the other attendees. Bring your partner, a friend or a relative, to provide you with moral support and to view the exhibition photos with you. Not only will it make you feel more comfortable, but it will make this exciting moment a shared moment about which you can reminisce in the future with someone in addition to yourself. My mother was nice enough to agree to come along with me, so I got to share this moment and a trip to a new place with her. So, do bring someone if you can, but choose that person carefully. For example, don’t bring someone that will get bored and want to leave after five minutes, someone that isn’t okay being left alone to mingle with others when it’s best for you, someone who always has to be the center of attention, or anyone that is socially inappropriate or tends to drink too much at parties. Fortunately for me, my mom is well able to entertain herself and very good in social situations, so she was the perfect companion for the evening.
Tip #7: Critique to Grow, Not to Compete
Privately critique each photograph in the show, but do so to learn, not to degrade your competition. When you feel tempted to look down your nose at someone else’s work and begin to bask in the glow of imagined superiority, stop and remember how subjective and personal fine art photography truly is. Remember how personal your work is to you, how much it is a part of you; your life experiences and vision. Then remember what it feels like when someone belittles your work, how it can sometimes even bruise your sense of self. A technical critique of each photograph helps me to learn, sparks creativity, and can even help me set new goals for my own work. There are a lot of photographs I just don’t like much, because they don’t move me. But, I realize that it’s possible I just don’t get it.
It’s in many of our natures to feel competitive about nearly everything in our lives. I’m certainly not immune to the desire that my work compete well against that of other photographers. I certainly want my photos to be selected by jurors above the work of others. I would also like to sell my work and obtain more commissions for fine art photographs. And, if a gallery patron is going to buy a photograph from the show, I would like it to be mine. However, I think it’s important to remember that there is more than one photographic call for entries in the world, there is more than one gallery, more than one publication, collector, and buyer. If you produce good photographic work, there will be contests and shows for you out there somewhere. If you keep your work fresh and you promote yourself effectively, there will also be buyers and collectors.
My point is, your success actually doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s; there is enough opportunity for success for all talented photographers willing to work hard. Contrary to popular belief, success is not a limited commodity. It is not the case that only so much can be rationed out to the world each day, so you don’t have to attempt to elevate yourself by bashing the competition. Your own hard work and talent will get you there, or it won’t. If success doesn’t come to you (however you define that), it will rarely be because someone else nicked it. I also suspect that your own generosity towards your peers will positively influence the way others perceive your work. Remember, you are your work.
Tip #8: Make It Your Goal to Learn Something from Everyone
By default, this goal means that you must talk to as many people as possible and form some lasting relationships. When you give interest to the work of others, that interest is typically reciprocated by all but the most narcissistic and/or insecure people. It’s just as well that you find out who these people are (so you can avoid them in future), so don’t be afraid to give your attention freely and sincerely to other artists. If you do, you will make lasting connections with other talented and generous people. Just about everyone has something to teach you about your work, so mingle widely. Be sure to exchange “leave behinds” that include contact information so you can stay in touch. Remember to follow up with your new contacts as soon as possible after the reception while everyone’s memories of each other and the event are still clear.
Finally, be sure to email or write to the gallery director to thank him or her no more than a week or so after the event. You want this person to remember you and it’s simply right to thank him for his hospitality. This is a chance to follow up on any outstanding questions or leads, but also to ask if there is anything you can do for the gallery in future to help promote the venue. If you publish a blog or post on social media about the event or show after the reception, be sure to send links to the gallery director and your other new contacts. The exhibition will last longer than the reception, so try to continue to promote it until the show closes.
I know I’ve had a lot to say, but if you follow my tips, I think you’ll find that success at one event can carry forward over a long period of time. You have built the momentum of success through your preparation for the opening, now do what you can to preserve that momentum without becoming a pest.
Thanks for reading; I hope you got something useful out of my Top Tips for Surviving a Photography Exhibition Opening. Since you’re already here, please look around and then leave a comment. If you like what you see here, help me realize my modest dreams of success; SHARE THIS CONTENT on your social media networks using the Share button below. Thank you and Enjoy!
-- Angela Martin
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