Help Desk

Help Desk: Flirtatious Collectors & Young Curators

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

The work in this week’s column is by Rob Swainston, who will have a solo show at Neuwerk Kunsthalle in Konstanz, Germany in September. For those of you following the discussion around artist statements, Rob’s is worth checking out.

I work for a commercial gallery space and have been approached by male collectors who express an interest in taking me out. More often than not, I have no interest in these men, but I am always anxious my boss may be upset that I get a bit cold in order to put them off. What do you think is the appropriate way to handle this situation?

The easy way out is to buy a decoy engagement ring, a big eye-catching piece of sparkly glass, and wear it to work. If you’re a man, you could try the same with a traditional-looking thick gold band. It won’t stop all comers, but it might scare off the majority.

Rob Swainston, Centennial, 2009. Woodblock print on paper, each scroll 36 in x 10 ft., installation dimensions variable

But it would be better if you understood your employer’s expectations so that you could stop feeling anxious, and the only way to do that is have an open and honest conversation. Then the two of you can decide together what course of action to take. There’s no need to feel awkward, just ask for a quick meeting and state the facts: collectors are asking you out and you’re not interested. Say, “How would you like me to handle this situation?” Probably your employer will direct you to act similarly to what you’re already doing, but if she tells you to do something that you’re not comfortable with, you must speak up calmly but immediately: “I don’t think that’s going to work, can we find another solution?” Both parties need to put their cards on the table; that way you will know what’s expected, and also your boss can get your back should an uninvited flirtation get out of hand. You need to know that your boundaries are respected in the workplace, if not by the clientele then at least by your colleagues. And of course, if your boss tries to pimp you out in the interest of selling some work, you’ll know that it’s time to grab your bag and run for the door.

Without knowing exactly what you consider “a bit cold,” it’s hard to give detailed behavioral advice. Yet as a side note, you might consider learning how to say a firm, confident “Thank you, but no” with a pleasant look on your face. It will serve you well in your current predicament, and you will find it handy in all kinds of situations.

Rob Swainston, Triumphal Arch, 2007. Installation

A very close friend and I are curating an exhibit in Kansas City. The entire show consists of artists under the age of 21 including us curators. We have a pretty solid plan, filled with installations, video projections, paintings, sculptures, and performance. What are some words of advice you can give to us as we embark on our first and greatest endeavor to date? I think the hardest part is the fact that we are all so young. We are definitely talented, not to be modest. I feel that it is going to be hard for people to take us seriously and also hard to make a show worthy of critique and review from the establishment. It’s also hard to perceive the future issues we might face during set up and the opening. It’s also going to be hard to combine all these talents together without it being a sensory overload. What are some issues you’ve come across that we probably wouldn’t have thought of ahead of time?

First of all, bravo! I’m glad to hear that you are making and executing ambitious plans. I have no doubt that your work is going to be inspiring to the other artists and curators in your community.

With such a big show, you’re going to have to delegate, and that means that you need to communicate clearly, beginning with yourself and your own plans. I love to map these kinds of things out in pencil and paper, so grab some now. Begin with your end goal and work backward, asking yourself how you’re going to get to each step of the way. For example, you might say that your end goal is to put on a great show with excellent artwork that is well received by the press. How do you get there? Well, among other things, you’ll need an exhibition space (which you have), some great artists (check), and a well-crafted press release. Now, how do you get there? Well, you read a lot of art press releases, you write yours out and (this is very important) get it edited by someone who is a good writer, then you gather the contact information for the arts journalists you want to reach and you send the press release out. How do you get there? Maybe you know someone who works at a gallery who can show you some PR, or you can look for advice in a book on professional practices such as Taking the Leap by Cay Lang. Where do you find contact information?—on the internet and on the index page of print publications like Art in America. Etc., etc., etc.

Rob Swainston, detail from the installation PLEXUS, 2011

This kind of mapping can also help you make a timeline. For example, if you need to send press releases out a month in advance, then you need to have a rough draft in hand two months in advance, which means that your research and example gathering should happen at least two weeks before that, which means that you need to have all the artists’ names spell-checked and into a document at least a week before that… It sounds exhausting when you write it all out this way, but I assure you, writing it all down will make it much more manageable. Having a comprehensive list will help you stay on track so that the days immediately before the opening are spent on installing the show beautifully and not on overdue administrative tasks. Your map can also function as a checklist so that nothing is forgotten.

In my experience, communication is always the most basic issue/problem that arises in both large and small group shows. People (artists, curators, assistants) make assumptions and then act on them—or not, as when they think that it is somebody else’s job. Your map will aid in communication, and it will help you to parcel out very specific tasks. For example, instead of saying, “Michael’s going to deal with the press,” (and then hoping that Michael is going to figure it all out by himself) you can say, “Michael’s going to research press releases from these sources, write a release, and hand it off to Claire for editing by August 15th.” See how much better it is to be specific? If you and everyone else are clear on what is required, all the necessary tasks are much more likely to be completed.

Rob Swainston, All That is Solid Melts into Air, 2011. Woodblock print on poly knit cloth

Another area where straightforward communication is the key to avoiding strife is in the allotment of exhibition space. Consider giving people specific, measured areas of the venue. Otherwise, you might end up having to sort out some silly squabble during installation over who gets the last eight inches of the wall near the door. The opening should be scripted likewise: if one performance is scheduled for 8pm and another for 9pm, make sure that both artists know that 8pm doesn’t mean 8:45pm. This is very much the strategy of hoping for the best and planning for the worst. By making a map of every part of this exhibition, you’ll be able to anticipate where things might go wrong.

You are very young, but if you pull this off your youth will work in your favor. Being taken seriously really doesn’t have to do with your age, it has to do with your professionalism. Treat this exhibition as if you are a professional and insist on the same from others. This is a self-created training ground for you all, so practice putting your very best work forward, whether that work is a painting or an email to a curator. Communications should be clear, prompt and polite; disagreements should be handled with good humor and grace. You can’t do anything about your biological age, but you can act in a way that makes people surprised when they find out how young you are. Best of luck to you all!

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