Help Desk

Help Desk: Friends in High(er) Places

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here: All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I work at a museum, but not as a curator or any similar position that might have influence over content. I am sometimes approached by artists (friends, associates, acquaintances, strangers at parties) who want to know how to get their art into a museum. Specifically my museum. What’s the curator’s phone number? Can they drop off a packet? Will I put it on someone’s desk? The way to a museum show is convoluted and not the same for every artist. I’m an artist too, and while I sympathize, I am sure my “help” wouldn’t help them and would jeopardize my professional relationships at work. But I would like to have something to tell people.

Heidi Bucher. Hautraum (Ahnenhaus), 1980-82; Courtesy Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, Zürich

Heidi Bucher. Hautraum (Ahnenhaus), 1980-82. Courtesy of Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, Zürich.

You have my sympathies. It must be annoying and kind of frightening to have friends, colleagues, and strangers alike envisioning your job as their fast track to being shown or collected by the museum. I mean, there you are, minding your own business like a cartoon pig out for a sunny walk, while behind every tree lurks a wolf who imagines you as a delicious Sunday ham served up on a fine china platter. Okay, no more similies. You get the idea.

Responding to strangers is easy, because all you have to do with any unknown person who asks you for an inappropriate and presumptuous career favor—one that might induce your colleagues to loathe you—is to just stare at her in silence. The longer the silence, the better, so practice this on your significant other or on the cat. If the stranger doesn’t then fall all over herself to backpedal (“Just kidding! Ha ha! I hate museums!”), then maintain your dead-face and say, “I regret that I’m not able to help you.” You can go to confession later for fibbing about the “regret” part.

Dealing with friends, of course, is more challenging—but as you are a fellow artist, I’m sure you can convey the necessary responses with a certain we’re-in-this-mess-together warmth. The best policy here, as in other situations with friends, is honesty. Assuming your museum does not accept unsolicited submissions, you can just say this in a sympathetic tone of voice accompanied by a rueful grimace. If someone requests a curator’s phone number, you can respond that you don’t know it (if you don’t have it memorized, then this is true) and it’s best to call the museum during business hours. If asked to put a packet on a curator’s desk, just explain that you’re not able to do that because it would irritate your professional colleagues and potentially lead to resentment among your other friends. Frankly, anyone who doesn’t understand this is immature, a jackass, or both.

Heidi Bucher. Untitled (Herrenzimmer), n.d.; Latex, cotton, approx. 102 1/4 × 71 × 7 1/2 ̋. Courtesy Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, Zürich.

Heidi Bucher. Untitled (Herrenzimmer), n.d.; latex, cotton; approx. 102 1/4 × 71 × 7 1/2 ̋. Courtesy of Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, Zürich.

I’m glad you point out in your question that having your work exhibited and/or collected by a museum is a tricky (and sometimes lengthy) process. More often than not, and depending on the size of the institution, this transaction might involve: gallerists and art dealers who want to increase the economic and social capital of the artists they represent; museum curators who are looking to acquire new works to fill holes in the collection; collectors who want to increase the prestige of the artists they collect; wealthy people who want to donate artwork for the tax write-off; museum board members who may be cozy with/related to any of the above; acquisitions team(s) who are making estimated guesses about the future of art history; and other contingent interpersonal and marketplace considerations that we don’t have space to go into here. I don’t blame any artist for wanting to get a foot in the door, but having a preparator or junior development associate leave a packet on a curator’s desk is, at best, a naïve waste of time and writable CDs.

A final suggestion: Consider asking friendlier members of the curatorial staff if they have any insight into the matter. You can explain that you’re getting hit with this particularly sticky request, and you want to formulate a stock, fact-based response in advance. That way, the next time you’re called upon for an eyebrow-raising favor, you can preface your answer with, “You know, I asked around at the museum, and their curatorial/acquisitions policy is…” Good luck!