Help Desk

Help Desk: Performance Anxiety

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. Help Desk is co-sponsored by KQED Arts.

Help Desk Leader

I am not trained as a visual artist—I hold my graduate degree in dance choreography, and before grad school I worked primarily in live theatrical concert dance. However, in grad school my focus shifted, and I started developing work in performance that should live in a gallery space. Now that I am out of school, I have a great new project in the works, but I have no idea how to make it happen! To get shows produced in dance is a complicated and nuanced procedure, but I at least understand the steps. I am totally at a loss on how to enter into the art world and negotiate a show. I’m not interested in getting the work into the “market” per se, so a for-profit gallery is probably not my best bet. Can you let me know some of the unspoken rules for approaching art spaces/museums with performance work? I want to make sure that I don’t seem tone deaf to the conventions of the form. If it were a concert show in a traditional theater, here’s how I’d approach it: I would narrow down a couple of producers, send them a press packet, invite them to rehearsals and in-progress showings to develop a relationship, and then finally just ask for a show. For people I already knew, I might do an exploratory email pitch: “I have this cool idea in development, would you be interested in talking?”

Sylvia Palacios Whitman. Passing Through, performance at Sonnabend Gallery, New York, May 20, 1977. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Babette Mangolte; © 1977

Sylvia Palacios Whitman. Passing Through, 1977; performance at Sonnabend Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Babette Mangolte. 

Good question! You’re obviously motivated and organized, and also sensitive to understand that changing your approach and observing the rules of contemporary art spaces will serve your goals better than charging ahead with the protocols for pitching to traditional theaters. I sent your question to Katya Min, Curator of Public Programs at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and she had a lot of good advice for you. To begin with, she says, “Whether or not you’re an established or an emerging artist, navigating the turbulent waters of the art world can be a taxing and largely intimidating process. Before elaborating on the areas that I would be conscious of, coming from a curator’s perspective, I will offer this relatively common-sense advice: There are really no right or wrong approaches. Each curator is different, thus each will have a different method of seeking artists or projects. The approach I would recommend is actually not dissimilar from the approach you described for traditional theater, but with that said, I hope these tips will help guide you on your way.”

Katya’s wise counsel continues:

Research: Take the time to do your research by reading about potential venues, arts and culture blogs, and relevant publications. Do they have applications for an open call for artists? What type of artwork do they normally exhibit? Familiarizing yourself with the content and mission of a space will not only help you determine if your work would be a good fit, but also demonstrates your understanding of the space’s aesthetic and the kinds of work they (re)present. Often galleries and museums host special programs that involve temporary performative installations for exhibition openings, which is a great avenue for artists who are just starting out. Artists whose work is based in movement and/or conceptual performance often present as part of temporary live-act projects at these openings.

Network: Create/find support networks among fellow artists. Artists can support each other by sharing information, artist open calls, spreading good leads, etc. A good way to meet and engage with fellow artists is attending as many museums, gallery shows, openings, and events as you can; actively joining the art community is a valuable way to gain insight and friends.

Show your work: Take the time to create a body of work that is substantive and cohesive. When you’re ready, try them out at various settings. For instance, you can host pop-up installations in your home, your studio, and/or find public spaces that can conduce dialogue with your work, convene your artist community, and document your progress. Put together and participate in group shows as much as possible to build your portfolio and work exhibition history. Being active in your art community doesn’t stop within gallery walls—stay active online via newsletters, social media, or blogs.

Theodora Skipitares, Skysaver, performance at Galerie ak, Frankfurt, November 8–16, 1980. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Christian Hanussek

Theodora Skipitares. Skysaver, 1980; performance at Galerie ak, Frankfurt, Germany. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Christian Hanussek.

Reach out: Once you have narrowed down which spaces and curators might be interested in your work, try to connect with the artists in your community who may have shown with them or know them well. Don’t be afraid to ask to be introduced via email, and send a summary description of your work that includes either visuals or a short video that best reflects your current work. You can also use this opportunity to invite them to meet with you for a studio visit or informational meeting where you can share more in-depth information about your work. Get acquainted in person before you email, if possible. I get a lot of cold emails from artists and I don’t have the ability to email them back right away, and then sadly the emails get buried. However, if I have had a personal contact with them, I will at least email back to let them know that I will follow up.

Persevere: Once you are given a great opportunity, do your best to maximize the experience, as well as keep the good faith, reciprocity, and trust going. Many curators are interested in investing in artists’ careers and will continue to recommend your work to other curators once you develop a good rapport.

Other tips: Be mindful of the fact that museums and other exhibit spaces generally book programs a year or more in advance. Keep a polished and well-organized artist website. Be responsive and flexible—curators are juggling multiple projects and deadlines, often with a limited budget. Understand that most of the time, it’s not so much about whether your work is good enough but rather about timing, fit, and feasibility. Stay in touch and send updates. Keep making good work!

Good luck!