Help Desk

Help Desk: Put the Artist First

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.

In the role of writer and curator, I find myself playing bureaucratic middle man between artists and the public, or artists and institutions. But, where it comes to performing the role well, which comes procedurally first—the artist or machine? When I get an idea for an exhibition or written feature, the appropriate order of things often gets confusing for me. I’m not sure if I should first approach the artist with the idea (to make sure they are willing and able to participate) or should first approach the institution/publication (to be sure the project gets green-lit). I’d hate to pitch something to my colleagues that I can’t ultimately deliver, just as I’d also hate to get an artist’s hopes up about something I can’t get the “production powers that be” interested in. An etiquette lesson would be great.

Rachel Reupke. Still from Letter of Complaint, 2015; color video, 10 min.

Rachel Reupke. Letter of Complaint, 2015 (video still); color video; 10:00.

A few years ago, a friend bounded up to me at an opening and announced, “Good news! My curatorial proposal to Institution X was accepted and you’re in the show!” Needless to say, I was pretty stoked, but I was also extremely surprised, since that was the first I’d heard of it. This curator was an old friend and a trusted professional, so the situation was a bit different, but it left me wondering: What if I didn’t want to be in the show, or work with that curator or space, or if the work wasn’t available? This would have left us all in a sticky position.

For the first time, I must admit that I don’t really care how other arts professionals handle this situation. Your question provides me with the opportunity to stand near, if not actually climb onto, one of my favorite soapboxes—a rather large one that is labeled Put the Artist First. As a curator, your primary loyalty should be to the artists, and therefore you must pitch your plans to them at the outset. Don’t worry so much about not being able to deliver if your proposal is not accepted; the way around that is to tell the artists that your project is in the initial stages and you’ll keep them informed if things move forward. That way, you haven’t promised anything other than an interest in working with them.

As for the artists’ feelings, I’m here to tell you that—professionally at least—artists are secretly some of the toughest people on the planet. They may seem fragile and pissy, but their hopes are dashed regularly by being rejected from residencies and granting institutions; excluded from galleries and museums; and brushed off by curators, writers, and even their peers. Is there another profession in which one may remain in the degrading category of “emerging” after ten or even twenty continuous years of practice? And yet they persevere. So don’t worry about the artists. Even if your ideas are in the nascent stage and haven’t yet found a home or funding, it’s likely we’ll be delighted that you’re interested in our work at all—just tell us up front what the deal is.

Inside my mind there exists a platonic ideal of nearly everything (which is why I am a bossy advice columnist), and so naturally I can imagine a paradigmatic letter to artists asking them to work with you on an exhibition. This letter contains: a brief sketch of the proposal/the theme or idea that underpins the show; the dates of the show; the potential co-exhibitors (if known); information about the space and your plans for installation; any stipends for making and shipping the work; and information about you and any co-curators, plus links. If you’re contacting artists you know and/or have worked with before, you can send them a more casual ping at the beginning and follow up with information as the scheme evolves. If writing an article, you should probably do the same. Let the artist know what you’re planning to write (an interview, a feature on a particular body of work, a comparison), where you’re hoping to have it published, and when. In all things, be honest and clear about what you do and don’t have nailed down.

Remember that artists and their activities are the reason that curation and art criticism exist. Say it with me now: Put the artist first. I promise that you can’t go wrong if you make this your motto. Good luck!