Help Desk

Help Desk: The Vanishing Curator

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

I’m a new MFA grad and I’m trying to break into the gallery system. Recently I had a great studio visit with a well-known curator. We talked for a long while about the work and he seemed very interested (he even said, “You’re a genius!”), but since then he hasn’t been in touch. I did write an email thanking him for the visit, but I never got a response. It’s been months now, and still no word about putting my work in a show or anything. I’d like to follow up, but I don’t even know what to say because I’m so disappointed. The studio visit was great, so I kind of thought it was my ticket in. What should I do?

Sanya Kantarovsky. You Were Welcome Here, 2013; oil, watercolor, ink, bleach, gesso on canvas; 55 x 40 in.

Sanya Kantarovsky. You Were Welcome Here, 2013; oil, watercolor, ink, bleach, gesso on canvas; 55 x 40 in.

Your disappointment is completely understandable. It’s distressing when there’s no follow-up after a successful meeting, and unfortunately, your situation is not unique. In the course of your career, you’re going to have a lot of people tell you that they absolutely looooove your work, and then you’ll never hear from them again. There are any number of reasons for this: Someone gets sick, a budget gets cut, a gallery closes, a new director is hired…or another artist is a better fit. No single exhibition or residency or award—and definitely not one fickle curator—is your “ticket in.”

But don’t write this curator off yet, because curation works at a very different pace from artistic production. Sometimes even when people are excited about the work, things don’t happen as quickly as we would like. Exhibitions at high-level galleries and institutions are often scheduled years in advance, and this curator might still be thinking about where your work fits into future programming. Since you’re a newly minted grad, the curator might also be wondering how your work will evolve over time, so keep him informed. It’s a good idea to send a few images of new work every six months or so, saying, “I really enjoyed talking with you at my studio and thought you might like to see some of the work I’ve made since our visit.”

Even if you never hear back from this curator, don’t get discouraged. Keep working and keep showing your work to others. Schedule some more studio visits, have other great conversations, and get your work out into the world. Take the long view—if you’ve got a lifetime of art making ahead of you, you’re going to have a lot of highs and lows (and some of them will involve the same people). Learn to manage your expectations now.

One California artist with a twenty-year career told me, “Though I empathize with this artist’s disappointment, I will also say that some of the confusion could be due to a misconception about the nature of studio visits. A lot of artists tend to think of the studio visit as a job interview or audition, and while it’s easy to see why that’s the case, it’s really not in their best interest.

“A studio visit is simply a chance to get critical feedback about your work from another arts professional. If anything else comes out of it, great—but you should neither expect nor rely on that happening, no matter how well the visit seems to have gone. You have to keep in mind that curators are continually looking at artists’ work, and they are constantly having work thrust in front of them. A curator may genuinely like your work, but it may not fit in with whatever she is working on or thinking about at present.

“This is why it’s best to take studio visits, good or bad, with a grain of salt, and to try to view them as opportunities to develop your practice. If nothing came out of this visit, forget about it and move on. I’ve had all sorts of studio visits—some good, some bad, some boring, some just plain weird. I’ve found that there was no correlation between how well a visit went with whether something emerged out of it down the road, and I long ago stopped expecting anything out them other than a chance to discuss my work.

“Finally, as a general note, I’d strongly caution against the idea that one visit with someone, whoever they may be, is going to be your ‘ticket in.’ This is a fantasy (albeit a very common one) that is hazardous to one’s psychic well-being. Sure, it happens sometimes, but to bank on it would be tantamount to quitting your day job because you’re certain you’re going to win the lottery any day now. Stop thinking about finding a ticket in, and focus on making good work, developing your practice and building a community around it, getting out and looking at things, and figuring out who you want to be in conversation with. That’s all any of us can really do.”

Good luck!