Help Desk

Help Desk: Underrepresentation

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’m an artist with a gallery and I’m stuck in their back room. I’ve been with them a long time. My stuff has a challenging, abstract, unique style, and they pay their rent selling fairly accessible art. I’ve received press and write-ups, but no collectors. How do I motivate them to show and sell my work? I’ve been with them a long time. I’ve tried talking with them about it. They’ve said they’d show my work at fairs and haven’t. I don’t feel they’re really interested in making an effort, as they just push what sells and keep me hanging on… (bad love song here). They do put my work in annual group shows, but that’s about it. How can I get my artwork shown and sold? I’ve been hustling and struggling a long time, and I’m kind of over it. Why shouldn’t I just quit the gallery racket, just make work and not show? It’s not selling anyway.

Jake & Dinos Chapman. Zygotic acceleration, Biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000) [1995]; Fiberglass; 150 x 180 x 140 cm.

Jake & Dinos Chapman. Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic De-Sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged x 1000), 1995; fiberglass; 150 x 180 x 140 cm.

Do you enjoy barking? Do you like wrong trees? Because you appear to be wasting your time and energy on a problem that is never going to be resolved to your satisfaction. Let’s review the matter: This gallery sells “accessible” work, and they’ve been open a long time, so we can extrapolate that they are good at finding collectors who prefer this kind of art. But your work is challenging. They don’t give you shows because you don’t make work that will sell to the collectors they’ve already cultivated. So what you want is for them to change their methods and find an entirely new collector base; that’s some serious magical thinking, and now you’re angry that they won’t do it. Here comes the tough love: You are engaging in a very common cognitive distortion known as blaming. The fact is, they don’t keep you hanging on, you keep you hanging on.

Now before your knickers get twisted, let me say that I think your gallery is equally culpable. This is a two-way problem: They shouldn’t have taken you on if they suspected they couldn’t give you shows or sell your work, and you shouldn’t have agreed to join the gallery if you knew your work didn’t fit with their program. Additionally, they shouldn’t be saying that they’ll take your work to fairs if they won’t—it’s disrespectful and injurious to string someone along. But I’m willing to bet that you don’t have a contract that spells out your mutual obligations, that you’ve never asked them for one, that your conversations with the gallery director about this have been few and far between, and that forthright communication is perhaps not the strong suit of anyone involved.

How do I infer all of this? Because the only strategy you cite as viable is to “just quit the gallery racket” and huff back to your studio for a good sulk. Yet we both know that martyrdom is not going to make you happy; what you really want is to find a gallery that’s right for your work. You say that you’ve been “hustling and struggling” a long time, and I have no doubt that you’ve spent a lot of time and money refining your practice, but remember that it takes the same amount of energy to run a mile in a circle as it does a mile in the direction you want to go. If you’ve put significant time into building your career, the fact that you’re not satisfied may mean that you haven’t acted strategically.

So let’s make a new plan. Start by identifying at least one other gallery in your city that you’d rather work with, and invite the director(s) for a visit. Talk to lots of other professionals—where do they see your work? You might be surprised by the answers, and you also might end up with some excellent recommendations. A crucial part of this plan is to lose your victim mentality, because it’s not serving you well. If you spend all of your time grumbling about how your current gallery has wronged you, then you can’t move forward. And don’t make the same mistakes a second time: Get a contract from the new gallery, be explicit about your expectations, and ask about their limitations. Work with people you trust, but still ask for everything in writing. If that raises eyebrows, just pretend it’s another component of your eccentric-artist personality.

As for being stuck, that’s another cognitive distortion called splitting. This sort of all-or-nothing thinking is not helpful to your brain or your career. You’re not stuck anywhere. Art is about freedom, and you should be represented by people who really believe in your work and want to help you get it out in the world. You may be but one tiny guppy in the art world’s big fish tank, but those folks are out there. Find them. Good luck!

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