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13 Tips For Building Your Fine-Art Network

By Conor Risch


© Amy Stein & Stacy Arezou Mehrfar
“Farmer’s Daughter with Heart Necklace, Milton,” an image from Amy Stein and Stacy Mehrfar’s book, Tall Poppy Syndrome, which Decode Books published in early 2013. 

An important part of working as an artist is establishing relationships with people who will give honest advice and critiques, make introductions, advocate for and support one’s work, and offer friendship and a sense of community. These people may be elder artists, peers, curators, gallerists, patrons or others who have an interest in art and its promotion. “The art world is more social than anything else,” says Daniel Shea, an artist based in New York. “It’s a world that politically exists around interpersonal relationships, for better or worse.”

PDN recently asked a dozen artists at varying stages of their careers about how they establish and maintain their relationships with peers and mentors. Here’s what they had to say. 

Work For Established Artists 
Working for an established artist is a great way to form a connection, to create a natural mentor/mentee relationship and to learn first-hand how artists work. Keliy Anderson-Staley says that early in her career, through an internship with Tanja Hollander and through working with Lori Nix, she was “able to see how they get their work out, how they promote it, what institutions they connect with, and how, and in what sequence (which can sometimes really matter).”

Eirik Johnson says his experiences working for Michael Light and Richard Barnes, “helped deeply shape and inform my growth as a photographic artist.”

Shea, who worked with Brian Ulrich as a young photographer, agrees. “It’s crazy how much you learn from just spending a full day with someone, just their little hacks and how they work on the road,” he says. Shea also believes that established artists enjoy working with younger artists. “I’m almost 30. There are really young people coming out of school that I like being around,” he says. “I like talking to them and I like helping them as much as I can.”

Form and Participate Form and/or Participate in Peer Critiques Groups 
After artists graduate from school, it can be difficult to replicate the interaction and feedback of group critiques. Many artists find like-minded peers and form crit groups outside of academic institutions. Amy Stein, for instance, is part of a group called Piece of Cake (POC), which meets twice a year. “Some of my closest, most nurturing relationships have resulted from being part of this group,” she says.

Form Relationships With Curators and Gallery Staff at Your Level 
It’s not realistic for most artists to expect to work with major curators, galleries or institutions early in their careers. That doesn’t mean artists should be discouraged. Working with peers, who are at the same level in their careers, establishes long-term relationships. Ariel Shanberg, the director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock, says he’s seen photographers contact gallerists and get handed off to a staff person—and just walk away feeling rejected. That’s a mistake, Shanberg says, because staff people move up the ladder. For instance, when Jonah Frank approached Yancey Richardson Gallery, he was handed off to an underling named Michael Foley, Shanberg recalls. Frank didn’t get a show there, but he made an impression on Michael Foley, and became the first artist whom Foley exhibited when he opened his own gallery in New York City.

A curator told Christopher Churchill a similar story about Lee Friedlander and Elisabeth Sussman, who met when they were younger. Decades later, Friedlander had a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Sussman was a curator. “You need to go meet with the curators who are your age, who are committed to it and are going to be moving through their careers as you’re moving through your career,” the curator advised Churchill. “If you can establish those relationships on a professional level that sort of peer interaction is crucial.”

Establish Relationships With Patrons 
Churchill says that a curator introduced him to a patron, a wealthy individual with an interest in photography who Churchill says has been supporting photographers and donating work to museums “forever.” He and Churchill established a friendship, and Churchill says that, “He’s really been a huge part of whatever success I’ve had in the art world.” Patrons often fly below the radar, but when a museum wants to acquire work, they rely on patron donors, not their operating budget, to fund those acquisitions. Churchill notes, “As an artist you have to develop that patron relationship, and that’s one of the most important things, because they will take you places that you can’t [otherwise] go.”

Reach Out to Artists Because of Their Work, Not Their Connections 
Understanding an artist’s work and why he or she might be interested in your work is important to establishing connections. “When you are genuinely interested in other people’s work and lives, and not just thinking about what you can gain from the other person, it shines through and people appreciate that and are willing to share their experiences with you,” advises Justine Reyes. Shea agrees: “Reaching out to those people in a sincere way and being specific about why you’re interested in their work and what the work means to you” makes an impression. When he established a friendship with Ulrich, Shea says, “I think he could tell that I was really hungry and eager to learn, and that I took what I did extremely seriously and I really respected what he did.”

Stein suggests that artists looking for mentors should identify “individuals who you think might appreciate your work and learn more about them. Attend their openings and talks. Sign up to meet them at a portfolio review. Take the time to really understand their work or gallery program or projects. Then contact them.”

Apply For Residencies
The focused, intense environment of artist residencies offer artists a chance to talk, work and form relationships with other artists that they can’t form in other settings. “That kind of environment fosters discussion and engagement that you can’t get in other situations,” says Richard Barnes. “For me they have been really important in creating networks and establishing friendships that have far exceeded the time of the residency.”

“A residency leads to an exhibition, which leads to a publication, and it is really the social network between these institutions that makes this progression possible,” says Anderson-Staley, whose Light Work residency in 2010 was “crucial to my career,” she says. “So many of my successes since can be connected back to that residency, and I still think of Hannah Frieser and Mary Goodwin, who I worked with there as mentors, and they are still helping me shape my career.”

Shea met artist Kelly Kaczynski, with whom he’s become friends, during a residency. “If I had reached out to her [outside the residency] she would have been too busy to even meet up and get a coffee,” he argues. “But the residency environment, it’s small, it’s intense.” Shea formed a connection with Kaczynski and the two have been friends since. She recently recommended Shea to a museum curator and they are in early talks about an exhibition.

Show Your Work to Everyone
As a young photographer, Ulrich worked for Sarah Hasted when she was director at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. He kept in touch and reached out to her as he was finishing his MFA. She told him it was “important to show [his work] to everyone”: curators, gallerists, photo editors and so on. The advice “alleviated a lot of pressure of those meetings,” Ulrich says, because “I didn’t have to approach meeting professionals with the expectation that there was a specific outcome.” This also empowered him to reach out to people he wouldn’t normally “just to meet, say hello and hear their thoughts about the work.” These early meetings formed professional relationships and led to a lot of opportunities, Ulrich says.

Don’t be afraid to ask for meetings with curators, gallerists and peers, agrees Sabine Mirlesse, a young photographer living and working in Paris. “The worst that could happen would be someone says no or doesn’t get back to you.”

Share Work in Progress
Part of the reason that Richard Renaldi was able to create a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch his book Touching Strangers (Aperture) last year was that he’d shared the photographs in the series while he was working on it. He began the work in 2007 and showed the images both physically and via social media networks as the series developed. “When it really came time to try and bring the work to life, there had already been a lot of people that were aware of the project, and I really think that that was one factor in its success.”

Meet Face-to-Face
There is no doubt that social media and digital connections are an important part of building networks. But face-to-face meetings at openings, lectures, reviews and other events allow for connections that social media can’t replicate. “I am a photo professor, and I find that events like the annual meeting of the Society for Photographic Education are great places to meet people and catch up with past mentors,” says Anderson-Staley. “But face-to-face relationships need to be developed over time, and if years pass before you see them again, it will help to have been in touch via social media. It’s important to remember that networks are organic; they can’t be forced.”

Ben Huff, a photographer who lives in Alaska and doesn’t have many opportunities to meet with other photographers in person, says that when he attended the Photolucida portfolio reviews in 2013, “I spoke to more people about photography that week than in the last eight years. It was incredible. It drove home again that need to get out and meet people face-to-face.” Huff also says that when he was invited by curator Larissa Leclair to show his work in China, he met and connected with curator Karen Irvine of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Irvine is writing the essay for Huff’s forthcoming book, and he says that wouldn’t have happened if they had not met and connected in person.

But Don't Dismiss Social Media's Power
While in-person relationships offer connections and opportunities for conversation that online connections do not, the latter are undeniably important, and one often leads to the other. “I can think of a few occasions in which I have met someone in real life after a mutual affinity for each other’s work was developed on Instagram,” Holly Andres says. “In each one of these instances, our immediate reaction was to greet each other with a strong embrace. There is a powerful thing happening here and I hope it continues.”

Connect With Artists Working in Other Media
Forming connections with artists working in other media helps to expand one’s network and also provides opportunities to grow creatively. “The photo world is a small part of the art world,” Shea says. “To think about making art in different media or having friends and mentors that do, it challenges your own ideas about the work you’re making. ... I think it’s incredibly important.”

Residencies that include artists working in different disciplines are good places to make these connections, Barnes says. “You meet people that you had no idea that you had anything in common with, and you realize, ‘Wow, I could collaborate with this person.’ And I have.”

Stay in Touch With Teachers and Classmates 
Mirlesse recalls that on her first day of graduate school, the director of her photography program sat the students down and told them to “take a good hard look around the room at each other, because these classmates would surely become our most important allies in future years.” Andres says that she’s kept in touch with “several professors” from undergraduate and graduate programs and now considers them “dear friends.” Andres isn’t sure how, but says she understood while she was a student “that my professors and peers would be part of my life-long artistic community, and I understood the importance of fostering these relationships.” For instance, one of her professors wrote a review of an exhibition of her series “Sparrow Lane” for Art In America, which “substantially changed the course of my career.”

Form Authentic Relationships And Treat Them ‘Like Gold’
If you’re only interested in what someone can do for you, you’ve already missed the point. Authentic relationships are valuable relationships, says Stein.

“The people who will truly appreciate your work and advocate for it may not be the movers and shakers you read about in [magazines] but may come from unexpected places. When you find these people, treat the relationships like gold and support their work and projects. If you are generous and supportive you will draw that energy toward you,” she says.

“The people who I most think of as mentors, I also think of as friends,” says Anderson-Staley. “What I’ve done to make the relationships work is simply to be a good friend in return.”

“Get invested in other people’s lives/art that you admire and become a cheerleader for it,” Reyes says. “Don’t go into a relationship thinking only of what you can take from it but also what you bring to the table.”

Barnes says his relationships with Eirik Johnson and two other photographers he’s worked with, Will Mebane and Nigel Poor, progressed from assistantships into friendships as they established their careers because they were serious about their work and engaged. “It’s a reciprocal relationship,” Barnes says. “I get a lot out of them, and I still do as friends.”

Related Link: What To Expect From the Photographer/Gallery Relationship

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