Strategies for a Productive and Successful Studio Visit by Cara Ober

Studio Visit Mistakes and Missteps

As a graduate student I hosted a slew of visiting artists in my studio. Generally, these were big(ish) name artists from New York that my MFA program paid to give short one-on-one critiques with a variety of students. These studio visits were exciting because they provided a personal connection with someone who had achieved a high level of success in the art world; someone who could, presumably, offer constructive suggestions that would eventually lead to my own success, or at least to making better art.

Occasionally these studio visits were abrupt and awkward; most were unmemorable and ineffective. And a few, the most successful ones, began relationships that have generated long-term communication and networks.

What’s puzzling to me a decade later is that the students in my graduate program weren’t given any instruction on conducting studio visits. Although I had signed up for a time slot with the visiting artist and eagerly awaited their attention, it never occurred to me set goals for myself, in terms of conversation, feedback, or outcomes, or to arrange my studio in order to facilitate such goals. As a result, I was a passive recipient in each visit while the visiting artist wielded the power. It comes to no surprise now that many of these visits were disappointing, and I was left wondering why none of my expectations had been met or questions answered.

It wasn’t until many years later, after conducting many studio visits, as artist and visitor, that I realized a successful studio visit is not a mystery and it’s not luck. Rather, hosting a studio visit is a learnable skill that all artists can benefit from.

Image from Zöe Charlton’s Studio by Amy Boone-McCreesh

Studio Visits with Curators and Collectors

Although the majority of an artist’s studio visits will probably be with other artists, this essay will focus on strategies for studio visits with curators and collectors. I believe that most of these suggestions will be helpful to all kinds of studio visits, including Open Studios (which has been previously covered in BmoreArt’s Professional Development Article Series), however, the most crucial studio visits you will undertake will be with those who are interested in exhibiting or purchasing your work.

These kinds of studio visits, and how you handle them, can make or break your career. A professional studio visit is too important an opportunity to squander or simply hope for the best, as I did as a graduate student.

Identifying and Setting Goals

This might seem obvious, but what do you hope to accomplish? Why did you initiate or accept this studio visit? We all define success differently, and this is a good thing. Typically, when an artist hosts a curator or collector in their studio, there are a few main reasons why.

A. Relationship Building: You want to build a long-term relationship. This meeting is an opportunity to get to know one another better in the hopes of working together in the future. This is difficult to define, but consider beforehand: what outcomes or takeaways do you want to produce? This can be as general as ‘good feelings’ and a personal connection, but it is helpful to be more specific. Do you want photo documentation of the visit? Do you want the visitor to leave with specific images or information about you? Do you want to initiate an ongoing conversation and receive contact information for your visitor?

B. Gallery Representation: In this case, you may have been told outright that you are being considered for representation and have decided you are interested, or this implication could be left open. With this type of studio visit question in mind, it’s important to communicate who you are as an artist long-term and to present your newest works, as well as to have image or a slideshow of past bodies of work.

C. Inclusion for a Specific Exhibition: If you have already been asked to participate in a show, you probably know which piece you’d like to include and the visit is an opportunity for the curator to select between different works.

D. A Sale: If you work with a gallery, a representative would be present to facilitate a sale. If you’re flying solo, you need to be prepared to discuss your price, your sales history, inclusion in notable collections, payment methods, a discount, and fees and policies around delivery/installation. If you have NO IDEA how to do this, that’s fine. Reach out to artist friends who work in galleries and get their feedback.

Image from Plakokee’s Studio by Amy Boone-McCreesh

Where to Start: Research

Everything you do as an artist, or want to do well, starts with research. Who is your visitor? What kind of work do they like? What are their major accomplishments? Google. Read. Google. Read. Then read some more.

When you meet a studio visitor, you don’t have to act like a stalker or walking Wikipedia entry, but the more you know about them, the more confident and better informed you can be in conversation. If you make it known that you are aware of specific aspects of their career, it establishes trust and goodwill. It will make your visitor feel appreciated and show that you’ve spent time and energy learning about them, and make them care about your work in return. The converse is true as well; if I visit an artist’s studio and its obvious the artist has bothered to learn nothing about me, I’m going to be less interested in their work.

Communication is Essential

After you have identified your goals for the studio visit, it is important to empathize with your visitor and figure out what their needs and expectations are. The best way to do this is to ask them a lot of questions before the visit.

1. What time of day is best for them?
2. How long do they plan to stay?
3. Do they need handicapped accessible facilities?
4. Would they like you to have water or a snack waiting for them?
5. Is photo, video, or audio documentation of the visit okay?

Preparation

Once you have a sense of your guest’s expectations, the artist needs to curate their studio space and plan accordingly for the amount of time available. You will need to clean up your studio and put unfinished works, toxic or wet supplies, and trash out of sight. Less distraction means more focus on the work you want to emphasize. Make sure there is adequate lighting on these works and they are arranged neatly, even chronologically, in the order you want to discuss them.

In addition to curation of your space, you need to curate your talking points. You need to be confident and engaging when you talk about your work. You need to be prepared to answer smart and silly questions and the best way to do this is to have answers ready to go that can basically answer any question that is asked. Make a written outline of the points you want to cover, practice answering questions out loud with a friend or partner, and use this experience as an opportunity to improve the way you talk about your work.

Image from Elizabeth Glaessner’s Studio by Amy Boone-McCreesh

Curation and Timing

How much work should you include? This depends upon the type of studio visit.

For a general visit or an exploration into gallery representation, it’s important present a ‘big picture’ view of yourself and your art career. You want to emphasize your most recent works, but to present them in context with past bodies of work. In a typical studio visit, you should present no more than three actual bodies of work and keep track of the time you want to allot for each. If possible, keep a slideshow of old work nearby on a tablet or computer for reference.

If the purpose of the visit is selection for a sale or an exhibit, include fewer pieces than in a ‘general’ visit. Most likely, you already know which pieces you would like them to pick, so it’s your job to offer choices within a range that is acceptable to you. If you know that you would be disappointed if certain works were chosen over others, leave those out of the visit. Include enough work so that your visitor gets what they came for: an opportunity to choose and discuss, but not enough to distract them.

Chronology and Narrative

Until I became a fan of Ed Winkleman’s now-defunct art and tough love blog, I had never considered the power of chronology and narrative as an organizing force in a studio visit. However, it is essential that you know ahead of time which works you want to show first, middle, and last, and why.

Just like editing work for a thematic exhibition or an artist talk, the most successful studio visits employ a chronology for presenting your ideas that advances a clear and compelling narrative.

Where do you want to start and where do you want to end up? For example, if one recent body of work is loud and colorful and another is subtler, start out with the quieter work. This allows your visitors to give it the attention it deserves without drowning it out. If your multiple bodies are based on media rather than content or style, decide which type of media is most challenging? Present that first, and then move on to more easily digestible types of work. If your work is influenced by your own past bodies of work, select three that all relate and show a clear progression of your ideas over time.

If there are certain works you would like to sell or show, make sure those works are in the ‘center’ of your visit. For example, if you have two large paintings you would like to include, start out with smaller paintings or drawings, then focus the majority of your visit on the paintings, and end with bigger or more complicated works, like video or images of site-specific installations.

Your guest will want to have input in the decision and may surprise you with valid reasons for choosing something different. However, never put out any works you don’t want to show or you are less interested in discussing.

There is no ‘wrong way’ to do this here, as long as you know where you want the story of your work to begin, continue, and end. This is all up to you and it’s essential that you are in control of your message. Without appearing too bossy, you need to direct the questions and resulting conversation to topics that are helpful to you. What do you hope to learn from this visit? What are you most curious about? The only way to do this incorrectly is to jump in without a plan; if you are a passive host, the result will be more mixed and depend upon luck.

Image from Elizabeth Glaessner’s Studio by Amy Boone-McCreesh

Timing and Duration

You’ve already had a conversation with your visitor about timing, so stay on top of it. Have a clock or timer nearby. Don’t keep looking at your phone. Do not attempt to squeeze in extra minutes or extra bodies of work, even if things are going well. End at the time you have agreed upon, unless your visitor begs for more time and you’re okay with that.

Communication Styles

The best studio visits are informal, authentic, and a great exchange of ideas and energy. However, this chemistry depends upon those involved. Some artists are quiet and others are ribald entertainers. Some visitors want to look and think quietly and others want to engage by asking questions. If possible, ask your visitor about this before they come.

Like a blind date, you won’t know what to expect or how exactly to act until the moment it’s happening. As best you can, try to focus on the visitor’s needs or wants instead of your own nervousness. Be gracious. Be courteous. Be confident. Be flexible and rely on empathy for the other person. And please NEVER start out a studio visit by apologizing for the state of your studio.

Random Things

Is there a bathroom nearby? Is it clean? Do you have an obnoxious pet? Is the cat box scooped? Is your visitor allergic? Are they thirsty? Is there available parking in the area? Is your studio too hot or too cold? Can you greet them at the door and walk them inside? Take a walk around your studio and imagine the visit from their perspective. Attempt to trouble shoot as much as you can. Water and chocolate are always nice. Please do not bake or make a meal.

Ending on a Good Note

Sometimes a visitor will choose to ignore the time limits you’ve agreed upon, but this scenario is still under your control. If you want to continue the studio visit longer, that’s great. If you two decide to go out for cocktails afterwards, that’s great too. However, if it’s gone on a bit too long and your visitor won’t stop talking or nosing into your flat files, you need to take control and end it.

Without making it too awkward, start turning off your lights and cleaning up the space. You can pick up their coat or bag and thank them for their time. You can mention a doctor appointment that you have in twenty minutes and shoo them out on their way. If you are prepared, this won’t get weird.

Image from Elizabeth Glaessner’s Studio by Amy Boone-McCreesh

Artist Materials and Packet

You should always have a business card or postcard with your contact information (email, phone, website) on it. An image of your artwork is a good idea to help your visitor remember you.

Don’t assume your visitor wants to take a packet of printed artist materials like CV, Bio, Statement, and available works. Most won’t want to bring this with them and it will end up in the trash. Rather, refer them to your website and make sure all your materials are updated.

Follow Up

After a date, how long do you wait to call or text? Do you need to pretend indifference and play the game? Will neediness be a turnoff?

It depends who your visitor is and what the purpose of the visit is. The best thing to do is ask them if you can follow up with them in X time, whatever makes sense. A week? A month? A year? If your curator is from a museum, it could take several years before they decide to acquire or exhibit your work and this is normal. In the meantime, offer to add them to your exhibition e-mailing list or monthly newsletter and collect their email address to do so.

It’s important that you make the most of this experience and build an authentic relationship with your visitor. Sometimes a show or a sale can take much longer than you expect and you’ll have to be patient and shoulder the responsibility for maintaining the relationship. Send out your newsletter when you have exciting things to share and invite them to upcoming exhibits. Don’t let them forget you’re out there, that you’re busy and inspired, but don’t be a pest.

As much as possible, view this relationship as a long-term one that you’d like to maintain for the rest of your career, rather than a quick payoff. You never know exactly where it will go, but if you have a realistic sense of your goals and you continue to conduct research and be genuinely interested in the other person, your studio visit will add to the ongoing challenges, opportunities, and successes in a long art career.

Image from Plakokee’s Studio by Amy Boone-McCreesh

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Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt. She has taught Professional Development Classes for Visual Artists to MICA Students for close to a decade.

This article is published in conjunction with Beyond the Frame: BmoreArt’s Marathon Studio Tour with Chris Bedford and Mera Rubell on February 28 and March 1.

Photos: All photos in this article are by Amy Boone-McCreesh as part of her ongoing Inertia: Keep Going series of studio visits for BmoreArt. The top image is of Amy’s work installed at Area 405 by Tommy Bruce.

Follow Up Reading Assignment: Winkleman on Studio Visit Best Practices.

Congratulations to the artists selected for this year’s tour: Paul Rucker, Lynn Cazabon, Tiffany Jones, Amy Sherald, Cheeny Celebrado-Royer & Taha Heydari (collaboration), Graham Coreil-Allen, Zoe Charlton, Lynn Silverman, Rene Trevino, Lisa Dillin, Jackie Milad, David Page, Antonio McAfee, Stewart Watson & Lauren Adams (collaboration), Stephen Towns, Dina Kelberman, Mina Cheon, Ada Pinkston, Victor FM Torres, Hoesy Corona, Erick Antonio Benitez, and Phaan Howng.