Steve Fine, the legendary Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated,…
Earlier this year, we interviewed some of New York City’s top gallerists to find out how photographers can ensure a kickass gallery opening night. This time around, we went to photographers to get their words of wisdom – because who knows better how to prepare for an opening than those who have done it themselves?
Here are photographers’ 10 lessons on how to have a successful gallery opening night:
1. Make sure the contract is fair.
Hopefully you’re working with a respectable gallery, so you shouldn’t ever feel short-changed by the contract. Typically there is a 50/50 split between photographer and gallery for each sale, but some cultural or artist-founded organizations may give more to the photographer. As with any deal, read over the contract thoroughly to make sure you’re aware of all the details.
Fine art photographer Jimmy Williams also advises photographers to pay close attention to the language pertaining to exclusivity, and where the gallery will or will not allow your work to be sold within their market area. This is particularly important if you have multiple shows going on at once.
2. Check out the space well in advance.
It’s likely that you will be responsible for hanging your work in the gallery, so leave yourself enough time to check out the space and plan the show. If you’re displaying a narrative or photo series, you’ll want to ask the gallerist how visitors flow through the area so you can hang prints accordingly. Every venue is a little different, so try to image how viewers will best see your work.
Paul Cooklin, British fine art photographer, says: “The preparation leading up to the show is crucial to ensure the finished pieces look exactly as I would like them to be viewed…I see my role as an artist to liaise with the gallery curator and to ensure I provide the artwork in a timely manner, ready and prepared to be shown in a professional way.”
3. Figure out how you’re going to get your prints safety to the gallery.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but if the gallery isn’t within driving distance, then what method are you going to use to get your prints there? It’s extremely important to find a shipping company that specializes in packaging and moving art. Don’t be afraid to ask the gallery – they know their local vendors best.
4. Prepare a concise artist’s statement.
If you don’t already have an artist’s statement or short bio in your arsenal, then it’s best to write one now. The gallery will almost certainly want to use it in their marketing efforts and any promotional materials that they plan to hand out on opening night. If you already have one prepared, consider tweaking it to relate to the particular prints that you’ll be showing – for example, a short story behind the work or in what sequence the prints are meant to be viewed.
5. Don’t be shy about promoting your opening.
As gallerists have told us, photographers are expected to promote the opening to their own network. While it’s important to utilize the gallery’s marketing identity so everyone stays on-brand, it’s your responsibility to get your connections to the show.
Miami-based photographer Andrew Kaufman lists postcards, email, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn among his suggestions for marketing your opening. “I do all those to reach my social network, and I expect the gallery to do the same,” he says.
6. Mingle with guests and buyers.
Some photographers like to stay behind the scenes, but it’s necessary to be accessible to potential buyers at a gallery opening. People form a greater personal connection with art when they can meet the artist. Jimmy Williams adds that your attendance and involvement in opening night will let the gallery know that you’re invested, which will likely encourage them to get better coverage of your work.
“You have to be approachable, personable, and engaging,” says travel and landscape photographer Adam Schallau. “Potential buyers want to know more about your work, and about you. Get out and mingle, and chat it up!”
7. Socialize, but be professional.
Although it’s not appropriate to act like a total salesman, be ready to answer questions and give guests a positive experience at your show. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to make new connections and expand your network for future projects or collaborations. (“Don’t get too drunk!” some photographers cheekily advised.)
8. Be open to others’ opinions and critiques of your work.
It’s quite probable that viewers won’t realize you’re the photographer and you’ll overhear critiques of your work. Or, people might even say it to you straightforward. This isn’t the time to get defensive or argumentative – that’s a surefire way to turn off a buyer. Remember to keep your ego in check and be polite, no matter what.
In fact, Andrew Kaufman sees a gallery opening as a chance to receive feedback. “I like to attend the opening and see people’s reactions and comments to the work,” he says. “It’s always fascinating, and it’s a great way to engage the public.”
9. Build time into your schedule for private viewings with buyers.
Opening night might seem like the climax, but it’s actually just the beginning. For the duration of the show, you can expect the gallery to book consultations, private viewings, artist lectures, and more to continue promoting your work. These events are more personal and provide an opportunity to show buyers what you’re all about. Use them to continue generating buzz, and to finish the sales process with people who have expressed interest in your work.
10. Keep records – of everything.
From the shipping confirmation to the series numbers of each print, it’s crucial that you’re a good bookkeeper and stay on top of your records. This is how you’ll ensure that all sales go smoothly, and if anything goes array then you’ll have the documentation to get back on track. Also add any new contacts to your leads list, and be sure to send them a thank-you note or your next newsletter. You never know who could turn into a buyer or client down the road.
Learn more about how to get your work featured in galleries with tips from nine experienced and successful photographers in our free guide, Selling Fine Art Photography.