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Nurturing Successful Partnerships Through Open Communication

Do you like feedback? Most likely the answer is “yes” (assuming the feedback is positive). We all appreciate a reassuring mood boost, and we’ll take as many nice comments about our work as we can get. Whether you’re an artist or a promoter (by which I mean a gallerist, publisher, publicist or agent), we all crave confirmation of a job well done. The elevated confidence generated by the praise of a respected source can make great work become even greater. A pat on the back is psychologically important for any professional, and it feels pretty darn good whether you are the one receiving the praise or the one offering it.

Because positive feedback is universally welcome, it’s easy to give and receive… Which is why we’re not going to talk about it in this article. You’re all nice people, so I’m going to assume that you’re doling out your fair share of good vibes and that someone is returning the favor.

Do you like constructive feedback? The answer to that question can be tricky. Even trickier is critical feedback (which is just a nicer way of saying “negative input”).

As with any type of feedback, the first thing to do is consider the source. Is the person offering this feedback someone you respect? Is he or she knowledgeable? Biased? Credible? For the purposes of this article, let’s assume a healthy professional respect is already established between the artist and promoter.

Both parties have the shared goal of creating and selling outstanding art, but due to the subjective nature of our industry, there are many opinions on how to achieve that goal in the most efficient and rewarding way possible. So why are people in the art industry so shy about giving and receiving less-than-glowing feedback?

For one, artists are sensitive, and their work is very personal to them. I realize that this is a stereotype, but it’s one that is remarkably accurate.

I come from the advertising industry, and we are notoriously not sensitive. Our work is not particularly personal to us; if your eyes tend to well up with tears when confronted with a withering critique of your brilliant idea, you wouldn’t last past a few staff meetings, much less a client presentation.

How you handle criticism is something of a gauge for suitability in the advertising industry. Advertising professionals pride themselves on having impenetrable emotional armor when it comes to being criticized, because business people tend to be blunt when assessing someone else’s work, especially when it will impact them and their company directly. You don’t take it personally. It is simply the most direct way to achieve any desired result—and it’s expected.

So with an emotional artist on one side and a seasoned advertising veteran on the other, you can imagine the feedback conversations between my artist/husband Ford and I when we first began working together in the art industry…

Me:  Too purple.
Ford:  Not in my opinion.
Me:  (studying a painting nearing completion) It’s not your best work.
Ford:  Well, they all can’t be masterpieces.
Me:  (passing through the studio and casually tossing over my shoulder) How long are you going to be painting for yourself?
Ford:  I’m sure Picasso didn’t have to hear this!
Me:  I can’t sell that. (I’ll even admit to this simple—but brutally blunt—declaration)
Ford: Ouch!

I had a tendency to forget that I wasn’t the client anymore and that I was dealing with an artist, not a business colleague. The good news is that Ford and I had worked together in advertising long before he resurrected his painting career, so we always had a sense of humor on both the delivery and reception of these brusque critiques. He’d tell me to mind my own business or give some other sort of cheerful advice on what I could do with my comments.
But, in fairness, I am also effusive with praise and awe in equal measure. No one is a bigger cheerleader for Ford when he is on his game.

The point I’m making is that, as Ford developed his career, he wasn’t working in a vacuum. He respected me and relied on me to market his art, so he listened to what I had to say—as annoyingly matter-of-fact as it might have been—because he knew our goals were the same. Whether he was basking in the glow of positive feedback or gritting his teeth through some of my more blunt critiques, he processed the information and it resonated in his work.
Since those early days, we’ve evolved in our roles; I’ve made the gradual transformation from critic to coach. The word “coach” is typically applied to athletes, but think of all the non-visual artists who rely upon their coaches to keep them in peak condition, like vocalists, dancers and actors (to name a few). It makes sense that, for a visual artist, having a coach can be just as beneficial.

Coaching is, in essence, constructive criticism, and television is full of examples of it these days, from singing competitions with celebrity coaches brought in to tweak a singer’s performance for the final rounds (“The Voice”) to the sage counsel artists receive from industry experts who urge them along during the formation of their art assignments (“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist”). Just because you are not competing on a reality show doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be receiving honest feedback to sharpen your skills, help you see a different perspective or challenge your imagination or work ethic.

When was the last time you felt free to ask for—or offer—advice? Because few artists want to be told what to paint (and because promoters don’t like foisting unwanted or unsolicited advice) candor is rare. Showing a lack of enthusiasm for a particular piece is usually the most common response. There is a lot of eggshell-walking in this industry, and it’s not helping anyone.

If you’re an artist, you should actively seek out feedback from those whom you respect and rely upon to sell your work. They are partners in your career; they don’t want to tell you what to paint, but they can be helpful guides. Your promoter may have valuable thoughts on a theme for a new exhibit. Perhaps there is a certain palette that you should explore in more depth, or maybe there are certain sizes or orientations that have better chances of selling. These people are in the daily business of marketing your art, so their perspectives are important to hear and consider.

As a promoter, I make suggestions for themes so my artist can concentrate his skills in one area and allow me to market a cohesive message. Another upside to this is that narrowing an artist’s focus in order to have him push the boundaries of what he thought was possible in a particular subject matter can result in the most innovative and skilled work of his career. Ford’s Touch was a focus on mixed media; Red was a concentration of those various fiery hues; and Oceans ’11 was a concentration of seascapes. In this spirit, and knowing what he’d like to explore, Ford came up with several ideas for exhibit themes that ended up being some of our most successful shows yet.

Coaching has another important purpose: Motivation. Let’s face it, artists get tired and bored from time to time, just like every other professional. A good coach can serve as an artist’s “success conscience,” nudging him or her to shake it up or take more time to make a painting just a little bit better. A coach knows an artist’s work and probably has a good handle on when he or she might be phoning it in, either creatively or physically.

A promoter can act as that little angel on an artist’s shoulder, telling him or her that the painting could be better—and then offer advice on how that might happen. Sometimes it’s simply suggesting the artist take a break from the intensity of a particular piece and go on a mental vacation for inspiration and perspective. Overthinking can stifle the vital, free flow of an artist’s imagination. The artist may not even realize this psychological obstruction is happening, but a good coach will.

As an artist, would you feel defensive if your promoter told you that a particular painting could be more interesting? That’s pretty blunt, but sometimes it’s what we’re thinking. We know what you’re capable of. Some paintings are first base hits and some are home runs. Naturally, we’re looking for home runs.

Promoters aren’t artists, so we can’t always put our finger on why a work isn’t as good as it could be. We can point out that the problem exists, but as the artist, you are in the best position to solve it. This sort of critique can serve to challenge an artist to rededicate and push harder toward creating more compelling work. It might sound harsh but, as with any professional artist or athlete, being challenged can be an effective tool toward performing consistently at one’s highest potential.

In turn, an artist should have the freedom to respond with how they feel about a certain subject matter, painting or idea. Coaching conversations are not lectures, and the artist might respond that a final work turned out exactly as he or she intended—that he or she is thrilled with the result and doesn’t want to change a thing. In most cases, when great artists are adamant, they are usually right.

Artists can also provide valuable insight and information into how their work might be marketed. Promoters are only as good as the art and information that is provided to us, and if there are story angles, items of interest, awards or honors that you, the artist, know about, then by all means bring them to our attention!

The artist will always be the true champion of his or her own career. He or she is the one who needs to open up the lines of communication and keep them open. It’s important to listen to people who want to help you (though whether you act on the feedback you’re given is a decision you’ll have to make). You might hear five pieces of advice and act on two of them, and those two changes might end up making you more successful. If you and your coach both agree on them, they’re probably right on target.

Promoters have a valuable perspective, but this is a subjective business, and artists are at the heart of it. They tend to be free spirits and should enjoy as much freedom as possible in their work. That said, discipline and success go hand-in-hand in the visual arts, and effective communication in the form of honest feedback between artist and promoter can be the powerful bridge that gets you there. ABN

Cristi Smith is co-owner and president of Ford Smith Fine Art and owns the retail Ford Smith Gallery in Roswell, Georgia. She is also the agent and publisher for her husband, Ford Smith. Her professional background spans 25 years in retail advertising and marketing and includes executive leadership in Fortune 100 retailers, with a concentration in start-up companies in the upscale home decorating industry. For more information, call 770-552-5942 or visit www.fordsmithfineart.com.

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