–By Peri Schwartz
Back in 1999, when I was 25 years into my career, a good friend came to visit me at my studio. I complained bitterly to her about my lack of success in the art world. I’d experienced some success with commercial galleries, but I wasn’t getting the level of recognition I wanted, and I was disappointed and frustrated over the situation. She recommended I call Lucy Werner, a business consultant for individuals, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. As an artist, I didn’t necessarily view myself as a “business,” but I opted to reach out anyway (and Lucy fortunately agreed to accept a barter relationship in lieu of fees). It turned out to be the best decision I could have made.
I felt an immediate connection to Lucy, who offered the perfect balance of nurturing encouragement and realistic advice. She quickly took on the role of a coach during our monthly 30-minute calls, in which she helped me aim higher and identified five key actions I could take to improve my chances of success:
- Reach out. The first thing Lucy told me to do was pick up the phone and call three successful artists I knew to ask for advice and to find out how they showed and sold their work. The first call I made was to a former fellow art student from Boston University. She gave me the name of the curator at a financial company in Boston that had included her work in their collection. I called the curator and sent her slides, and she bought a large painting for their collection. It was a great connection that ended up buying more pieces over the years. The curator also put me in touch with a gallery in Boston, where I have been showing ever since.
Another artist I reached out to suggested that I contact the curator of prints and drawings at the Boston Public Library. The Library owned a small print of mine, so she encouraged me to go back, since they had bought repeatedly from her and she thought the chances were good that they would want more of my work. I made an appointment with the curator and he bought three prints. To my delight, he also gave me the names of two other curators in Boston. When I called them, explaining that my work was represented in the Library and that the curator had suggested I contact them, they agreed to see me—and my work ended up in Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
- Find a new audience. In 1999, my focus was on self-portraits in a variety of mediums. These works were extremely difficult for galleries to sell. Lucy and I agreed that the subject matter may be better suited to museums, which were more open to including portraits in their collections. Thankfully, the curators looked at my work for its artistic value and the gap it could fill in their collections. Their acceptance validated my work and boosted my confidence. Even though I no longer do self-portraits, having a list of museum collections on my resume makes it easier to approach curators who are not familiar with me or my work.
- Stay organized. Lucy explained the importance of maintaining detailed and organized records, especially when it came to showing my work to curators. Curators are busy working on exhibitions and are often inundated with artists trying to get their work shown, so getting their attention is difficult and takes perseverance. When I first started reaching out to curators (remember, this was back in 1999, before emails and JPGs were commonplace), I made a list of contacts and started calling them. Often, it took repeated calls and a tremendous effort to even get them on the line. I took notes of each phone call and what they wanted next, which was typically for me to send slides. I never got a call in response, but always took the initiative and followed up with another phone call. It was a combination of attentive tracking, patience, and perseverance that got their attention and made the sales happen.
- Shift your market. As a native New Yorker, it was natural for me to want to show in Manhattan. But the city is awash with artists, making it difficult to break into the gallery scene. Instead, Lucy helped me identify university galleries as better venues, which could also serve as stepping stones to commercial exhibitions. Not long after, in 2000, I had a show at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and made a detour to visit a gallery in Charlottesville. That gallery owner put me in touch with a gallery in Richmond, which resulted in a 15-year relationship that is still going strong.
- Get over your emotions. Like any business, running your own studio requires a certain amount of objectivity. But detachment can be difficult for artists who invest so much of themselves in their work. Lucy taught me to take a step back and understand that just because gallery owners or curators may not see a work’s value doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. That attitude served me well back then and continues to guide me to this day.
The steps I learned from Lucy weren’t novel; they were simple actions that any business owner would conduct. The key was shifting my perspective to view myself not just as an artist, but also as a business—one that’s now spanned more than 15 years, thanks to her guidance. As for our monthly calls? Those have endured as well, though now we spend our time catching up as friends first.