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How To Market Yourself an Artist

Calling all struggling artists!
Sunday Jun 26, 2005.     By Joanne Hinkel
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Calling all struggling artists! This week’s column is devoted to you. Whether you finished art school last month, you graduated 10 years ago, or you never went through formal training at all, we know that the task of trying to sell your artwork is nearly a mission impossible. Belly up to this article and you may learn a thing or two about the art of persuading a gallery to carry your work.

According to the experts the most important thing you can do is to put together a sophisticated artist submission. “When you’re making a submission make it professional, not only concerning the artwork, but to the level of your career as an artist,” Emily Scott, Manager of Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, says. “It means following up with a phone call, treating [the submission] as a job interview cause that’s what it is.”

Scott explains a professional artist submission as consisting of the following: a well-written artist statement no longer than one page, a bio, and a collection of images, all put together in a package with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, which is either mailed to or dropped off at the gallery. Scott suggests checking the gallery’s website or calling ahead to find out what format the gallery prefers for reviewing images, whether as a CD or as slides, etc.

Scott warns that these faux-pas land your application in the landfill: typos and grammar errors, hand-written notes, stacks of announcement cards, poor quality images, etc. Researching the galleries and then targeting the ones that relate to your work makes all the difference too: why try to sell your sculptures to a gallery specializing in photography? You get the picture, so to speak.

Although Zolla/Lieberman Gallery receives about five artist submissions per week, Scott concedes that 95% of these artists are turned away. As one of the city’s best and oldest champions of contemporary art, the gallery has the luxury of being highly selective. As it is, the 25 or so artists the gallery already represents only get one show every three years. All this said, the gallery can only pick up a new artist every once in a while.

Local painter Sally Ko recently sent out five artist submissions. Sally Ko is an unusual case study, as she is already selling her explosivly colorful abstract paintings without proper gallery representation. For the past two years Ko has represented herself in a sense. She rents a storefront studio in Pilsen that she opens to the public once a month for the neighborhood's Second Fridays event. Within this time, Ko has sold about 30 of her paintings. She now has private collectors calling her; a trendy South Loop restaurant, Gioco, owns one of her pieces and she is well on her way.

Ko applies the slow and steady adage to her goal of finding gallery representation. She relates the process of connecting with the right gallery to dating, as a process of discovery and relationship-building. “It’s a long term commitment,” Ko says. “You just have to keep trying."

As a photographer, painter, and digital artist, Kevin Swallow has taken responsibility for independently building his career. Since he works a nine-to-five job in Internet marketing, Swallow is well-seasoned in self-promotion and networking. Like Ko, Swallow has taken alternate routes to building his art career. At the start he joined Friends of the Arts, a not-for-profit arts support group, that helps artists to place their work in cafes and restaurants. Swallow has sold several of his photographs and paintings at galleries; from a solo show at Café Boost he sold 10 out of 33 works.

“You have to keep doing things to make sure your art is out there on a regular basis,” Swallow says. Another alternate route that Swallow has employed is to create his own artist website; this he says has been essential for his development. He has sold artwork virtually, through his website – In one instance a guy living in Indiana who was homesick bought some photographs Swallow took of Chicago for his wife's birthday and for his office.

"Today everyone gets so busy, there’s no excuse for an artist not to have a website,” Swallow says. “Digital cameras are so much cheaper [than they used to be]; you can email your images. Having a website levels the playing field for everyone. You can get yourself to galleries overseas.”

Whatever your strategy may be, there is no quick or easy fix for artists looking to make a living from art. We all know the cliché of the starving artist well enough by now, and, unfortunately, we all know how true it is. To take it slow and steady may be the best piece of advice.

As Sally Ko sums up this sentiment, “I really think that being an artist is a life-long commitment.”

A shortlist of networking and community resources for emerging artists: Chicago Gallery News A listserv highlighting Chicago galleries and exhibits featured at them. Friends of the Art The Chicago Artists’ Coalition

Can of Culture guru Joanne Hinkel geeks out over art.


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