Make Your Art a Career: Tips for Emerging Artists

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Veteran art gallery owner Molly Barnes dishes on the tried-and-true methods artists can use to get into galleries and onto a lifetime career. 

woman looking at painting on gallery wall
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Molly Barnes’s personal art collection contains more than a few familiar names—Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning, and Sister Corita Kent among them. She’s amassed her impressive collection over the decades of her equally impressive career as a gallery owner and curator in L.A. and New York. Barnes knows a thing or two about getting artists into galleries—she discovered Mark Kostabi, and was the first to represent John Baldessari—and it’s what her How to Get Hung class is all about. Here she offers a taste of her unique expertise.  

Become part of a tribe. “All of the art world is communicated through gossip,” Barnes says. So don’t work in isolation. Find a group of artists and exchange studio visits.  

Have a distinct vision. If an artist comes in with too many different styles, “I think they don’t know which is the best, so they’re hedging their bets.”

Dress well. Not necessarily chic or expensive. “Have a look,” she says, mentioning sculptor Louise Nevelson with her shock of white hair and long eyelashes. “Everybody recognized her when she came in.”

Create in a studio. “Have a place where you work,” she says, “not just the dining room table after dinner.”

Know how to approach dealers. “Ask people, ‘Do any of your friends buy art? Do you know any of the dealers?’ Then you can ask them to make a phone call for you,” she says. When you go into a gallery to request a meeting, “take a portfolio with your resume, any articles that have been written about you, and pictures of your work.” Go to galleries that make sense: “If you’re new, don’t go to L.A. Louver,” she says. “And don’t ever ever ever go to an art show opening with your slides.”

Prep for meetings. It’s important to learn everything you can about a dealer, including who they represent. Bring your PowerPoint presentation or digital portfolio, but always have a piece of art with you too. “Somebody will say, ‘I wish I could see your work,’” she says, “and you say, ‘Well, I have something in the car!’”

Get out there. Designate one day a week to visit galleries and museums, “and get to know people, anybody who will talk to you.” Barnes also suggests going to as many lectures as possible at museums like LACMA and the Hammer.

Have a business card. Yes, even in this digital age.

Molly Barnes teaches How to Get Hung: A Practical Guide for Emerging Artists, a two-week course which begins Saturday, February 2.


Photo by Vincent Tantardini on Unsplash