Elizabeth Berrien · World Class Wire Sculpture and Illustration · DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS IN ART BIZ
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- Art Marketing 101
- Gallery Diplomacy
- Fair Fun & Profit
- How Long It Took
- Pratfall Avoidance
- Start on Shoestring
- Working at Home




GALLERY BASICS: Diplomatic Liaisons #101
by Elizabeth Berrien, 1992

Who among us hasn't heard: "That pondscum storekeeper! Sure, she fawns all over you when you're a customer, but just try to show her what you're selling at the fairs, she goes all Jekyll & Hyde and kicks you out. Loves money, hates artists!" or, "I give up. My work's not bad, but I just spent an entire day pounding the pavement, must have covered a dozen stores & galleries. Some were nasty, some were nice, but none of them was interested. I can't tell if it's me they don't like, or my work, or both..."

A gentle "psst" from the sidelines: Hey guys, did anybody phone ahead for an appointment? Here's a Life Achievement Mortifying Pratfall, which I committed when I needed a quick chunk of money. "Well", I thought, in my infinite wisdom, "Guess it's time to go cash in my stock at a Store!" Let's look through the Other End of the Telescope:

You're a store owner. You didn't inherit your start-up money; you worked hard to save it up. Maybe you took out a bank loan. Now you have to work even harder to make this living, breathing organism keep itself (and you) alive by selling enough art to cover your substantial expenses every single month. You sell art because you like art. You like artists too, even with their unpredictable nature and their ability to see you as The Enemy on a moment's notice.

On a rainy afternoon you see a woman wandering aimlessly in your store. Her hair is wet; the rapidly biodegrading cardboard box in her arms looks soggy, and so's the wiggly baby on her back, although perhaps for other reasons. You abandon shoppers who know what they need for this person who apparently doesn't, and ask, "May I Help You?" "Yes", comes the response, "I was wondering if you'd take a look at These." Puppies? Kittens? Noooo... this box contains Art items, albeit some of them have met contact with h2O and been Adversely Affected... "Very Nice" you say. (You can't really zoom in on them because behind her another woman is signaling she'd like you to open a jewelry case). "So I'm wondering," the Artist continues, "if you could put them in your store?" As you return eye contact with Jewelry Case Woman, you say, "You know, this is a pretty busy time. Any chance you could come back in a couple hours?" "Fraid Not", says the Artist, "it's past the baby's nap time already."

Cursing yourself for being too mush-brained to turn the artist away, you sigh inwardly as Box Contents are strewn upon the counter; JCW drifts to other parts of the store. As you examine finished & unfinished Art Items, you say "You know, these ARE kind of interesting; if you keep the Wide-Mouth Glommers, I think we might give the Blue-Nosed Sloths a try. How much are you asking?" Long pause... "Well, I was kind of hoping you could tell ME what they're worth". Catch-22 Time: guess too high, and they'll never sell; too low, and you'll be called Robber Baron when they sell too fast!

Gently tapping matchsticks beneath the woman's toenails and igniting them, you are finally able to extract wholesale prices she'll accept, albeit she looks at you with Unadulterated Loathing upon hearing that you'll double them "just for putting them on the shelf". Taking half a dozen of the less hydrated Sloths, (Jewelry Case Woman's gone bye-bye) you help your new artist enter them on a Consignment Sheet. "Great," she says triumphantly, "Now where's my Check?"

In real life my store-keeper WASN'T mush-brained; I was gently but firmly turned down. Since then I've developed a more professional (and less mutually taxing) Gallery Approach Ritual:


Dear ____________:

As you can see by the enclosed pictures/slides, I make Mutant Mammals, specializing in Blue-Nosed Sloths. I (or a friend, if it's out of town) have seen your store, and think my Sloths might fit in well with your tasteful selection of Arboreal Eclectica (showing someone bothered to research the store's specialty & needs). If you could review these materials, I'll call next week (giving time to mull it over) to see if we can arrange for a Brief (unheard of!) Presentation.

Thank you for your time and consideration (Basic Table Manners). In case this isn't a convenient time for you to try new art (giving a chance to say "maybe later" instead of "no"), I've enclosed postage for the return of my slides, etc (personal responsibility!). I look forward to talking with you soon. (verily! and by now, they probably do too...)

[author's note: now that we're in the Age of Internet, I do this with an email intro and an invitation to view my website.]

This tidy little Business Haiku ups the likelihood of an appointment by approx. 70%. It tells the gallery that one is Versed in the Custom of the Trade, likely to cause minimal drain on their energy, psyche and schedule. It is 3000% more effective than the Amateur Hour walk-in, a Red Flag indicator that the artist will take an unknown degree of babysitting til the Lightbulb goes on. Galleries cut artists a certain amount of slack because of our weird, semi-religious aversion to anything remotely resembling Standard Business Practice; they'll coach us some with the understanding that as we outgrow this phobia we'll take off the training wheels and coach our own selves to assume a more complete professionalism.

The Quality & Quantity of Slack varies in direct ratio to the volume of artists requiring a gallery's attention; they must give priority to business-attuned artists and/or those quick on the uptake where Coaching is entailed. Assuming your Haiku Letter has won you an appointment, here's how to follow through with the Professional Image you've pre-established:

Offer to meet at the store's convenience, so they can give full attention to your work. Show up on time: clean hair, dressed nice. If management's busy with a shopper, wait unobtrusively (acknowledging their priority in selling artwork over mundane matters like this very meeting). Instead of showing every bit of work you hope to sell, bring samples; the less space & time you consume , the more effective you'll be.

Listen closely to suggestions or criticisms by your gallery. In demonstrating as much flexibility as possible toward their needs, you make it easy for them to do what you want them to do, which is to sell your work and order more. (Repeat Sales are the true indicator of a mutually productive relationship between artist and gallery). If you have problems or suggestions of your own, bring them right up, but leave any emotional baggage behind; letting emotions into business is pure Amateur Hour. If the other person's doing the shouting, better to walk away calmly than to get caught mud-wrestling; there's always another day, another outlet.

Start your business relationships with an attitude of friendly detachment. Strangely enough, it doesn't matter if you and your gallery even LIKE each other, so long as you have mutual respect and work well together. Creating artificial "instant friendships" before you've worked together under pressure can create grotesque expectations & misunderstandings. With a slight bit of built-in reserve, you'll find it easier for business, once established, to evolve into friendship. Professional habits demonstrate your reliability. Reliability earns respect. Respect earns trust; trust brings Heightened Appreciation. When you achieve a level of true professionalism, you create Symbiotic Partnerships with your galleries; you bring them good works in a timely fashion and they present, promote and sell them for your combined benefit.


Dear Auntie Social: I just blew it big with a gallery, so I'm hiding under the couch brooding about all this Coach/Babysit stuff. What's the difference?

My Child: Here's a simple yardstick: as you go about your personal and business life, how much of your own weight do you carry, and how much do you get others to carry for you? In approaching a new store, do you pour out your life story and personal philosophy on the first date, engendering a co-dependent relationship in which, since you're all "family", it is tacitly understood that they will never ever break your heart? do you devote more time to manufacturing colorful, complex and creative excuses for not showing up on time with the goods, than to preventing future pratfalls?

The Road to Professionalism is traveled at a pace of two steps forward, one step back. It is inevitable to commit Pratfalls: the trick is to learn from them so you don't step in the same doo-doo twice. And Take Heart: that gallery will forget your Ghastly Encounter much sooner than you do. When you've cleaned up your act a bit, try them again!

Elizabeth Berrien is a world-renowned wire sculptor with over 35 years experience as a professional artist. She conducts business workshops for artists, and has been gratified to see her former students carve out careers of their own as professionals.

This article was first published in the news letter of the Ink People Center for the Arts in the 1990's.

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elizabeth berrien's bbc cables wire sculpture illustration wins the BIG WON award for #1 Innovative and Alternative 2008.
#1 Worldwide

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