While today’s working artists still rely on galleries to forge their path to success, artists are increasingly seeking alternative representation models in an effort to exhibit their work.
Once upon a time, the road to art fame was narrow but straightforward: artists would secure gallery representation, and this beneficial relationship, in turn, catapulted the artist toward universal recognition. Galleries guaranteed artists an exhibition on a regular basis, produced publications on the artist’s work, and expanded their collector base at a steady, gradual pace.
Fast forward to the post-internet era, a world where artist career development has irrevocably shifted along new pathways. Social media can crown an iconic new artist seemingly overnight. Artists can go viral and be featured immediately on major online news outlets. Celebrities collect artworks they find via Instagram. The art world has adapted to the model of the expanded field, with artists being featured in music videos and brand collaborations, such as Alex Katz x H&M and Jeff Koons with Louis Vuitton, revealing that artists have ample opportunity to gain new admirers.
How can emerging artists turn these trends to their advantage? What steps are needed to exhibit in venues that bring in new audiences to engage with an artist’s work? While galleries can still serve as an integral part of an artist’s career, current events prove that artists don’t need gallery representation to make sales and gain followers. Below, we list some ways visual artists can build a larger audience and reap the benefits of expanded acclaim by utilizing alternative representation schemes.
ABC’s of Alternative Representation: Agencies, Branding, and Curators
Visual artists who also work as illustrators and cartoonists are no stranger to the benefits of working with an artist agency. From fulfilling commissions to securing regular assignments, the artist agency serves as a high-powered intermediary connecting visual artists with opportunities. In recent times, agencies in the entertainment sectors have widened their scope to incorporate visual artists into their portfolio of talent. One example is United Talent Agency’s new Fine Arts division, which complements the artist agency’s representation in film and music. As artists become recognized celebrities in their own right, agencies are expanding into the art world and matching artists with opportunities to work with brands and secure exclusive contracts. UTA specifies that it supports artists “seeking project funding, corporate sponsorship and merchandising opportunities.”
The agency goes on to point out that the artist agency will take a 10 percent fee for all commissions secured for artists. Compare that fee to the average 50% commission galleries will take from artist sales and the allure becomes clear. The paradigm shift from the gallery to the artist agency is a recent one, and the implications are still being tested. But for artists who are developing a cult following and seeking profit-making alternatives, the artist agency may soon become the new norm.
For now, artist agencies seem to be based primarily within Los Angeles and New York, and the scope of most projects that artists are contacted for tend to be large-scale to support this lower commission fee. Agencies are seeking artists who aren’t shy and take initiative to develop their own following on social media. A good way to start approaching an agency is to build a portfolio of work, exhibit with up-and-coming curators and to ask around from other artists in the field who may be already be represented to ask for an introduction. Agencies are still few and far between, so the more personal the introduction to an agency representative is the more likely one is to present their work and gain representation.
One alternative representation model that functions similarly to the artist agency rests in working with advertising and branding agencies who have clients in the creative field. These brand-directed entities can be instrumental in providing opportunities to pair artists with unique exhibition venues. One example is the New York City Ballet’s Art Series, a five year-old art commission program spearheaded by a marketing firm to engage diverse audiences. The program has featured artists such as Faile and Marcel Dzama who re-imagine how visual arts and aspects of ballet can intersect in commissioned artworks.
Alongside artist and advertising agencies, independent cultural producers can provide opportunities for artists to exhibit alongside brands or in mixed-use venues. Curator and Art Dealer Natasha Stefanovic of Beautiful Things Curated helms artistic direction at La Esquina, a buzzy Mexican hot spot in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo neighborhood. She notes the benefits artists have exhibiting with her at partner alternative exhibition spaces, pointing out “commission is less than in a regular gallery space, and if artists are new to the market, they get to see how people respond to their art. They also receive free marketing through the restaurant’s PR firm and my PR firm, leading to broader exposure and sales.” Stefanovic approaches artists she’s met through personal networks and on social media as well as on the streets of Manhattan, where she lives. By strategically positioning oneself and cultivating connections with talent reps, branding agencies and independent curators, artists can connect with culture-savvy influencers.
Art and “Friends”
Some arguably unexpected alternative exhibition spaces for art are are on the silver screen. Films that include scenes at museums, art galleries, or even cafés will seek out certain artworks that complement the film set. “Central Perk,” the iconic café from the set of the TV favorite “Friends,” comes to mind – scenes set in the coffee shop regularly featured artwork with a neighborhood café feel. Authenticity in period TV shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men also demand certain styles of artwork to feature on the set. While this is a niche market to be sure, there are professionals who regularly seek out or provide artwork for the silver screen.
Set decorators will reach out to artists they have personal connections with to suss out the possibility of commissioning or renting artwork for specific shows. As the film industry is centered in the Los Angeles area, it’s not surprising that many resources set decorators have at their disposal are also located near Hollywood. One such resource is Film Art LA, which provides a selection of artworks to set decorators who can select styles by period and frame type.
Remuneration can be tricky for artists lending out works for use on sets. Sometimes set decorators will borrow artworks only to return them before filming begins because they’re not the right fit. Other times commissions are requested quickly, must meet strict requirements, and do not offer very high payoffs for artists. Another consideration is that artworks are rarely rented for more than a few weeks, and the fee that artists make after advisors such as Film Art LA take their commission can be cringeworthy. In turn, artists run the risk that the artwork might be damaged throughout the process – and to avoid disaster, an insurance policy might be required. Still, by having one’s artwork exposed to an audience of potentially millions worldwide within these alternative exhibition spaces, an artist can gain both visibility and credentials, and connect with an expanded collector base. Another plus? In most cases, artists will retain copyright to the works featured in film projects.
Out in the Open
While visual art continues making waves across the entertainment spectrum, music festivals are joining the fray, seeking out unique fine art experiences to offer their guests. Music festival heavyweights such as SXSW and Coachella have both taken the rise of social media as an opportunity to feature eye-catching and interactive art installations in line with their brand. 2017’s Coachella festival saw three artists – Chiaozza, Olalekan Jeyifous, and Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan – create immersive, imaginary landscapes for fair-goers. SXSW began its art program this year, featuring a curated lineup of five installations exploring the liminal overlapping of art and technology. Artists keen on making an impact with immersive art installations in alternative exhibition spaces can always get their start at community-driven creative events, such as the international DIY art venture FIGMENT or the world-renowned Burning Man. Opportunities for subsidized or fully-funded projects may vary but the recognition that artists receive from these and similar events can catapult artists to new heights.
City parks. Airports. Public plazas. What do all of these spaces have in common? Spend enough time at these spaces and you’ll encounter contemporary artwork reflecting a diverse array of artistic practices. Long gone are the days when only sculpture dotted public parks. Now, installations, murals, interactive pieces and even new media works vie with sculpture to entertain and beguile passersby. For many public art projects, artists are tasked with responding to an open call by describing the artwork they are proposing for the space (read this article for insight on responding to a public art commission open call). Attention to the type of foot traffic, the longevity of materials used, and other site-specific concerns are key to securing these exhibitions. Subject matter may also be limited due to the public nature of these projects.
The sense of accomplishment at seeing your work on site near a much-loved park path or bustling airport lobby can be tempered by budgetary concerns, however. In some cases, cities have very limited funding to realize public art projects. In cases where municipal governments partner with private entities and funding is available, it may be some time before project materials and labor are reimbursed. As long as artists are prepared for the unique set of challenges working in open spaces can present, creating artworks for public audiences is a rewarding experience for artists seeking new audiences that will appreciate their creative output.
How do you seek out alternative representation to exhibit your work?