How to Get Your Art into Galleries and Exhibitions

NYC gallery director Olivia Smith (B.F.A. Art ’11) offers advice

Olivia Smith
Olivia Smith (B.F.A. Art ’11), director of Magenta Plains gallery in New York.

Meadows School of the Arts recently reached out to alumna Olivia Smith (B.F.A. Art ’11), director and co-founder of contemporary art gallery Magenta Plains in New York City, for her advice on the best way for artists to get their work into galleries and exhibitions.

Smith has been part of the art world for the better part of a decade, including internships at the Chinati Foundation museum in Marfa, Texas; Artists Space gallery in New York; and New York-based arts organization Creative Time.

From 2013 to 2016, she was director of New York’s Exhibition A, where she worked in collaboration with over 250 artists to produce and distribute museum-quality contemporary art editions. While at Exhibition A, she curated and managed artwork placement in hotels in Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Mexico and Australia.

Smith became director of Magenta Plains in 2016.

What is the best way to approach a gallery manager or public space curator? Any must-do’sor don’t-do’s?

First you must identify what kind of space is the best fit for the type of work you make. The most effective way to increase your chance of exhibiting is to align yourself with the community in which you desire to participate. Are you more suited to exhibit with a public art nonprofit that funds socially engaged projects or a commercial gallery that presents emerging painters?

What other artists exhibit at the space you are targeting, and how would your work create conversation or create contrast with the gallery's existing program?

Be honest with yourself and make sure the mission of the gallery and your own ideas have common ground.

Secondly, tap your network or ask a friend—the art world is social. Art dealers and curators often discover new artists through the artists they are already working with.

Do not cold call, email your portfolio to every gallery in town, or walk into a gallery and approach the curator about your work without a scheduled meeting. This is off-putting and unprofessional. Instead, attend events or opening receptions and, if the opportunity arises, casually invite the person of interest over for a studio visit. It's more important to trust the process, be strategic and remain consistent than to try and force things to fruition.

Magenta Plains
Interior of Magenta Plains; art by William Wegman.

How important is the artist’s website and/or social media in promoting/establishing an art career?

Social media can be a fantastic tool, especially in the art world. It is true that artists are discovered on social media and that works of art are often sold in the DM’s [direct messages]. Decide whether your Instagram account is strictly professional or personal, or figure out how the two can work in tandem to develop your social media voice. Post high-resolution images, show the process of making your work, and highlight “behind the scenes.” Promote your community and post your friends’ artwork, too. Quality over quantity is always my suggestion when it comes to posting on social media. As far as websites go, simplicity is key—as is having your most recent work easily accessible. When I'm vetting an artist, I want to look at as many relevant images as I can. I’m often looking very quickly, so consider easy navigation and quick-loading images. Unless you have had a long career, I suggest you don’t share work older than three to five years online—especially if you are a young artist. Keep your CV and images up to date and make sure your email is easy to find.

Is networking within your local art community important? If so, why?

As an artist, studio time and making quality work is your number one priority. However, networking within your local community (or the community of your choosing) is the second most-important thing. It can be hard to take time away from the studio or force yourself to be social when your mind is focused on your next move in the studio, but it can pay off to attend specific, key events. Have a one-minute speech prepared when you are introduced to someone who asks what type of art you make. Don’t underestimate the power of basic social skills and coming across confidently. Try to act comfortable around people you admire or consider important rather than acting nervous or self-deprecating. Fake it until you make it. Or, take a DIY approach and curate an exhibition or performance series in your apartment or in an abandoned convenience store. Show up and support your friends’ art exhibitions or offer to lend a hand with their installations. Share your friends’ artwork and they will share yours. One can never go wrong with generosity and ingenuity.

Magenta Plains
Exterior of Magenta Plains; art by Peter Sutherland.

What other advice can you offer students who are starting their art career?

Making a career out of being a full-time studio artist is rarely ever possible unless you have some outside source of funding or you’ve made it to the point where you are selling a lot of art for decently high prices. Be realistic about the steps it takes to reach that goal and stay determined. For most people, taking a part-time job at an art organization, teaching art, or working in the service industry is a must. If you choose to be an artist you are choosing to sacrifice time for your studio and money for the materials you need. You must always be your own self-motivator and not let yourself get bogged down with self-doubt.

You must also learn basic business skills in order to look out for your own best interests. As with any industry, people take advantage of other people and personalities can conflict. Do not work for free—ever. Do not let anyone take advantage of your creativity and your hard work in exchange for “exposure.” Stay organized, start a database of collectors and maintain your inventory through a software. Know how to send invoices, draft consignments, and insure your artwork. Use basic marketing skills and always keep a professional demeanor.

Magenta Plains
Group show at Magenta Plains, art by Peter Nagy, Barry Le Va, Anne Libby.

Let’s turn the lens on you for a moment. How did you establish yourself in the art world when you were starting out?

I moved to New York City the year after I received my B.F.A. and was fortunate to complete internships at my two favorite organizations—Artists Space and Creative Time. Eventually I began working at Exhibition A as a production assistant, and within a few months I was able to transition into a leadership position there. I worked long hours and, through experience, learned how to run a business and develop best practices. In the evenings I attended sometimes up to eight or more exhibition opening events in Chelsea, the Lower East Side or Brooklyn. During this time, Instagram was taking off as a platform and I was looking at and sharing a lot of art that I liked on my feed, and as a result, my following grew. Because of the nature of my job at Exhibition A—I met a lot of artists in a short amount of time—and my consistency with viewing and posting art, opportunities presented themselves to me. I began curating exhibitions independently, and ultimately, that work was noticed by the very people I ended up opening a gallery with in 2016.

Before you go, tell us a bit about your time as an SMU Meadows art student.

When I look back on my undergraduate experience in the SMU Meadows art department, I’m most grateful for the scale and intimacy of the classes, my relationships with professors who were genuinely invested in my growth as an artist, and the interdisciplinary experience I was able to participate in. There seemed no limit to the possibilities when it came to collaboration, and there was a certain freedom to use the building as needed for experimentation.

Learn more about Olivia Smith,Magenta Plains gallery, and the Division of Art at SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

Follow SMU Meadows Division of Art on Instagram and Facebook; sign up for the weekly Division of Art newsletter.

Photos courtesy of Magenta Plains.