What makes a successful studio visit? 4 seasoned art professionals offer real, actionable advice for young artists

This fall, Theaster Gates opens a major exhibition of his work at the New Museum. Gary Carrion-Murayari, who is co-curating it, says the show will essentially take over the entire institution. But the exhibition planning isn’t how the curator was introduced to Gates’ work. He was made aware of this more than a decade ago during a visit to the artist’s Chicago studio when Carrion-Murayari was recruiting artists for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

At the time, Gates wasn’t as well known for his community-based practice as he is today; He was just starting out and at that point had only done “a few projects in town and maybe a few things outside of Chicago,” Carrion-Murayari recalled.

During the visit, a few things about Gates’ approach to his practice made an immediate impression. First, unlike many other young artists, he didn’t do a “slideshow presentation of everything he had been doing at the time,” Carrion-Murayari said. “It was just a really honest conversation about what he wanted to achieve with his work. And how he hoped to make an impact on the world with this incredibly ambitious, locally specific project.”

From that moment on, “It was very clear to me that Gates was someone who really believed in what he was doing,” Carrion-Murayari continued, “and had an incredible optimism about what art could make a difference.”

In the end, Gates not only landed a spot at the Whitney Biennial, but also developed an enduring relationship with the curator. “14 or 15 years later, we’re working together again on a completely different scale,” said Carrion-Murayari.

Of course, not every studio visit will go as well as this one. But to leave room for a similar outcome, artists should remember this: people come to your studios to learn more about you. So let her.

We asked leading curators, collectors and others for their tips for young artists looking to stand out from the crowd. Here are their suggestions.

Theaster Gates at work in a still from Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 8, Chicago, 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

Keep it loose

For artists, studio visits can sometimes feel like speed dating as they attempt to connect with a potential sponsor or institutional backer in a short amount of time. For that reason, “a lot of artists, especially on the younger side, try to walk you through everything that they’ve done, from grad school onwards,” Carrion-Murayari said, “and that’s often a bit overwhelming.”

New Museum curator Margot Norton agrees, saying artists “don’t have to share everything… like from birth to now.”

Essentially, artists should focus on what they are doing and why they find the work interesting. The person on the receiving end may or may not agree, but at least your visitors are getting what they’re looking for: “A good conversation,” said Carrion-Murayari, “and a sense of what’s urgent and exciting about an artist at this moment.”

Don’t read too much into things

On the flip side of over-sharing, Norton has also left studio visits feeling “needed to elicit information from someone,” she said. Artists—particularly younger ones fresh out of an MFA program—tend to be reticent and could understandably read too much into harmless behavior. “Because of the many criticisms of the art school,” Norton says, “I think people see your visit as a criticism. But it’s not.” So artists shouldn’t get too defensive.

Natalie Frank in her studio with the work “Woman and Dog”. Photo by Bunny Lake Films, courtesy of Her Clique.

Likewise, collectors or curators can be calm during their studio visits. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have thoughts or things they want to say [about the work]’ Norton explained. “You just gather that information and see what sticks.”

As a longtime artist, Natalie Frank has seen her fair share of visitors in and out of the studio. She’s recognized that “generally, people come into the studio with really good intentions,” she said. “It’s always important to remember that these people have full lives and things are going on that you have no idea about; that their schedules are crazy and that you have their attention for a specific time; and that it is often not personal.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

There are so many different ways in which studio visits are worthwhile for artists – especially if they take over the direction.

“I believe artists should not hesitate to take the initiative when it comes to studio visits,” said collector Bernard Lumpkin. “It may seem like the collector is interviewing you. But you can interview the collector.”

For Lumpkin, it is important that artists understand their worth. Lumpkin largely supports emerging artists of color, and the work he tends to collect is a very “hot part of the market and there are a lot of galleries that track artists and are very interested in signing certain artists,” he said he. (The art he acquired with his husband is currently touring the country in the touring exhibition Young, Gifted and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art., which stops U.C. Davis Later this month.)

Rather than jumping artists at every opportunity, they’d better be mindful “of where your work is going,” Lumpkin said, and whether or not the placements they’re being offered — be it an exhibition or a place in a private collection — are for theirs Career actually an advantage.

Adrienne Edwards, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, visits T. Eliott Mansa's Oolite Arts Studio.  Courtesy of Oolite Arts.

Adrienne Edwards, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, visits T. Eliott Mansa’s Oolite Arts Studio. Courtesy of Oolite Arts.

After all, everyone comes into an artist room with an agenda. “There’s no reason why an artist can’t ask the collector, ‘Tell me a little bit about your collection. I read that it is figurative painting and sculpture. Where does my abstract work fit in?’” added Lumpkin.

Find out who’s coming and what that person can do for you. It’s also a good idea to ask people for their opinions or suggestions.

“I think sometimes artists hesitate to ask for advice,” Frank said, thinking it might be a sign of weakness or inexperience. “But I think having someone drop by is the best thing to do – whether it’s in terms of the art itself or the direction of the work.”

Ask questions like, “What other artists should I check out?” Which curators are interesting for this person? What are you reading?” Frank suggested. This can be a way to “tear out what strikes the visitor about your work, because I think it’s easy as an artist to get lost in your own head,” she added.

In this way, artists can also find out how their art is received by people. “We want to be a resource for artists,” Carrion-Murayari said, “even if it’s not necessarily something that will immediately lead to an exhibition at the Neues Museum.”

No news is not necessarily bad news

“As a curator, these visits can come for a variety of reasons,” noted Carrion-Murayari, “It’s not necessarily that you’re trying to find your next exhibition. Sometimes it’s just about getting to know someone better.”

Even when it’s a targeted visit, like when Norton visited “literally thousands of artists” in preparation for the New Museum’s 2021 Triennial, “there’s often nothing that comes of it [the studio visit], like an invitation to an exhibition,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be anything at some point. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t have immediate feedback or a show after visiting the studio. Sometimes that takes time.”

The studio visit is often a mechanism to “start a conversation,” Carrion-Murayari said, “and [nothing] could come into play [until] years on the road. But when I approach an artist, it’s because I saw something there that interested me.”

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