The Gallery Experience, from an Intern’s perspective
By Jessica Kennedy
As the newly hired intern for an independent gallery, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started working at AXIOM Gallery and Fine Art Consulting. A little about me, I’m an honors art history student at Western Michigan University and work as an assistant curator at the university gallery. WMU’s gallery spends the bulk of its time exhibiting student, faculty, and university’s art collection. Once a year we get to design an exhibition that features outside artists, but even then, the goal was to educate rather than sell the works.
AXIOM operates under a very unique business model. As an independent gallery and consulting firm, their goal is to both provide a space for emerging and established artists that will educate and inform art enthusiasts, while also appealing to a conservative collector base who are often seeking specific works for their collection. Coming into this internship having only worked in a non-profit institution meant shifting my perspective slightly to accommodate for the need to make sales.
My job as an intern involved assisting Sorcha, AXIOM’s Gallery Director, in her curatorial process and taking on some smaller projects of my own. This has come to include researching artists and drafting up print-ready text to promote them, meeting with figures in the Orlando art industry who would be prime candidates for future partnership opportunities, and curating collections for our partnered locations and special events. I have also shadowed many meetings in which AXIOM’s art advisors toured the location with designers and art collectors to see what we have on display and in our collection.
Writing and Public Speaking to Make a Sale
This was something I had never experienced before as a curator or gallerist. Talking about art with strangers is something that I have grown comfortable with over the years, but the types of questions these art buyers and collectors were asking was shocking to say the least. They seemed less concerned with art historical and/or socio-political influences (to my inner scholar’s constant defiance) and instead tended to focus on the value of the art, the influence of the artist, or how well it matches their throw pillows. Meaning, “Will this piece look good in my home and also add to my net worth, or not?” Let me tell you, nothing i
n your fine arts program will prepare you for the moment someone disregards the technique and cultural relevance of a promising artist, because they haven’t shown internationally yet or the green they used is slightly too cool toned for theroom they’re hoping to fill.
I have found that much of working in a gallery setting has to do with learning to talk about art in a very different way. Art is an interesting commodity in that much of the value is subjective. Outside of definitive factors like the cost of materials, labor, and demand due to notoriety, the emotional and visual appeal that makes art so exquisite is often the deciding factor in the perceived value of artwork. Because of this, it becomes the gallery’s job to find artists doing incredible things, and present them accordingly to provoke a positive response from buyers.
For me, this meant re-writing the artist biographies and statements to focus on why the artists are worth being considered for a private collection. Of course, there are many art collectors who want works that will spark their imagination and influence their understanding of the world, but I found that working in an independent gallery means catering to a wider range of art appreciators.
Small Projects that are Actually Big Projects
Since AXIOM is both a gallery space and a fine art consulting firm, we have a large collection of original works that are available for purchase. With lots of partnered locations seeking to fill their walls and special events that require new works, AXIOM uses these opportunities to promote the works in their inventory. As an intern (especially one with curatorial experience), I was tasked with creating specific collections from pieces in that inventory. My first project was to fill a small gallery space in the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce for a short term exhibition.
This was a fantastic opportunity to stretch my legs as a curator and even though I wasn’t connecting with the artists personally, I was able to take full creative authority in picking out works. In keeping with the above concept of curating a sellable collection, I asked around to figure out who would be visiting the space, so I could pick out works that might appeal to their tastes.
My next project was to design a collection to be hung in AXIOM’s consultation office for an open house event. This turned into a rather large project that needed to be done in a short timeframe. The first obstacle was considering the amount of wall space in the office. With so much space to fill, I decided to have a flowing theme for each room so the project could be broken into smaller collections.
The next obstacle was selecting works that displayed the plethora of styles and mediums in our inventory. These works required having a sense of appeal to the specific clients who would be coming in by appointment over the next few weeks. With the aid of AXIOM’s Creative Director Laurin VanBeukering, who guided me through the process, we were able to select over 40 works to create a tailored art experience that would guide people through the office. Much of the work had never been hung before, and so my next task was to figure out as much about the pieces as possible and draft up a document for the staff with all the information they might need in the event of an inquiry.
Networking, Networking, Networking
Countless hours of my internship were spent gathering contact leads. Admittedly, this tedious task was just a small part of my overall duties, but it gave me a better understanding of how galleries operate as a business. Networking is a HUGE aspect of developing a client list and future business partnerships. These leads are essential in an area where most walk-in customers are tourists or students just hoping to witness art, with no intention of purchasing. It’s only through reaching out to other organizations that new clients can be accessed. As a gallery and consulting firm, AXIOM’s best assets are designers, real estate companies, local arts programs, and art non-profits. AXIOM can utilize these connections to initiate networking opportunities, partnerships, and events that will benefit both parties.
The next step of networking after creating a list of leads, is to contact them. One of my specific tasks was to call design firms in New York to raise awareness of some exclusive events we would be hosting in Manhattan and extend an invitation to the designers of those firms for a private tour of the facility. Despite my brief stint as a telemarketer for WMU’s admissions office back in 2013, talking to strangers on the phone has never been a strong suit of mine.
After several calls, I realized that my approach and dialogue were not getting through to the leads, and so adjusted my approach. Rather than trying to “sell” them on AXIOM by describing the project and bragging about our success thus far, I started contacting them as a courtesy (due to their reputation) to inform them that there were some events they should register for, with the option for a “meet and greet” with our on-site staff. This approach had much more success.
The last, and most interesting, part of networking is the initial contact. Meeting with artists, curators, consultants, event planners, professors, salesmen, designers, and the like. These meetings were sometimes structured if the individuals were a client, but more often a quickmeet and greet before they had to rush off to their own busy lives. Each meeting offered something unique and interesting, and helped to expand my understanding of how interconnected all the various avenues and aspects of the art industry are.
This atmosphere was different than expected. In the professional world, one needs to be proactive in connecting with and maintaining relationships. These connections differ from the college atmosphere, where opportunities are essentially handed to you.
Long Story Short…
This internship has opened my eyes to the possibilities of working in a gallery, the role that galleries play in the art industry, and how college has both prepared me and sheltered me from the realities of the work force. It has confirmed that I have, indeed, found my calling in the arts. Furthermore, it is definitely an experience I will be taking with me when I head back to WMU for my last semester.