One of the most difficult things as an artist is getting a commercial gallery to show your work. I remember when I was living in London, and sent my slides to a gallery in the west end somewhere. The gallery was in Kensington, or Chelsea, one of those very well-heeled areas of the city populated by rich people with lots of dosh to spare. Having my paintings available through that kind of gallery would be rather nice, I thought.
A few weeks after I sent the slides, I got a call from the gallery asking me to bring some paintings over for them to look at. The day arrived, and I put about four paintings, 30” by 20” in size, in the back of the car and drove across London. I arrived, carried the paintings in, said ‘hello’ to the person at the desk. I told him who I was, and he introduced himself as the person who had spoken to me on the phone. He said that he liked what he had seen in the slides, but he just needed to get his gallery partner in to look at the work.
I lined up the paintings along one wall, and waited. Person at Desk went through a door, then came back out with someone I’ll call Important Person. What follows happened in no more than about ten seconds: Important Person came through the door, glanced at the paintings, said “Oh no, no, no: that won’t do”, turned round, and went back through the door. He didn’t introduce himself to me, or even look at me. When the door closed, Person at Desk and I were left to conclude this short meeting as best we could. To his credit, Person at Desk was clearly embarrassed. But it was also clear that a decision – a very, very quick decision – had been made, and I could only gather up the paintings and retreat in as dignified a way as I could.
Luckily, I have quite a thick skin, and survived this potentially humiliating scene without tears or drunken rage. And I have had some completely different experiences since then. A few years later, a neighbour and friend of mine in London turned out to be running the modern and impressionist sales for the Christie’s auction house. Someone who worked for her at Christie’s left to start his own gallery, and she recommended me to him. A studio visit followed, then inclusion in a group show and respectable sales of my work. A couple of years after I moved to the US, I sent out a brochure with a covering letter to over 500 galleries, museums, and curators around the country. In Chicago, where I live, I followed up by going into a couple of galleries and politely asking if they had received my brochure. In each case, they said they remembered the brochure, appreciated my “non-invasive style of follow-up”, and arranged for subsequent meetings. In the case of one gallery, they eventually said no, but in a very different way to that London gallery mentioned above. In the case of the second gallery, it led to the gallery owner taking some large pieces of work on consignment.
I don’t know if there’s a moral to the story, other than the usual one of ‘keep trying until you succeed’. I can’t say that even getting the attention of some galleries in Chicago has led to fame and riches. But at least they demonstrated that not all gallery owners are ill-mannered pigs.