I owe a lot of my success to people I’ve met and connections I’ve made at ASMP, especially at the portfolio reviews (ASMPNY hosts 3 a year.) Being generally clueless about how to get myself in front of the right people, portfolio reviews seemed like a great opportunity. Over the last few years, I have gotten shows, published work, made amazing contacts, and built friendships with people I’ve met at portfolio reviews. This year I’ve taken on the role of producing the ASMPNY Fine Art Portfolio Review. Now on the other side of the table, I have had the privilege of speaking with the reviewers on another level. In an effort to produce an amazing experience for both the artists and reviewers, I’ve been asking them about their experience, what they love and hate and what we can do as producers (and as artists) to make the review even better. They’ve dropped some knowledge on me that I’m going to share with you now!
This advice comes from my experience as an artist participating, as the producer creating the event, and from interviews I’ve conducted with some of the reviewers. These opinions therefore do not reflect that of every reviewer at ASMPNY Portfolio Reviews.
Play By The Rules
I know what you’re thinking… “I’m an artist.” (I know, I am too!) You learn the rules so you can break them! But here is some advice from the other side of the table, and it’s something I could have learned a lot sooner in my life—rules are put in place so the world works for everyone. This means that if you’re not following a rule, while it may work for you, most likely it’s not working for someone else, and that someone could be the person making a decision about your career. If you can’t follow simple rules it’s a huge red flag for people. It will be hard for them to believe that you can reliably work together on a major project. So be on time (not too early, not late) and be respectful of the rules of the event. Our ASMPNY Portfolio Review has a few simple rules:
- Show prints or digital display
- Nothing bigger than 16×20
- You must wait in line
- Reviews are 10 minutes
- Reviewers break for 15 minutes
It’s Not Just About Your Work
The portfolio review is really a “you” review that includes a portfolio. There are hundreds of thousands of artists in the world but there is only one you. I know that sounds super cheesy but it’s really true. Do you know how many people make work like me? Frankly, a lot. Most of the reviewers whom I interviewed about their experience of portfolio reviews let me know that while they are always hoping to see “amazing work” (non quantifiable) it’s more important that they get along with the person (absolutely quantifiable). Gallerists, at the end of the day, work for very long periods of time with the same few people and this is almost always because of who they are as much as what they do. Your work may or may not work for someone right now, but they will certainly remember if they didn’t like you. So, who are you at the review?
- Are you friendly?
- Are you respectful?
- Are you interested in them?
- Are you taking everything they say as a contribution?
Don’t Come to Class Without Doing Your Homework
Any portfolio review will publish a list of reviewers in advance. Make sure you review the list and familiarize yourself with who the people are. DON’T STALK THEM! I don’t want you to do this so you can suck up to the reviewer or talk about their dog (that’s super creepy) you don’t need to know their life story (and if you do, do not share that fact with them). Often times as artists we get so caught up in getting our work out there that we miss some very important things:
- Is this person right for you?
- Do they show or publish work that looks like yours?
- Do they show or publish work that has the same themes as yours?
- Does this person/publication/gallery have your same ethics?
- Do they publish or show work by people that are at your career level? (emerging/mid-career/established)
- Do they work on projects that are interesting to you?
Your time is important, and the reviewer’s time is important. Most likely you won’t get to see everyone in the room so being diligent and targeted about who you want to see is going to create a more rewarding experience for you and the reviewer too. You will get better and more relevant advice, the reviewer will like you more, and it will open up space to create a real dialogue in the 10 minutes you have.
Review Yourself First
What are you showing? Are you prepared? Are you just dusting off a portfolio that sits on a shelf from last year’s review that you haven’t looked at in 365 days? Are you frantically printing that last image on your Epson as you pull on your jacket and tell the Uber driver “I am outside, you can’t see me?” Take yourself and your work seriously, prepare in advance, and most of all ask yourself the tough questions about your work first, and avoid them in the room.
- Is your work even relevant for this review?
- Are your prepared?
- Does the work make sense together, as a body of work?
- Who or where is this work the right fit?
Reviewers are turned off by artists who don’t know who they are, what they are doing, or where their work fits into the world. That being said, that in itself is a journey and a process. The first step is to be open and explore. You can start with sharing your work and your portfolio with friends, family, and colleagues and let your community help you prepare.
Show Incomplete Work
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t be afraid to show an incomplete project. This is a portfolio review and you are here to get real advice from people who can make a difference for your career, who are volunteering their time to give you advice. If you have a project you are stuck on, or that’s just not complete, show it. This is a perfect time to get advice from someone who matters (I love you mom but…) and who knows, if they like your project you may find a partner or champion that might have a home for it when it is complete.
- Be sure to let people know it’s incomplete in advance and that you are looking for feedback.
- Be sure to ask for specific advice.
Write an Elevator Pitch
An elevator pitch is a 30-second statement that describes who you are and what you do. Ewww… I know right? That’s what business people do, not artists. Yes, exactly. You are going to be saying the same thing over and over again to everyone you sit down with so it should make sense, and why not make it effective?
Here is mine:
Hi! I’m Liam, I make photographic-based collage work. I take pictures, print them, then deconstruct and reconstruct the images using collaged and painted elements. Right now my focus is on using art to expose movements to new communities that they would not normally reach.
- Write out a 30 second elevator pitch about you and your work.
- Write one for your most recent project.
- Write one for what you are working on right now.
- Write one to describe your process, and how you make your work.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Before auditioning for a movie an actor will rehearse for days, getting their audition just right, working with coaches, mentors, and fellow artists to craft their audition before they bare their soul to Hollywood’s top decision makers. They even rehearse their hello and goodbye. How much time are you spending prepping what you say at your review? Write out your elevator pitch and what you will say about your work and your projects and practice, practice, practice…
Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees
I know your secret. No, not that one, you have a dirty mind! I know that you know this is a “portfolio review” but secretly you are positive that once you sit down with any reviewer they will love you and give you a show next week. All they need to do is see your amazing work, and boom! It’s on!
Well, that may or may not be the case but one thing is for sure, that is NOT why you are here. I want you to be clear about why you are here, and what you are doing. The portfolio review is exactly that, a review of your portfolio. It is an opportunity for you to hear a review of your work and get real feedback. Your practice of art is a journey. You are where you are in your journey and you have an opportunity for people who can make a difference in that journey to tell you what’s working and what’s not working. If you are focused on “how do I get a show” you will miss all the knowledge and wisdom and insight into your process that is going to get you one.
Leave Promos, Not a Bad Taste
How you leave is even more important than how you show up. It’s the last moment this person has with you so how do you make it count? First, don’t be weird, no high fives. Leave promo or your card. If a reviewer offers you their contact info, that’s great, if not that’s ok too. The gallery directors I have polled have reported that they would only show about 30% of the work they see at portfolio reviews. That means it has nothing to do with you personally. Some reviewers like to give out cards, some don’t. One gallery owner told me this, “My contact info is on my website, it’s readily available online. So, I think they must not have done their research and if they are asking me for my personal info after a 10 minute meeting, well…” However, another reviewer told me, “I give my contact info to everyone I see.” So ask nicely and if the reviewer is not comfortable sharing their contact info, don’t take it personally, it’s most likely just their policy.
So how do you make it not awkward? It’s simple, acknowledgement. During the review be listening for something they say that you will use to improve. At the end thank the reviewer, hand them your promo, acknowledge them for that specific piece of advice, and let them know how that’s going to make a difference for you. That’s the best gift you can give the reviewer.
Liam Alexander, February 3, 2016
This article has been edited after the fact to properly reflect a variety of viewpoints from a broader variety of reviewers polled. And, the rules of the ASMPNY Fine Art Portfolio Review have also been amended to reflect every reviewer’s expressed point of view and interest