I first met Adam Benjamin Fung at the reception for his 2008 exhibition Ominous, at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. We had been introduced by our mutual friend Annie Heckman. Fung’s works were smooth, many-layered paintings of icebergs, conjuring up for me associations with Ernest Shackleton, H.P. Lovecraft, and GWAR. In hindsight, I wonder what role these played in inspiring Annie Heckman to work with Antarctic imagery in her installation work. More recently, when my wife Stephanie Burke, Annie Heckman, and I co-curated the October 30th exhibition Flesh & Bone, we included Fung’s 2010 painting Infinity. I’m a big admirer of Fung’s work, and he shows with Zolla/Lieberman, one of the biggest galleries in Chicago. I interviewed Fung to ask him (by email) some questions about gallery representation.
Jeriah Hildwine: How important do you think it is for an artist to have gallery representation? Is it something everybody needs, or just one of many routes? Can you think of any alternatives?
Adam Benjamin Fung: I don’t think it’s important for someone to have representation. It is very helpful to have representation for a variety of reasons including income, deadlines, scheduled shows and access to collectors and museums. But at the end of the day, if you find a reliable source of income from teaching or some other art related job then you can forge all of those gallery related things on your own. Depending on your work it might even be better to construct your own network of other artists, museums and alternative spaces that you work with. I have a friend who said to me “at the end of my career as an artist I could care less about what I’ve sold, but I want the work to have staying power and generate interest…” I totally agree with that, what are your goals as an artist and do they align with having representation? If so then maybe it’s a crucial thing.
JH: If an artist decides they want representation, is there a right time to seek it out? Before, during or after undergrad? During grad school? Right after graduation, or wait a few years? Or is it a question of the work, and in this case, how can you tell your work is ready?
ABF: I think having representation at any time is great but only if you can manage the expectations of the gallery. Essentially, if you are passionate about pursuing an avenue of work then pursue it, don’t let the gallery shut it down. That said, if an artist is producing and spending a lot of time in the studio then I would say the stars would align after a year or two out of grad school. By then you have gone through many crits, had a few shows and should have some personal identity. I think you can tell when your work is ready if you can imagine (or better yet throw up some digital files next to) other work from galleries want to show in. A good test would be to lay out photos of everyone’s work that the gallery represents and then add yours- does it stand out, or does it look like it belongs in the “family”. And when I say this I mean, in a way that you wouldn’t be wasting your time approaching said gallery.
JH: How does one go about selecting galleries to approach? Do you recommend asking as many as possible, or a more targeted approach? Is there a hierarchy, like some galleries are easier to get into when you’re starting out, and others only want you if you’ve already had a certain amount of success and recognition? Or do they all just go by looking at the work?
ABF: I don’t advocate a scatter shot, apply to everything approach. I personally find that approach exhausting and rarely rewarding in any way. Be smart, do your research on galleries, visit them on non-opening days and have conversations with the owners or even the assistants. That way you’ll know where you have a chance and what is a good fit. Talk to any and all artists who have been associated with galleries in the area. Those artists can be the best resource. I know an artist who heard about a gallery in NYC that had open interviews with the owner, once a week or once a month. He went to one and ended up being represented by this gallery. But before he went he checked it out and made sure he wasn’t wasting his time, or the gallery owner’s time.
JH: Are there any dangers to watch out for, like galleries that are basically scams, or galleries that look legit but end up screwing their artists over in some way? Anything either you’ve run into personally, or even just known someone it’s happened to. Feel free not to name names if you’d rather not.
ABF: The nature of the gallery business is very sketchy, there often are no contracts or agreements. This works both ways but more often the artist ends up getting taken advantage of. I personally have not known anyone who had this happen but you hear stories and this goes back to doing your research and making sure you’re landing in a good spot.
JH: How would you suggest an artist approach a gallery? Mail in a sheet of slides? DVD? Contact ‘em via email or phone first? Or just walk in? What do you think is the best way, and are there any terrible noob mistakes to avoid making?
ABF: I would check out the gallery’s website before approaching them, they will often have advice on this matter. If you find a gallery that you think would be a good fit and the access seems limited then maybe there is a way to get an introduction, networking! If not, then what is the worst thing that can happen by approaching a gallery? They will probably just ignore you but you never know, it may be the one day they bother to open your materials. That said, your packet should include everything they would want to know about you, images, cv, references, and I think it’s good to include a printed image or two if you are submitting a CD- that way it’s easier to reference and doesn’t force them to fire up the computer. Websites have become a standard for artists now, it’s a really great networking tool to have.
JH: Assuming that the initial contact leads to a studio visit, do you have any advice about that?
ABF: Be yourself and present your work in the best way possible (lighting, hanging, a good variety of your work).
JH: I’ve heard some galleries will want some kind of contract arrangement, and others do everything with a handshake. Are there any upsides and downsides to one vs. the other? And even if an artist has representation without a contract, are there some things that an artist should be aware are uncool or a dick moves, like showing in another gallery (in the same city? or anywhere?) or selling directly out of your studio? Are there any kinds of etiquette guidelines about this stuff or is it all something you have to talk to the gallerist about? And is there a least awkward time to have this conversation?
ABF: If there is ever any question in your mind you should run the question by your gallery. That way there won’t be any confusion. If your gallery doesn’t have a contract or hasn’t mentioned something to you then there are sometimes gray areas but in any case if you respect the gallery that represents you and want to have a long term relationship with them you need to communicate whenever you are having a exhibition opportunity, sale, and so on. Those conversations will reveal any hidden expectations and maintain a good rapport with your representation.
JH: Finally, what are some things artists should know about actually being with a gallery? What advantages does it bring? Any disadvantages? Are there situations where an artist should consider leaving a gallery? Do galleries ever “dump” artists if they’re not selling, and conversely, do artists ever leave a gallery to go to another gallery? Is there an ethical way to do this or is it pretty much always a dick move?
ABF: The artist and gallery have the right to move on, it’s just like any other job. If you are not happy with your representation then look around, that is the trickiest part, especially in a close knit gallery community. But it happens and if you have a good rapport with your gallery then they can help you move on or try and fix any problems you have. I know here in Chicago there have been a couple galleries that have dropped entire rosters of artists. In the end, artists are almost always in a marginalized position so I guess you just have to make the best of it. I think I see a pattern developing in my answers and that is to really get to know your art community- the dealers, the galleries, the other artists and that way you can find the best fit for you and hopefully a beneficial one for all of those involved.
Jeriah Hildwine is an artist, educator, and writer. You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com, and read his articles at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine. Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.