Today I attended a workshop on a topic that until recently I never imagined I would ever sign up for - marketing for artists. I will confess up front that as an extreme introvert, the idea of meeting strangers, particularly with a request such as asking for a portfolio review, amps up the sweaty palms and nervous ticks. Even the idea of joining a group of strangers in a workshop environment can be a challenge for me. While my basic personality hasn't changed, what changed is my realization that if I want something like our nascent publishing idea Studio Centralé to get off the ground, marketing is something that I need to learn about. And fortunately an opportunity presented itself to me with Lauren Henkin's workshop at Lúz Gallery, a venue that I'm familiar with (they consistently host great workshops) where I have come to know Diana and Quinton, who own the gallery.
Well, as has often been the case in the past in this charmed life of mine, the decision to take this particular workshop on marketing for artists was precisely the right thing at the right time. Lauren is an extremely knowledgeable, energetic, open person who quickly engages the entire group in the enterprise of learning about marketing. As a photographer and self-published author (her handmade artist books are exquisite), Lauren has directly experienced and dealt with the challenges facing the participants, which makes her a very relevant and effective leader for this kind of workshop. The group itself consisted of 15 people with an extremely broad range of backgrounds, interests and experience which is a testament to the high quality of the Lúz workshops - they attract a great cross section of people. And that in turn enriches the learning environment, since so many different points of view are expressed during discussions.
Early on, Lauren recounted an anecdote that explained her approach to teaching. It involved a math teacher who taught her how generally to construct theorems rather than memorize specific ones. As she recounted, this vastly opened up her understanding of mathematics. The story resonated with me because I had a similar experience - I slogged through organic chemistry as an undergraduate, robotically memorizing all the different functional groups and the reactions they could participate in. Then when I was a graduate student a chemistry prof taught a course that focused on reactive species (there are only a few main ones) and how to recognize which is likely to form under any given conditions - that greatly simplified and expanded my understanding of organic chemistry. I base my own teaching philosophy on that experience, trying to instil in my biochemistry students an understanding of the general applicability of underlying concepts, which in turn allows them to see relationships and applications in unexpected contexts. So I felt an immediate connection to Lauren's method of teaching.
In the case of the workshop today, Lauren's goal was to get us to think of how to approach marketing in a more general, broadly applicable sense rather than in a rote, rule-bound or stepwise approach limited by conventional thinking about photography markets. She accomplished this with a combination of a well designed, comprehensive handout, specific discussion of some key aspects of marketing and case studies that clearly demonstrated how what seems like a "round about" approach is often much more effective than a direct approach.
Lauren shared an anecdote that illustrated how an initial meeting with a person who wasn't a gallerist (but who liked her work) and who couldn't ostensibly directly help her resulted in an introduction to a gallerist, an impromptu show after pitching the idea of a book opening to that gallerist, which in turn lead to establishing a relationship with a collector. Does it seem convoluted? Perhaps. Does it seem unpredictable? Absolutely. Yet when Craig Semetko talked at Lúz Gallery two weeks ago, he told a similar story that wound its way from an initial meeting with a gallerist in Colorado, to a two person show with Henri Cartier Bresson, to travelling shows at Leica galleries in the US and Europe, to an introduction to one of the premier photobook publishers in Europe. In both Lauren's and Craig's stories, one important characteristic was their persistent work at keeping in touch with people and following up all opportunities that arose from that.
What I particularly appreciated about Lauren's fresh take on marketing was its very basic underlying principle - that a gallerist/publisher is first and foremost a human being and should be treated respectfully. In Lauren's case, she has approached such people with an offer to voluntarily lead a critique group, or to give an artist talk, to go to lunch after an initial introduction; in other words, to simply establish a relationship with the person in question without requests for a portfolio review or a studio visit. And to do that sincerely with the intent to get to know this person better and to become a contributing member of the local arts community. This idea was a very welcome one to me, the introvert. I'm only going to be comfortable trying to ask someone to look at my work or consider carrying my books in their gallery or shop if I have been able to get to know them.
Another important aspect of the workshop was navigating the question of "when are you ready for the next step", be it going to a portfolio review, approaching a gallery, self-publishing a book. Here Lauren's advice was to keep in touch with other artists, give careful consideration to your work and the feedback it receives (both positive and negative); to ask for the guidance/advice/critique of a few people whose work and opinions you respect. This idea was encapsulated very succinctly and effectively by the educator Sir Ken Robinson in a TED presentation, and in his book The Element, in what he refers to as finding your "tribe" - that is a group of people who share your passion. These are the people who can share your experience and who can hopefully be open and honest critics of each others work. While I've been part of tribes who shared my passion for printmaking and for painting, I need to establish a good group to work with in photography and book making/publishing.
This summary really only touches on a few of the highlights of a very excellent workshop. Lauren is wonderful at connecting with each person in a group, listening to their needs and concerns and responding in a helpful and supportive way. If you have an opportunity to take a workshop with Lauren, I'd highly recommend that you do.