Art & Writing: Galleries & Agents

I’ve been mulling over this one for a little while. (Admittedly I also forgot to write this for a little while, but let’s just go with mulling it over, eh?) A conversation with a friend while on holiday sparked off some interesting comparisons between the publishing world and the art world. (There may have been a glass of wine or two involved. We were in France, after all.)

While writing is an art, it is also a craft. It is also a very hard job that you have to do every day. But then, no artist steps up to a canvas and produces a masterpiece on their first attempt. Practice practice practice, preliminary sketches, balled up bits of paper in the corner… it all sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it? 😉

But where the analogy really came together as we talked was in terms of finding an agent, of selling a novel, the business end.

Like an agent, a good art gallery is always going to have more work available to it than it can display or sell. If a gallery has a reputation for beautiful paintings, they are going to have many people hoping they will exhibit their work. They can’t take everyone. A gallery houses a finite space, so they will have to be picky.

Galleries (and agencies–you see where I’m going here?) must be selective and that selectivity is based on several things. Here are five of them:

1) The type of work they normally exhibit (paintings, sculpture, installations etc).

If a gallery is known for sculpture then this is where their area of expertise lies. This is also the thing that buyers will come to them looking for. Similarly agents specialise so there’s little point in approaching an agent with a genre they do not represent.

2) The type of work they can sell.

Many galleries deal with regular buyers. They know their tastes, they know their interests, they know the type of thing they are looking for at the moment and what they bought last time. If a piece of work will fit with a buyer, if they know that buyer will love it, then it’s a fit. Similarly, agents know the editors they deal with. If they can see a novel with a particular editor, it makes it all the more attractive.

3) Personal taste.

I think it’s easier for us to understand that the art world is subjective. We look at paintings and can immediately tell if we like it or not. Our reaction is often immediate. How often have you heard the phrase “I may not know art, but I know what I like.” Would you buy a painting you didn’t like? Would you try to persuade someone else to buy it if you thought they wouldn’t like it? With writing it takes longer to see if we like something or not, but it often comes down to personal taste.

4) Track record

You wouldn’t commission a painting from an artist if you didn’t like their previous work, would you?

5) Artistic temperament.

Is the artist notoriously difficult to work with? Do they throw temper tantrums and diva fits, make impossible demands for exhibition or regularly appear in public badmouthing their peers? Who would want to deal with that? Who would want to work with that? Even the most talented, ground breaking, wonderful art, can only make up for so much bad behaviour. Kindness, courtesy, manners and general loveliness will get you much further. This applies to both the real world and the virtual world. Agents and editors google for crazy. They also google for bad behaviour.

When it comes down to it, business is business. Whether we paint, or sculpt, or write, whether we are just starting off or are old hands who should probably know this, if you want to be treated as a professional, then it’s imperative to act professionally. Research the agents you would like to represent you. Find out what they are looking for. Read their blogs, follow them on twitter (follow, don’t stalk, and really don’t pitch – if you pitch I DID NOT send you), do them the courtesy of finding out and following their submission guidelines.

It works. It is a wonderful feeling to know that your agent is as committed to your work as you are, that they see in it wonderful potential and are willing to help you make it even better. This is the person you are trusting to go out into the world with your work, whose reputation will help garner interest in what you have to sell. They are your gallery, showcasing your work. And you know you want the best.

So there you have it — thoughts generated by nice wine, lovely cheese, some fine weather and two weeks away from actual work.

What do you think? Can you come up with other similarities?