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Mary Virginia Swanson: Getting Your Work Out (2)


Get to know a gallery

Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson

TP: What steps would you recommend if my goal was to get work in a gallery?

MVS: Well, I’ll tell you, the people who make the decisions on what to show in their galleries are getting tougher and tougher to get in to see. And that’s why I underscore the juried shows and the portfolio review events as a way to get to know them.

Certainly put gallery owners and directors on your mailing list. Go to their openings. Become someone that they recognize as an active member of the community. And, if you get to know these people, the golden rule is to ask them what their submission guidelines are. Don’t just show up with a box of prints, but have the courtesy to ask them how they like to see work. Do they look at work the first week of every month or do they look at work three times a year? Or do they only do drop-offs?

If you ask, you can learn the way they like to have things done. And there’s nothing better than asking first so you will know exactly how they want it. You don’t want to be remembered as the person who didn’t follow the rules. You also don’t want to send unsolicited work. There’s nothing worse than getting a packet in the mail that you didn’t ask for and that you now have to go to the post office to return. At that point, the gallery people are not remembering your work at all. They are remembering the fact that you didn’t follow the rules.

Pursuing publication

TP: For someone just starting out with limited time for marketing, is it better to pursue publication and use that as an entry into the gallery world, or do you have to tackle them both at once? How does someone decide where to make the effort first?

MVS: It’s a tough call, because unfortunately the publications we have to promote our work are fewer and fewer, and with fewer pages.

I’ve seen many people self-produce a small brochure that they might self-print, and do 50 of them to send to the galleries and museums they want to get into. That might in fact be better, more effective use of your time—more efficient use of your time—than wishing a magazine will publish five pages in 9 months. I appreciate the publication question, but I think it doesn’t always pay off for the effort.

But I will say that too few photographers recognize that there are many subject-oriented magazines that can be perfectly appropriate places to have their work. Audubon, for example, does a fantastic job with contemporary landscape. The Sun andOrion both do a great job publishing a lot of photography. Very small circulations, but maybe very lovely presentation. The airline magazines are really overlooked.

TP: Name the single biggest misconception people have about portfolios.

MVS: Yes! People think they are going to make a living showing their work in galleries. You may, in fact, have work that will have a broader audience than artists who are very successful in art galleries, but it may be at a science and industry museum, or a natural history museum, or something other than a specific art museum. But your numbers may top those of the top gallery artists.

TP: What about online galleries?

MVS: In today’s market, there are a number of venues that are online only that can be terrific places to have your work seen. I’m a real fan of it.

My favorite of all them is Photographer’s Showcase, which is a division of PhotoEye books. With any of these—from Photographer’s Showcase to Your Wall to Meter, which is the newest, youngest one based out of New York City—always think about the company you keep. In a situation like this, you should be driven by that. If you don’t think the work is the best that you’re seeing, on that site, then why would you send your work to be seen there?

TP: What about museums that have a drop-off day, like MoMA and the Met in New York?

MVS: I think the museum drop-offs are absolutely essential, and you should do them every 6 to 9 months if you have new work. Obviously, don’t go back with the same body of work, but if your work is moving forward, you want them to know that. The more you show them your work, the more they’ll become familiar with their name, with the growing body of work.

TP: So it’s not just a black hole?

MVS: I don’t think it’s a black hole. I really don’t. Of course, you’re waiting for that note from Peter Galassi saying he’d like to meet with you, but how’s he going to know? You’ve got to step outside your door.

Part 1 | Part 2

Portfolio Review Events

Swanson believes portfolio review events get your work in front of people who can offer advice for advancing your career or who may take an interest in the work themselves. She recommends events such as:

Review Santa Fe
Photo Americas 2005 in Portland

Online Exhibition Sites
Meter Gallery

Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson received her MFA in photography from Arizona State University in 1979. In the years following, she served as workshop coordinator for The Friends of Photography, was the founding director of the American Photography Institute at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and headed Special Projects for Magnum Photos.

In 1991, Swanson founded SWANSTOCK, an alternative agency managing license rights for fine-art photographers. She now works as a consultant to photographers and agencies, and is known as a leader in the fields of licensing and marketing fine-art photography. She frequently lectures, teaches workshops and college courses, and is a contributor to “Ask the Experts”on Photo District News’s new magazine for students.

Swanson serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Fe Center for Visual Arts, the Board of Fellows of the Center for Creative Photography, the Boards of Advisors of the Center for Photographic Arts and the Texas Photographic Society, and the National Advisory Board of Photo Americas.

Mary Virginia Swanson’s website: www.mvswanson.com

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