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Getting Noticed

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

For almost any artist, part of the satisfaction, the joy – the thrill – of creating work is in letting others see and enjoy it. For the painter or photographer this can happen by having a piece on a gallery wall or similar public place; for a sculptor by having his or her work displayed in a grand indoor or outdoor art site; for a musician or dancer it can take the form of a public recital or performance.

Getting noticed is part of human nature. We all want to be noticed, and hopefully be appreciated. This is true in things as cosmic as relationships between people and cultures or as personal as whether anyone is going to like your latest painting, picture or poem.

To those just starting out, getting artwork displayed is challenging enough. But once that challenge is met, the other more daunting job is to have someone – anyone – in the press review it. And here I use "the press" loosely, including everyone from the head art critic for the New York Times to a freelance writer offering occasional restaurant and arts reviews to a local weekly shopper. In Washington, with some notable exceptions, there simply are precious few outlets that regularly review work by new or emerging artists. And, sad to say, the establishment press, including the Washington Post, has neither the staff nor seemingly the inclination to take note of these artists on anything like a regular basis.

Recently, F. Lennox Campello, who with his wife Catriona Fraser runs the Fraser Galleries in Georgetown and Bethesda, cited some depressing numbers. Addressing the annual dinner of the Washington Sculptors Group, Campello noted that the New York Times has eleven people assigned to cover local galleries in New York. By contrast, he said, the Washington Post has only one freelance critic to do the same job here. [Campello maintained that the city's other daily, the Washington Times, does even less on this front. Its arts coverage, he said, tends to be limited to dead artists in museums.]

And comparative size is no excuse Campello insisted. Dominant though New York is – and likely will remain – on the national arts radar in terms of influence and outlets, Washington, DC, with its world-class museums, galleries and other art spaces, easily can be viewed as the second biggest art market in the country.

But before I get into that, let's talk about getting your work into that market.

I took my own path to public display slowly, one small step at a time, and I am glad I did because I learned a lot in the process. The journey took some 20 years and went from one small storefront photography show, to larger gallery shows and books, to inclusion in some of the country's premier museum photography collections.

But remember: this all happened slowly and deliberately. I like to think I never tried to move to the next level before I was ready – which probably is the best advice I can give to a young or new artist.

It would be glib to say there are no bad venues; that the name of the game is exposure. Showing off your work at a local dry cleaner or carryout probably is not the best way to be noticed – who goes to the cleaners or sandwich shop to see artwork? But not every good venue for displaying art has to be a commercial gallery or museum.

Sitdown restaurants can be excellent display spaces as can office lobbies or offices themselves – provided they have significant public traffic. You get to hang in these spaces the old-fashioned way: through phone calls and personal visits. As a general rule, spaces that want to display art without paying for it tend to have rotating shows – which means that space becomes available on a regular basis. It's simply up to you to get in the rotation. For the record, my first-ever show of photographs was in downtown DC in the early 80s, in one of the storefront spaces of the old Colorfax photo labs. After submitting slides to the appropriate person, whose contact information was readily available at the store, I was allowed to hang my matted and framed pictures on the walls, which happily were devoid of advertising or other promotional stuff. Though this was not really a gallery, I even was able to host a small reception one evening, complete with the requisite wine and cheese (which I paid for, of course.) My invitations to the reception were 8 1/2 x 11-inch color Xeroxes that I folded in half and mailed in envelopes. Today I might view such an exercise as decidedly low-end. Back then, however, I was walking on air, precisely because this was all the display I was ready for at the time.

Within a year, I had joined the Washington Women's Arts Center, a cooperative (and obviously not single-sex) arts association located at the time on Q Street, near Dupont Circle. Besides being able to tell people I loved being a Washington Woman, joining the Center gave me my first real exposure to gallery life. As a member of a co-op, I was required to gallery sit and do other chores, in return for exhibition space on the center's white, well-lit walls. At the same time, with my soon-to-be wife Judy's support, I was sending slides of my work to various juried exhibitions around the country, hoping for more recognition in shows where a reasonably prominent person in the arts – a local museum curator, for example – would lend his or her luster to a show by selecting from submitted slides those artists who would be represented in an exhibition. Many of the prospective shows were listed at the time in the old (and now financially ailing) New Art Examiner magazine. Today such calls for entries can be found in similar magazines or on the Internet, most notably at www.artdeadline.com a huge resource of exhibition and other information that can be accessed for just two bucks a month. [One note of caution: Juried exhibitions are worth the effort only if the juror is someone whose credentials you respect. Beware of shows that seem more like contests, with prize money offered, usually taken from stiff entry fees. And never enter anything that says "all entries become the property of..." In short, don't be suckered into shows that sound too good to be true.]

Eventually, I made the plunge into a more professional gallery. For twelve years I was a member of Touchstone Gallery in DC, one of the city's oldest and best cooperative galleries. Co-op again meant I had to trade gallery-sitting time for exhibition time, but the place was run like a business: peer review for admission, annual dues, a professional gallery director, good downtown locations. I sold a lot of pictures through Touchstone over the years and, with publication of my Chesapeake and Maine books, had two very successful book parties there as well: first at Touchstone's R St. location near Dupont Circle and later at its current, much larger, incarnation in the 7th Street arts corridor.

Co-ops may be a good bet for many out there who feel they are not ready to tackle the more difficult world of totally commercial galleries, which often demand exclusive representation and command extraordinarily high commissions on sales.

Still, for those who cannot commit so much time to a co-op, exhibition opportunities often may be found through arts organizations, clubs and other related groups. For example, my wife Judy, a sculptor as well as a professional photographer, is on the board of the Washington Sculptors' Group, which routinely promotes sculpture exhibitions. In addition to promoting shows for its members, WSG holds an annual show of its own that is simply mind-blowing. That show traditionally is held in the mammoth atrium of the Washington Square office building at the corner of Connecticut and L Sts. and is, to my mind anyway, one of the premier sculpture events of the year – free to the public and open all day. [Likewise, photography clubs in the area are a good way to get shown. Some of the larger ones have annual exhibitions of the year's best work by members, often in prime locations. One of the best of these is at the World Bank, where members of the International Photographic Society (aka the World Bank and IMF Camera Club) show their best stuff each year.]

Just recently, another kind of all-inclusive art show closed here, to decidedly mixed reviews. Art-O-Matic, a huge undertaking by a dedicated group of Washington artists, once again took over a vacant space (this year it was the Waterside Mall offices that formerly housed the EPA) and allowed any artist to exhibit who was willing to pay a small fee and commit to a regimen of gallery sitting. My wife Judy was among them. She had finally finished a huge piece of sculpture and was delighted to have a place to show it.

No doubt about it: there was some really poor stuff here. But having said that, I loved walking through AOM every time I was there. Think of it: 700 local artists, strutting their stuff, many of the better known artists experimenting with new work and approaches simply because Art-O-Matic was the place to let it all hang out and what the hell. So what if a lot of work was mediocre, to my eyes anyway? The energy of the place was palpable and there was enough good work to be worth the trip and a few pieces of stunning work that could hold their own in any museum or big name gallery – here or in the Apple.

In his talk to the Washington Sculptors Group, Lenny Campello was indignant over what he saw as the lack of commitment that the mainstream press has to local Washington art. As a working photographer who also happens to be a member of that mainstream press, I can sympathize – but also can understand the other side. In the 1980s, when I was a Washington political writer and editor for the New York Daily News, I would wade through at least four to six inches of press releases every morning – with another thick bunch coming in the afternoon. Everyone wanted a piece of me – after all, my paper back then was the largest in the country. So too must every DC artist, photographer, musician, sculptor, you name it, want a piece of whomever is covering the arts at places like the Washington Post and the Washington Times.

To satisfy everyone with even one paragraph would be impossible.

To the emerging artist I would offer this advice: Forget the mainstream press, or at least forget the big name reviewers. Your chances are a hell of a lot better with the reporters and editors on the Metro or other local sections–who also have to fill their space every week–and better, still, on local shoppers and other smaller but heavily read publications. For example: The Washington City Paper, a freebie, is routinely thick with excellent arts coverage, from photography to dance, from reviews to artist interviews, and also has some of the most detailed exhibition listings in town. A prudent artist would keep CP prominent in the electronic Rolodex when looking to promote an event or exhibition.

Another hint: give an editor an angle. For a local section, highlight the fact that you are a 25-year resident of Takoma Park, or a recent graduate of the local high school. Trust me on this: no editor wants to read your very sincere thoughts on what your art means to you. Save that for your show.

In the end, it boils down to persistence and never giving up. Keep at it long enough and I promise you eventually will get some ink or airtime.

I promise you too that sooner or later you will come to realize that producing your art was the easy part.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
For all its pretensions to greatness, Washington is a woefully backward town when it comes to recognizing its homegrown art talent, declares F. Lennox Campello, gallery owner and artist. He says the mainstream press especially, including the Washington Post, pays scant attention to any but big-ticket art events at major museums and galleries.

© Frank Van Riper
The just-ended Art-O-Matic show at Waterside Mall in Southwest was an open-to-all mélange of every kind of art, much of it forgettable. But the energy of this funky, diverse exhibition was palpable and proved that the Washington art scene is very much alive. Critics who dumped on the show for its mediocre pieces too often lost sight of the fact that superb work also was on display.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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