After years as a painter participating in group shows, I am about to have my first solo exhibition. I am Asian American, though my work is not overtly identity-driven. I’ve never pursued gallery representation due to being skeptical about the system. Having my own show is all very new. I’m wondering how to make the gallerist realize that I may need different kinds of support from what she provides for the white painters she shows. I wonder if she is responding sincerely to the ways that the market has failed BIPOC artists or if she is just trying to adjust her business to a less white art world. It’s not like she needs to show me her signature on an open letter of solidarity, but how do I know she is spiritually on the level? How do I ensure my new gallery represents me properly?
As a painter familiar enough with the gallery world to despise it, you are naturally approaching this opportunity with trepidation. Many artists want their gallerist to share their values, but the gap between personal beliefs and business can be unbridgeable. Dealers are never on any spiritual level because they are commercial agents who profit from cultural trade. Their primary objective is to affirm the aesthetic and commercial value of their roster on the market. Unfortunately, the market often mirrors the ugliest side of humanity. It’s replete with sexism, racism, nationalism, nepotism, conservatism, ignorance, and chronic halitosis.
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The timing of your invite may be contributing to your confusion about actively participating in a system that has been so historically exclusionary. Gallerists must serve up the art du jour, but it’s hard not to be dubious when they change the menu overnight from burger and fries to global fusion. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the gallerist actually appreciates your work. She finds your paintings worthwhile enough to shell out a month’s rent to show them.
Make sure to work directly with the gallerist and staff on the press release and the language that they will use to describe you and your work. Communicating your wishes will help everyone at the gallery do a better job in truly representing you— and, we hope, many other artists down the line. This is extra labor, but think of it as insurance that your name will not appear in chopstick font on the gallery wall.
Like everyone else, I’ve lost touch with people during the pandemic. It’s warm again and I’m vaccinated, yet I’ve been feeling more anxious than I was when the lockdown started. It’s not getting sick I’m afraid of now—it’s getting trapped in small talk with loose acquaintances. I don’t want to stand around recounting my Covid woes to everyone I meet, and I don’t want to hear their sagas either. When someone I barely know asks how I’ve been doing, what am I supposed to say?
Your question proves that it is possible to avoid catching Covid and still get sick of your so-called friends. Medically speaking, art party patter is the scourge that science cannot vax. Connecting with your real comrades on the flipside of a pandemic is as crucial to your survival as the Moderna surging through your insides. If you had a method to avoid meaningless chitchat in the before times, double down on it. Start pulling fire alarms, chatting with the caterers, and dulling people into a stupor with details of the latest NFT auction. It will be like wearing a garland of garlic in a roomful of vampires.
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This article appears under the title “Table for One” in the July/August 2021 issue, p. 22.