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Networking for Artists Part #2: Making Connections: How to Start Conversations that Matter

by Kesha Bruce on 5/29/2013 8:32:32 AM

This post is by guest author Kesha Bruce. Kesha is an artist, independent curator, and founding Director of Baang and Burne Contemporary Art in New York City. Kesha has an MFA in painting from Hunter College and has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, The Vermont Studio Center, and the Puffin Foundation. In addition to her studio work, Kesha offers hands-on, tough-love career advice to artists at She's also the author of How to Craft a Killer Exhibition Proposal, a straight forward guide for artists that takes all the mystery and guess work out of creating strong proposals. This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. This author's views are entirely her own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.


Imagine this scenario: A work colleague has invited you to an annual art fundraising event which will be well attended by a group of exciting, creative, and interesting people. When you arrive at the event, you don't see a single familiar face in the crowd. Do you:


A.) Do a 180 and get the heck outta there!


B.) Grab yourself a cocktail, circle the outskirts of the room, and then leave after 30 minutes.


C.) Take a deep breath, summon a bit of courage, and then dive right into the mix.


If you immediately answered C, the networking tips and advice I'm going to outline in this article are probably already easy and fun for you, but if you're one of the networking-phobic artists who broke into a cold sweat just reading the above scenario, this article is for you!


Let's face it, walking into a room of complete strangers isn't easy for most of us. Even those of us who've attended dozens of these types of "networking events" might feel a bit anxious about introducing ourselves to a room full of strangers. It's OK to feel nervous. It's not OK to let your fears prevent you from meeting and connecting with new people.


In part #1 of this blog series about how artist can become better at networking, I spent time outlining why and how we artists need to reprogram our brains when it comes to the definition of networking. If you've read the first part of this series, you already know that I don't subscribe to the traditional networking advice about "working a room", smooth talking, handshaking, and throwing around a ton of business cards. What I'm talking about here is forming genuine relationships with people.


Armed with our new understanding that networking is really about exchanging ideas and forming real connections with people, it's time to dive into the hands-on, practical aspects of exactly how networking is done. In short—how to meet people and start conversations that really matter. A few tips for starting out:


Smile! So simple, yet so under used. First impressions aren't everything, but they do pack a powerful punch. A furrowed brow and a scowl do not send a message that says "Hi, I'd like to meet you!" In most social situations being perceived as open and approachable can give you such a big advantage that it's definitely the one thing most of us could put more effort into. Obviously some of us are naturally more "smiley" than others, but even the smallest hint of a smile is a universal social cue that puts people at ease and lets them know it's safe to make their approach.


Start a Conversation. In a room full of strangers, picking who to talk to first can be a tricky proposition. Often the easiest thing to do is to start by introducing yourself to the event organizer. Not sure who's in charge? No problem, you can pose your question to any random person in the crowd with the hope they can point you in the right direction. While you're at it, introduce yourself to that person as well. Ask them how they are connected to the event, or how they came to be invited. This is an easy, low-risk conversation starter that doubles as a natural opportunity to introduce yourself.


Present Yourself Professionally. At some point after you've broken the ice, the people you've just met will want to know more about you. Your job is to be prepared to answer questions about yourself and your artwork-- with confidence and enthusiasm! Do you have an "elevator pitch" or a "10 second intro"? Whatever you call it, be prepared to share and describe your artwork in a way that lets people know you're a competent, professional artist.


Be Confident --Not Arrogant. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but most of us know when we see it being crossed. It always feels "icky". It's one thing to talk confidently about your work and upcoming exhibitions; it's another to go over the top by bragging, insulting, or criticizing others in order to seem more important. True confidence means you don't always have to be the focus of conversation and you don't need to convince people of how extra awesome you are. You should always be your genuine self, but try to be gracious to the other people in the conversation. Share the spotlight.


Give First. If early on in a relationship you can offer information, advice, or another type of help, you'll find that the relationship grows and solidifies that much faster. As I discussed in part 1 of this series, to be effective at networking you need to start seeing yourself as a contributor. Instead of starting with "Hey, I know we just met, but can you do me a favor?" try "Hey! I really admire what you're doing. Send me an e-mail and let me know how I can help you get this amazing thing done."


Never think in terms of what you can get. Make yourself useful and in the process look for opportunities that are mutually beneficial. Then, if and when an exciting opportunity appears, you will have already built a solid foundation for your pitch.


Networking is as much about giving as it is about taking. It's about listening, not talking. It's not just about asking for help, it's about generosity of spirit and the willingness to commit to helping others. Networking is about valuing what you have to offer this world and not being afraid to share it.


Exchange Contact Information. This last tip may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised by how many artists get this wrong. Here's the thing: Passing out your business card is only effective if you're also making a point to get business cards in return. Effective networking means repeated contacts and encounters with an individual. That's how relationships are built. (To use another dating analogy, most folks don't go from first date to wedding date in one move. Usually, there are many "dates" in between.)


If the person you meet accidentally loses your card or is too timid to pick up the phone or send an e-mail, how will you be able to contact them again? Having their contact information gives you the power to make the first move towards building and maintaining the relationship. What if the other person doesn't have a business card? No problem. Hand them one of your business cards and let them jot down their information on the back. Just make sure you don't accidentally give that card away to the next person you meet!


Now that we've covered some basic steps for breaking the ice and networking in a way that feels genuine and honest, the next post in the series will cover some basics of how to follow-up and start building upon the connections you've made. In other words, what to do with all the contact information and business cards once you finally have them in your grasp.


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Related Posts:

How to Talk to People

Networking for Artists Part #1: Changing Your Mind

Selling Fine Art Online: Make and Maintain a Good Reputation Online

You've Been in Sales Your Whole Life

Do's and Don'ts On How to Approach a Gallery for Representation

Stop Telling and Start Selling

Art and Psychology: Social Conditioning and the Art World

Engaging In Conversation

If You Don’t Ask, the Answer Is Automatically “No”

Topics: advice for artists | Art Business | art marketing | FineArtViews | Guest Posts | inspiration | social networking 

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Carol McIntyre
Kesha, these are such important tips to remember. Thank you.

It is amazing how much power the smile has. Perhaps you could start an artist smile campaign...?? :) So many of us forget to smile.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Kesha,

Thanks! Basically, be nice, smile, pay attention to what people are saying to you and where possible, ask open ended questions to start a conversation.

Seems that if you stick to the above and you don't make with a promising art connection there's always the possibility of a date! :)

Thanks again,


Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Hello Kesha, with a smile .. :)

Great post. Thank you so much.

jack white

You tell such interesting stories. Your writing skills are very high. This old broken down cowboy can appreciate your skills.

I have found when mingling it's more important for us to ask others about what they do and show interest in them than speak about our stuff. Avoid puffery at all times. When we ask other editorial questions and then listen those folks will think we are one of the smartest people in the room. I leave a powerful impression without tooting my own horn. People feel I care about the most important person they know. THEM! I do care, but by listing I prove it.

They are really impressed when they later learn about what I've accomplished from someone else.

Networking is great when you live in a populated city, but in the small areas most folks know what you ate for lunch. (smile)

jack white

Don Rankin
Hi Kesha,
I think your comments are quite logical. I think "Be yourself" is one of the most important points.
That is provided you aren't really a jerk! Most people can spot an insincere fellow very quickly. Taking a genuine interest in others will put you on a good track. When you take a genuine interest you can form a good relationship. Good relationships can bring many good things.

Don Rankin
Write another comment . . .

Carolyn Hancock
Looking forward to your next post, Kesha, on followups. That may be the hardest for most of us, not only with those we meet in person, but also those wonderful people who leave comments. Easy to respond to comments, hard to keep the connection going.

Donald Fox
This is an interesting article. I've been to many networking events where almost everyone was trying to get as much as possible. I've also been part of groups whose sole purpose was to support the members of the group. By far the latter were more productive. People definitely respond to those willing to give.

Don Rankin
As the saying goes. "Talk is cheap." Following up or "walking the walk" is another matter. That is why I think seeking to form relationships can be more productive. At the same time one must be aware that many are consumed in the "Whats in it for me?" syndrome. A productive society tends to fail when empathy for others is diminished.

Sharon Weaver
You have given everyone the inside track to networking. I try not to make it about me, let the other person talk and ask questions. Eventually things come back around. I like how you have broken it down into easy steps that everyone can take.

The first law of the Universe - in order to get we have to give first. The same thing works in networking. Great post and lots of useful info! Thank you!

Marsha Hamby Savage
Came back to re-read this post today. These tips are so important and just going over it for another time might make a difference. Though, I have really never had any problem meeting people, or talking to people... I do have butterflies just before any type of showing, demonstration, convention, etc.

My husband and I are at my pastel convention and there will be many faces I remember from the past, and also new ones to make friends with. This is a slightly different than networking for marketing / selling atmosphere. This is truly one of the best relationship building opportunities I have every other year for this convention.

Someone above said it is about the relationships ... and so darn right. Learning to find an interest in the person you are speaking to is a key element. Listen instead of talking ... asking question that require the person to talk about their interests ... my way of doing things.

Thanks for this post ... one worth re-reading every so often to keep things in perspective!

Thanks to everyone who chimed in!

I'm really encouraged that so many of you really "get it" in terms of networking being first and foremost about forming relationships.

It's worth reminding ourselves from time to time.

I will definitely visit this website again - there is so much information. Thank you!


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