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 Art-Fix.com. 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.