Artist Ellen Lindner recently wrote with this question:
Do you have specific suggestions for how to talk to people who are viewing your art, say on an opening night, etc. You don’t have a prepared talk, maybe they don’t even realize you’re the artist. Where do you begin? (I’d love verbatim suggestions!)
It’s a terrific question and one I wrote about in 2003. Since it is not part of the Art Marketing Action archive, I’ll reprint some ideas here and also some of the responses I got from artists at the time (when I didn’t have a blog for them to leave comments on!).
Here are five ways to start a conversation at an art opening or in your booth:
1. The Let’s-See-How-Serious-You-are-about-This Greeting
Artist Clive Tyler told me that he opens up by asking people, “What do you collect?”
Also works: “What type of art do you like?”
2. The I-Don’t-Want-to-Get-in-Your-Way Greeting
“Hi. Thanks for coming by. Please let me know if you have any questions.” (See one artist’s response to this below. This works only if you don’t care if you sell something.)
3. The I-Get-the-Sense-You-Don’t-Know-French Greeting
“Do you know what a giclée is? I’d be happy to explain the process for you. I am the artist.”
4. The Let’s-Talk-about-the-Weather Greeting
“Gosh it’s hot today. You must be a real enthusiast to come out on a day like today!” (Works for cold weather, too.)
5. The I’m-from-Out-of-Town Greeting
“Are you from [name of city here]? What are some good galleries in the area?”
I have four more for tomorrow, but here’s what Kelly Borsheim had to say about these:
Thanks for the list, but I think # 2 is ineffective. It in effect has the speaker dismissing himself from the conversation. I can just see him backing up as he speaks!
I prefer the approach that is similar to trying to get to know a shy child. The main rule is never ask a question that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no." Not "do you . . . ", but "what do you . . . " or "how do you . . . " or "why do you . . . " And often the best ice breaker is to ask about something unrelated to the topic you really want to talk about (see #4: ask about weather or parking, not art FIRST). It puts your guest at ease. Visitors’ first worry sometimes is that you want to sell them. The artist needs to connect on a human level first. However, "small talk" should not go on very long — life is short after all.
That said, how about changing # 2 to something a little more uplifting, such as:
“Hi. My name is Kelly. Thanks for coming by. I would love to tell you a bit of background about any of the artworks that interest you.”
I am a shy person who has been training on how to speak to other people ever since my mother enrolled me in Toastmasters in high school. What has helped me (besides practice, deep breathing, and getting older) is pretending I am someone other than me. In my case, getting married and changing my name helped because the new last name felt like someone else for a while.
I also found that if I could get the courage to introduce myself early on, that helped people to see me in a more personal way. And selling is about people.
Image: Ellen Lindner, Canyon Colors. Quilt, 40 x 16.5 inches. ©The Artist.