Start a Conversation About Your Art

Canyon_colors__cutoutArtist 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.

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6 comments to Start a Conversation About Your Art

  • Usually people come up to me (and they say something first)…If they don’t, they don’t…My gallery dealer likes to handle the welcoming-if I do it, he feels like I am doing his job…He usually say :”Hello”…in a very friendly, loud way…Only if he senses someone is curious but afraid…He leaves people alone though, if there is no indication…Many people are xenophobic-personally I can’t stand it when I walk into a store (just yesterday at Jacob’s in the lingerie section) and a stranger says :” Hello, how are you?” My feeling is that if you ask you had better be prepared for an answer- and I tend to answer in paragraphs…If you ask me, I’m going to tell you, and you may get too much information…I have learned over the years, Not to initiate conversation, so that if someone else does- then they must suffer the repercussions of listening…and I can talk about the colour yellow for 15 minutes- that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

  • I have the opposite viewpoint of Kelly’s regarding #2. Kelly wrote: “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!” To me, #2 lets the customer know I saw him/her enter my space, I’m available for questions even if I might look otherwise busy (perhaps you’re at a street fair and are working on a painting in your booth), and it also lets them know right off the bat that I am not going to be “in their face” with sales tactics. They’re free to browse. I love it when I hear a similar introduction from other artists or shop owners! But that’s just my perspective, coming from someone who does not like to be approached in stores beyond an initial hello, because it usually means the salesperson may become pesty. Initiating a conversation with a question like #1 (“What type of art do you collect?”) could really be the wrong approach for a customer who might not be a serious collector, and is just someone casually browsing, possibly might be a potential buyer but suddenly feels intimidated because they have to “talk art” and might not know the language they feel they are “supposed” to have. I always vote for the least “in your face” approach *unless* I sense that someone seems really interested in a piece – then I’ll step in with questions.

  • I agree with Shan that body language is very important. I’m not great at breaking the ice, but my british accent often does it for me! I worry more about what my body language may be saying-hands sweating, mouth dry and then words leave me-especially names! To help overcome this, I like to have something to hand out, a flyer, a coupon, a sample. At my last show, I handed out a flyer about a new gallery in our town representing only local artists where I will be doing workshops. This appeared to draw people in and take a closer look at my booth and artwork. I ended up selling most of my work an

  • I agree with Shan that body language is very important. I’m not great at breaking the ice, but my british accent often does it for me! I worry more about what my body language may be saying-hands sweating, mouth dry and then words leave me-especially names (probably my dylexia)! To help overcome this, I like to have something to hand out, a flyer, a coupon, a sample. At my last show, I handed out a promotional flyer about a friends new gallery opening in our town representing local artists (where I will hopefully be giving workshops). This appeared to draw people in and take a closer look at my booth and artwork. I ended up selling most of my work and concluded that the flyer broke the ice and interested people that might normally have walked right past. Maybe this is not the norm, but I definately felt much more relaxed and words didn’t leave me! I had a reason to make small talk-about art, which made it more natural and less stressful!

  • Cyd LaBonte

    I agree that #2 may not be the best approach, mostly because the customers at an art show hear it over and over in every booth they enter. I have come up with a twist on this one: “Hi, there! (look of questioning concern on face) Are you doing OK?” They will invariably answer “yes”, where as the may-I-help-you illicits a “no”.And I have showed my concern for their comfort,etc. without sounding pushy. I do like Sally’s idea about the flyer,also.

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