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Six Women Gallerists Share Candid Advice on Finding Representation

Republished with Permission from Art New England


These days, there is nothing surprising about women leading the charge and bringing change to the gallery world. Today’s women directors, curators and gallerists are risk takers. They’re active members in their communities. The landscape is collaborative rather than competitive. And they give more money to charity, often selling work for social and political causes as well. Exploring venues across the region, we gathered tools and words of wisdom that artists can use in approaching gallery representation. VanDaysha Taylor of Bridgeport, CT’s The Firm Art Gallery starts by advising “artists to be yourself–don’t be afraid to just ask.” Patricia Trafton of Soapbox Arts in Burlington, VT, starts with, “Look at the gallery website first, attend an opening. Ask yourself ‘Does my work fit into the gallery’s scope?’ Take time to find the gallery that’s a good fit. It might be the first one, the fifth one or the tenth but you will find it.” Exploring the New England gallery landscape, we’re finding that many opportunities spring up from being in the right place at the right time and being open to chance.

Patricia Trafton
Soapbox Arts Gallery
Burlington, VT

Patricia Trafton founded the aptly named Soapbox Arts in 2019. A vibrant gallery in the Soda Plant–a funky, industrial complex in the South End Arts District of Burlington, just a few minutes’ walk to the shores of Lake Champlain. She describes her decision to rent the space as being in the right place at the right time as she was also contemplating New York and San Francisco. This was a significant shift in her career—her former positions were working for businesses owned or financed by men. Trafton built her business model on accessibility, supporting local, regional, and international artists with the initial goal to funnel sales into the local artist community, while providing opportunity for emerging collectors. Working with people in the community keeps her engaged. Keeping price points accessible is important to the Gallery’s mission. “Making people feel entitled to access art is meaningful. I did not grow up in the arts. Not being an artist makes me better at my job.”

“There really is no separation between my personal politics and my business,” Trafton confides, “I have a great comfort level with the artists I represent and those I have in mind for the future. Most are on the younger side and have political and social justice in mind in their practices. I’m OK with it if people feel alienated. It’s not my job to cater to every audience. There’s room for everyone.” She supported artist Will Gebhard’s fundraiser. Gebhard sold Grasping at Straws prints to encourage voter turnout and fight food insecurity in the Burlington community (75% of the proceeds were donated). One hundred percent of gallery proceeds from Orlando Almanza’s Born by the River prints are being donated to The National Network of Abortion Funds.

The vibe in Burlington skews younger than much of Vermont. Sometimes this audience does not get enough credit for attracting buyers. One satisfying element of being an entrepreneurial gallerist is that Trafton can choose the artists she wants to show and tap the right buyers for this set. “There is an intense hunger for different types of art that no one is tapping into” she explains.

Building an artist stable is the easiest answer to finding out what your vibe is. Soapbox Arts’ collection of 24 artists is built on a distinct visual
language. “I am interested in the language of mark making” Trafton explains, “of particular interest to me are artists who use tools and techniques in unexpected ways.” She makes a regular practice of conducting studio visits, making connections in the community while staying on the pulse of what artists are doing.

Tamar Russell Brown
Gallery Sitka
Shirley, MA

Tamar Russell Brown founded Gallery Sitka in 2014, moving to a larger mill space in 2016. The Gallery houses graphic design, website design and social media services, including, archiving, website work, social media, and helping convert platforms to shopping sites—all invaluable to artists. Education is an equally invaluable component as reflected by the Gallery’s classes in legal matters, documenting one’s legacy, and understanding intellectual property.

Russell Brown is constantly thinking about engagement, constantly working, and deeply committed. She rents art to businesses by selling quarterly art subscriptions. This model was tested and did well in New York City. She has a partnership with local restaurants and medical offices, providing one-month exhibitions. Russell Brown provides many levels of accessibility for artists–no matter how advanced they are in their careers. A goal is to move Gallery Sitka onto an international platform.

Gallery Sitka’s submission policy is straightforward and similar to those of her colleagues in this article: it’s all about relationship building. Russell Brown suggests that interested artists attend Gallery shows, get to know the other artists, and be engaged with the community. Coffee-meet ups are next for a portfolio review. She recommends artists start with an exhibition in the restaurant venue, see how they do, and build from there. Gallery Sitka has 34 artists and one major open show each year celebrating Earth Day, in addition to solo and group shows, and exciting pop-ups across the region, including Martha’s Vineyard and Newport, RI.

Russell Brown enjoys studio visits on Fridays–both with her existing artists and when exploring potential new artists to represent. She spends a great deal of time with her roster, focusing on them as people and brainstorming new ideas. “Process is not of much interest to me—it’s all about the trust between gallerist and artist. Studio visits reveal a deeper understanding of the work.” Russell Brown shared an example of visiting an artist who painted to classical music; listening while experiencing the work changed everything for her.

VanDaysha Taylor
The Firm Art Gallery
Bridgeport, CT

VanDaysha Taylor has been working in the gallery business since age 19. Her heritage is Ethiopian/Jewish, Egyptian Southwest and Geechee Cherokee. Being whole is a cornerstone in her life, which includes a daily practice in self-care.

The gallery world began for Taylor when she walked through the doors of Connecticut’s Southport Galleries and announced, “I’m working here.” And it happened. It was there that Taylor received hands-on experience in sales, front of house, and back of house. She grew up with a passion for science, studying at MIT and then switching to art. Gaining experience in New York City, Stanford and New Haven fueled her drive for selling art. At age 30, Taylor knew she wanted to own her own gallery, with an eye toward “bringing fine art to the community she grew up in.”

The Firm Art Gallery is 100% Black-owned and women-owned. Taylor followed the advice of her stepfather who insisted “This is your time,” while helping her with the buildout of the space. In fact, The Firm will be moving to a new building around the corner in order to have a larger space for the community.

The Firm’s energy is very outward thinking. You will find sound bowls for healing in the space. Exhibitions change monthly, often installed into the wee hours of the evening before the opening. The Gallery runs with two interns and an art consultant. Openings are celebrated with The Firm Band (cello, horns, bass, drums) led by Taylor’s brother, and the host in a new gown each time. The crowd of many colors dances as it takes in the art on the walls. “It’s a party–not just a white room,” says Taylor.

Other functions of The Firm include pop-ups for area businesses at discounted rates. Photography students at nearby universities reserve the Gallery for photoshoots of their work. Interns receive intensive training on how to run an art business, speak with customers, how to sell, as well inner workings of a gallery.

Although she would feel comfortable making semiconductor microchips from her science days, Taylor is an artist as well. She describes visual concept practice as “painting baroque with an urban drip.” Despite enjoying success in selling her work, Taylor prefers to lift other artists up and showcase their art: “I have to work for my community.”

The Firm, known for showing eclectic artists, finds them in a multitude of ways. One great example: As a huge fan of photographer Adger Cowans’s work, Taylor decided to knock on his front door and ask if he would exhibit at her gallery. Fast forward to his solo exhibition when she found herself answering the phone and agreeing to let the Whitney Museum showcase Cowans’s work next. Another example is The Firm’s partnerships with Yale and UConn, mentoring and exhibiting students and graduates. Submissions are welcome. As a curator, Taylor recognizes the ease of seeing a spectrum of art on nightly Instagram adventures. She meets with her artists once per week, needing to know what’s happening for them and to stay inspired.

“I’m an art nerd,” she admits. “Studio visits are like spending time at the library… I’m quiet during this experience–it’s emotional, art is moving. I love when artists talk about their process.” Studio visits are just as much getting to know the person as they are getting to know the art and are vital to building trust. “As a curator, if my artists trust me fully, I feel honored. It’s an organic process. I like to delve into both old and new studio work, get into the artist’s mind. Sometimes an exhibition includes projections of an artist’s process.”

On the role of women in the arts today, Taylor adds, “We bring light or dark feminine energy… Men need white walls. Women take risks, caring for the work and the artist. It’s not a motherly thing, more that everything is done with care. Our energies are different than that of men.” Not often do you meet a gallerist who switches from combat boots on a ladder during installations, to heels. Explains Taylor, “The floor and I don’t work…I hang in stilettos.”

Cynthia Winings
Cynthia Winings Gallery
Blue Hill, ME

The Cynthia Winings Gallery sits in a breathtaking spot by the shore. When living in Brooklyn, ME, Winings heard of the gallery and house for sale, complete with an attic studio—“empty and full of possibility.” It was another one of those moments of being in the right place at the right time. Owned now for ten years by Winings, the Gallery is flourishing.

Winings is an artist herself, working primarily in collage and gouache. Her focus is on the Gallery from May through October, and she works in her studio throughout the winter. Contrary to Trafton’s thinking, Winings notes that being an artist makes her better at her job, “I know what my artists go through, they are an inspiration to me.” She helps them with their statements and engages them on process.

Winings finds women business owners in the arts to be very much in support of each other and she often reaches out to other galleries. “The gallery business feels authentic, open, not competitive–we’re all in this together.” In fact, her current roster of artists is almost all women—not by design, but it’s the kind of art that is standing out for her.

Studio visits are conducted primarily in the winter and early spring when the Gallery is closed. “The gallery business is so much about relationships and trust… so much is built together during studio visits.”

The Gallery asks that artists submit their websites via email. Many connections are made by artists in the Gallery recommending other artists’ work that they admire—the process can be very organic.

“My goal is for the Gallery to be a community resource… to add value, to inspire, and uplift.” she explains. During the pandemic her sculpture garden provided a safe meeting space for artists to meet in person. The garden was the perfect place for artist talks, openings, and enjoying art during a time of isolation. It’s part of the multi-faceted role of galleries today.

“Sometimes art echoes how people view the world,” shared Winings. “We aim to inspire, uplift, and create things that show a new dimension or possibility. In these times of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Ukraine war, and economic disparity, artists can give a voice for the things that are hard to express.”

Jessica Hagen
Jessica Hagen Fine Art & Design
Newport, RI

Established in 2005, Jessica Hagen Fine Art & Design has enjoyed its strongest three years, from 2019-2022, thanks to a great client base and loyal supporters. Hagen takes pride in her longstanding relationships with the 38 artists she represents. “If you keep showing up and doing something well, eventually you will succeed.”

Hagen grew up in Woodstock, NY, making art. She attended art school and currently makes and sells her jewelry collection. She moved to Newport for the love of sailing, following her brother, Dan, a sculptor, who showed there. Eventually she opened her own gallery. Her collectors are a mix—approximately 30-40% are local, and the rest part time residents and tourists.

The Gallery does not have a formal submission policy, though as curator, Hagen asks artists to email their website, a statement, and up to six images, explaining why they were selected. The artist stable grows due to the many connections and referrals generated by her current group. She still considers herself very much an artist and feels “I have to love it. It has to be unique,” when taking on new work. “Every show needs to strike a completely
different note and show that the Gallery has very distinctive styles.”

Like her counterparts, Hagen loves studio visits—these are primarily done in winter and early spring. She travels often to her roots in the Hudson Valley, where some of her artists create. She enjoys discussing process and trajectories and acting as curator, artist, and coach. “I’m in awe of most of my artists,” she adds.

Hagen’s advice for artists entering the gallery scene? “Cast a wide net, do online searches… Engage with the gallery and the community. Believe in yourself, but don’t be arrogant. If you are making a career of selling your work, you might want to choose a few galleries in different locations. It can be a lot of trial and error, but it’s worth it.”

Juliet Feibel
Worcester, MA

Juliet Feibel is the executive director of 40-year-old ArtsWorcester, a welcoming and comprehensive organization open to all artists. In her 11 years at the helm there has been tremendous interest and growth. “Accessibility is important to our work as is having a diverse group of artists. We have a paid membership, with options for subsidized rates as well.”

The main goals of the organization are to encourage artists and provide constant opportunities for trying new things and becoming exposed to new audiences. “We help artists exhibit, create prize opportunities and help them build their CVs.” There are 12 to 15 shows annually, both solo and member group shows. The space is physically and geographically accessible to an active hub of artists. ArtsWorcester serves Worcester a well as central Massachusetts by creating cultural vibrancy and numerous social gatherings. Their membership is expansive, consisting of 420 artist members,
of which 350 are actively engaged (having exhibitions, teaching workshops).

Education is a vital component of supporting emerging artists. Feibel includes workshops and roundtables in her programming, teaching pricing, how to photograph artwork, framing, social media strategies for artists, and more. ArtsWorcester provides business strategies for artists to build on career trajectories. “Some artist talks involve dialogue with artist professionals and other disciplines such as science, to spark feedback and ideas from the community–both academic and intellectual.”

Museum partnerships provide an amazing leap for many ArtsWorcester members. A ten-year partnership with the Fitchburg Art Museum has generated 100 artists exhibitions. Worcester Art Museum provides a solo show for the winner of the Bishop prize at ArtsWorcester’s Biennial.

For solo exhibition proposals, the staff of ArtsWorcester engages one-on-one with the artists. Many of the group exhibitions are theme oriented, for example “human impact on the climate.” Feibel believes that the “arts can promote social change.”

One of the most important and recurring themes shared by these women is building trust between artist and curator. “It’s really all about relationships” reiterates Trafton. “It’s an organic collaboration.” And it’s personal. Russell Brown concurs, “Art affects people’s lives, it’s not just a business to me… It’s important to focus on life as well as brainstorming an exhibition.”

We’ve heard a resounding “Get to know us!” from these gallerists. Attend an opening or event, connect with other artists. Submit your work. Eventually you will secure that studio visit. Be fearless and take the leap.

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