The first time I showed my work in an art gallery was in the early 2000s, and it was expected the artist be present on opening night. The gallery was one of the most popular venues in town and always participated in the monthly 2nd Saturday art walks. The show opened on a rainy evening, but that didn’t stop the crowds. About an hour in, the music was blaring, wine was flowing, the gallery was filled with people, and more were lined up at the door, waiting to come inside. I began to feel anxious from being surrounded by so many strangers, and when someone took their jacket off and draped it over one of my fused glass sculptures, I bolted from the gallery in a full-blown panic attack.
I drove home in the rain, feeling like a complete and total loser. I berated myself about how unprofessional I had been to walk out of my first big art gallery show and cried about how my career as a professional artist was over before it really began.
While I did continue to show my work in local galleries, I turned down many opportunities to do solo or featured artists shows. Instead, I was content with selling small glassworks and inexpensive paintings that didn’t require my presence during the opening nights or art walks. I never gave it another thought until one of my gallery owners asked me why I repeatedly turned down show opportunities and asked if I even wanted to show my work there still.
I was surprised and at the time was so naive about the art gallery business. As I told her my position, she began sharing the costs of running a gallery and the investment they took in each of their artists. She explained the prices of marketing and overhead and the benefits their solo shows had on their more successful artists. Lastly, she shared the faith they had in my art and my abilities, and in a gentle manner told me I was sabotaging my art career by allowing my anxiety to win. She then offered me an opportunity to be one of three artists in an upcoming show and gave me a week to decide.
I chose to do the show and it was extremely successful. The fear didn’t go away overnight but it did get easier as I practiced more and more. Here are ten tips on how I finally got over my social anxiety at my own shows – I hope they help you as they helped me!
1. Wear an outfit that makes you feel confident and beautiful, and wear comfortable shoes. Be sure your clothes fit well and don't bind or restrict your movements.
2. Before arriving, practice how you'll greet the guests. (My favorite is: "Thank you for coming to my show tonight! Are you an artist too?" (This question has opened up so many interesting conversations for me and has led to many sales and friendships with other artists).
3. Breathe. Try my "5-5-5 for 5" count -- it works! Inhale to the count of 5, hold for 5, then exhale for a count of 5. Repeat 5 times.
4. Develop an exit strategy. Many people will be vying for your time, so try to limit conversations to a few minutes if possible. Find an opening and gently let the person know you've enjoyed chatting with them, but you'd better get back to your other guests. Thank them for coming and move on to the next person.
5. During the show, check in with your gallery people regularly. They will often want to introduce you to their favorite customers or have a question about a particular piece that they need you to answer.
6. If your hands shake from nervousness, grab some business cards from the gallery to hand out. The gallery will appreciate you doing this, and it will give you something to hold onto during the show for a bit of support. (NEVER hand out your own business cards when showing at a gallery -- they are representing you and your art, and it is not allowed!)
7. Bring a friend or spouse to the show. It's great to have someone there for some added support, but as soon as you're feeling less anxious, branch out and start working the room. Some people won't come up to talk with you if you are with someone else, and they may very well be your next collector wanting to purchase a piece of art!
8. Talk about your art. What is the story behind each piece? Can you summarize the piece in a few short sentences? Explain what materials you used and what inspired you to create it?
9. If you're asked to give an artist's talk, keep it brief and succinct. Talking points can include how long you've been an artist, where you got the idea for tonight's show, a funny story about your work/the show if you have one, and what your next project might be. End with asking if anyone in the audience has questions, then thank everyone for coming out to see your work.
10. Lastly, take a sip of water, wine, or champagne if it's available. CAUTION: while alcohol may have a temporary calming effect, do not overindulge or drink on an empty stomach, as this may cause a show you weren't expecting to have!