Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part I (2012)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 18 October 2012
This article was previously published in Sculpture (Insider) in September 2012.

Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part I

Imagine an artist five years out of an MFA gets a solo that unexpectedly attracts not only art sector media coverage but spills into the local and regional news. Imagine there’s some sort of controversy, and now the hot media lights are on the artist, who has had absolutely no media training. There are some really tough questions, the artist relies on a wordy academic communication model they learned at art school, which is cut to a couple of sentences, additional nuances stripped out, and multiplies across the media. The media coverage makes the artist look a bit silly, maybe even out to lunch, maybe even creating an unexpected legal problem, and becomes part of the artist’s image. What’s worse, in this scenario, a few high-powered media outlets hijack the first page of Google for artist-related searches for years, as people look at and consider what the artist has said, without any direct clarification request. “My quote was taken out of context!” Or probably more accurately, “I didn’t really mean that,” proclaims the artist in frustration on his or her website, which is not viewed that often— and now shows up on page three in Google behind several well-respected media outlets.

Now that I’ve scared most artists into a panic to get their attention, this scenario just highlights that media/communications is another world with occasional risks as well as a great deal of interesting opportunities. While some purists poo-poo the media— but not to their range of media contacts of course— what may be even more surprising is the unusually important role that media coverage has for artists. Consider their academic colleagues that studied accounting, chemistry, nursing, psychology, even media/ communications, etc., most are not issuing press releases about their work and would be mystified at the thought, because most often than not it’s not part of their business/income model. They’ll usually just try to get a job in their field. But for the artist and some other creative industries practitioners, this is just part of today’s creative condition.

Love media, live with it, or leave it, the following are 10 opinionated tips that I’ve crafted which apply to artist start-ups, with some bits being a refresher for those further along. These are based on several years of experience as an arts journalist, publicizing a number of art projects, and as a copywriter (800+ texts) and consultant in marketing and media/communications in other sectors, and thinking too much about how all of this really comes together in my Art Design Publicity online magazine project.

Tip #1: Make sure your press release is sorted. First, are you having to do this yourself or is this outsourced to a gallery or a paid writer? If the latter, it can cost over USD$500 to get a professional one, so budget or make deals accordingly. If via a gallery, see what they send out. Does it meet the standard? Does it look a bit naïve? Do you need to negotiate this and propose a mutually beneficial solution?

Whether doing it yourself because you have to or outsourced, the artist is strongly advised to gain the skills to manage this frontline communications properly. If you are unfamiliar with the important formal aspects, many artists are, see proven samples in the Tate Modern or Hayward Gallery press archives. There are a lot of internet sources and how-to books. Please note, there are texts out there in artland that call themselves “press releases” but absolutely do not fit the very specific genre, instead some strange art text, which, when you know the game, can appear naïve.

Plus remember, a “press release” is a copyright-free text that you want the media to pull from—in volume, so do not confuse this with a copyright, authored text using an academic model! If you don’t know what “journos cut releases from the bottom-up for announcements” means, it’s time to find out to your benefit.

Tip #2: Sort out your photo captions please… Personally I’m astonished how many artists can study for 4+ years and not be familiar with photo captions in magazines and in books, and then are engaging in media contact. If there are any art professors reading this, can you please make sure to give your students this important assignment if you aren’t already doing so? At museum, art center and many galleries, this arrives professionally—with any image. And as a journalist, it’s not my job to sort out an artist’s media/ communications. Sorry.

It should also be noted, artists should not want journalists or editorial to have to deal with crafting their captions. It facilitates error-making and their decision-making. Why delegate others to decide your presentation— and have it sometimes follow your career— when you can nail it down immediately.

Tip #3: Be available to the press officer, assuming you really do want media coverage: who do you want to work with? Someone who is accessible and reliable or someone whom you have to chase up and may not reply or meet a deadline? Obviously the former, because it’s practical.

In fact, if in a group show, especially at a museum, do what you can to make good relations. You may be one of several artists and not necessarily one of the stars in demand, and you’d be surprised how on occasion you may be off a contact list, even when the writer requests to speak to you! In any event, review the email for the address on your website regularly. Better yet, bring the press officer cookies, take them to lunch, anything really— as they are your officially appointed gatekeeper!

Tip #4: Make two contacts lists, not one— those really interested, and those who just want you to stay in touch. There are only a few artists for whom I want to see all their announcements. For many, I just want to learn about their major shows, up to three releases a year. Monthly announcements can be overkill and it doesn’t really matter to me if you got a review in Artforum. Yeah, good publicity for you, but for me, I’d rather you be in Sharkforum! When in doubt, just ask.

Also, with gallery contact, you begin to learn quickly how far they are on the media/comm development front. I don’t have time to wade through 100-200 press releases a month, and I have rather clear art content interests. But mention the concept of target marketing and too many are mystified. You don’t want me to like everything, how boring, but flag up what I like and I’ll definitely take a close look.

One thing that surprises me is getting an announcement from an artist that I know in a mass-mailed framework. Sorry, but like you probably I’m not keen on being treated like 1 in a 1,000 when I know you. If the artist is too busy for this, then sorry, I am often busier doing lots of things. Here’s an opportunity to reconnect with a personalized message, hopefully showing some mutual interest.

Tip #5: Reviewing text copy: as media/comm “sure, happy to help,” but as a journo, “Absolutely not!” I’ve seen and heard so much variability on this. The reality in artland seems that the standard is actually no standard. The variability includes how “facts” are nailed down; media training vs. no media training experienced by the artist; the chronic effect of academia spilling into arts journalism vs. journalistic coverage of art; the relationships, if any, between the writer and artist and their social/professional connections; as well as clearly distinguishing between intention and interpretation statements in the text, etc. One thing is certain: intro to journalism books dictate: don’t let the interviewee see the text before publication because it can cause all sorts of problems. Instead, do professional fact-checking. At most, they can review a transcript and make some corrections. Not change the text. Corrections, and comments for further clarification.

But in artland, which can be serious journalism dealing with art at its best— and a prepared statement in direct consultation with the artist at its worst (when the journo crosses into the media/comm divide)— sure, hint that you’re willing to review the copy. As a media/comm guy, I would. For writers relying on art history and not trained in journalism, they may be relieved at the offer of a text check.

In the end, the texts are what they are within an art media/ communications context.

Click to see Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part II