Yesterday I spent the afternoon at RISD reviewing student portfolios alongside other curators and gallery directors at the RISD Fine Arts Portfolio Review. Students had the opportunity to sign up for 20 minute individual portfolio reviews with a number of galleries and other arts organizations. I’ve been to a number of portfolio reviews as a student: to name a few, the open portfolio session at the Southern Graphics Council conference, the open session at the Boston Printmakers annual meeting, and a portfolio session at the College Art Association conference.
Now that I’ve been on both sides of the table as a reviewer and student, I thought it would be good to share the do’s and don’ts of portfolio sessions as a reference for all of us. Some of what I list below may seem obvious, but in my experience it’s important to keep everything in mind.
1) Don’t make excuses. The reviewers are interested in the work, they’re not interested in discussing why your hard drive crashed 1 hour before the review began or why you’re so busy with your classes and don’t have time to make better work. This is unprofessional and reflects poorly on you.
2)Don’t put yourself down or apologize for your work. You want to always present yourself and your work in the best light possible. Speak about your work with confidence and be prepared to answer any possible question with enthusiasm and clarity. My friend who is an actress said that the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman said in an interview once that you always want to do your best work-regardless of whether you are performing for an audience of 3 in a local cafe or in Carnegie Hall for an audience of hundreds.
3)Don’t get defensive. This means not arguing with the reviewer or telling them that “everyone else likes my work”. You’re there to get feedback on your work, not plead your case to a jury. Remember that venues and organizations have very specific criteria they are looking for, that your work may not necessarily fit. If you’re speaking to a gallery whose interest is in intellectual topics, and your work does not address any of those topics, don’t expect them to be interested in your work. If you don’t like what the reviewer has to say, simply nod and move on.
1)Be gracious, polite, and professional. Introduce yourself at the beginning and say thank you when the review is over.
2)Do your homework. Visit the websites of the venues you’re interested in before the review so that you know what their focus and emphasis is on. You don’t want to sign up for a review with a gallery that focuses on exclusively photography if you work in sculpture.
3)Be concise.Be able to sum up what your work is about in 1-2 articulate sentences. Run the 1-2 sentences by someone else to make sure it makes sense and is clear. These review sessions are quickly paced, you won’t have time to explain your work in a great deal of depth. Sometimes all you have is 2 minutes to catch someone’s attention at an opening reception.
4)Be prepared.Have your laptop already open and awake with the files ready to go. Have a pre-written list of questions you want to ask the reviewer. Have a postcard or business card that you can easily hand over; a postcard is preferable because there’s a visual which will remind the reviewer of your work without a lot of additional effort. there’s Most reviewers do not have the patience to sit there while you sort through your files figuring out what you want to show.
5)Have professional digital images. The majority of students I spoke to yesterday showed me their work in their laptop which allows them to show a larger quantity of work. Remember that as artists, we “live and die by our photographs”. A number of images I saw yesterday were poorly photographed; bad lighting, out of focus, not color corrected, etc. Be sure that any digital images you show are high quality, high resolution images. If you work in 3-D, have images of what the work looks like installed into a gallery space. You can read my blog post here about how to photograph 3-D artwork.
6)Follow up. If you think the review went well and you made a good connection with the reviewer, send the reviewer an email the next day thanking them for the review, and perhaps add a link to your website. Keep your email short and sweet, and don’t write a 5 paragraph memoir about who you are. Add their name to your mailing list so they can stay on top of your developments. Sending your exhibition announcements to your audience is good to do, but do not send announcements for less important developments. For example, don’t send an announcement every time you add 3 new images to your website.
One of the toughest things about these reviews is the overwhelming amount of information you get in such a short period of time. In my experience, it’s hard to even begin to think straight at events like this, so I would even recommend making a recording of each review so you can listen to it later and go through the comments more thoroughly.