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New professional artist series has first lecture

October 8, 2017

GREENWICH — As an oral historian, James McElhinney has been privy to some of the art world’s most career-defining conversations. He knows what can make an artist and what can break one.

When he spoke at the Greenwich Art Society last week, he titled his talk “A Fly on the Wall,” because that’s what he has been for more than a decade. He has sat in the homes of prominent artists, collectors, dealers and art historians, curating their memories and garnering tidbits of advice along the way.

McElhinney wears many hats — he is an author, a publisher, a former academic and a visual artist himself. His experiences have qualified him to be the first speaker in a new series by the Greenwich Art Society that teaches professional skills to aspiring artists.

Thursday, at the Art Society’s space at 299 Greenwich Ave., he spoke to nearly 30 adults on how to market their art and themselves.

His main advice: Make important individuals like you.

“Here’s the thing: Dealers show artwork by people they like,” McElhinney emphasized again and again.

He targeted his lecture to what he termed “emerging artists” in the crowd.

“Many people are emerging artists their whole lives, which is fine,” he said.

But that status can change with the right representation. McElhinney likened finding a dealer to entering a romantic relationship: First, you go to coffee to feel each other out, and soon you may be sharing a night at the theater together.

“Representation at a gallery is very tricky,” McElhinney added. “My observation is a lot of it is personal connections, and a lot of it is social. It’s who you know.”

The art world is now dominated by auctions and art fairs, he said, and even to be considered for a big fair, an artist needs a dealer. But not everyone who offers a helping hand is trustworthy: When someone asked about promoters and coaches, he cautioned to always see a CV before accepting their aid, as they can sometimes be scammers.

McElhinney tried to provide audience members, many of whom were older, with an updated roadmap on how to promote their work. He warned that manila folders filled with sample slides are antiquated, and that listeners should avoid practices that make them seem dated.

He also underscored the importance of a social media presence, as well as making purchases from a website a one-click process.

“You want to make it easy for people to buy things,” he said simply, adding that artists should enroll in PayPal, Apple Pay and other popular online payment systems.

But not everyone in the audience cared about the finances behind the art industry. During the second half of the talk, McElhinney took questions from listeners, who jotted down their thoughts on notecards that he read one by one. Some of the queries had more to do with guaranteeing a legacy for their work than making a profit.

For those with substantial financial means who still want their art to be viewed, McElhinney said that holding showings or open studios -- with a bit of wine and cheese -- can be rewarding.

“Art that never gets seen isn’t really art,” McElhinney said, though he added later that work does not have to be sold, just seen, to merit “art” status.

If a well-off artist is concerned about posterity, he recommended patronage. Getting on a museum board can sometimes mean slipping one of your paintings into the museum’s collection.

He empathized with some attendees’ concerns about establishing a more permanent presence in the artistic landscape.

“If the future can’t find you, you were never here,” he said.