Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Strange and Funny Bedfellows: Studio Visits 101 by way of Steven Colbert

Jessica Cochran
Curator of Exhibitions and Programs 
Center for Book and Paper Arts
Columbia College

Studio visits.  Most curators would agree that the opportunity to engage with artists in their studios is a core reason we do what we do.  I tend to arrive at them after a long day at work—I am a little bit tired, hungry and thinking a little too much about getting home and catching up with the Real Housewives.  In those weak moments, I am fueled by a comment made by Matthew Higgs as guest lecturer in one of my graduate courses. It went something like this: “Studio visits, studio visits, studio visits- you’ve got to do hundreds of studio visits.”

More often than not, I leave the studio visit transformed, feeling something akin to exhilaration: my interest is piqued, and I am fascinated by the work I just saw.  My brain is cycling with ideas and possibilities. In other words, I am not thinking about a trashy television fix anymore, because spending time in a studio is awesome.

Every studio visit is a little bit different, and I have occasionally wondered if I am doing the right things.  You know-- asking the right questions, offering adequate insights, maintaining a “proper” level of critique.  This was on my mind when I recently saw Steven Colbert on his show performing a studio visit of sorts.  He interviewed Alan Bean, artist and former NASA astronaut about his paintings—large and moody depictions of astronauts on the moon.

“May I suggest another title? The most awesome painting in the history of anything.“ 

-Steven Colbert to artist and former astronaut Alan Bean, June 10, 2010 on The Colbert Report.   

Colbert maintained a tenor that was typically sarcastic; staying as always in “Colbert character”, he made no attempts at satirizing jargon-laced art world banter.  Bean’s own verbal offerings were nothing if not sweet, as, beaming from ear to ear, he described using moon boots (yes, moon boots) to create texture on a painting’s surface. 

Colbert asked obvious questions, but he let Bean talk. And in front of millions, Bean described his materials, his process and his way into painting.  Colbert, though chasing punch lines, was oddly refreshing, and it was fun to watch.

My own studio visits with artists are nothing like Colbert’s interview, but rather (I hope) serious and productive discussions of intent, influence, decisions and materials. But there is something to be said for re-considering one’s strategies by way of new, or maybe even irreverent approaches to such a dialogue.

So it was in the spirit of Alan Bean’s approach to painting, “Study, practice, make mistakes, study, practice, make mistakes ” that I asked many of my own colleagues, former instructors, and favorite artists to share their best advice and thoughts on the studio visit.
Each contributor was asked the following question, and the resulting comments are pasted below:

"Based on your experience, what is your advice for a good studio visit?

Enjoy, and please consider dispensing your own advice in the comments section below. 

-Jessica Cochran


Advice to artists

Susanna Coffey, artist:

Do not show too much work, hang that work so that it can be clearly seen.

Allow your visitor to look at the work in silence.

Remember that your relationship with your work is always at the center. A studio visit can inform your working process but cannot make or break the art itself.

The Franks, artists:

Be respectful of other people's time. One way to do that is by being well prepared and organized - present your work in a way that makes it easily viewed and talked about.   

Listen carefully to the questions you are being asked and answer them to the best of your ability. It's important to be clear and honest about your work. The curator or collector might be trying to suss out who you are as an artist, how you think, and how that translates into the work you're presenting.  

Don't pretend they're standing there in their underwear - depending on who they are, this may only distract you.

Mary Jane Jacob, director of exhibitions, School of the Art Institute of Chicago:

To an artist:
Have stuff to look at, but it doesn't need to be art and the art doesn't need to be finished.
Have ideas, not to present but to kick around.
Be open to wherever the conversation may go, but don't plan it out beforehand.
Think about what advice you have been given or taught to prepare for a studio visit; then be prepared to ignore it or let it go the opposite way.

Jason Foumberg, critic and curator:

Be open, honest, and chatty. It’s okay if the conversation isn’t fully intellectual. If you’re uncomfortable talking informally about your art, buy a couple of beers and we’ll drink them together.

Don’t clean up the studio before a visit (except for old take-out cartons). I want to see your source materials, sketchbooks, stops and starts, the layers of your process, some failures and experiments. It’s only later, in a gallery exhibition that I’ll be focusing solely on the finished product.

I like a studio visit without an agenda. If you’ve just made a bunch of new stuff, and you want people to see it, then invite us over. Likewise, I might ask to visit your studio if I saw your last show and I want to see what else you make.

Follow up a few months after the studio visit. Keep in touch and keep me informed about new projects, even if you don’t have an upcoming show.

Nicholas Frank, curator, Institute of Visual Arts (Inova):

Food! A studio visit is a human activity: studio visitors should be treated humanely. A nice cup of tea, coffee, or a lemonade, and a light snack, can take the edge off of the travel, scheduling and stress of making a professional studio visit. Chicago artists are tops in this category, I find -- at least the mature ones -- and never fail to offer homemade and thought varieties on the above: fresh espresso, homemade pastries, toasted almonds, fine cheeses. No need to be fancy or try to impress, just have a good sense of hospitality. Younger artists in Milwaukee are just beginning to catch on. Fact: advice given to a pair of artists here before a studio visit for a major fellowship resulted in them winning an award! Fact #2: they passed along this advice to a candidate the following year, who also won. I’m sure the art was much more important than the food in juror deliberations, but real human connection is important.

Jefferson Goddard, collector:

A good studio visit involves planning, patience and pelligrino. The artist must be on time and organized but not too methodical. A studio visit must flow with a free exchange of ideas, critical questions and pregnant pauses. Also, sometimes theatre can afford a more comfortable environment: leave the windows open, have other studio mates work nearby, borrow a laptop and play a short (silent) loop in the background. In all, be positive and prepared but open.

Catherine Howe, artist:

The Studio Visit.
How lovely that we still bother to share our work in the intimate setting of the studio. Nothing, esp. the"Virtual" world can replace it.
It is a reciprocal transaction where both parties participate equally, though in different ways. Here are a few suggestions.

For the emerging artist:
Unlike your grad school professors, curators and dealers are not at your service and are not required to give you a critique, or massage you with platitudes.
Do not put people on the spot or act "needy" (kiss of death). Do not start talking about yourself the minute your visitor walks through the door, in fact, disappear for a moment to fetch  a beverage for your guest, to allow them to adjust at peace.
Do not show everything you have ever made- be very selective.
Pay attention and be open, as this is a rare opportunity to learn more about yourself and your practice.
Do not allow yourself to be crushed by a bad visit- these are bound to happen.
Smile. Relax.

Advice to Curators:

Stephanie Smith, director of collections and exhibitions and curator of contemporary art, Smart Museum of Art:

Only go on a studio visit if you’re truly curious about the artist and the work—apathy wastes everyone’s time. Look closely—not just at the art, but also the space, the setup, the light, the books, the sketches, the website open on the laptop, the bits and pieces pinned to the wall, the piles in the corners. Question intensely. Listen well. And enjoy it—access to artists’ private spaces and working processes is one of the great privileges of working in this field.

Paul Morris, founder, The Armory Show:

Look at the work and listen to what the artist has to say and then think about what they chose not to talk about. And remember to look at what else is in the studio - what books are they reading, what images are pinned up. Do they have other artist's works hanging in their studio? As artists have millions of choices to makes it's important to ask what they chose not to do. It's also necessary to place the work in the context of the artist's generation and you should also be aware of your own personal bias. You may be partial to works on paper for example don't let this color your reading of a painter's work. Think of where they studied--who was their teacher and did they find their own voice?

Davis/Langlois, artists:

Our best studio visits happen when our visitors come into the studio prepared to spend some real time with us. It's difficult to get an idea of what our work is about in less than an hour. We have been working together for thirteen years and there is a lot of dialogue to catch up on if someone is truly interested in knowing our work. It's like they jump in midstream and it takes a minute to get used to the flow. A few hours of conversation and consumption of dubious origins never hurt anyone.  If they give us helpful criticism, buy a piece, or offer us a show, everyone wins. It's not  always about what they can do for us, but how they can contribute to our ongoing conversation.

Advice to both Artists and Curators:

Kay Rosen, artist:

I would suggest focus as an important reminder for both artists and curators, especially if time is limited: it helps if the curator says what exactly he/she is interested in seeing and talking about (new work, old work, specific media, themed, etc.) and if the artist makes a coherent presentation. If they have time to see more work and have more discussion, great.

Christian Viveros-Fauné, independent curator and contributor to the Village Voice and ArtReview:

Whatever the professional goals and power dynamics involved, studio visits are about establishing a dynamic conversation. Both the artist and the visitor (presumably a critic or curator, though he/she could just as well be another artist) need to respect a few basic rules of exchange. Listen, talk in good faith, don't bullshit people, leave saying something constructive, however much you may not agree with your interlocutor (if, in fact, you disagree at all). I am always shocked at stories of colleagues being dismissive or outright rude on studio visits (have yet to hear of an artist being rude to someone he/she invited into the studio, but, like everything else, it is certainly a possibility). That kind of crap should be checked at the door.

Jessica Cochran is currently Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at the Center for Book and Paper Arts (Columbia College Chicago), and Director of Exhibitions at the O'Connor Art Gallery (Dominican University).  She has previously worked for Art Chicago/NEXT as Director of Marketing and Programs and Around the Coyote as Visual Art Coordinator.  Her writing has appeared in Proximity, Newcity, CS and Curating Now.


  1. I make a lot of studio visits.

    Most artist/curator studio visits are about "agreement." Typically, curators are looking for something they agree with to include in an exhibit either now or (not yet?) anticipated.

    Artists should not accept every offer that comes their way. They must agree on what is good for their careers - their art.

    Since I am not presently curating, most studio visits I make the artist wants advice. Is there something they are not doing that they should - and vice versa. Though sometimes they want or get affirmation, that is invariably not the point of the visit.

    I am not there to agree. I am there to express an honest opinion - hopefully to offer something constructive that the artist would not otherwise have considered. Perhaps my studio visits are really more of a critique.

    I tell artists I'm going to express my opinions and they should deal with what resonates and pass off the stuff that doesn't to me just being wrong. I go out of my way to explain the basis of my opinions - so the artist can understand a divergent opinion, when I have one.

    I'm concerned that most artists don't get genuine feedback - that they mostly get platitudes.

    Artists should ignore the stature of the person doing the critique, be it someone from a museum or a high school kid. We are all humans. We all have opinions. Artists need to address what resonates - no matter where it comes from - and to ignore the stuff that doesn't.

    Your art exists to serve you. No one else.

    You need to know how you want your art to serve you - be it monetary, cathartic, decorative, self-discovery, pontification, whatever.

    The point remains; be yourself. Get people's opinions and input - when and if you want it. Consider the stuff that resonates and blow off the rest.

    ---Paul Klein

  2. Thanks Jessica for a great blog post. I found the comments from your informal survey very interesting and also Paul Klein's added comment very helpful as well.

    Most of the visits to my studio have been very informal affairs with the visitor dictating the direction of the visit.

    Many of the visits end up being for at least two hours even though we both initially plan on about an hour. Once the artwork starts coming out and being viewed the conversation takes control and we cover many areas that we didn't originally plan on.

    --Jean M. Judd, Textile Artist