Picture this. You’re at a gallery opening in Chelsea. You’re wearing shoes that don’t fit you as well as you want them to (because they’re not slippers) and all of your effort is concentrated on not walking into the large, abstract sculpture in the middle of the white room. The event is undoubtedly filled with classy individuals. They point at canvases, they laugh, and they swap tales from their latest trip to an art fair in the Netherlands. And all of this means one thing: it’s time for you to get your schmooze on.
Here are a few tips for nailing the delicate dance of schmoozing in the art world, and being an engaged conservationist without crossing into eager beaver territory:
Breathe and repeat after me: I am a rockstar.
So you’re feeling nervous about placing yourself in the direct path of a potentially influential person? Maybe you’re worried about coming off as annoying or spilling your drink on a future employer? Of course you are. You’re a human being! But ~news flash~ so is the person you’re afraid to speak with.
Before we dive into the timeless art of networking, it’s essential to remember that schmoozing is rooted in empathy and humanity. It’s incredibly difficult for people to shut down a kind smile and a genuine question. Yes that includes important art dealers and gallery directors.
Having said that, it’s completely natural to freak out about saying the wrong thing (whether it’s mispronouncing the name “Seurat” or blanking on the topic of your last art history paper). Well you’re in luck because most of the information we pick up from others is non-verbal.
In all likelihood, your co-schmoozer isn’t going to remember the details of what you’re saying. While your stint as a gallery assistant at your college art museum was super formative and lovely…it’s not ultimately going to be that memorable to a stranger. Instead, the person you’re schmoozing with will hold onto your non-verbal cues, the thoughts your questions provoke, and the level of comfort they feel around you.
– Smile and make direct eye contact. Pay attention to them and keep the interaction positive and light. I’m not going to say it’s completely similar to flirting. But I’m not going to NOT say it.
– Instead of interrupting them to say “cool” or “right” or “yes,” nod to indicate that you’re hearing them.
– Anticipate when a conversation is coming to a natural close. Have a line that politely and casually concludes the interaction. Something like, “It was so great to speak with you. I’m going to go grab a drink / check out the art / say hi to a friend. Hope to see you soon.”
The Opening Act
Okay. Let the schmoozing begin. Get the ball rolling by establishing neutral ground. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need an arsenal of crafty pick-up lines to begin a conversation. This is not the first scene in a rom-com. Start with something that gets both of you on the same page.
-If you have no idea whom you’re talking to: Say something about what’s around you. If you’re at an event in a gallery space or a museum, ask the person you’re talking to what they think of the art they’ve seen. Something like “Are you enjoying the show?” Everyone in the art world has an opinion and most everyone is happy to share. This is a fantastic appetizer interaction that transitions seamlessly into a conversation about their specific line of work.
-If you know who they are: Show that you know your stuff without fan-girling. If you’re familiar with their work (maybe they had a recent opening or were featured in the media), bring that up. Ask a related question or offer them a casual compliment.
Listen Up, Chatty Cathy
-Be an active listener. Ask a question and then ask another related, follow-up question that signals to them that you have heard and processed what they just said. Focus on the language they’re using, and try to integrate their vernacular into your own responses.
-If the moment feels appropriate, ask for general advice. People typically respond really well to being considered “an expert” or “an advisor,” because most humans love to feel like they can offer something at no expense to them. What’s the worst that could happen? You don’t take their advice?
Stick the Landing
The finale of a schmooze sesh is often the trickiest. Take what you’ve observed about how the person responds to you and end on a high note.
-If you’ve been talking for a while, thank them for speaking with you. Hit ‘em hard with your non-verbal cues whether that’s a confident handshake or a simple smile.
-Offer a business card (if you have them) or an email address as a way to keep in touch, but only after the idea of a second interaction has been brought up. This can be something as casual as grabbing coffee or as formal as a business meeting.
-If the idea of a second interaction hasn’t been brought up and you’re feeling excited about your newest schmooze endeavor, ask them if they would be interested in getting coffee. Keep it casual and make it clear that you have genuinely enjoyed hearing what they have to say.
-Don’t appear to be “working the room.” You don’t need to make a connection with every single person you see. Take breaks between schmooze fests. After all, you’re surrounded by incredible art and interesting people. Enjoy it!
-Don’t interrupt a conversation. Your parents taught you better than that.
-Don’t whip out a resume. It’s not the setting for job apps. Schmoozing is about making initial connections that you can follow up with later.
-Don’t get down on yourself if a schmoozing experience goes south. These things happen. Try to think about why the interaction felt awkward or unsuccessful. Plus, you will probably never see that person again in your entire life and it will definitely make for a hilarious story to share with your pals.
Keep in mind that different tactics work for different people. Experiment with questions and topics that feel genuine and nuanced to you. As much as ArtBinder wants to help a sister out, at the end of the day, you’re going to be the best judge of your own comfort level. Take risks. You won’t know what’s successful for you until you try it.
And, finally, mustering up the courage to talk with someone is always way harder than actually pulling it off. So I’ll leave you with this: a very wise woman once told me to fake it ‘til I made it. You’ve got this.
Go forth and schmooze.