Question: What's the best way to reach out to people you admire?

FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)

Q: What are your thoughts about reaching out to artists who inspire you? What about someone who runs close to your circle, who you’d love to collaborate with or learn from? What about someone slightly more out of reach that you would love to assist, shadow, give lots of your time to, or really do anything just to learn from them? I’m not sure what is a compliment, sketchy, or annoying.

A: This is a great question. Learning from people who you admire is one of the best ways to figure out how to carve your own path. But you’re right—you can’t expect everyone who you’d like to learn from to have time for you, or to respond to a cold email. Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to avoid sending someone you admire a “cold” email. My best advice is to try to get on the radar of the person you admire before asking anything of them. To do this, you could go to an event they’re taking part in and casually introduce yourself afterwards, you could follow them on Twitter and strike up a conversation, or, if they’re in your social circle, you could have a joint friend introduce you first. The more you can casually engage with the person you admire in a no-pressure environment, the more you’ll start to be on their radar, and the more likely they’ll be to respond favorably once you finally reach out to them.

In terms of being “sketchy” or “annoying,” the main thing is not to be overbearing. Everyone loves a compliment, but nobody wants to feel stalked or hounded. Once you’ve taken some steps to get on the radar of the person you admire, you could send them a friendly note telling them a little bit about yourself and your work (think: one or two sentences, definitely don’t send them your whole CV). Just be honest about the fact that you’re looking to learn more about the field they’re in, and that you’d be thrilled to talk to them sometime. Then, if the person has time to meet up and let you buy them a coffee (yes, you should pay for their coffee), then great! If not, you’re now on their radar, and they may think of you in the future when an opportunity comes up. Patience is key here. Just keep building relationships, be friendly and respectful, keep making your own work, and keep showing up to support the work of the people you admire. Eventually, the person you admire may just start to admire you, too.

Willa Köerner

Ben Lotan and Tara-Shi
Artists, Curators
Visual Artist
Musician, Graphic Designer
Josette -Melchor-
Curator, Community Organizer, Founder of Gray Area Foundation
Clifford -Owens
Lucy -Bellwood
Illustrator, Cartoonist

Q: Are there other tactics that you’ve found to be effective for moving your ideas and projects forward?

A: Reaching out to people that we find interesting, or who we could learn from. And having a lot of different conversations with a lot of people. Conversations can turn into collaborations, which in turn become long-term relationships. With everybody we work with, we try to be enablers. We’re so curious to learn about other people’s visions and desires. When we establish collaborations, it’s always from the perspective of, “How can we help? What can we do that could contribute to your project?”

Q: How do you go about finding collaborators?

A: For me, collaboration has always happened organically. It was never about, “Oh I really like this person’s work; I’m going to email them and see if they want to collaborate with me.” It was never like that; it was always standing in some opening talking about something, and then suddenly feeling like something is happening from that conversation. I’ll be like, “Oh my god that sounds amazing, maybe we should follow up on this,” and then following up. You just feel it.

Q: How do you go about finding a collaborator? Is it something where someone does something interesting, you admire their work, and you reach out to them?

A: It’s usually based on a relationship, and sometimes those relationships start because of, like you said, being aware of what someone’s doing and admiring their work and then meeting the person and having some sort of connection. It seems like, especially with the more experimental musicians I work with, at one point you’re like, “Well, why don’t we try to play together?”

I think it’s all really luck and maybe listening to people, more than anything. Luck and the sense that there’s no strategy. There’s no strategy that’s ever going to win you a prize. That’s what I’ve learned the most. That, and listening to people who can be mentors. Also, touring with people who are successful has taught me a lot—seeing how they do things and how they’ve figured it out.

I remember when I specifically asked my first mentor to be my mentor—Peter Hirshberg, who’s now the chairman of our board. We were just hanging out, talking about art, and he just felt like a friend. So we were just sitting there, and I literally asked, “Will you be my mentor? And help me develop Gray Area?” I remember the spark in his eyes and the way his whole tone and body movement changed. Everything shifted right at that moment, and all of a sudden I knew that I could just call him and ask him any question I wanted. I remember a similar moment with several other people, like Chloe Sladden who I mentioned earlier, who also joined our board. So my advice is: you really have to ask for mentorship and guidance. That’s been really important for me.

So, how do we make it? Certainly community is important, but for me I think the key is mentorship. That really does matter. Having a community of other artists around you is important, and most artists I know in New York do have a nice community of people that surround them. This sounds so corny, but I tell young people this all the time, you really have to have love in your life because the art world, the art system, is not necessarily a loving space. It is not a compassionate space. It is not an inclusive space. They don’t love you. They love what you produce maybe, but not you. You’ve got to have some semblance of love around you that is real.

I started as an intern and one of my friends that I went to college with at Middle Tennessee State was his assistant. She was teaching me what she was learning along the way, too. I had just moved to New York and was working at a wine store. I was interested in the business side of things because I knew that one day, I wanted to put out a record. I knew that I was so far from that when I started working. I didn’t even want him to know I was a musician, so I didn’t tell him. Then I was hand-making CDs out of my house and learning what blogs were. I had no idea.

I really think is so much more important are the peer to peer relationships, which should just be organic and real. People should nurture those relationships and really pay attention to them, hold on to them and really respect them. Not on the friendship level necessarily, but on the professional level. You don’t have to like a person to like their work, but if you like their work, you should stay in touch with them and you should see what they’re making and they should know what you’re making. Tending all of that takes a lot of energy, but that’s where the energy should be spent. If you do that things will come to you organically and they will be good. You should be paying attention to what’s going on in your field so that you can root for your peers as much as you can and so that they can root for you. This isn’t for the opportunistic sake of networking, which I hate the idea of, but because every artist needs to be challenged and stimulated constantly and that’s the best way.

I remember myself and my peers going to these meetings with important people and now, looking back at it, I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my god. What was I thinking?” What could this person have given me at that point and what is up with the brazenness of being a clueless kid asking someone who has accomplished so much for help? What is he going to do, throw a million dollars at you to make a project when you’ve never made anything at all before? It just doesn’t happen that way. It took me a long time to understand it. Maybe there were years at first where I pretended to understand it, but I didn’t truly understand it for years. It takes time, I think, to get how the professional art and film worlds actually work. Establishing relationships with people is something different than just networking. Nothing happens overnight.

I tell my students the realities as I have experienced them. I try to give them insights into funding for the arts and working in the art world to make connections. For me that means to really and truly make friends with people who are going to inspire you and be lasting inspirational forces in your life. I tell them to go to galleries, but not with this idea of simply networking. That will exhaust you very quickly. I tell them: go to the galleries that you are naturally drawn to and spend time with work that you happen to like and artists that you admire. Find them. It’s pretty simple. Follow the bliss.

It’s just I think about this in my life, too: there are authors, countless authors, whose books I’ve read that have really changed my life, and had an impact on me. Have I ever bothered to tell them? No. There’s this assumption of like, “Oh, that person’s too famous.” Or, they’re like, “Well, their book was published so obviously they know they’re great.” The older I get, the more I’m like, “Christ, write to everybody you admire. Write to everyone who ever meant anything to you, because chances are good that even if they do get a ton of fan mail, it’s still one more little pebble in the jar of “Hey, you’re doing something worthwhile with your life. Hey, you’re making a difference.”

About the Author

Willa Köerner

Creative Content Director

Willa Köerner is the Creative Content Director for The Creative Independent, a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for artists. Before TCI, Willa directed editorial and content strategy initiatives at Kickstarter, and before that, she managed digital engagement at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is currently a NEW INC mentor, and was formerly a founding member of Grey Area Art + Technology’s Cultural Incubator. Willa has worked as a creative strategist for a wide range of arts organizations including the Smithsonian, Electric Objects, and Art21, and has been known to write, edit, curate, and create art for all sorts of cultural projects. She’s also currently working on a long-term plan to establish a futuristic, artist-centric foundation in Upstate NY.


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