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Art Openings for Dummies

How to behave at an art show.

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Ah, art openings! These sophisticated events offer a chance to sip wine, munch on cheese, chat with old buddies, and oh yeah, view the artwork. Openings have a way of making even the most barbaric attendees feel refined. For art collectors, openings offer a chance to purchase never-before-seen pieces, and for artists and gallery owners, these nights do wonders for sales.

And that's exactly why you should behave yourself. Spilling wine on a thousand-dollar painting will not only prevent the sale of a valuable piece, it'll also piss off the artist and gallery owner. You'll probably get kicked out, and then you won't feel so refined, now will you?

An extreme scenario, but it happens. What follows is a lesson in art-opening etiquette to prevent such embarrassing occurrences:

1. The Art Show Is Not a Bar

The wine may be free, but that's no reason to drink 10 glasses. Wendy Sumner Winter of the Midtown Artist Market Gallery says two or three glasses is about average. She says if you drink more than that, you'd better be buying something since wine is considered an advertising expense for the artist.

Besides, when you drink too much, you get clumsy and careless, a dangerous state around valuable artwork.

"We had an artist who had made a steak out of lipstick. She'd taken tubes and tubes of lipstick and mashed them together," says Teresa White at Studio 1688. "By the end of the night, a guy got a little loose and decided to karate chop the steak. His friends ushered him to the car, and they took off before we could catch him."

David Lusk of the David Lusk Gallery says it best: "Belligerent drunks are always a bad thing."

2. Eat Dinner First

At Disciple Gallery, owner Craig Thompson doesn't serve wine. But he does serve a nice array of hors d'oeuvres, and he sees plenty of people head straight for the food as they walk through the doors. It's polite, he says, to at least glance at the art before noshing. And remember to leave plenty for everyone else.

"You don't go in there for a meal," says Thompson. "If you're going to stay for a while, like if you're friends with the artist, wait until later to dive into the food."

3. Don't Be a Chatty Cathy

What was she thinking when she painted that piece? Go ahead and ask the artist or gallery owner. But unless you plan on purchasing the piece, keep the conversation brief.

"People will spend hours talking about their brother-in-law or sister who can paint and you enjoy the conversation, but if the person has no intention of buying, gallery owners have got to divide their attention with everybody for business' sake," says Jane Croy of Artists on Central. "Try not to take up too much time, especially on opening day."

4. You Break, You Buy

Drunk or not, accidents do happen. And if they're your fault, you need to take responsibility.

"We've had people break pieces then sneak out. That really puts [gallery owners] on the spot," says Sumner Winter. "At our most recent show, we had someone break a thousand-dollar sculpture, and we didn't know about it until later. We don't know who it was."

As a general rule, White advises people to maintain some distance from the art and keep their hands off, unless the art is interactive.

5. Leave Your Portfolio at Home

When the gallery owner is decked out in his or her Friday-night finest and sipping a glass of Merlot, it may seem like a festive time to introduce your own fantastic artwork, but you'd be wrong.

"Don't tell the gallery owner that you've brought your portfolio," says Jay Etkin of Jay Etkin Gallery. "That is not appropriate during an opening."

Besides, many galleries like the Midtown Artist Market select artists through a juried process. Showing work only to the gallery owner will do no good.

"They should make an appointment. Going through a more formal method tells me something about the artist," says Sumner Winter. "If the artist is willing to interrupt you while you're making sales for someone else, that means they might not be very pleasant to deal with in general."

6. It's Not a Flea Market

So you've found that perfect piece. It speaks to you, but it costs an arm and a leg. When you're buying art, you should expect to pay the price. Sumner Winter says some people try and talk artists down.

"What's worse is that artists are sometimes so hungry that they'll take it, which perpetuates that," she says. "Artists don't generally inflate their prices. It's kind of what the market will bare."

Some galleries, like Jay Etkin, offer payment plans, and most accept credit cards and checks.

7. When It's Over, It's Over

The night's winding down and you're still chatting away with friends when the lights flash. Don't ignore this. It's a polite way of telling guests the show is over.

"We do that and people still continue to hang around," says Lusk. "It's been a long day for the artist and the dealer. When time is up, it's up."

Some gallery owners, like Linda Ross of L Ross Gallery, say they don't mind people sticking around an extra half hour, but that's it.

Etkin says he starts shooing people out 30 minutes past closing time.

Don't let that be you. Being kicked out of an art show is no way to feel refined.

bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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