How to Talk to an Artist

You’re at an art fair, and you spot a work of art that intrigues you. You have the opportunity to ask the artist about the piece–after all, the artist is sitting right there in the booth–but you’re not quite sure what to say. An awkward comment could make the artist feel vulnerable to criticism, causing communication between the artist and viewer to quickly shut down. The following suggestions should offer some perspective.

Here are a few examples of what NOT to say:

– “What is it?”
Every work of art doesn’t have to literally represent something. Instead, describe what you see or feel, then ask what the artist intended to convey.

– “Do you have any extra paintings/photos/sculptures/etc. you don’t want anymore?”
Do you ask bankers if they have any extra money they don’t want?

– “Your work is exactly like so-and-so’s.”
This comment will make the artist feel unoriginal.

– “What do you do for a living?”
Making art is what they do for a living.

– “You should have done it this way …”
To many artists, critical or negative comments are just as insulting as saying, “You should lose weight.” Your opinion is subjective. Try to respect their effort, even if you can’t admire the work itself.

– “How can you charge so much for one piece of art? I could buy a car for that amount!”
Instead say, “I really like that piece. I would buy it if I had the money.”

– “How long did it take you to do that?”
Many artists labor for hours to create the perfect piece. Instead, comment, “This piece must have taken a lot of work/thought/discipline.”

Often, being quiet in front of a work is the best response; it indicates that you’re looking carefully and thinking about what you’re seeing. When you consider that it can take weeks–months–even years–to make an art object, looking hard is a respectful thing to do.

Open-ended questions are also welcomed: Who influences you? Why do you work at this scale? Why did you start painting patterns? How do you know when a series is finished? How did you make that?

And of course, artists always love to hear, “I love your work. Is this for sale?” and “Can I pay in cash?”