The Art of Networking

As we emerge from two years of lockdowns getting out and about again can be a daunting prospect, in this week’s blog T Projects Director Victoria Jones talks with our Sydney based curator Sarah Hibbs about the dos and don’t of networking. Having recently attended the Melbourne Art Fair, Adelaide Biennial, Biennale of Sydney and Melbourne Design Fair, and we thought we'd have a discussion about networking: what to do, and what not to do.

Victoria: Sarah, at the art fair, we saw that you were an absolute ace networker! What would be your top tips on how to successfully network at an event like an art fair?

Sarah: First, to preface our conversation, I want to clarify that the term ‘networking’ can sometimes have negative and quite cynical connotations.

To frame it more positively, what we are talking about today is conducting ourselves in a professional way, that is collegiate and sincere and generative.

First and foremost, don't go into a room or a conversation thinking, "What can I get out of this?" Our aims should be to connect with people, to be helpful, and to leverage our networks. We are all nodes within a larger network, and by helping others, we collectively build a stronger arts ecology... and a stronger industry is a benefit to everyone.

Victoria: Absolutely, and I would say that you are an excellent connector; you were really amazing at that. In these networking situations, it's important not only to talk, but also to listen. As you said, it's not about ‘what can I get’, it's actually about who you're going to meet and what you're going to listen to. Listening is so important and shows that you’re respecting what others are saying and showing that you respect their point of view - whatever the subject is.

The other thing that you and I have talked about before is, especially for artists (but also for curators and arts professionals) is the elevator pitch. Sometimes conversations are so brief and fleeting that when you're introduced to someone, you want to be able to very concisely tell them who you are and what you do. Do you have any thoughts on the ideal elevator pitch for that sort of event?

Sarah: Yes – absolutely – always be prepared. I used to work with a brilliant woman, the head of a Sydney-based institution, and she’s the most amazing public speaker – she really knows how to rally crowd. Over the years I learned from her to always have soundbites up your sleeve. I would advise everyone take some time to have a little brainstorming session, write down some key points about who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world, and then practice those soundbites in the mirror. That way, you’re always ready to go, you’re always prepared. You never know when you’re going to meeting someone and you never know what the circumstances will be. It could be on your way to work, it could be anywhere - not just at networking events – you’ll always have those key soundbites ready to go, so you're never caught off guard.

Victoria: I think that's really good advice. I know a couple of artists who have told me that they struggle for conversation and sometimes they feel like they stumble in certain situations.

From an artist's perspective, you should be ready to talk about things you have coming up, or if it's an artist talking to a gallerist, be ready to ask about the gallery program, or who they're representing - those sorts of things.

Sarah: I don't know if you feel it’s the same in the UK, but we're not really used to talking about our successes in Australia. We have a culture of tall poppy syndrome and so we don’t want to come across as “big-upping” ourselves, but this is something we must overcome and be proud of our achievements. There's nothing wrong with being proud of your successes!

Victoria: Absolutely, I would totally agree, and I think there is a bit of tall poppy syndrome everywhere.

Another thing to be aware of is that sometimes you may not know who you're talking to. You might not know who they are or what their job is, or what their sphere of influence may be. So never say anything that you wouldn’t mind being quoted on!

Sarah: Exactly, you also never know where you might run into someone down the track! As a rule, you should always treat people politely, with kindness and with respect. It shouldn’t matter who you're talking to, you should always treat people with respect and dignity.

I remember about ten years ago; I was interning in Gertrude Contemporary. The very talented and gorgeous Leigh Robb was curating the exhibition Octopus 11, and I was assigned to be her assistant for the week. She was so kind and generous, and at the end of the week, she took me out to lunch to say thank you - even though I was just an intern at the time. I mentioned this story to her in 2019 at her Adelaide Biennale and she has no recollection of it, but I'll always remember that as quite an important and formative experience for me.

Victoria: Let’s move on to talking about being comfortable in these networking situations, which for many can be an unnatural and uncomfortable space.

Sarah: Think of it like exposure therapy – the more you put yourself out of your comfort zone, the more you will become comfortable and confident in those situations. I have learned to reframe any nerves and reclassify them as a form of excitement. So, for example, if I had butterflies about public speaking, I try and shift that thinking and remember that I am excited!

Also remember if you have an awkward exchange, it's not the end of the world. We've all had awkward exchanges; we've all said and done things that you remember at 3 a.m. when you wake up and you think "I'm such an idiot. Why would I say that or why would I do that?" The benefit is that it will probably make for a funny story sometime later in life.

Victoria: You and I have also previously talked about saying yes when we’re able to, but not being afraid to say no. Can you expand on that a little.

Sarah: Yes, it’s so tempting to stretch ourselves too thinly. Particularly in the early stages of an artist’s career when they're really trying to establish a reputation. It can be hard to say no, but it's important to reflect 1) on your current workload, but also 2) what the project is and if it aligns with your own ethical and moral compass and artistic practice as well.

Victoria: I think that's really important for artists because it can give off the wrong message to be involved in the wrong projects. Artists need to be selective about the opportunities they apply for. Do not apply for anything that requires your creative input or time without paying a fee. That’s wrong and it shouldn't happen.

Sarah: There are so many wonderful facets about the creative industry and that's why we do what we do because we're passionate, but it can also be quite exploitative - exploiting arts workers and artists for their time and labour.

Sarah: Yes, it definitely can be an exploitative industry, and the only way to not get exploited is to not allow yourself to be exploited, which is easier said than done.

Victoria: And that also leads us onto another point we discussed – favours. Ok, so we do all ask for favours. We all get asked for favours and we ask others for favours. How do you navigate that?

Sarah: It's a fine line, isn't it? We're all trying to do a million things and there’s this kind of camaraderie where we want to help each other and bolster each other up, but at the same time we have to draw a line somewhere. But where do we draw it? I’m not sure I have an answer for you!

Victoria: I have to say I get asked for favours a lot, and I do a lot of favours, and I also ask for favours. It’s a give-and-take situation.

I was recently asked about doing some work that I have little experience with, that involved shipping artwork internationally. I called someone in a major gallery who I respect and like a lot. She had no particular reason to help me, but she was incredibly helpful. She gave me a contact of someone who could directly advise within that line of work. She had no obligation to help me – but it was a 20-minute call that was incredibly helpful, and I’ll rememeber her generosity and kindness.

When you're asking a favour, think about who can realistically help you. Asking someone for a favour who can't actually help you, is futile and it's a waste of your time, and their time. When you do ask for a favour, understand the extent to which people can help and the amount of time that is reasonable to ask someone for.

Sarah: Also, when you are asking for assistance, acknowledge that it is in fact ‘a favour’ and don't go into it with expectations. You’re not entitled to anyone else's time, and if they do graciously decide to help you, be grateful.

Sarah: To round up on networking - I have one more key networking tip to finish on - always carry business cards. When collecting business cards always remember to follow up afterwards too. When you come away from your event, make sure you follow up on any promises that you've made to people. Or just write a short message to say, "Hey, it was really lovely to meet you, here are my contact details.

#creativeindustries #networking