11 Art World Rules Decoded for 20-Something Newbies

Allow us to guide you through the social minefield known as the art world.

Young art patrons at the Guggenheim Young Collectors Party.

For a newcomer, the art world can often feel like a social minefield, booby-trapped so that as soon as you start to make progress in establishing a name for yourself, you screw it up with a big-time blunder. Luckily, we’ve got you covered on how to navigate everything from an open bar to a Twitter troll.

Here are those unofficial rules and our helpful tips for decoding what they really mean:

1. Go to the openings “for the art.”
We all know that certain days of the week are designated for openings and that you must attend that Judith Bernstein show at Mary Boone to check out her latest works (see Piper Marshall Brings Four Solo Shows of Female Artists to Mary Boone). But we all also know that “opening” is code for “free booze” and that it’s actually really difficult to see the work when the gallery or museum is packed to the gills with people. As long as you don’t fall over, break the art, or start babbling about why MoMA’s Björk show is actually really great (see Ladies and Gentlemen, the Björk Show at MoMA Is Bad, Really Bad), that extra glass of wine will probably be forgiven.

2. Be part of an art world power couple.
The allure of being one half of an art world power couple is strong, to be sure (see How 8 Art World Power Couples Met and Fell In Love For Valentine’s Day10 Los Angeles Art Power Couples You Need To Know), as is the bevy of connections and the status upgrade you get from being seen with a person who’s already well-known. But what’s not alluring is running into that person, and probably their new significant other, at what’s sure to feel like every single event for the rest of your career. So unless you’re sure your art world crush is really the one, you’re probably better off sticking to Tinder, where old hookups can be disposed of as easily as a business card.

3. Make sure to be seen at the right parties.
While showing up at all (or at least some) of the right parties can help you build a name, make sure you’re actually on the list before you march up to the door. Crashing parties is generally viewed as tacky and weird—and word eventually gets around. The exception, however, is at Art Basel in Miami Beach—the art world’s very own spring break. If it’s between seeing Miley Cyrus perform at an exclusive concert and not seeing Miley Cyrus perform at an exclusive concert, sometimes it’s worth dealing with the potential repercussions to your reputation (see Inside Miley Cyrus’s Exclusive ABMB Concert). But in New York, it’s a definite faux pas.

4. Join in on the smack-talking.
The more wealthy, famous, and successful someone is, the more it’s not only acceptable, but even encouraged to talk a little smack about them. After all, do you really think larger-than-life figures like Larry Gagosian and Damien Hirst concern themselves very much with your opinions of them? Making a well-placed wisecrack about someone in a position of unimpeachable power is often a way to ingratiate yourself with the other 99 percent. But generally, there’s no reason to be snarky about other people who are just trying to make their way in this crazy world. And never, ever badmouth co-workers, your boss, or your dealer.

5. Be a social media whiz.
Maintaining a smart, up-to-the-minute social media presence is paramount for success in the art world (see 10 Tips for Promoting Yourself on Instagram). But at some point, you will likely encounter a troll—someone who has nothing better to do than attack you from behind the safety of a computer screen. Ten-tweet-long rants, avalanches of combative Facebook comments, and ranting emails are often better off ignored. Do what you have to do to diffuse the situation, and then disengage completely (see Loris Gréaud Tells Critic She’s Undersexed and Ignorant and Did Loris Gréaud Punk Us All with Sexist Emails?). Haters are going to hate, and most of the time, flying off the handle in response will only make it worse.

6. Drop names early and often in any conversation.
People in the art world generally respond well to name-dropping, as long as it isn’t completely gratuitous and you know what you’re talking about. But we wary, for there are really only two types of names worth dropping: really famous people, places, and things or really obscure people, places, and things. So if you’re about to tell a story about drunkenly meeting Jeff Koons at a Venus Over Manhattan after party or about your weekend trip to an underground art show in Red Hook, great. Anything in between isn’t worth it.

7. Know who’s who.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than sidling up to someone, casually asking if they are an artist, and then learning you’re actually standing in the middle of their opening. Or their gallery. Before you head out, it’s worth putting in a couple minutes with Google or the website of red carpet shutterbug Patrick McMullan to make sure you at least know who the key players are.

Of course, there’s another side to this coin: that moment when you eventually come face to face with that artist/gallerist/critic you’ve been obsessed with since your freshman year art history survey. Try to keep the fangirling to a minimum—you’re not a preteen, and they’re not Justin Bieber. Tell them how much you respect and admire their work, but remain composed and save the heart-shaped emojis for the texts you’ll inevitably send to your art-savvy friends later.

8. Befriend the society photographers.
It’s wise to make friends with a few photogs (not to mention society page editors) to ensure that the picture of you with your eyes half-open doesn’t make it onto the website of the art world’s other major event photographer, Billy Farrell Associates (BFA). Treat it like a game: give yourself +1 point for each Patrick McMullan, BFA, or Guest of a Guest picture taken of you; -1 for each one taken from an unflattering angle; +5 for getting snapped by Bill Cunningham (see On Instagram, Bill Cunningham Is NYFW’s Biggest Hit); and +5 more if the picture actually makes it into the New York Times‘ Sunday Styles section. Please don’t approach photographers asking them to take your picture. Wait for them to come to you. If you’ve got on a fun outfit and a killer smile, they’ll be drawn to you like moths to a flame.

9. Huff and puff about art fairs.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of art fairs, people in the art world like to pretend they don’t enjoy art fairs. It’s cool to huff and puff about what a slog it all is and how exhausted you are, but it’s nevertheless paramount that you continue to show up every year, or month, or week (depending on your schedule), if for no other reason than to huff and puff about what a slog it all is and how exhausted you are.

10. Join a museum’s young members committee.
Joining a young members committee is traditionally seen as one of the best ways to meet other art enthusiasts—not to mention eligible bachelors and bachelorettes and a well-heeled, socially inclined set of new friends. That is, if you have about $500 a year to drop. We hear the Guggenheim, the Frick Collection, and the Whitney Museum of American Art are solid options, especially with the Whitney gearing up for a big inaugural year in its new home (see Does the New Whitney Museum Herald a Golden Age for New York Institutions?). But be wary: some of the committees have gotten so large that the members barely know each other. And you’ll typically have to plunk down another chunk of change for tickets to the institution’s semi-annual parties.

11. Start an art collection.
It’s never too soon to start amassing a great collection, especially if you can buy work from up-and-coming artists while you can still afford them. If you’re an artist too (or perhaps you have something else to offer), you can always attempt to barter. After all, who better to invest in than your talented pals? If you don’t know any artists personally yet, try checking out MFA shows at art schools, the satellite art fairs that orbit around big ones like Armory and Frieze, and off-the-beaten-path spaces.


Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics