General 12-10-2003

Ask Dr. Art

Dr. Art on Developing Your Artist Portfolio

Summer 1999, Vol. 15, No. 2

Everything in the art world slows down during the summer months. The

number of exhibitions and openings dwindle as many galleries close for

vacation. The summer is therefore the perfect time for artists to rethink

their presentation materials. With that in mind, the Hotline’s first column

is a refresher course on one of the basics: the artist’s portfolio. Here

are some answers to questions concerning your portfolio.

What role does my portfolio play in applying to a gallery?

When first applying to a gallery, your purpose is not to immediately

get an exhibition, but to introduce them to your work. Hopefully your

work will incite them to schedule a studio visit. Following your studio

visit, you may then be included in a group show or two at the gallery.

Group shows are good testing grounds for galleries to see how critics

and collectors respond to your work. Only after first developing a solid

relationship, will you later be considered for a solo exhibition at the


Make sure that the gallery you are applying to exhibits artwork in your

style and/or medium. If you are an abstract painter, for example, you

should never submit your portfolio to a gallery that shows only representational

photography. Artists should also keep in mind the real purpose of your


What should my portfolio contain?

Once you locate a potential gallery, your artist’s portfolio should always

contain the following items:

  • A cover letter
  • An artist resume (also known as a Curriculum Vitae)
  • An artist statement
  • Visual materials (such as slides, photographs, videotapes, etc.)
  • A press packet (your reviews, catalogue excerpts, etc.)
  • A self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with enough return postage.

What should I say in my cover letter?

Every time you apply for gallery representation, you must submit a cover

letter. It is a good way to briefly introduce yourself and your work to

the gallery. There is a certain format for writing an effective cover

letter. The letter begins with an introductory paragraph in which you

describe who you are (i.e. a photographer from Buffalo) and the purpose

of the portfolio (i.e. “to introduce you to my recent series of photographs”).

The second paragraph highlights a few of your recent achievements from

your artist resume. The third paragraph gives a brief description of your

work, possibly highlighting excerpts from your artist statement. The final

paragraph should conclude with an open invitation either to send additional

materials if needed, or to arrange a studio visit at the curator’s earliest


What is the purpose of my artist resume?

The purpose of your artist resume is to impress others in the arts –

anyone who can help you forward your career. This includes people like

gallerists, dealers, curators, jurors, collectors, etc. A resume should

give the reader a sense of who you are, where you are from, where you

studied, where you have exhibited your work, what awards you have won,

who has collected your work, and what has been written about your work.

It should be straightforward and comprehensive, free of any personal theories

or beliefs.

An artist resume is not used to find employment and it is not necessarily

limited to one page in length. It should list only your art achievements.

On your artist resume, do not include any career or employment related

experience unless it is absolutely pertinent to your artwork. If you are

an emerging artist, you may want to list your achievements as a student.

Artists who have had no formal training and no exhibition history may

want to write a personal narrative statement instead of an artist resume.

What should my artist statement say?

An artist statement is a written description of your work that gives

your audience deeper insight into it. It may include your personal history,

the symbolism you give your materials, or the issues you address. Your

statement should include whatever is most important to you and your work.

What about my slides?

Your visual materials, slides and/or color prints of your work, are the

most important part of your portfolio and most artists underestimate their

importance. Whenever you submit your slides, whether to a gallery or for

a grant, they must accurately describe how your work looks to the viewer.

Slides that are too light, too dark, or are out of focus should never

be submitted. Detailed slides of work should also be taken if a single

overview is not descriptive enough. The Hotline also recommends taking

slides showing installation views of several pieces at a time to create

a sense of context for the work.

Submit anywhere from ten to twenty slides, but never more than a full

sheet as an introduction to your work. Use current work only – never submit

a survey of your work over the past ten years.

Additional information:

For additional information concerning portfolio development, contact

NYFA Source at our toll-free number (800) 232-2789,

or by e-mail at


  • How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without

    Selling Your Soul, by Caroll Michels. Fourth Edition, Published by Henry

    Holt and Co., New York, 1997, $14.95.

  • Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist, by Cay Lang.

    Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1999, $16.95.

Special Thanks To The Hotline’s Consortium

A project of the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Visual Artist

Information Hotline is made possible by the generous support by the following

Consortium of organizations and individuals: Albert A. List Foundation;

The Alice Baber Art Fund; Basil H. Alkazzi; The Andy Warhol Foundation

for the Visual Arts; The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts; Fleishhacker

Foundation; Virginia Gilder; The Joan Mitchell Foundation; The Judith

Rothschild Foundation; Lannan Foundation; Lily Auchincloss Foundation;

The Liman Foundation; The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation; National

Endowment for the Arts; The Peter Norton Family Foundation; Pew Fellowships

in the Arts; The Pollock-Krasner Foundation; and the Richard A. Florsheim

Art Fund.

This article originally appeared in the New York Foundation for the Arts’ NYFA Quarterly (Summer 1999, Volume 15, No. 2)/website, NYFA Interactive:  For additional information about NYFA and its programs, please visit the NYFA Interactive website at For information on NYFA Source, a national directory of programs for artists in all disciplines, go to, or call live technical assistance for the visual and performing arts at 1-800-232-2789, or email for (visual arts), or (performing arts).