An Introverted Artist’s Guide to Networking
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
Are you an introvert trying to navigate the creative industry as a newcomer or professional? Read through my practical tips in successful networking.
The Antisocial Butterfly
At the time of writing I just came back from an entire evening of socializing with artists and art enthusiasts in the city. It was a different kind of high. I have been doing so in several occasions already in the past weeks. Each one of them planned on my calendar because I cannot do spontaneous activities when it comes to meeting people. There is much mind conditioning involved before I step out of that door.
One of my goals this year is to get to know more people, artists to be precise. 6 years away from Stuttgart has left me friendless and especially wanting of birds of the same feathers despite my antisocial quirks.
In other words, I am an introvert and it has been an impediment for the most part of my professional life and basically my entire social life. Introversion does not equate shyness. No. No. No. In fact one can be confident and be introverted at the same time. Introverts are defined by their capacity to tolerate coexistence with a large number of people within a space at a given period of time. Introverts are differentiated by their response to internal and external stimulants. We thrive in the quiet. Experts talk of introverts’ depleted energies and recharging after a hard day’s work of socializing. While the opposite, the generally celebrated extrovert, enjoys, basks and shines in the company of people, an introvert can only do so for a limited time and as little encounter as possible. Why?
According to science, the introvert’s brain is sensitive to dopamine, the happy hormone, the addiction hormone. Too much dopamine overstimulates the introverted brain, which is really hardwired to calmness.
You will usually find the introvert observing in the far corner of a room or surveying along the perimeters and in special circumstances performing in front of everyone else. Note that there will always be a barrier, physical or invisible, between the introvert and the majority.
If you are an introverted artist, then you may have already dug through the information you need to address your social interaction issues. You may even have a detailed profile of your introverted personality type (I am an Advocate INFJ according to Meyers-Briggs). You may also have found helpful tips online about networking. In fact, I was in doubt if I am an authority about the subject matter but after some procrastination and internalization, I thought I would share with you my own practical methods on how to metamorphose into a social butterfly. If you are however an extroverted creative person, congrats! You are a natural in this. Help us!
Conserve your energy
Prepare for the social activities by preserving your energy for a week, which means not having major events prior. In my experience I find this to be super effective. As a freelance illustrator, I work at home. The only person I interact with is my husband, who has a 7-9 work day all week. It is the best scenario for me. But there comes a time when I yearn for social interactions or even being surrounded by people. That is the time to emerge from your cave and experience the outside world. So when you are invited to a gathering on a weekend, you are ready and quite excited to exchange not only small talks but also stories. Limit your lunch dates with friends once a week and please, no double booking an appointment in a day or even consecutive days. If for some unavoidable circumstance I was engaged in a series of meetings, especially when speaking German, I would find myself butchering the language or falling asleep towards the end of a highly social day. Our friends here have come to know me as a sleepy head when in fact, I was just running out of grey matter juices!
Have a goal
What is the purpose of you entering a room full of strangers when you could be in hygge mode in your own home? It always helps if you have a goal when socializing. That way, you can plan your actions accordingly. Think of it as though you’re entering a tunnel and your only focus is to reach the other end.
Ask yourself, what kind of gatherings interests you? An art exhibition opening? A children’s book fair? Do you want to meet artists? Art directors, clients, or curators? Once you have figured this out, you are ready to map out your mingling moves. When meeting key personalities, find out more about them beforehand. Most people have online profiles and chances are you already have something in common to begin a potentially interesting conversation.
Join an art club and participate
The only way to find your people, i.e. artists, is by joining a group. Before we moved back to Stuttgart last year, I searched for art clubs, or Kunstverein in German. Even though these art clubs are focused in fine arts, I chose the one that best fits my kind of art. Künstlerhaus Stuttgart was established by artists in 1978 "as a vital space for rethinking the means by which art is produced." I knew I wanted to create more paintings and becoming a member for a minimal annual fee would allow me access to the activities, workshops, atelier usage and exhibitions initiated by the organization. You might also expect that Germany is an international forerunner in artistic excellence and artist support through government and institutional fundings. Your assignment is to find out who, what, where and how. Another advantage is that Künstlerhaus Stuttgart is just a few blocks away from my home. Convenience in travel distance is a crucial factor to drag me out of my house every now and then.
Perhaps a long term commitment is not for you. In this case another option would be to join a group who meets once a month for creative activities. It could be a more focused group who does sketching of urban locations, a watercoloring group, a pottery group and so on. Sometimes they even find you in social media and invite you to join them. I was fortunate to have been extended such invitations by Instagram followers, who eventually became friends. Recently, I have been asked to participate in a doodling session for a charity called 1000 Drawings Stuttgart, that aims to collect 1000 artworks during these meetings and sell each artwork for €10 during the exhibition where all proceeds go to ABI West, a local kindergarten, STELP e.V., civil aid organization from Stuttgart, and Paballo Ya Batho, a soup kitchen in Johannesburg, South Africa, which actually attracted me to the cause. I went and painted along local artists of all levels and even met talented Ukrainian artists, too, whom I immediately hugged for solidarity. One of them is even a sponsored artist resident of the same art club, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. We kept in contact through social media and met a few more times in other art events.
Be genuinely interested in people
Ask them questions about their interests and what they do. Make small talks work for you by asking unexpected questions to break the ice. Experts also suggested to vary your querying through great, curious, naive or even absurd questions to keep the other person interested and urge them to contribute to the dialogue. Also keep eye contact during conversations. Offer to get them a drink if you want to continue the bonding.
In one art workshop hosted by our art club where I went on my own, I took a spot that faced the room by the long table with empty chairs. That way, I could see the activity of people and at the same time, I would appear open to interact. In my mind, I was good. I have prepared for this moment for weeks. I was ready to chit-chat. A senior gentleman with smiling eyes took the seat beside me and he began by asking me about my area of artistic expertise. I then asked him about his involvement in the organization. He is an autobiographical novelist, who is soon to publish a fictionalized memoir about his childhood and siblings. We then exchanged stories about our families and discovered how much in common we have in our family dynamics despite the differences in generation, culture and language. I tried my best to converse in German and he was kind enough to explain unfamiliar terms when I asked him. He would always sit beside me during coffee breaks and we would pick up from our last topic.
Here is Bridget Jones and her networking skills:
Find the sweet spot
Literally find a spot in the room where you have the best vantage point as I have mentioned in the scenario above. That way, you could easily asses the arena before you could begin engaging just like an actor entering the stage for the first time. Dress and smell nicely, too. As Emmy-winner writer-actor, Phoebe Waller-Bridge expertly noted, you will never know who will hug you.
You see, I am a performer. In high school I sang solo and in a band, I was in a drama club as an actor, writer and director, I was a consistent class officer, a team leader, I was the designated artist and according to our yearbook circa 1998, the most popular girl in a school of 1000 students. If there was one strength I could flaunt that was my ability to make myself relevant and stand out from the rest by performing and being the best in whatever I did simply because I was passionate about it. Being famous was a just result. The advantage of being popular as an undiagnosed introvert was I did not even have to lift an arm to introduce myself to fellow school kids. They come to me. Seriously, kids would leave gifts or sweet notes for me in the form of scented stationeries, post its, or greeting cards on our designated lunch table in the canteen just saying “hi” or “I hope you had a good day today” or “good luck with the test”! I kept some of those in a tin box, mind you. Just imagine if there were social media back then.
I milked that popularity. I even literally cut my own hair short and acted like a tomboy to the derision of our iron-fisted nun school principal, bless her soul, so that I would stand out in a sea of an all girls Catholic school. My immediate suspension and public humiliation accompanied by mock whipping with a pointer stick (yes, it was brutal during our time) inducted me to the hall of fame! As a teenager, I was exceptionally skilled at making a spectacle of myself to mask my social awkwardness.
Despite all of that, I remained within a group of 5 best girl friends whom I still cherish to this day and who still find me weird yet talented at the same time. Out of my precious 4, I confided only to one. I was never a social butterfly. In fact, I would often sit under a tree and just watch kids play on school grounds after school. I would bury my head in my notebook doodling or writing all my ideas while nonchalantly nodding to greetings from fans (I am laughing at myself right now for how conceited this sounds!). I made sure there was an adequate gap between myself and everyone else. Because of that I have learned how to observe people, read their movements, mannerisms and expressions. I even trained myself to sit quietly and track the thread of conversation from point A to Z. I used that to understand a person as well as create characters in my stories and my art. I used the barrier effectively so I could perform on a stage in front of everyone until it was time for me to retreat back into my cave, my fantasy world, to recuperate.
Bring a friend along or not
Speaking of friends, having a friend may be advantageous or disadvantageous depending on your objective. If you mean to network, then it maybe best for you to work the room on your own. A friend might be nice to have conversations with but the tendency here is that you will be in your own little bubble and the point of networking is to meet new people. If you wish to have moral support or someone to share your moment of triumph, then by all means share with your loved ones. However if you hang around with your close friends the entire time then you will lose some opportunity to widen your circle. I learned this on one occasion during an art exhibition. Because I was their main point of contact in the event, my friends were glued to me the whole evening, which prevented me from circulating. Don’t get me wrong, I treasured my friends for being there but unless they were open to interact, the purpose of networking was defeated. Which is why it is crucial to have a goal and stay focused. Good thing I have anticipated such a scenario so I made it a point to acquaint myself to other artist members prior to the opening of our club’s group exhibition. I offered to lend a hand during the installation. Call it bribery but I brought snacks for total recall. Come opening night, I knew almost everyone on the floor, who then introduced me to more people. As for your friends, let them come a little later so you will have time to mingle with other people. Once they have arrived, you have already established meaningful acquaintances and now you could give your friends your full attention and become their gallery tour guide.
So you have exchanged contact details or social media accounts. This means they are genuinely interested to remain in contact so keep it. Send them the pictures you have taken with them or even short but sweet messages for total recall. I also asked permission if they wanted their photos to be shared. When you post in Instagram, tag them.
The best way to make your own opportunities is by inviting one or two people for tea or coffee or likewise accept invitations but only if you really want to continue the acquaintance. Be always polite and honest if you must decline. Remember that these are people you just met. Respect their time and space as you would want yours to be respected too.
Nothing is more attractive than an authentic person. Confidence comes from within—from years of getting to know yourself while navigating the society. I have decades of working with clients and that people skills can be put to use in any social situation. When I said I was a performer, it meant putting on different hats but still remaining true to myself. It could also mean exaggerating other abilities to get you through the business of networking. My husband, a reserved extrovert, once pointed out to me that I am naturally charming but I often resisted the attention. In my defense, I just needed my precious space most of the time.
During a seminar on the discussion about networking, I asked a dumb question: What chance do I have as a foreign artist in Germany for foundations or sponsors to pay attention to me when I am unable to express myself so eloquently like a native speaker? To my surprise, that question opened a can of worms about discrimination and inequality, to which at this point all eyes were on me. The German panelists, all artists, proposed finding the right person in the foundation to contact, while another suggested to simply ask help from German friends to check your writing or alternatively though not quite ingeniously, Google translate. However one Congolese artist in the audience admitted the hard truth that in his own experience, despite living in Germany for 20 years, he still struggled to write request letters for sponsorships and would only get support if he wrote in German. By the end of the session, almost everyone wanted to speak to me to offer solutions. One of the most sincere responses was to be yourself. Your character and intentions will always shine through regardless of language. Of course that remains to be proven once I begin searching for opportunities in my adoptive country.
What chance do I have as a foreign artist in Germany for foundations or sponsors to pay attention to me when I am unable to express myself so eloquently like a native speaker?
The most important part was I have met a few more artists that day, who were open to more than just creative exchanges, all because I was brave and vulnerable enough to ask a difficult question. We had a bit of laugh, drinks and bites as we grew our fun circle in that room full of artists. Strange enough I was in high spirits even when I reached home. I swear I did not go out again for a week!
Why is networking important?
Short answer is, if you want to succeed as an artist you need to know people who are already inside the club. Jerry Saltz, acclaimed and self-proclaimed art critic and Pulitzer Prize author of How To Be An Artist, generously responded to my random Instagram DM, “You must stay up late with other artists and work, work, work.” He encouraged everyone to message him by the way and so I did.
If you want to break into the art world or any industry, learn as much as you can about it. Research. Explore and understand all nooks and crannies to become an authority in your field so you could share your knowledge to newcomers and engage experts alike. Find the people who will open and hold doors for you. Networking is a marketing tool for your brand. You network not to sell art but to earn people’s trust, to build a reputation. This takes years to nourish and nurture. You are also not required to make the people you meet your instant best friends though in time it is possible. Homo sapiens have survived because we are social beings. The internet and social media age worsened by the global pandemic had all of us trapped behind our monitors. Younger generations have lost the ability to significantly connect with people in person and we have conveniently canned ourselves within the constructs and confines of personality traits, which limit us from truly maximizing our individual skills sets. You could definitely leverage your introversion in social situations because one thing is for certain, as an introvert, you instinctively understand people. You have the ability to listen before speaking your thoughts and you have a wealth of knowledge to share to the rest of mankind. Nelson Mandela is universally regarded as a great leader because he would listen first to everybody and speak last. He was also thought to be an introvert.
“Use your natural powers of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply”. -Susan Cain, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”
As an introvert you must acknowledge that networking can be challenging and overstimulating, but if you think it is necessary for your work, then do it. Rather than engaging in small talks, pursue deeper conversations in any social situation because you are at your best form that way. The empath in you will know which one in the room is willing to indulge you. Learning how to network is another tool in your toolkit.
Remember also that conversion to sales is just a result but this should not be the main goal. I have donated a few prints of my best artworks that I knew would sell to the cause of 1000 Drawings Stuttgart because I wanted them to succeed in helping the needy in South Africa and other institutions in Stuttgart. All pieces were sold out. By the end of the evening, I had a few people wanting my autograph, contact details and also more of my artwork prints to order. I also received a couple more invitations to join casual artist meetings. The best take away for you perhaps from such events is that people will now put you under their radar. You now exist in their world. This is one small step towards your ultimate goal. It is just a matter of practice and consistency.