Creating Singing Work for Museums and Art Galleries

Creating a market for singing as a professional singer often requires thinking outside the box and seeing opportunities where others see nothing.

From 1985-2005 I was successful in creating programs and performing opportunities which were brought into many museums and art galleries in the Washington, DC area.

Combining art and music has always been a passionate interest. When I studied Latin and Greek in high school (hey, I wanted to, so there) I found out about the Greek work “ekphrasis,” which originally referred to the various perspectives of an object that a visual artist was painting or sculpting. It has come to mean poetry and prose written to describe visual art, and by extension, song and music written to describe visual art. For an opera history project in graduate school, I chose Paul Hindemith’s “Mathis der Mahler” to survey and was completely blown away by the story of the painter Mathias Grunwald told through the music of Hindemith.

Pavarotti, Joni Mitchell and Jerry Garcia are just a few musicians who all painted. Many singers I know are jewelry designers and artisan craftspeople. And it is most interesting for me to see this passed down to our adult son, Adam Neely, who has twice won the national young jazz composers’ ASCAP award as well as a grant from The Jerome Foundation.  He hears in color. (synesthesia.)

Anyway, I went into all that so you would see why pursuing work in museums and art galleries was a major love for me. I did it because it was an expression of my core self.

Here are some questions about this topic posed by singer Tiffany Thorpe on the New Forum for Classical Singers on Facebook. I asked Tiffany if I could use her questions as a jumping off point for this post and she agreed.

Tiffany: How would I go about proposing something like this to a gallery owner? How do I start the conversation?

Moi: I realize that things are quite different from even five years ago, but I think some things are the same. All my programs were built around what was being exhibited, and sometimes included poetry about the art or the subject of the exhibition. (I just got a Facebook message from Victoria Kirsch out in L.A. who has programmed in a similar manner!) This means that before you approach the museum programs’ director or gallery owner, do your homework. Find out what exhibits are planned for the next two years. Some exhibits are easier to plan music around than others.

(There is a great deal of research and imagination that goes into planning music around an exhibit but I love that kind of thing.)

Then you email the contact person, with their name spelled correctly, and introduce yourself. If you are not associated with an organization, say that you are a professional singer who specializes in integrating visual art with music. Even if you’ve done this only with children as a teacher or parent, that counts. Ask if they would be interested in collaborating with you on a program of music related to xyz exhibition. Always mention that it would be beneficial to the gallery/museum to combine audiences and that you would be able to bring in people to a program that might not visit the exhibit otherwise.

Along the way, sometimes I found out about a concert series that I did not know about—this was partially before the Internet. I actually cold-called a few program directors and got immediate positive results. Do not mention money or funding at this point unless they bring it up. Usually, if they are interested, they will respond to your email asking for a proposal or ask you what you have in mind.

Tiffany: What’s in it for them? What’s the normal percentage of ticket sales for the gallery owner or small venue to take?

Me: 1) You will be bringing more people into their space who would normally not be there and 2) help them to connect into the greater arts’ community via any publicity you generate. Think of your friends, work associates, students, church or temple connections, gym, child’s play group, book club, etc.and estimate how many people you might be able to draw in personally.

Financial or Other Compensation was different for each of my experiences. Each concert was negotiated differently, and each time I got smarter. Here are seven selected experiences to give you some ideas.

1984—Bethune Museum Archives, Washington, DC. (first meeting place for the National Council of Negro Women. ) Back then, The Washington Post had two arts’ reviewers who were known to be sympathetic to up-and-coming musicians. I contacted one of them, Calvin Le Compte, and let him know I had created a program of classical songs by African-American female composers (lots of time spent in the Library of Congress—pre-Google,) and he introduced me to the museum’s curator. She managed to come up with a tiny honorarium from The National Parks’ Service, but Le Compte wrote a wonderful review that appeared in the Post. The museum did a fair amount of publicity in their materials, which got my name out.

1986—My former chamber ensemble, The Amoroso Chamber Consort, performed for an afternoon Tea at Strathmore Mansion in North Bethesda, Maryland. This is a venue that has a small art gallery and concert hall. All the songs had to do with food or drink, including the soprano aria from the Bach Coffee Cantata. Their first financial offer was just tea and crumpets in exchange for our services. I said no. The negotiation went back and forth several times, but we eventually settled on–they would do their usual publicity, and pay us through another source other than the Tea IF we agreed to perform two sets back to back, and if we filled 3 tables with ticket-buying customers. I also reduced the ensemble from 5 to 3 people, and we made a decent wage.

1989–This same venue sponsored a John Cage Retrospective with him in attendance– both his art and music. I called the director of the John Cage Festival to pitch my wares and she asked for my resume and cassette demo. I did not get invited to do a program alongside Cage’s art installation, but I was invited to be the soprano in the John Cage Festival Orchestra! Note: I was the soprano IN the orchestra, not WITH the orchestra….and that score was very strange. And I got paid. And met John Cage.

1990—I approached a small art gallery in Kensington, MD, (now defunct) about bringing Hebrew and Sephardic songs to their gallery, as the gallery owner was Jewish and the art was very Chagall-like. She told me she already had a music series and put me in touch with their coordinator, who happened to be her husband. I auditioned for him and ended up singing 4 concerts with him and some fine instrumentalists. We shared ticket sales. Even though this wasn’t a big money-maker, the venue was 5 minutes from my home—I had a toddler then–and I didn’t have the responsibility of singing an entire new program. I got to perform some awesome chamber music. I did bring in many people to the gallery to hear me sing who would not have gone in normally.

2005—I noticed that the National Museum of Women in the Arts was sponsoring an exhibit called “Nordic Cool: Hot Female Designers,” and I cold-called their program director to offer a noon-time program featuring Nordic composers. I arranged a collaboration among them, me and Levine Music, where I received a faculty grant to execute this project. I typed up the program and Levine printed them for me. The museum contributed wonderful publicity and set up, including a tuned grand piano. The central rotunda, where the concert took place, was full. Later I would sing an evening program on their concert stage, with advance ticket sales of $20.00 a piece. We split the proceeds 50/50. That wasn’t as successful financially or in the way logistics were handled.

2007–This story is a good one. The Smithsonian Resident Associates program contacted me to do the Nordic program I had sung for the NMWA. They were having a Swedish festival and wanted the concert performed at the New House of Sweden, by the Potomac River, that had a new art exhibit of Nordic multi-media artists. Their financial offer was insultingly low and they would not budge. AND, get this–they actually asked me to bring a piano.

After I got over THAT, I said, seriously, “well, I have a portable Yamaha digital but you will have to pay ten times what you are offering. If you do that, I not only will get the piano to the venue, but you will have solved the piano situation and the musicians with this one phone call. I never dreamed they would accept it.

2008—I cold-called the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, when I noticed that they had an upcoming exhibit of American quilts. I offered them a program I had written about quilts and quilting several years before for a women’s chorus which I conducted. This is how I was paid: I formed another women’s chorus that met every week for 5 months to learn the program, and the women paid me a preset fee which was handled by a former student who acted as business manager. From that fee I paid my accompanist, paid for a good recording and the rental on the church room where we rehearsed. The second floor recital hall of the Renwick Gallery was packed with standing room only, and it was a wonderful experience for everyone. I am still in afterglow 6 years later! The museum printed the program for us and created beautiful posters and publicity.

General thoughts

1. Each situation is different and needs to be handled creatively, but I went into each conversation with information. I also knew what I could and could not live with in terms of pay and extra responsibilities. The Smithsonian was a weird one. If I didn’t have an athlete for a husband that piano would never have made it…

2. Be specific about what publicity they will do and what you will do. You will be responsible for creating copy and making sure it reads well. Don’t leave it up to them or your name will appear as Adele Dazeem.

3. Some places have a set fee and percentage for ticket sales, and some are open to negotiation. Do your homework, and above all, practice what you are going to say to just say it. Often your confident, relaxed delivery speaks volumes about what you are willing to accept.

4. Yes, it is a huge amount of work. That’s the business. Like I said, decide what you can and can not do.

5. If there are ticket sales involved, always have the museum or gallery handle that. You have more than enough to do, let alone the craft, artistry and maintaining physical health for singing.

Happy Singing and I hope this helps spear head some great collaborations!