Debra Klomp Ching is the co-founder and director of Klompching Gallery in New York. The Gallery’s exceptional exhibitions have earned reviews in prestigious publications including The New Yorker, Art Review, and the Wall Street Journal, to name a few. Debra has been an art dealer and gallery owner in New York for more than a decade, and she has more than twenty years of curatorial experience. She also served on the panel for our Project Review: Gallery Focus last fall. Read on for her tips about approaching a gallery, preparing your portfolio, and more—
LensCulture: How did you become interested in starting a gallery? What do you like best about your role as a gallerist?
Debra Klomp Ching: I’ve been involved with photography since the late 1980s in various capacities—it was one of my ambitions for quite some time to own a gallery. I was particularly interested in exhibiting and selling photographs specifically. When I relocated to New York from the UK in 2006, the circumstances and timing allowed me to fulfill that goal.
I really enjoy the curation process, which I undertake in collaboration with Darren Ching (co-owner of the gallery). It’s a wonderful opportunity to employ our creativity, knowledge and expertise. A good deal of debate and discussion always ensues, resulting in exhibitions that present both the photographer’s and our vision well! Selling the photographs and placing them into good homes and collections is always immensely rewarding—especially when you’ve worked with a client, and introduced them to artists that are new to them. Additionally, something that provides enduring satisfaction is the legacy that’s created through placing artworks into museum collections.
LC: What questions should photographers ask themselves in order to determine whether they’re ready to look for gallery representation?
DKC: Photographers need to ask themselves, objectively, if their work has a strong concept and aesthetic, excellent execution of craft and originality of vision. Are they committed to making new work? Are they ready and able to continue to invest in themselves and their work? Is making photographs their primary passion? Do they understand that making the work is only about 50% of the equation? The remaining 50% is about the business of the image: marketing, public relations, record-keeping, fulfilling print orders, etc. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the gallerist will take care of everything. This is not the case; representation is a professional collaboration and should be viewed in that context.
LC: What advice would you offer to a photographer looking for representation? Are there any steps they should take in order to find a gallery that is a good fit for their work?
DKC: A photographer would be wise to ask themselves what they want to achieve, what expectations they have from a gallery, and what they have to offer. This provides tangible measures against which to determine suitable galleries.
Following this, the photographer should look at compatibility in terms of the gallery’s aesthetic, price points of the artworks sold, size of roster, art fair presence, exhibitions schedule, relationship with museums and overall presence in the art world. Importantly, a successful photographer/gallerist relationship is dependent upon mutual professional respect and getting along with each other. So, personal relationships are fundamentally crucial.
Prior to approaching a gallery, it really is important to be on their radar: to develop a relationship over time, if possible. It’s important to attend the gallery’s openings and exhibitions and get an idea of the gallery’s overall vibe.
LC: If a gallery agrees to look at a photographer’s work, how should they prepare for the meeting?
DKC: Treat the meeting like you would any other business meeting. Be professional and on time. Bring only the amount of photographs that you can reasonably show in the allotted time. Be flexible regarding the outcome of the meeting—the gallerist may not make any decisions on the spot. Transparency is important, i.e.; if you’re showing your work to multiple gallerists, be open about this, but clear as to your reasons for speaking with the particular gallerist you’re meeting with.
Ensure you bring a quality portfolio of photographs to the meeting: well-edited and—this is important—printed to the standard you would if exhibiting and selling them. Gallerists don’t just sell images: they sell physical objects and will judge you on this. Be prepared to leave the portfolio behind if the gallerist asks.
LC: Is there anything photographers should steadfastly avoid when it comes to presentation or approaching you?
DKC: I remember this one time, when we were hosting an opening reception for one of our artists, I was approached by a photographer—whom I’d never met—who forcefully suggested that I look at their portfolio of work, which they had tucked under their arm. This was rude, presumptuous and a total misunderstanding of basic etiquette: don’t promote your own work at another photographer’s opening reception.
LC: What do you wish more photographers understood about presenting their work to you?
DKC: A common error of judgement is not always understanding the importance and value of a quality-printed portfolio of photographs. There’s not much point in presenting poorly-printed photographs on a paper that the work will ultimately not be printed on. It’s fundamentally important to demonstrate what the gallerist can expect to be working with—down to the quality of print and the specific paper.
If photographers have limited resources for presenting themselves and their work, I recommend prioritizing the portfolio of photographs above other assets. The business cards, catalogues, and leave-behinds are important, but secondary to the portfolio. It seems obvious, but it bears repeating: nothing is more important than the photography itself.
—Debra Klomp Ching, interviewed by Coralie Kraft