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4 Conversation Starters to Survive Any Art World Event


Events are the lifeblood of the art world. For the most part, since most of us live and breathe art, these events are enjoyable. Yet, we’ve all struggled with painful small talk more than once. But whether you’re attending the event for pleasure or duty, the social aspect is important. Be your purpose networking, education, responsibility, art sales, or donor cultivation and solicitation, conversation is imperative. In fact, it’s the whole point.

You have to polish your networking skills.  Building any relationship, including art world relationships, begins with a good conversation starter. Learning to work the room is not only beneficial for your career, but it’s necessary for survival.  If you’re new to this, shy, or just plain tired, how will you survive? I know exactly how rough this is. But it gets easier. Let me give you my most-used approaches.


1. Pay them a compliment:

“You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.”

No. Don’t say that. It’s my experience that most people, even those you’ve never met, will gladly offer helpful suggestions if given the opportunity. However, use a compliment that matches the individual. You don’t want to be inappropriate. Keep your boundaries relevant to the person.

Examples: If you’re approaching someone who is close to your age, obviously has similar interests, or someone you see often it’s perfectly acceptable to be comfortable. You’ll set them at ease and the conversation will unfold naturally. In this case, it’s appropriate to say

  • “Nice dress. Where did you get it?”
  • “Those are great shoes. They look really comfortable.”

But if you’re approaching someone who is a little more aloof or someone you would like as a potential contact, then keep the compliment professional until the conversation becomes personal.


  • “That’s a very nice brief case. I’ve been looking for a new one and can’t seem to find what I need. Are you happy with yours?”

I’ve used this a few times. In most cases, they will begin to demonstrate their bag/case by showing you the inside pockets, discussing the materials, how long they’ve had it, and if it suits their needs. Now, this professional compliment has just become a personal conversation. Take it from there.


2. Ask a question about the event:

Really this tip is a professional version of “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” I’m not suggesting that you learn their zodiac sign or throw them a cheesy pick-up line that we might see in a romantic comedy. A simple question concerning their interest is an easy conversation starter. It’s an honest attempt at learning more about a person – and almost everyone will engage in a conversation that shows genuine desire to learn more about their own tastes. Plainly put, ask their opinion or tap into their knowledge of a subject as it pertains to the event.


  • “Are you familiar with this artist and their work?”
  • “What do you think about this piece/medium/topic/speaker?”
  • “Do you frequently attend artist talks/lectures/receptions?”
  • “I’m not sure I understand this subject/piece. What are your thoughts?”


3. Comment on the immediate environment:

Don’t underestimate the timeless, yet often poorly used ‘Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?’ as a good conversation starter. If you avoid superficial statements referring to the weather and make a sincere comment on the atmosphere, you’ll have a winning conversation starter every time.


  • “I’m glad it finally stopped raining. I’ve been looking forward to this event all week.”
  • “This is a great turn out. I’m glad I was able to get a seat.”
  • “This is a big crowd. The speaker must be amazing.”
  • “I was expecting a larger crowd. Maybe it’s too hot outside.”


4. Say something funny and honest about being uncomfortable:

“I’m feeling awkward. I came alone and don’t know anybody. Let me introduce myself.”

This is an endearing and winning approach. You’ll notice that most people will go above and beyond to set you at ease. They may even go so far as to introduce you to people they know or show you around the venue. I can almost guarantee that this tactic will make you a new friend that will look forward to hearing from you in the future. Imagine if someone approached you with this level of honesty. What would you do? You would do exactly this.


Bonus tip: the easiest way to work the room is to arrive early. This tip is especially effective if you’re a little shy or uncomfortable in a crowd. The concept is simple. Arrive early and find a spot close to the door. If this is a speaking event, demonstration, or lecture you’ll be the first person the speaker sees when they arrive to set up. This is an ideal opportunity to make small talk with the speaker, including the opportunity to learn personal details that might not be shared and an easy “in” to offer details about you in a way that isn’t aggressive or inappropriate.  The speaker will always remember you as you were the first conversation of the evening.

This tactic also works well in social gatherings such as an art reception or fundraising function. Finding a perch close to the entrance will, once more, cause you to be the first person attendees see as they enter. You’ll find that the earlier guests will graciously acknowledge you and adapt to you. This very simple tactic removes the pressure of having to work the room by forcing the room to work you. Should you ever see me at an event, and you might, you’ll notice that this tactic is one of my go to moves because it works so well.

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