Breaking the Ice – Starting Conversations with Potential Art Buyers (and anyone else who crosses your path!)

Several months ago, my wife, Carrie, and I attended a live performance of the Phantom of the Opera at Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium. The show was a part of their Broadway series that brings professional productions of major plays to Arizona.

We arrived at the crowded theater a few minutes early and made our way to our seats. We were fortunate to have great seats (thanks to Carrie’s parents, who are season ticket holders), but this meant that we had to practically climb over people to get to the seats in the center of the auditorium. When we arrived at our empty seats, I smiled at the gentleman next to whom I would be sitting and said, “Thanks for saving our seats!” The guy, who I had never seen before, and who was a decade or two older than me, laughed and said, “Of course, glad you made it!”

We still had a few minutes before the curtain went up, and so I started chatting with my neighbor.

“Have you seen Phantom before?” he asked.

“First time,” I said. “I’m not a huge Andrew Lloyd Weber fan, so we’ll see how I do. Have you seen it before?”

“Dozens of times!” he exclaimed. “I love it. My wife and I have flown in from Wisconsin to see it. Our daughter is playing Christine.”

Now, I truly am not an Andrew Lloyd Weber fan, and don’t know much about Phantom, but I do know at least enough to have been very impressed by this little tidbit.

635678223029974160-Phantom-of-the-Opera-5“Wow,” I said, “that’s amazing!” He went on to tell me a little bit of the story of how his daughter began singing when she was three or four, and how she told her brother when she was five or six that she was going to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera.

I could tell this man was very proud of his daughter and asked him a number of questions before the curtain finally went up. He assured me that I was going to love the production. He could hardly contain his excitement or pride, and I have to admit, his feelings were contagious.

The first act was an amazing spectacle. The performances were outstanding, and the sets and choreography were truly mind-blowing.

When intermission came, I told Carrie that I was sitting next to the father of the star of the show. When the man and his wife returned to their seats, we both let him know how amazing we thought his daughter’s performance and voice were. He told us more about his daughter’s history, about the production and how the show traveled. Then he told us that he and his wife and some friends would be going backstage after the show and invited us to join him.

The actress with her proud parents
The actress with her proud parents

The second act was just as amazing as the first. When the play ended, after a stunning and dramatic finale, we again complimented the man and his wife on their daughter’s performance. Despite our protest that we didn’t want to intrude or inconvenience them, the couple insisted that we follow them backstage. Once there, we waited a few minutes and talked more while waiting for the their actress daughter to change out of costume. When she emerged from her dressing room, not only did we get to meet her, she graciously showed us around the set, introduced us to many of the other performers and answered our questions.

When we left after thanking them profusely, Carrie whispered to me, “Sometimes it really pays that you easily make friends with random people!”

In truth, my success as a gallery owner depends on this ability – backstage visits are just a bonus! I meet hundreds, if not thousands, of people every year, and in order to help them acquire art, I have to be able to quickly establish a relationship and engender trust. Over the years I’ve learned that this is indeed a skill, not something that just happens naturally, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate this skill.

As an artist or gallerist, it’s important that you too learn how to break the ice and build relationships quickly as you meet new people. Although this topic requires a lot more depth than I could hope to delve into here, I want to share some basic principles I use when meeting new people. These principles are pretty basic, and I’m sure you either already know many of them or naturally use them without even realizing it. Hopefully I can provide some insight into why these principles are important and how to use them more effectively.


When meeting someone new, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to greet them with a smile. A smile is a powerful signal that lets people know you are friendly. Smiling sets a warm tone for your introduction.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a big, ear-to-ear smile or a dopey grin, all you have to do is smile slightly with your lips and eyes and you will completely change how you are perceived by people.

I’m not naturally a smiley kind of guy. If I’m not thinking about it, my face naturally tends to rest in a pretty serious, even stern expression. I have to make a conscious effort to put on a smile, and that’s exactly what I do when I’m meeting someone for the first time.

Use Your Body Language to Welcome

When visiting art shows, I often see artists hunched over on stools in their booths, or standing with their arms crossed, head down. This kind of posture scares people away. I’m always careful when meeting or visiting with clients to keep my shoulders back, by back straight and my hands by my side or in front of me. I try to open up and welcome people with direct eye contact.

Give Your Name, and Ask for Theirs

Names are one of the most powerful tools you can use to create a relationship. Very early in every conversation with someone new, I introduce myself with my name and ask for his or her name. I work very hard to then remember their name and use it during the conversation. Using someone’s name really helps take a conversation to a different level and personalizes the interaction in a way that nothing else can.

Now, before you even say it, I know that you are going to object. “I am terrible at remembering people’s names!” you’re going to say. Try harder! Remembering names doesn’t come naturally to anyone – it’s a skill that has to be developed and cultivated. I have to repeat people’s names over and over in my mind in order to remember them, and I’ll try to write down people’s names as soon as possible to keep them from slipping away.

Ask Questions

Another important relationship builder is to ask people about themselves. Asking people about where they are from, what kind of work they do, and what their interests are can be a great way to get people talking about themselves. The more you can encourage people to talk about themselves, the faster you’re going to be able to build a real relationship.

I try to listen carefully to everything someone is saying and then ask follow up questions based on what they say. If you think back to the time when you met someone who became a good friend, I’d be willing to bet that person asked you a lot of questions about yourself and made it clear they were interested in your responses. They made you feel important.

This is exactly what you should be doing when talking to a new acquaintance.

Read People’s Signals

Some people are more talkative than others. I always try to be careful to read people’s body language to get a sense of how much they want to interact with me. This is especially true in the gallery, where sometimes people don’t want to talk, they just want to look.

Make no mistake, I am never afraid to approach people and introduce myself and try to start a conversation, but the last thing I want to do is overdo it. A very good indication of this is eye contact. As soon as someone breaks eye contact for more than 2-3 seconds, I take it as a signal that they are ready to move on and it’s time for the conversation to end.

Be Bold

I’ve become fearless when it comes to talking to people. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the theater, a restaurant, or in my gallery, I am in the habit of constantly trying to strike up a conversation. I’m not sure if my wife would admit it or not, but I am sure there are times when she’s a bit embarrassed by my constant outreach to strangers. At this point though, I can’t help it anymore; it’s a habit. It seems like everyone has something fascinating to share – I want to find out what it is!

Be Yourself

Once I realized that it wasn’t my job to try and impress people with something I said, but rather that it was far more important to be impressed with something they said, I became far more successful at building relationships

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when meeting new people is to relax and be yourself. Once I realized that it wasn’t my job to try and impress people with something I said, but rather that it was far more important to be impressed with something they said, I became far more successful at building relationships. Relaxing and being yourself means that you don’t have to feel any pressure when you’re meeting someone new. I’ve seen very quiet and reserved people do an amazing job of getting people to open up in conversation.

Building relationships isn’t about trying to be someone you’re not, it’s about stepping out of your comfort zone to talk to people you might not otherwise have talked to. This is critical if you are in a situation where you are trying to sell art – at a show or in a gallery – but it’s also a great way to build a richer life.

While I can’t guarantee you backstage tours, I can promise you will have adventures, make new friends, and have a richer life as you strive to strike up conversations with strangers!

What Has Helped You Meet New People and Build Relationships?

What has experience taught you about building relationships with new people? Does relationship building come naturally to you? How has relationship building helped you in your art career? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. I have been in several co-op galleries where the artists took turns working in the gallery. People would often ask who was the best selling artist in the gallery. When I became the bookkeeper for the gallery I realized there was another definition of best selling artist. It was the artist who sold the most work, not necessarily their own, when it was their turn to work in the gallery. It was always the same two or three artists. Virtually all of the work sold during the month was sold on the days those artists worked. Most of the artists never sold a painting of anybody’s when it was their turn to work. This experience made me realize that art does not sell itself. You have to sell it. The two or three who were successful in closing the deal knew how to engage the people who walked into the gallery.

  2. Thank you, Jason, for this article.
    I think I’ve always been a bit “outward”. But I was raised to be “humble” which is read as quiet and reserved. It’s the way most people in the community were. But I somehow developed an attitude of risk taking.

    If you want my secret formula, I’m afraid I don’t know what it is. I do know that body language is big and clothing (costuming) isn’t. I’m still me whether or not I’m on my motorcycle.

  3. One of the take always from this story for me, was how much you enjoyed the show. Could it possibly have been due to the personal investment that had been increased for you by the information you had been given about the actor in the female lead role? You now had an insight into the human story, you were involved on a personal level, not just someone waiting to be entertained.
    Engaging with viewers ( and potential customers) is of course important for visual artists. ( I know you have written about this and this story illustrates the point)
    Thanks for this it is helpful on many levels!

  4. Jason, once, again, you hit it out of the park. Thank you for the inspiration and personalizing with your own technique. It seems that I never meet a stranger, and being kind, friendly, and engaging is so important.

  5. This really resonates with me, I constantly find myself talking to people and putting them at ease,… they open up…98% welcome the opportunity to share their stories. What a great article, Jason thank you!

  6. I add my thanks. I definitely have to work on the factors you mention. I recall introducing one friend to another. At the end of the event they knew more about each other than I knew of either. In my previous life as an applied research manager, I recall how our Sales Dept rep was able to connect one of my very shy engineers to his counterpart at the customer. I had never seen my engineer so well received and outgoing.

  7. I live this post because I am so uncomfortable meeting people. That said, I had my first open studio recently and found I was quite comfortable talking to everyone including people I didn’t know. I discovered I’d finally relaxed regardless talking to strangers. A couple weeks later I visited a gallery I was interested in having my art in. The gallerist and I chatted like old friends and actually discovered a few people we both knew. Only a 10 minute conversation, since I didn’t want to take up her precious time hanging a new show. Another week goes by and I at the opening reception for a show and I found myself asking some people who were drawn to my bicycling paintings about themselves and learning how they rode a lot all over the area.
    I think reading this blog periodically have finally transformed me.
    Thank you, it’s pretty fun learning about people.

  8. A smile is magnetic. I tend to be a reserved person who is quiet and always on the blue side. I work out 3-4 days a week. Never really spoke much to others. I was really bummed one day when I went in. It was a beautiful day out there. There were very few in there and I said “Good Morning everyone” really loud. Got smiles and returned greetings. Made my day. I have been doing it ever since. I have become a “popular” person there. Exchanged names. Learned about others’ lives. Met a few people who are also artists. Now friends to share a passion with. My lifetime of the blues is behind me most days. I walk into the gym and am greeted with the smiles and hellos. Talking to strangers has become easier. AWESOME!

  9. I’m generally an outgoing, upbeat person. Where I get into most difficulty is at art events — openings, artist’s social events at museums or galleries— and striking up conversation with gallerists. It’s hard for me to lose my awareness of my professional interests and my preconceived notions of everybody else’s coolness level! Suddenly back in junior high while in my 60’s. 🙂

  10. Thank you, Jason. You are an inspiration to everyone with your helpful and on-target advice.

  11. I see so many artists at various shows looking down at their cell phones instead of talking to the attendees. What is so important that it cannot wait till the end of the show, or at a break of the people. Such rudeness is not going to invite people to chat, but is a wall that might as well be solid- no one wants to interrupt. I, like you, love talking to people. I am happy to say I will grab the conversation starters that these artists are missing and run with them. Your advice is spot on.

  12. Thank you Jason, I appreciate your work with Artists. This is probably one of my downfalls in trying to engage people in my Studio and Gallery, particularly during our monthly First Friday events, during which there is a constant flow of people coming in, and there may not be a lot of time to get into all of the topics you mentioned. The guests come in, I introduce myself as the artist, give a brief introduction to my work, and tell them if they have any questions to please let me know. I don’t want to be overly intrusive, and now I understand and appreciate the 2 to 3 second eye contact rule. I just got an idea to write a short, one paragraph explanation of my work and how I create it on the back of my business card and hand It out as soon as people come in.
    I’ve also been trying to find someone to help me update my website; but people have always backed out at the last minute, which has been very frustrating. There is a professional person in my chamber of commerce group that I just got contact contact information for; I’m going to hire him if I think he will be right for the job.

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