Starting an Artist Interview Program: Hard-Earned Lessons on Best Practices

by Tim Lillis and Erica Gangsei, December 2015

Has an artist ever said this to you?

ARTIST: Uh oh, when you said an hour-long studio interview I thought you meant the whole process would take an hour. I have somewhere to be!

Have you ever shared observations when you should be asking questions?

YOU: [Paragraph-long question presenting your own brilliant insight]
ARTIST: Well, I suppose…

Are you sure that lapel mic is capturing clean audio? Are you?!?!

ARTIST: Another thing that’s fascinating about [rustling in background, inaudible] is the [background noise, scratching].

My dear colleague, you’re not alone!

I recently wrote an article about the relaunch of SFMOMA’s artist interview program. As a follow-up I thought I’d share some advice. I don’t consider myself a leading expert on the topic, but at this point in my career I’ve produced about one hundred recorded interviews, suffered through a lot of trial and error, and had many conversations with bona fide experts in the field.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1. DO develop a strategy for selecting interview subjects. At SFMOMA, we select them based on several factors:

  • Artists who have several works in the museum’s collection, or at least one key work
  • Artists who have interesting studios and processes
  • Great storytellers
  • Older artists
  • Artists whose work is or will soon be on view in the galleries
  • Artists who are underrepresented through other institutional channels

2. DO seek out talented local filmmakers to work with as creative partners, and make friends with colleagues doing similar work in other parts of the world. You’ll be able to share advice and resources, or at least commiserate over drinks when you’re in each other’s cities.

Tim Lillis

3. DON’T underestimate the time you’ll need to spend. When corresponding with interview subjects, be clear from the outset about how much time you’ll want to spend in their studio. I usually estimate four to five hours total for setup, the interview, B roll, and takedown. It sounds like a lot, but if you underestimate, you risk frustrating your subject.

4. DO ask simple, direct interview questions. Avoid complex “scholarly” questions, resist sharing your own lengthy observations, and stay away from questions that will elicit a yes-or-no response. No matter how much you know about your subject, keep in mind that you are conducting the interview on behalf of an audience who is likely not so well versed.

Tim Lillis

5. DON’T laugh or say “mm-hmm” while the interviewee is talking. Simply nod affirmatively. If you’re doing it right, you will feel like a bobble head, and you won’t later regret having talked over a brilliant point.

6. If a curator or colleague is interviewing the subject instead of you (or alongside you), DO make sure that they’re clear on points 4 and 5.

7. DO ideally use two cameras to get a close shot and a wide shot, as this helps later at the editing phase. If you only have one “real” camera, consider something unconventional for the second: a GoPro, or even your phone.

Tim Lillis

8. DON’T mess up the audio. Record audio on two separate channels: a lapel mic and a boom mic overhead. That way, if one has interference, you can still get clean sound.

9. DO make sure you have a great lighting setup. Many artists’ studios have great light already, but anyone who has worked in the movies (as I did for a few years) will tell you that lighting is key to a professional-quality shoot. If possible (see point 3), spend some time to get it right.

Tim Lillis

10. DON’T overcrowd the studio with gear. Keeping 8 and 9 in mind, we try for a minimal footprint. This means as little gear as possible, as small a crew as possible, and the shortest possible overall duration. Do the best you can, but don’t be fussy.

11. DO relax and have fun! This will put the artist at ease. Empty yourself and let the conversation fill you entirely. Trust me, it feels pretty great.

Tim Lillis

Illustrations by Tim Lillis


Tim Lillis

Tim Lillis

Tim Lillis is an illustrator and designer in San Francisco.

Erica Gangsei

Erica Gangsei; photo: Don Ross

Erica Gangsei

Erica Gangsei is the head of Interpretive Media at SFMOMA.
Read more