Organising an art exhibition is a huge undertaking, and one that can very easily seem like too much hard work with a lot of risk involved. Will anyone visit? Will the work be seen in its best light and be safe? How can I be sure there isn’t anything I have overlooked? Fabienne Jenny Jacquet, with a wealth of experience in both making work and putting on art exhibitions, shares her top tips for putting on a successful art exhibition.
By Fabienne Jenny Jacquet
Organising your own art exhibition is a great opportunity to increase your profile, collaborate with other artists and sell your work directly to collectors. Many well-known artists have used self-organised exhibitions to gain initial interest in their work: in 1988 Damien Hirst was in his second year at Goldsmiths College when he decided to organise an independent student exhibition, Freeze, in a disused London Port Authority administrative block in London’s Docklands. The show was visited by Charles Saatchi & Nicholas Serota and the rest as they say is history… If you went to art school you will have some experience of putting together a successful degree show, but striking out on your own might be daunting at first. We have come up with a few tips to help you plan and curate a show.
Finding a venue- beyond the white cube
One of the main tasks you will be faced with when planning an art show is finding a suitable and affordable space. When scouting for potential locations think about how it will appeal to the type of audiences (students, artists, collectors, curators, gallery owners, journalists) you want to attract. To make it as easy as possible for visitors to come to your show try to find a space close to public transport and choose an accessible venue so that people with mobility issues and disabilities are not excluded from your project, whether as artists or visitors. Although we tend to associate art shows with white cube type art galleries, it is a good idea to look at alternative spaces too. Places that artists have used for shows include: restaurants, cafes, pubs, community centres, offices, empty shops and libraries. I have also seen people use a shed, a car, telephone boxes or their living room to put on a one-off show, so let your imagination run wild! If you have a large enough studio space, opening your studio to the public is a quick and easy way to put on a show. If you want a more traditional space for your show some artist-led spaces and galleries will accept exhibitions proposals from budding curators. But first do your research about the type of projects they support and check whether they have a formal application system in place for proposals before sending anything in. If you are thinking of hiring a commercial gallery space, a word of caution: with hire galleries the costs of the space and the added marketing and promotion package that they usually offer can be prohibitive. Also, art professionals in general will know that these types of galleries are simply making money out of hiring their premises, rather than operating as bona fide art galleries, and will often give those type of shows a miss.
What venue is most accessible to you?
Irish artist Jennifer Smith is planning to use her unusual home, an old windmill in the Netherlands, to start curating group shows in 2020. She says, “I have reached a point in my career where I appreciate the importance of creating your own opportunities. I have spent my fair share of time applying for open calls, but they can be expensive and rejection is soul-destroying. I want to take control of my own future in the art world. I think artists need to focus on ways of showing their work, reaching audiences and making themselves visible, without waiting for a gallery or curator to do it for them. My home, Clovermill, is located on the grounds of an old windmill. It is in a remote location surrounded by water and fields. While this has been a great space for me to work and focus on my own ‘voice’ in painting, I now feel it is important to open a dialogue with my peers on contemporary painting in general. Clovermill will act as a working space, with a focus on experimentation and open discussion, that can also be used as a gallery space for exhibitions.’’
Facilities and Added Costs
Whatever space you go for, check carefully the type of facilities that it provides: is there electricity, water and heating available? And if so, what are the costs attached? Also, check carefully what insurance cover the venue has in place. You will also probably need your own public liability insurance if your event is open to the public. Remember that if you use friends and other artists as invigilators and volunteers you need to look into employer liability insurance as well for the duration of the event. There are various art organisations that can give artists advice on insurance cover need including A-N. When I organised cover for my last show, I was also asked to have a first aid kit on site and to complete a risk assessment for the event. In term of insurance for the artworks in the show, it is best to ask all the artists to seek individual cover for their work. You will want to discuss and agree with the venue in advance any potential restrictions on how the work can be displayed. For example, are you allow to drill into walls to hang works or do you need to only use existing fittings? Make sure you have a contact for the venue that can be reached out of hours in case of emergencies. They do happen unfortunately. When I organised my first show the fire alarm kept going off and needed an engineer to fix it and I also managed to get the keys stuck in the entrance door of the building I was renting!
When finding a venue for your exhibiton, remember to:
- Think about alternative spaces to put on your art show, not just traditional galleries
- Don’t over-commit yourself financially by choosing expensive hire galleries
- Be mindful of insurance requirements, accessibility, location, health and safety and any hidden costs when choosing your venue
- Make sure the space you choose will appeal to your target audience and will be suitable to fit in the type of artworks you want to display
- Have a project plan and/or checklist so you can write down all the steps you will need to take to organise and run your show successfully.
Financing the show – money, money, money
It is probably easier at the start to organise a group show, rather than a solo project, so that the costs can be shared between artists. It is quite usual to charge a submission fee if you are inviting artists to submit work to your show and/or to agree that everyone will contribute a certain amount to the show organisation and marketing. If you also want to take a commission on the sale of the works you are showing, make sure the artists provide you with details of pricing for their work, medium and dimensions and that everybody has agreed to the terms you propose from the start. If you want to apply for art funding and grants, make sure that you submit your proposal well in advance. The Arts Council for example will require you to submit a proposal more than six weeks before your show is due to take place. To qualify for this type of support, it is likely that you will be asked to think about and demonstrate what audiences you are reaching and what activities you are putting in place to improve participation in the arts. This could mean that your exhibition also includes organising workshops and/or talks to give the public an opportunity to interact with the artists and the works on display. To finance your show you might also want to look at sponsorship by local businesses, organisations or even individual art lovers. British Artist and curator Harry Pye used this method when he put his very first show together in Paris: ‘’The British Council chipped in £500 (they had a scheme to help British Artist’s Abroad). I then wrote to lots of artists and people I liked, asking if they’d make a small contribution towards making the show happen. The D.J. John Peel, Charles Saatchi, Nicholas Serota, Victoria Wood, Nicola Hicks, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Anthony Gormley, and Howard Hodgkin all donated small amounts (between £25 and £100) and I got enough to make the show happen.’’
When Financing Your Show, Remember to:
- Pool your resources with other artists and organise a group show to share the costs
- If you are applying for art funding make your application(s) well in advance
- If you are taking a commission on sales and charging a submission or/and exhibition fee make it clear from the start so that artists know what is expected of them. Although you don’t want to lose money when organising a show, keep costs reasonable if you want people to be part of your project and vision
- Look at the possibility of sponsorship from individuals and businesses.
Curating – Developing a theme and finding other artists for a group show
This is the fun part. You will need to pick the work you want to show and create a strong identity and theme for your show. There are many ways to find like-minded artists. You can approach your existing friends and contacts as well as artists whose work you admire and invite them to be part of the show. You could seek out artists showcased on this blog! You can put out a call for submissions on platforms that list artists opportunities such as Artquest, the London Artist Quarter, A-N and ArtRabbit. Make sure that you give artists enough time to apply and yourself enough time to select work before the show. You will want to select and collaborate with people who are strongly committed to the project. This means artists who are willing to work as a team, help promote the show to their networks and help with invigilation and installation, not just drop their work for you to install and turn up at the private view for a glass of wine. The space that you use will also inform the type of work that you are able to display. If you want to include video work and large installations you need to make sure you will be able to fit in the works within the space available as well as the required equipment (cables, screens, power sockets) to do the work justice. If you decide to feature performance work, be mindful of whether the performers will use equipment and substances that might cause damage to the venue and/or to other artworks on display. In my recent show I had to politely decline an offer of a performance by artists who were known to use various bodily fluids, liquids and flammable props in their show as I was too concerned about the impact it might have on the venue and the other works on show. Also, have a discussion with the venue about any restrictions on the type of work you are allowed to show. In my last show, I was asked to remove two photographs featuring nudity after the private view which was a real let down for me and for the photographers who created them and suddenly had to re-arrange their display. It is probably best to provide the venue with visuals in advance so that they are clear about what will be on show at their premises.
When Curating Remember To:
- Find like-minded artists through contacts and/or by setting up an open call for submission
- Make sure your show has a strong identity and theme to make it stand out. Only choose artworks that match the show’s identity and that will work well as part of the overall exhibition
- Only associate yourself with artists who can work as a team and are willing to help make the project a success
- Be realistic about how many artworks you can show within the space you have chosen and the type of works that you will be able to display – it’s well worth sketching out a map to scale of the wall and floor space you have
- Make sure the venue is clear about and has agreed to the works you will be showing.
Installation – The ego has landed
When installing the show, I would suggest drawing a plan of the space and starting to think about where each work would fit best. Don’t try to cram in too many artworks and allow enough space for visitors to be able to walk around the space. As a curator base your choice of where an artwork should go on what’s best for the overall look and feel of the show, not on what an individual artist might request (or in some cases demand…). I remember seeing some truly poor behaviour at my Central St Martins degree show as some pushy students tried to encroach on other people’s spaces and/or claim that they should be allowed to show more pieces than their peers. This is a group effort, not just a showcase for one or two prima donnas, so put your foot down early. Artist and Curator Harry Pye says ‘’Personally I don’t like asking people to do something I’d feel uncomfortable doing myself – so I guess the advice is: do as you would be done by. I think artists and curators need to be confident in their own madness – put on the shows you want to see yourself.” When I put my first show together, I was really lucky to work with a supportive group of artists and the majority were involved in hanging the works and helping prepare the space for the show. Some were able to bring to the project skills and equipment I did not have, including for example planning and setting up sound systems and creating the musical background for the exhibition.
When Installing Your Exhibition, Remember To:
- Plan your display in advance
- Think about technical requirements (power sockets, screens, specific lighting requirements) that might inform what space you allocate to a work
- Base your decisions on what’s best for the overall show, rather than individual requests by artists
- Ask the artists taking part to help install the show; work as a group and share knowledge and skills
- If you are planning to install work outside the venue, think about whether there are safety issues and how the weather might impact on the work. Agree with the artist whether their work needs to be brought back indoors at the end of opening hours each day while the show is on or if they are happy to be exposed to the elements and potential damage/vandalism.
Promoting the show – standing out from the crowd
Start by promoting the show with your existing contacts (friends, family, collectors, fellow artists, galleries) but also publicise it to the wider public. This means using social media and writing a press release to send to the local and national press. Artquest has some good advice on how to write an effective press release on their website. Make sure you have some good quality images of the work you are going to show to share online and a blurb about each artist that you are showing to give people an idea of the stories behind the works. Remember to design flyers to promote the show as well as posters you might be able to display outside the venue to encourage people who are passing by to come into your space.
When Promoting Your Exhibition, Remember to:
- Have an up to date mailing list with all your existing contacts. Be mindful of GDPR rules when contacting people and keeping their data on file
- Write a press release. Target local media outlets (from newspapers to blogs) as well as the art and national media.
- Use social media before, during and after the show to showcase what is happening in your exhibition, this should include posting video material of your show, interviews with artists, images of the works and so on…
- Make sure you have good quality images to share
- Ask all the other artists in the show to help promote it with their own contacts
- Post your exhibition on art and events listings websites ( Time Out)
- Invite journalists to have a private, guided tour of the show if they cannot attend your private view event
- Make sure you display handouts for visitors with information about the work and the artists in the show. Make sure you have clear signs and warning if you display work which might not be suitable for children.
The Private View- time to network and celebrate
The Private View is an opportunity to open the show and have a celebration for you and your friends. It is also a great chance to schmooze any art world contacts, journalists and collectors you have invited to the event. The mix of alcohol and fun might be great, but you need to have your organiser hat on during the event: keep an eye for bottles and glasses being left on displays and artworks and for any rowdiness. I personally would avoid providing food at the event, again to avoid potential for damage to artworks.
At the Private View, Remember to:
- If you decide to serve alcohol, also provide alternatives for non-drinkers
- Keep an eye for behaviour from visitors that might cause damage to the artworks and affect other people’s enjoyment of the event
- Make sure you greet and thank everyone who took the time to visit your show and use the opportunity to network and make new contacts
- Take pictures, and videos, of the event to help you promote the exhibition.
(Picture: ‘The private view’, painting by Fabienne Jenny Jacquet)
During the show – keep the momentum going and make the most of the opportunity
While the show is on it is a good opportunity talk to visitors and share your knowledge of the works on display. It is also a good time to capture visitors’ contact details so you can add them to your mailing list. You might want to have a Visitor Book at the entrance of your show where people can choose to leave comments and their contact details if they want to be kept informed of future shows and projects. On a practical note make sure you always have at least two people invigilating in the space while your exhibition is on.
During the show, Remember To:
- Always be professional whether you are dealing with the public or with other artists. You want the show to be a good experience for everyone
- Organise an invigilating rota in advance so that you always have two people in the venue at all time while the show is open
- Make sure you have hand-outs about the work on display and labels for each work
- Capture contact details from visitors so that you can keep them informed of future shows
- Make sure you can provide clear information about the works on display and the artists as well as prices if anyone is interested in purchasing work.
There is no doubt that organising an exhibition is hard work but incredibly rewarding. It takes a while to attract visitors to events so don’t be discouraged if your show attracts small audiences at first. Even the best planned shows will have some hiccups, so don’t be too hard on yourself if things go wrong. It is all a learning process and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
Fabienne Jenny Jacquet lives and works in London, UK. Her work is featured in private and public collections in the USA, UK, Europe and Australia. She is also the editor of the Tainted Glory art blog.
Header image: The Mall Galleries, London