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How to Create an Art Exhibition

People ask me all the time: So how does it work? How do you put a show together?

From students to art-lovers yearning to put on a show…people want to know the steps it takes to go from ‘idea’ to ‘exhibition’. Well, it all starts with a spark; and this can come in many forms. Usually it's either:

  • a topic that pops into your head for one reason or another

  • stumbling upon an artist or artwork that compels you

  • and/or identifying a venue you believe you’d be able to utilize as an exhibition space - whether that’s a gallery, a coffee shop, a building lobby, even someone’s house.

In this article I’m going to break down the steps I’ve found helpful when looking to push an idea forward and make it come to fruition.

Phase 1: Research (this is the hardest part)

If you know that you want to put on an exhibition built around a specific topic, it's time to start researching anything and everything about that one topic. This can be accomplished by doing simple searches on the internet. If you go online and look up different interpretations of your ideas, more likely than not you’ll receive some clarity and hone in on your specific concept. For example, you may have an idea about doing an exhibition surrounding a broad idea such as, “humans’ relationship to nature” - well, this topic can be twisted and turned a million different ways. So, you may want to research all of the different connotations involving your topic. You could concentrate on finding artwork that involves wildlife, or recycling, or the industrial revolution, etc…

If you have a concept, but don’t have any artists, start researching artists that may be creating the type of artwork that will visually connect to your concept. Depending on the area you live in, there are a few really helpful ways to find artists. If you are in the DMV area there are websites you can use to search for and pinpoint artists. These include:

Artists post their portfolios online in order to have their work seen by people who may be interested in doing business with them. Utilizing these resources can serve as a great starting point.

Another way to find artists is by visiting exhibitions and/or attending one of the exhibition events such as receptions, gallery talks, and/or other programming around the exhibition. Many times you’ll meet other artists and art-lovers that may either have what you’re looking for or possibly be able to link you with someone that does. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to some sort of art event where I have met artists that I end up working with in the future or been given suggestions on different artists to look into.

Research is necessary because it helps to expand your ideas. Whether that comes in the form of reading books, watching documentaries, visiting different exhibitions, attending artist meet-ups,etc… Compiling as much background information as you can before solidifying your idea is key.

Phase 2: Design

Once you have your ideas and the artists you’ll be working with, you then move into the design stage. This is when you figure out what your exhibition will actually look like. It is during this phase that you figure out how to fit all the desired artwork into the chosen exhibit space. For this you’ll need to have a blueprint of the space you’ll be exhibiting in, or at least the measurements of the space. You need to make sure you are aware of the size, height, and weight limitations of your space.

Personal example, when I curated my show “The Way Things Were”, it was displayed in two spaces that were completely different. When I moved the show to the second venue I had to completely redesign the layout. This is one of the most fun parts of the process because you get to brainstorm and really get your creative juices flowing.

During this stage I suggest you begin to consult with others whose opinion(s) you trust and respect. When I’m coming up with ideas and concepts for the exhibitions I curate I’m always looking for outside perspectives. I ask for feedback from my interns, my co-workers, other curators and artists I know - essentially creating a small think tank. This really helps to provide different aspects you may not have thought of, which can bring clarity when making final decisions on concepts and where/how to display each artwork.

“You still must trust your opinion and remember that you have the final say, but don’t let that cloud your judgement. Collaboration creates the best product.”

Once you have your concept(s) nailed down, you’ve found the artists you’re looking for, and you’ve created a rough design of the exhibition you’ll be ready for the next step:

Phase 3: Secure the Bag (disclaimer - sometimes this phase and phase 2 happen simultaneously)

During this phase, you’re gearing up to present this exhibition idea to potential artists and venues. In my experience, as long as your idea is dope (and you have a good track record of getting sh*t done), many artists will be willing and excited to work with you even if the idea is still rough and the details aren’t all the way solidified.

So, once you secure the artists it's time to secure the venue… How do you do this? It’s very simple -- you create a proposal, send it over to different venues, and wait for them to call you (most of the time). Take it from me, most art spaces are extremely busy and booked up AT LEAST 6-months in advance, so coming in with an entire fleshed out plan is definitely the way to go. Personally, I’m extremely busy and I don’t always have time to look through every proposal people send me; but when someone sends me a professional proposal I’m either going to consider showing it in my space or I can usually forward it to someone else who may consider it - either way that is a win.

You may be thinking: “What should I even have in my proposal?” Well, the best proposals have these elements:

  • Thoroughly thought-out concept

  • List of exhibiting artists

  • Programming ideas

  • Budget

  • Approximation of the exhibition’s timeline including potential artist travel, artwork transportation, installation times, potential programming dates, and deinstallation times.

Once you’ve shopped your proposal around and you find a space willing to let you put on an exhibition of your own, that’s when you’re cooking with gas and it’s time to begin the final stage.

This is the final step when creating an exhibition. This is the phase in which you have to answer all questions and thoroughly plan all of the individual moving parts at the same time. These include:

  • How you’re going to deliver the artwork to the venue.

  • Whether or not the artist(s) have to deliver their work to you or bring it directly to the venue.

  • If you have to physically go pick up the artwork, make sure you budget to rent a truck or van.

  • If the artist is in a different state/country you need to make sure they know whether or not they have to pay for postage, etc.

These are aspects you must now be able to provide answers for.

The next aspects you’ll need to account for are:

Once all of the work has been delivered, how do you plan to install it all? If you need to buy machinery or tools in-order to install the pieces, make sure you budget for that in advance. Also, make sure you have a realistic installation timeline. If you need to install a huge wall in the middle of the exhibition space and that takes two days, make sure you have enough time on the back-end to get everything else installed on time. For me, installation usually takes a full week, but sometimes it may take a little longer. If this happens and you have to create more time, make sure you let the venue know in advance.

Now, once you’ve planned for the exhibition to be up, you need to plan for any events/programs around the exhibition. Some normal programs include:

  • an opening and/or closing reception, where in this case you’ll probably have to budget for food and wine…

  • a gallery talk with the artist(s)

  • Private tours for critics, collectors, and other art enthusiasts

  • Interviews with TV stations, magazines, blogs (such as this one 😜)

Lastly, you need to take into account when the show needs to be deinstalled. In this case you’ll need to figure out if everything needs to be repackaged a certain way and who is responsible for that aspect. If it's you and not the artist(s), make sure you budget for packaging materials.

Scheduling the entire timeline for exhibition is key because you want to make the most out of the time you have in any space. You want to be able to accomplish your goal and have as many people see and talk about your exhibition as possible.

These are the four basic elements that go into bringing an exhibition to life. Since each exhibition is unique, with different needs, artists, and venues, everyone’s process and requirements will be different. Needless to say, there is much more that goes into creating an exhibition, but this basic guide should help you gauge where you are in the process and what you have to look forward to… To all of the future curators, I hope this helped you a little bit. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions about how to curate your specific show. I’m doing some consultant work now and I’m always down to lend a hand and help push people’s ideas further.

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