So You Want To Have A Show? : Do’s and Don’ts from a Curator’s Perspective
Okay, so a few departments on campus require students to have an off campus show, those that don’t require it may encourage students to show while in school. So if you’re reading this, you obviously want to have a show. I’ve been a curatorial assistant for 3 years and just recently took over the Subterranean Gallery as director. A whole lot more goes into putting on an exhibition than people think, here are your do’s and don’ts.
1. Set a realistic budget – With any gallery opening, it’s going to cost you a lot of time, and quite a bit of money. Just to make the space at Subterranean Gallery exhibition ready costs a few hundred dollars. Research galleries and find out what they will provide for you. Some spaces have wonderful gallery preparators who will hang your work on pristine walls and handle it with care. Other spaces, like most small alternative spaces have a curator/preparator/director who wears all of the hats like me. Plan for around $200 to have an opening.
Here’s an example breakdown:
- Work framed/mounted – $100-$800 (optional, but suggested)
- Hanging devices – $10 – $20 (yes, you provide these)
- Postcards/Print Media – $70-$150
- Opening Night Refreshments – $50-$70 (you typically also provide these!)
- Paint, Patch and Paint, Rollers, Addtl Hardware – $25
- Vinyl Wall Decal – $15 -$20
So for a local exhibition, on the low end without factoring in the cost of framing your show would cost $170! Some galleries will split this cost, other spaces it is up to the artist.
2. Be prepared – Know that often times, things will go wrong and you will be working on getting the show ready up until the last few minutes before it opens. Most gallery directors have shows in mind and begin preparing 6 months in advance before a show. If you need a spring exhibition, pitch in the fall or early winter, and when you do pitch be professional.
Appropriate Exhibition Proposal Needs:
o Cover Letter
o Examples of Work – Specifically the work you are planning to make/ have made for the exhibition.
A meaty paragraph with details as to how you plan to use the space, why you want to show there, what your work is doing etc.
The proposal should set up a context for your work so that the gallery owner can understand how it would interact with their space/curatorial practice.
Please, do not ever approach a gallery owner at an opening with a bunch of ideas. If other galleries are like me, we have many things balancing at once and your pitch will be forgotten. Email us and set up a meeting, I’ll give my email to just about anybody. I would happily meet someone for coffee and listen to exhibition ideas, but have something realistic in mind for the space first (make a proposal!). Be considerate of my time and I will be considerate of yours.
3. Set Deadlines– Some artists hate deadlines, but when it comes to making an exhibition happen they are a necessity. You need deadlines for every stage of the exhibition. Here are my guidelines for a show:
- 6 Months before– set up a meeting and pitch a show
- 3 Months before – try to have a studio visit or touch base with the director about the exhibition
- 1 Month before – Exhibition plans due, get a floor plan of the gallery space and plan what is going where. If you’re an installation artist – great! – however you need to have a secure plan of what you want to happen at this point so that gallery owners can schedule time for you to set up your installation properly in the space. Once the plans are approved, order postcards. (gotprint has them SUPER cheap)
- 3 Weeks before – Media press release.
- 2 Weeks before – go to the hardware store and get whatever you need to hang, light, and install your work in the space. Have this all completely set before you start installing.
- 1.5 Weeks before– Facebook/ social media posts
- 1 Week before – walls prepared(if you are doing this), work COMPLETE. Send out email blasts to friends, collectors, mentors, etc.
- 5 Days before – begin installing. If you have work that is more simple to hang, start no later than 3 days before.
- 2 Days before – Shop for refreshments and light the exhibition. I cannot stress enough how long lighting a show takes. Especially for installations and sculptural pieces. Playing with color temperature and light direction will take at least an entire day, if you don’t give yourself this time you will regret it.
- 1 Day before– apply lettering, number tacks and/or labels, and paint over any areas where the work had to be moved.
- Day of the show – print out press releases, print gallery maps, set out refreshments, clean up and prepare for the opening! If you follow this plan, you’ll have plenty of time to eat, shower, and relax for a few minutes before your opening. After all this work, that 2 hours or so of quiet time is really well deserved.
Sticking to this schedule will allow for you to not only have a smooth opening, but a develop a relationship with a curator/gallery director who will trust you! That trust is important. If you show up two days before an opening with wet paintings completely disorganized, they have the power to turn the ship around and call the whole thing off, be considerate.
4. Know Who and What you’re dealing with – Try to meet the gallery owner before you start planning an exhibition, or at the very least visit the space. The end goal may be to have an exhibition, but you need to remember to protect your art. A lot of spaces will ignore common gallery policies like loan forms and may or may not have a professional preparator hanging your work. Meet these people, talk to them and ask a ton of questions. If they aren’t willing to answer things like What if my art gets damaged? or Who will be installing the exhibition? don’t walk- run.
Also choose your helpful friends wisely. Art school is a busy place and having people you can rely on will lead to less headaches in the long run.
5. Don’t expect to sell work – This is a biggie, but if that’s your intention with having an art opening, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Selling work is a beautiful pleasant surprise if it does happen in undergrad, but your work is going to change and mature. Don’t let selling one type of thing effect the type of work you make and ideas you want to explore unless your ultimate goal is to be Jeff Koons with a workshop doing everything for you. If you show at a commercial gallery, they are going to take a significant cut from the overall sale. Plus, many galleries that are considered alternative spaces, like mine, can’t sell work! As an undergrad student it is better for you to find galleries willing to offer social capital rather than a paycheck.
Social capital can be in the form of networking, brand building, marketing, programming etc. With each exhibition I am currently working on, I’m planning gallery programming specifically related to the artist’s ideas and practice with the hope of encouraging the community to develop a more enhanced dialogue with the artist. This is also a plus because it gives artist’s the freedom to sell their work out of their studios for 100% of the profit and potentially get exhibitions at bigger galleries that have mailing lists full of collectors specifically looking to buy work they care about! Building and refining your network is the most important thing you can do while in school to keep from feeling completely lost once you graduate and beyond. The internet is doing quite a bit to change how the art world works so don’t underestimate the power of social capital.
6. Last but not least, communicate– Check your email, your phone, and respond. If I set a due date for Exhibition plans or the press release and just don’t hear from you, I won’t order postcards and I’ll push the show back until I do. Keep communication as professional as possible, and be upfront with me if something happens. Remember that when you plan to have a show in a space, it needs to stay on par with the expectations the community has for the caliber of the work in the space. Not only is your artistic reputation at stake with the exhibition, so is the reputation of the gallery.