Tutorial: 6 steps to an awesome exhibition

by Sayraphim on January 17, 2009

This stems from my interview with the great community radio station 3CR.

It’s how to curate and organise a well thought out group exhibition, using the internet at almost every stage to facilitate it.

Step one: The idea and the research behind it

Every group exhibition needs a theme, some kind of idea that ties it all together. It’s not enough that the artists went to school together, or that they’re all the same age. There needs to be something that thematically ties all the work together. Usually that’s a subject or topic the artists have all been given to respond to, or to re-show work that has already been created but fits in with the theme. I don’t mean to say that you can’t make exhibitions with school mates, but just that you shouldn’t make that the only thing that ties the work together.

Once you have what you consider a killer idea (after having discarded a bunch of not-so killer ideas) you need to research it (this is where the net comes in!) Research will help solidify it in your mind as well as making you aware of what other work is out there. It’d be a shame to come up with an awesome idea and put in all the work only for someone to tell you on opening night that the exact same idea was done 6 months ago in a gallery down the road. You might also want to research how other people have worked with your idea. For instance, when I was still formulating Totem: Dolls with Souls, which was an exhibition of internal self portrait dolls I curated in 2008, I did months of research on self portraits, dolls and craft in general so I would know what I was talking about when asked questions by artists. It also allowed me to understand the huge range of craft and dolls out there, which enabled me to broaden my understanding of the term ‘doll’ and thus of the kinds of work the artists submitted.

It also helps to talk to other artists you know about your idea and gather their feedback. Again, I use the web and networking sites (my blog and LJ) to ask people questions. Basically you’re doing market research on your idea. If you think you have the idea to end all ideas, the olympic gold of exhibition ideas and everyone you ask looks at you weirdly or politely excuses themselves from the conversation you need to have another think about your idea. However just because someone you ask thinks it’s not a winner doesn’t mean it’s not. Weigh carefully the advice you’re given and keep seeking opinions until you feel you have enough.

You’ll also need a killer title. Something clever, memorable and again, fits into your topic. Google it as well, to ensure that it hasn’t been used recently for the same thing in your state. No point having the perfect title if everyone acquaints it with a theatre show that was performed 3 months ago across town.

Step Two: The Venue and the Artist Callout
Once you have the perfect idea and the perfect title, you need to start approaching galleries. Artist run galleries are easy to find, do a google search for ones in your town. Pick one that suits your exhibition and budget and apply. Getting a gallery isn’t that scary, most have their own websites and a form to fill in to apply. Some will ask for bios and photos of work of artists participating in the show, so this step needs to be done in coordination with the Artist Callout.

You should start an artist callout slowly until you have the gallery. Talk to your artist friends, and gather interest. For Totem, I emailed a number of artist friends and had them on board (with their bios and photos of their work) which I could then take to the venue.

However it doesn’t have to be a gallery. It can be a pub, cafe, empty building, anything you can find. Found spaces can make incredibly interesting venues, and can often turn out cheaper.

Once you have the venue, start putting the callout everywhere.

There’s a number of theories on how far away from the show itself you should talk to artists. If you talk to them 12 months out, they’ll have forgotten they said yes when it comes time to the exhibition. If you ask them 2 weeks out, they’re not going to have time to create anything for you.

I usually start about 4 months out, and try to have my quota of artists half or mostly filled by 3 months out.

The quota of artists is a really important number. Stand in your gallery space and decide how many works you can put in it. This will depend on what sort of work you’re seeking. If you want huge photos or paintings you’re obviously going to be able to fit less work in the gallery than if you were asking for tiny works. Then decide how many artists that means (if you are asking for only one work by each artist or 2 or 3, etc.) For Totem, I decided that I needed 100 dolls to fill the space, so I needed around 100 artists. But if this is your first exhibition, go with a MUCH smaller quota. 100 artists almost killed me, and I’ve done this before 🙂 My first exhibition was 8 artists, my second was 3. These are good amounts to start with.

Now write your Callout. Explain in detail what you’re doing, where it will be and what you’re looking for. You can add a little about yourself if you like, to let people know who you are. Add an email address as a contact detail, but I wouldn’t advise you to put a mobile number or any other form of contact details on it. Remember that this, like anything you put on the net, could end up anywhere and with anyone. At the bottom of an artist callout I always write “Feel free to forward this onto anyone you think might be interested.” That way if it captures people’s attention, they’ll start doing your work for you. Also write a closing date for submissions to ensure that people won’t be contacting you three years down the track asking to participate.

Finding artists isn’t as hard as you might think. Start with people you know. Then look online. Seek local artists on etsy (craft), deviant art (art and photography), redbubble (photography), blogs and the like. Blogs are really useful, often you’ll find that on someone’s blog will be a list of other blogs, and usually a number of these will be in the same town. Remember to stick to your artist quota, so if you only need 10 artists, you’ll only need to approach maybe 40 people.

If you already have all your artists, then obviously you don’t need this part. For artists you don’t know, expect a drop out rate of about 1 in 5, IE for every 5 artists who originally say yes to being a part of your exhibition, 1 will drop out or you’ll never hear from again.

A good tip for working with artists you don’t know is once they’ve said yes, get them to fill in a form. This might sound a little silly, but make up a form with their name, address, mobile and email, artwork title, price, media and dimensions. You can’t rely on the fact that the name on someone’s email account is their real or preferred name. I had an artist who’s email name was something like Andrea Harold and her email address was andreaharold@…, so I assumed her name was Andrea Harold. At the opening of the show she came over to me and quietly told me that her name was Andrea and her husband’s name was Harold, and she told me her surname, which I’d never seen before. She and her friends thought it was hilarious (which I was eternally grateful for) but it does serve to illustrate my point. Had I got everyone to fill out a form, then it wouldn’t have happened and it would have been a little less embarrassing for me 🙂

Step Three: Timeline and keeping in touch with your artists
Ensure you have written a timeline, and then stick to it. A time line could look like this:
Four months out: Start Callout
Three months out: fulfill most of the artist quota
Two months out: have fliers and posters printed and ready
One month out: Submissions closed. Send out Press release.
Two weeks out: organise opening night
Three days out: Installation
Show Duration: Four weeks
Four weeks and one day: Bump Out of work

The timeline is really important. You can find a great one here at Craft Victoria. You also need to keep in touch with your artists. I send out an email to all the artists at least once a month. This does two things. One, it’s valuable to be able to let them know about updates and news, what’s going on with the show, how it’s all progressing, media interest you might have received, that sort of thing. I find that updates are particularly important for interstate or overseas artists who will not know the local goings on of the art world. The other, and some might say more valuable thing, is that it keeps them feeling remembered and loved and IT REMINDS THEM THEY’RE IN AN EXHIBITION! You’d be amazed how many artists will say Yes to a show and then totally forget about it. Imagine if you have lined up 10 artists for a show, put in all the hard work with publicity and then on Installation day not one of them turns up. So an email a month reminds everyone they’re still in the game.

Something awesome that happened during the run up to Totem was that the participating artists photographed their finished dolls and posted them on their blogs and flickr sites. Google has an Alert function ( where you can type in a phrase and it will email you every time it finds it. So I created a “Dolls with Souls” alert and an “Omnific Assembly” alert (the name I curate exhibitions under). Every couple of days it found another Totem doll on a website, blog or flickr and would let me know about it. It was like finding little gifts all over the website. It was also useful to find where people were talking about the exhibition and what they were saying!

Also make sure you know what kind of art they’re going to submit. A framed piece that will hang on the wall is easy to install. A sculptural 3d piece will need some kind of plinth/table/stack of boxes/ something to hold it off the floor, unless it’s supposed to be on the floor! Make sure you talk to your artists and find out how they envision their art in the venue. Sometimes you might need to negotiate if what they want isn’t doable, but remember to try to be as flexible as possible, after all this is a collaboration between you and them, not a dictatorship!

If you do need plinths, make sure you talk to the gallery. Most galleries don’t have many (or any) plinths, so you might find you need to supply your own. Don’t fret though, they don’t have to be the traditional wooden box painted white. For an exhibition about a carnival, we had sculptural pieces sitting on piles of suitcases, to tie in with the theme. Think laterally, you can probably come up wit something you can use.

Also check with the venue what they provide for installation. Will they give you screws/nails/picture hooks/ wire/ tools or do you have to provide your own? This is important to know before the installation day.

Step Four: Publicity, Media Releases and Fliers
I’ve already covered Publicity in another post (How to Publicise Your Event or Exhibition) but I’ll recover it quickly here. You’ll need a press release for the show, and a couple of good publicity shots. Sometimes your gallery will do this, but you might want to do one of your own, or ask for a copy and send it out to all your contacts too. You should send this out a month before the show opens to as many email addresses as you can find. Gather your local papers, community papers, street press, art mags etc and get the contact details from them. You’ll have the start of a good media list. Add in as many radio and TV station producers as you can find on the net and you’re well on your way. You’ll also need fliers to hand and email people. Find someone with a bit of graphic design experience and get them to build you one. You need on the flier:
Title of show
Opening times
Opening night (if there is one)
What sort of show (if it isn’t easily apparent)
and entry fee if there is one.

The really important thing is to give people enough information so that they can find your exhibition. No point holding a party if no one shows up. I can’t emphasis that enough. Make is as EASY as possible for people who want to turn up to be able to. Otherwise only the really dedicated ones will turn up.

Email copies to all the artists with a little blurb about the show and ask them to forward it on. Send it to all your contacts with the same request. Post it on your blog, website, facebook, everywhere you can find.

Take the hard copies and distribute them in cafes around the venue and then places like Brunswick St, Sydney Rd, all the funky places people who might want to come to your show frequent. Always ask the staff’s permission to put them down, and only put down around 5-10. Otherwise it’s just a waste of paper.

Step five: Installation
The installation process is really important. It’s not a matter of slapping the art up on the walls as they come in and going home for dinner. Depending on how much time you have to install the show (some galleries will give you a weekend, some might give you a day) try to ensure that either you have all the art delivered to you in the week leading up to the show, or if you don’t have room to store it or there’s too much (or too big) try to ensure that everyone turns up in the morning and deliver their work. It’s good if you have some idea what you’re getting before the installation day, some artists are happy to email you photos of the work once it’s done or at least give you a rough idea of the dimensions and how it’ll look. That way you can start planning where all the work will go before the day. Installation day is going to be long and stressful, have no doubt. So the easier you can make it the less gray hair you’ll have by the time you go home that night.

Once you have all or at least most of the work, start placing it vaguely where you think it’s going to go. Lean the framed stuff against the wall where you want it. Place any sculptural items on the floor where you think it might go. Remember to leave spaces for the art that inevitably hasn’t turned up yet. Grab a scrap of paper and write the artist’s name and/or art title and put it where you envision the work might go.

Once you’ve laid it all out, take a walk around the space. If you think about each piece as a fragment of the whole and each curated exhibition as an artwork in itself, that’ll help with the layout. For example if you have two tiny pieces on one wall and two huge ones on the opposite wall, it’s going to look unbalanced. Try to space them all out logically with reference to size, subject and even colour and texture. Something else to think about is what can be seen from the street. Try to pick some of the most visually engaging or bigger work to go where people on the street can see it, that’ll help entice people into the gallery. It doesn’t mean that small work is less important to the show, but remember the layout isn’t a popularity contest, it’s about trying to envision the show as a whole and do what’s best for the exhibition.

If you are showing at a gallery, the gallery owner or staff might be there to help install, but it’s always good to have someone of yours there to help you. Ask a reliable friend or artist to help. Sometimes artists will volunteer, which is great but ensure they understand that the final decision where work goes rests with you. Some artists won’t agree with the curatorial choices you have made as to where to place each work. Listen, but be firm. If you feel what they suggest is better than your idea, then change stuff around. But if you think you have made the correct decision, stand firm. Sometimes artists arn’t seeing the bigger picture when they suggest that their work should be in the front window rather than someone else’s.

You’ll also need to organise a catoloug of artists, titles and prices and number all the work. Sometimes there’s space for an artistic statement on that too.

Step six: The opening night
Opening nights are important. They’re like a welcoming party for the show, and the celebration allows the exhibition to feel officially started. If you’re holding the show in a gallery, they might supply food and or drink. This is going to assume that you’re doing it all yourself. If you’re holding your exhibition in a cafe, you’ll have to talk to the owners and see what they are interested in you doing.

I usually do drinks but not food – it’s too much for one person to organise. If you’re serving drinks, it’s good to have a accredited bar tender doing the booze. That’s not as hard as it sounds, ask around your friends. I’ve got a number of friends who work in bars or licensed cafes who have done the Responsible Serving of Alcohol certificate. You can give the drinks away for free (to over 18s) but it becomes more grey when you’re selling it. I’ve never sold drinks at an opening, so I’d advise looking into it. The venue should also have a alcohol serving license if you’re going to do alcohol. Remember to have non-alcoholic drinks on hand too, for people who don’t drink, and for under 18s.

It’s good to have someone to officially open the show. It can be another artist who can speak on the media or subject matter, it could be your local politician, it could be an old teacher/lecturer or even a performer. I’ve had a science comedian open an exhibition about monsters with a short lecture on cryptozoology (the study of monsters), I’ve had burlesque performers at the opening of a burlesque exhibition and I’ve had a poet, singer and comedy lecture at the opening of an exhibition that included a zine and CD.

Try to think laterally about what you could have at the opening. It’s going to be when the most people come and see your work, and you want to make it fun and interesting for them. Exhibition openings are about inviting everyone you can to come and see the awesome art you guys have made. It’d be great to get a couple of sales too, but really, at this stage of your artistic career, it’s mainly about introducing yourself and your art to the public. So an opening is actually a really important part of the show.

People won’t really come for the guest talking, they’ll come for the art and whatever else you can offer them. For the aforementioned carnival exhibition we organised a ice cream and fairy floss van to be outside, so people could have ice creams, fairy floss, hot dogs and the like, which just added to the carnival atmosphere of the show. I can’t take credit for that, it was one of the other artists ideas, and it was an awesome one! Make sure whatever interesting thing you’re doing for the opening is on the press release and even on the flier, to ensure people will know it’s going on!

On opening night, you might want to say something too, about the ideas behind the show (although hopefully that’s apparent to everyone who comes!) or the show itself or the artists, often people want to hear from the curator, and the gallery owner might want to speak as well. Make sure you ask them and find out if they want to!

Once the speeches are done, have a drink and congratulate yourself on curating an exhibition. It’s a big job, but there’s nothing better than the feeling you’ll get on opening night.

Step six and a half: The duration of the show and closing
During the show drop in occasionally to check on how the exhibition is going. There might be works sold that you need to deal with. This will depend on what the venue is. You might have also had to organise a rotating roster of artists to mind the show, so you’ll need to keep an eye on that, ensuring the artists turn up and do their shifts.

On closing the show, you’ll need to ensure that all the art is back out of the venue. You might also need to ensure all the walls are back to the original condition – nails/screws out, holes puttied over and repainted. Again, that’ll depend on the agreement you have with the venue.

You can try to organise the artists to turn up and take the unsold work home, but I’ve found that it’s dreadfully hard to get more than about 4 people to turn up at one time. Usually there’ll be timetable clashes and most people wont be able to make it. So be prepared to end up taking some of the work home. If you decide that you’ll only hold onto works for a specific amount of time (a week, a month) ensure that ALL the artists know this WELL IN ADVANCE. Put it on the form they filled in at the start of the process and get them to sign it. Otherwise if you toss out someone’s beloved artwork without any warning you could be up for anything from angry artists to lawsuits. Try to ensure you give them every oppitunity to get their work back, even if that means emailing and calling them every day til they do. However, a friend of mine worked for a woman who has organised year 12 art shows for years, she still has uncollected work from over 10 years ago she’s holding onto in case the artists want them back. He warned me that I should draw the line somewhere. I thought that good advice!

After it’s all done and over, find somewhere to sit down. Have a nice cup of tea and maybe a slice of cake. It’s a big job, but it’s really rewarding and you’ll have contrubuted a valuable event to your local artistic community.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrisy January 18, 2009 at 5:59 am

wow…this is comprehensive, well written and so very useful for anybody contemplating an exhibition – either group or individual….i wonder how ud go putting it into a pdf format and selling…just a thought….

Sayraphim January 18, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Thanks Chrisy 🙂

Although I would like to write a book one day, at the moment I prefer to be contributing to the artistic and craft community. It’s so important that people share information and ideas, to help other people out and generally make the community a better place. So that’s why I’m writing all these tutorials. I like helping people! I think the sense of community that craft artists on internet have is really amazing and I’m happy contributing to that.

But thank you for the suggestion!

Kakariki January 23, 2009 at 4:11 am

GODDESS!! Thanks for sharing your awesome knowledge. Yay community!!!


Sayraphim January 27, 2009 at 6:04 am

Hey Kakariki
Thanks so much! I’m such a fan of community and I love being able to contribute to the knowledge pool

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