2018 Guide To Exhibiting Art

The 2018 Guide to Exhibiting Art

2018 Guide To Exhibiting Art

The art of the show!

As an artist, success takes many forms. Sometimes it is about battling the artistic demons of self-doubt and the creative anxiety those demons can bring, other times it is when you produce something that you are proud of.

Success for others is knowing that their work hangs on someone’s wall or that the art world has positively received you and your work and perhaps even critiquing it positively. Before any of that happens though an artist has to do something that challenges even the best, they have to get their work into the public realm. People need to see it, it’s the number one rule.

How we as artists do that varies greatly, many will look towards social media others will look to galleries, yet many others will go down the route of exhibiting their work either through organised shows or by self-organising an event.

In fact it was this self-organising route which helped to springboard the careers of many artists back in 1988 including one artist you might have heard of and whose name is Damien Hirst.

We are talking of course about ‘Freeze’ which was where Hirst gained sponsorship from the London Docklands Development Corporation and the property company, Olympia and York. Securing the loan of the by then empty Port of London Authority building in South-East London, Freeze was born and with it a new way of showcasing art and the artists who create it.

The walls of the empty warehouse were painted and lighting was set up by Hirst and his contemporaries. During the summer of 1988, Hirst and fellow student Angus Fairhurst distributed copies of the catalogue in galleries and bookshops ahead of the show’s opening.

With support from their tutor from Goldsmith’s, Michael Craig-Martin, ‘Freeze’ was attended by some notable curators of the time as well as journalists and collectors. Craig-Martin has in the past said that this show wasn’t calculated nor was it cleverly manipulated. It was down to a combination of youthful bravado, fortunate timing, innocence, good luck and good work.

It seems that it would have been obvious that the show would be a success, Hirst was exhibiting alongside the likes of Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume amongst other big-name artists, but remember that back then those names were relatively unknown.

London as a centre for global arts was at the time a bit of a backwater behind Cologne and New York and whilst this show is not the sole event that eventually made those names what they are today, it was perhaps the first time that younger artists were taken seriously. As the recession came to an end, art became stock, and those young artists were suddenly being taken very seriously indeed.

So why was this ‘Freeze’ a success? It was put together with funding, the merits of publicity were recognised and they produced a professional catalogue. In short they got the marketing optics right from the off. But what is most remarkable about this particular ‘Freeze’, it was essentially a bunch of students and their teacher self-organising.

red dot art

The Organised Event…

Organised events are where most artists will show their work for the first time. The hassle and stress are to an extent taken away, although anyone who has ever exhibited will tell you that an organised event still comes with copious amounts of both.

Preparing your work, going through the process of being curated, and then hoping that someone will notice your work amongst a swathe of other talents, well none of this is easy. Like I have said so many times before, if you are think being an artist is an easy route to fame and fortune, there are plenty of easier ways to go about fulfilling that dream.

There are never any guarantees that any show will be a success for individual artists. If you happen upon a serendipitous moment and the ducks are in the same pond, let alone all lined up, it could progress your career just as well as anything else. If they’re not and the show is a bust, you can come away with your expectations in tatters. 

Some of those expectations are down to what you think might happen when you exhibit and what actually happens when you exhibit. Often the two are far apart. You might think that exhibiting at such and such an event is a guaranteed way to get your work in front of the right crowd, but in reality it depends on the exhibition and who turns up, and more so; it depends on you and your work.

So what will provide an artist with a chance of show success? Firstly you need to look for the right show for you and your work, and then work out if your own market will be attending, and that’s kind of just the start. If you don’t know your market then now would be the time to figure it out.

Just beyond those initial steps in finding out whether or not the show will be the right fit for both you and your art, the organisers will want to find out if you and your art are the right fit for the show. Remember my article on deciding whether or not you should choose gallery representation or go it alone? There are more than a few similarities between galleries and shows too.

And as with anything involving art, those thoughts alone are often difficult to figure out immediately. Every week I see information about a new show opening, a call for artists, and competitions, and out of all of those I do come across its pretty safe to say that some shows are not worth the effort at all. Some will even be scams and of the good ones, well you’re not always guaranteed a place in the show at all.


There are plenty of things to consider when looking at shows and one of the major decisions you will need to make early on is whether or not your art really does have a fit with the show. This is where the thought process for a few artists becomes similar to the thought process behind a social media post. Bear with, I will explain!

On social media as you will no doubt have noticed, and as I have tried to point out on numerous occasions, a few artists join hundreds of groups usually because they have the word ‘art’ somewhere in the title. 

They quickly sign up to ‘the art of being a vegan’ group and then post random photos of artwork featuring everything that is not vegan. In short the group doesn’t have any kind of fit in any world with what the artist wants to share. Same with shows and exhibitions.

Hence many shows today are curated events where there is an assumption that a process is followed to allow in the best art that has a fit with the show. That assumption is correct for those good shows, that’s exactly how it is supposed to work. For the bad shows the curatorial process is a bit random or at worst is a mechanism to charge a high entry fee and still allow mostly anything through. 

Let’s assume though that we have selected a good show and we have done our own due diligence to ensure that the work has a fit. We feel that it does and a submission is made, but that’s not to say that the jury or panel of the event will think the same way. 

If the show is predicated on making a number of sales rather than just creating exposure for the artists, the panel or jury members will be looking for work they feel sure will sell during the event. You may well have produced great work, but great work doesn’t always mean quick sales, sometimes great work doesn’t even mean making a sale and it all depends on the context it is presented in. 

You might not get through that process because you may have submitted work that will detract from the other art on surrounding stands, it essentially drowns everything around it out, or perhaps the work isn’t quite as good as you think it is because that happens too, or perhaps it os great work but just doesn’t have a fit.

Jurors or rather those who are expert jurors and who decide on what is and isn’t shown will all hopefully know how to put aside personal tastes when deciding and may well be experts in particular genres of art. What they are looking for is usually something that doesn’t just have a fit with the overall theme and quality of the show, and neither are they necessarily looking for work that is just exceptional. A masterpiece alone doesn’t always sell, what they are looking for is a masterpiece that also has a special something extra. Something not quite so quantifiable, the kind of special that you only really know when you see it.

They’re also looking for the usual things like the artists signature. Is it too big, is it legible, and heaven forbid that signature is a company logo or brand name. You’re not tagging graffiti, you are putting your own name to a piece of art so stop signing work with a tag!

Occasionally it is the frame in which the artwork is mounted within that puts off jurors and panellists, other times it could be that the art whilst technically brilliant is more of the same old, same old. The art that often gets noticed is the art that has an impact from ten feet away in ten seconds and where the viewer is rewarded if they take a closer look.

So that’s a starter on prepping for an organised exhibition, lots of things to consider and I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of showing in organised events. But what happens if you can’t find an organised event, or you have had rejections in the past, does this mean that there are no options left for you to show your work in public?

The Art of Self Organising...

Most certainly there are options other than organised shows that will give you the ‘show’ experience without too much of the formality. That’s not at all to suggest that self-organising a show is the easy option. To organise your own show is only ever easy if you are doing it wrong.

Just as Hirst and the others did, a self-organised show is achievable and I would go as far as saying perhaps a little easier to do today than Hirst and his contemporaries would have found it all those years ago. 1988 was a time when the internet or at least the internet that we know today just didn’t exist. Let that sink in, what it meant was that there was no online advertising on social-media, no websites to promote the event, it was all down to old-school marketing and getting out and meeting people and a lot of hard work. Today will have its own challenges, but getting the word out will be easier.

Freeze also relied heavily on having that initial investment. Self-organised shows done properly cost real money. I have listened to artists talking of the often exorbitant fees charged by some shows but I say to those artists, how much do you think it costs to put on a professional event? From experience it is a bit more than you’d think!

If you are insistent and want to give it a go there are numerous roads you can take. Ultimately it will depend on the budget you have available and the location you choose, you need to know that it will be accessible for your market.

This might be your very first solo exhibition and you will want to make a big impact so presenting the show in a professional manner is going to be vital.

Budget aside for a moment as we’ll get to that bit a little later, one of the first things to do assuming you know who your audience are, is to decide on an overarching theme for the show. This could drive the venue choice too.


The theme should be engaging and should never be too general. Acrylics by artist X is way too vague and only tells potential visitors to the show that they can expect to see your acrylic works. If for example they are seascapes, you might want to pick up on a particular theme. So with my latest series of seascapes the theme is squarely on the plight of the fishing industry and the challenges being faced by those who go out to sea to catch falling quotas. In this instance a show title featuring those works would need to get that message across succinctly and spark some interest in the issues being portrayed in the works. 

Perhaps something like, ‘A Decade of Falling Quotas’ might get the message across but each of those works offers at least a glimmer of hope that the industry will pick up again in the future. So something that also conveys hope would perhaps serve as a better title.

The next decision is going to be around what to show. If this is your first show it would be easy to pick ten to thirty pieces of art which you have enjoyed creating the most. At this point you do have to be brutally honest with yourself because you need to pick the best works you have and the best works might not be your favourite works, and they need to tie into the theme you have chosen too.

Ideally you should use your opening night to unveil at least one new work that ties into the overall theme of the show. Again this work has to be impressive so make sure that you have plenty of time to complete it before opening night.

Now we have a theme but as yet we don’t have a venue and this is something that you need to think carefully about. The venue wherever you choose should be accessible, and it should have enough space for you to display all of the work you will be showing, it definitely shouldn’t appear cluttered. Too many times I have seen solo shows set up in the tightest of spaces and each piece of art drowns out the other art on display. Too much going on in too little space and everything starts to lose its meaning. 

You need to consider how your visitors will interact with the space, and how people will move around. Much of this though will be predicated on the venue itself.

The choice of venue also comes down to available budget. In some instances local businesses might lend you a space and not charge you at all, in other instances you might want to consider hiring a venue.

For my hypothetical show with my new seascapes I would be tempted to look at venues close to the coast, perhaps even using a building associated with the local fishing industry. Ideally I would want to have a few props to hand such as lobster or crab pots to add some nautical decoration, and maybe consider hanging lights from thick rope. All of which will add to and reinforce the theme, but equally your venue might be somewhere that has no affiliation with the subject of your work at all, that’s when theming can be very useful. 

You also need to consider how people will get to your event, is it close to public transport, do people have to travel far, are there sufficient parking spaces, or is it the type of venue that has high foot traffic every day?

You might also want to consider having a meet and greet area and you will certainly need to identify a position in the room where you can address the attendees. You might also have to consider using a PA system, and if you are holding a catered reception, you will need somewhere to put the food and serve drinks away from the art if possible.

Venues can literally be almost anywhere. I have seen pop-up art galleries and attended exhibitions in coffee shops so pretty much anywhere is fair game just so long as it has the required space.

Some venues you might want to consider:

  • Art gallery – the obvious choice 
  • Historic buildings – these may need additional approvals and you won’t be able to interfere with the building structure
  • Coffee Shops – Be aware that your art if hung for any duration could end up with a coffee aroma!
  • Cafés and restaurants – Be mindful of grease and damage from smoke
  • Convention and conference centres – can be ideal and often well-lit venues but can also be expensive.
  • Local community or public run galleries
  • Local Town Hall
  • Hotels – popular but again, costs can mount particularly if you pay for on-site catering but the high-end hotels might attract guests who may have a higher disposable income, although you might want to consider that guests might be business people with expense accounts covering their accommodation.
  • Community centres
  • Empty stores can make pop-up art galleries and may bring in people to the area so local businesses might be keen to sponsor all or part of the event.
  • Offices – corporate office foyers
  • Rent a home – if your own home couldn’t accommodate strangers then renting a smart looking home might be an alternative but be careful about how damage is charged for. You will also need to check any local government restrictions on trading too.
  • Public Libraries

There are hundreds of choices for venues although booking them particularly if they are popular is often difficult so you may have to move dates around to fit the venue. 

Talking of which, setting a date is also something that you need to consider carefully. If this is your first show it is best to give yourself plenty of time, and then add a little bit more time as a contingency. 

You might want to avoid certain days, holding a show on the same day as the Superbowl might not be the best idea if your market is sat at home watching the game, and public holidays may be problematic too. 

art exhibition and Exhibiting art

Displaying the work…

When you set up an exhibition space you need to factor in hanging and displaying your work. Never underestimate how long it can take to hang a painting at the right height and with the right lighting. 

You may have to hire rails and a stand to hang art if the building is protected or listed, or if the owners don’t want you to knock a few nails in the wall. 

Always display the artist’s bio, pricing, and artist’s statements and these need to be next to the individual artworks. Avoid printing them off using fonts such as Comic Sans, and make sure that fonts are legible and readable by those who may have vision problems. 

The last show I decided to exhibit at although it was a long time ago, I decided to make available a range of accessories. I took along a range of hanging kits suitable for a range of different artworks which I could sell. These were next to the frames I had brought along from a local framer, and I had more than a few people buy those kits after purchasing the work of other artists exhibiting. Those who purchased my art received a free hanging kit. Small details such as this can make a lot of difference, the sales of hanging kits and commission from the frames I sold more than covered the cost of the one night event.

Marketing your show…

Now you have a date, venue, artwork and a theme, it is time to start marketing your solo show. Hirst knew that a professional catalogue was needed at the Freeze event so this is something that you might want to outsource to a local printer and graphic designer. Remember that a solo show doesn’t mean that you have to do everything on your own.

Make sure that the artwork is photographed and ideally by a professional to ensure that glares and reflections don’t spoil the final image, and make the write-ups about each piece relevant. Ideally use the write-ups in the catalogue to convey a story based on the theme of the show.

The usual suspects for advertising such as paying for a Facebook advert should be considered but you might also want to set it up as a Facebook event too. On the night you could even live stream parts of the event to people who couldn’t get there in person. 

Consider setting up a private Facebook group and live stream the event to those who have been invited into the group. There is always a possibility that someone viewing the work via the stream will decide that they wish to buy the work.

Prepare business cards but make them different. Whilst a good quality business card printed on thick cardstock might cost more, it portrays the image that you supply quality artwork and that you take your art seriously. 

You might want to also consider sending out invitations too and you could even design your own through a print on demand service such as Zazzle. It’s here where you might want to also consider offering a VIP exclusive code. This could be for an amount off a piece of artwork, but it doesn’t have to be monetary at all. It could be a percentage off frames, a free hanging kit, maybe a giclee art card which is signed, essentially you don’t have to think of undervaluing your work at all, adding value is not always taking money off. 

Whilst the social media side of things is relatively straight forward, there are a few considerations. You need to target the ad to your target market and make sure that you are focussing on those people who can attend, i.e. they don’t live 4,000 miles away and the event is this Friday. I get hundreds of invites each year from literally all over the world and if I turned up to only 50% of them it would take a year of travelling to and from and in between events which I could never afford to do, but I so wish I could!

You could also write a press release and I know that these are particularly underused by artists and yet they are often our most powerful tool. Fine Art America allow you to submit press releases but I am not too sure if many people use the functionality. It is there so if you are a member of FAA, use it, you don’t have to be holding a major show to issue a press release just so long as what the release says is newsworthy. 

Sending a press release to local newspapers, art magazines, businesses, dignitaries, local TV and radio stations is something that you can do whenever you release a major work, or even just to introduce yourself to your local community. It’s surprising just how many press organisations will respond positively and you have absolutely nothing to lose by doing it. 

Just remember though that a press release is not a sales pitch. It should be formatted in the right way but there’s plenty of help out there, press release templates can be found all over the web and on some press sites too. If the newspaper has a section for arts and entertainment, send it over to that specific department. 

If enough people are interested I am happy to cover press releases in a future blog post so leave a comment if you want to see something that shows you how to structure one so that it stands a better chance of being picked up. 

Flyers and posters are a given, and local printers often carry deals with higher discounts when you buy in bulk. Often it is cheaper to buy a thousand flyers than five hundred. Keep the theming consistent with the show too.


If only friends and family will attend the event you won’t be selling much art and any art you do sell might be expected to be offered at a discount. However, inviting a few friends is a good idea to increase the numbers and maybe lend a hand on the night. 

You should consider making the event a sign up event and there are a number of options that will allow you to do this. Some sites offer a bespoke booking solution which provides a portal for visitors to sign up online, but as I mentioned earlier, creating a Facebook event is useful too.

When it comes to inviting others you will have a bit more work to do. It goes without saying that your target market should be your primary focus but inviting along local dignitaries, the press, and maybe your local arts society are something that have to be considered too. If you can bring along a respected art critic all the better but that might be pushing it a little, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though. It is said that Hirst picked a respected critic up in his car and delivered him to Freeze and then drove him back after the show.

Many of the people you ideally want to attend the event will have packed diaries so again this has to be factored into your timing. If you send over a link to your portfolio online, together with a personal letter that says why you want the person to come along, it is surprising just how many people will say yes.

Whilst you need a hook, inviting really well-known celebrities can be either good or bad. Sometimes the focus will be on them and your art will take second place, other times they might enjoy your art and influence their own fans to purchase it. But if you do go down this hire a celebrity route, make sure that they have at least a link to visual arts or your theme. 

Ready or Not - it’s Showtime!

After all of this preparation, perhaps months of hard work and creating your art in between, the big night finally arrives. Savour it and enjoy it because you need to enjoy the evening or even perhaps the next few days just as much as the guests do. If the show goes well you could be spending days, sometimes weeks and months on follow up activity. 

If it all goes horribly wrong though, don’t get too despondent and certainly never give up on the idea of ever showing again. Solo shows are for the brave, people are there for you and your work and with that comes a lot of responsibility and a load of hard work. 

Above all else, if it does go wrong you won’t be the first that this has happened too. I am sure that luck as much as anything else played a role in Hirst’s Freeze, and I know a few distinguished artists who have run solo shows and would rather forget that they ever happened, I know I have!

If you are considering the solo show then break it down into small achievable steps. 

  • Choose a theme
  • Select a venue
  • Plan the event well in advance
  • Monitor your budget
  • Plan marketing
  • Work out how long you will need to set everything up
  • Consider giving out goodie bags or thank you cards or gifts for those attending on opening night.
  • Commit yourself fully to the show

If you decide that a self-organised show isn’t for you or you just don’t feel that confident just yet, consider the organised shows and events or even consider holding a joint show with another artist or two. That way you each gain experience and share the workload and the costs, and you might be more comfortable having a partner by your side as you go through the process of setting up an event. 

Ahead of any show remember that you should also be attending other shows and networking, but don’t steal the limelight from other artists on their evenings, you wouldn’t want them to reciprocate that kind of behaviour at your event. Networking in the art world is a little like being a diplomat, you have to know when to pull out the elevator speeches and when to just hold back. That though will come with experience.

If you do go ahead, plan the other often missed essentials too, I’ve added a list of the most obvious ones here!

  • Collect email addresses and have a way of storing them electronically, use an email sign up service for better management of email addresses.
  • Consider how you will transport works to the event
  • Make sure that you have real certificates of authenticity – not something cobbled together with PowerPoint and printed off on cheap printer paper, ideally get independently verified certificates of authenticity if you can. 
  • Think about getting businesses to sponsor the event – include them in marketing materials and invite them on the night.
  • You might want to consider videoing the event or hiring a professional photographer – the photos and videos will be useful to place on your website too.
  • Make sure you have the right tools to hang your work and that the walls or structures are able to support your work well ahead of the event.
  • If you need to hire exhibition stands and rails and make sure they will fit in the venue.
  • Perhaps more importantly than most other things, consider how you will take credit/debit card payments. Hardly anyone carries around cash these days.
  • Plan timing, what time will the doors open, how long will you need for refreshments and food, and what time do you plan on finishing.
  • Make opening times and closing times known well ahead of the event. 
  • Do you need entertainment? Some venues might need additional licensing to play pre-recorded or live music, always better to check out what the policy is before booking. 
  • If you decide to hire a local singer or a band, make sure that what they are playing/singing has some fit with the theme of the show. 
  • Take along a roll of red stickers. If artwork sells you can get that wonderful feeling of placing a red dot next to each piece of art as it sells. Nothing like seeing a room full of red dots!
  • Enlist friends to deal with financial transactions, wait on guests, and just generally go around chatting to guests. This alone can give you invaluable feedback and especially if the guests don’t know they are talking to one of your friends. 
  • Take along a list of shipping and packaging charges with you. If someone has arrived by public transport or don’t have room in their car to take it away on the night they might need the art delivering at a later date. Make sure you have a few of the more popular overseas destinations included too.
  • Don’t haggle on the night. The price is what it is, be confident. If you decide to offer a discount, make sure you do so in private and away from the other guests or they will all expect discounts. Discounts though are generally a bad idea. 
  • Make sure you pay attention to everyone, not just to those you know or those who you think will buy your art. Switch off your phone, remove any distractions, and keep a small notebook in your pocket or handbag along with business cards. 
  • Selling multiple pieces of artwork as a set is not always a good idea. Sometimes people might only want one of the pieces.
  • Thank everyone for attending, especially any outside staff who you have hired and also friends and family, but remember it’s not the Oscars.  
  • Above everything else, be you and be human.

setting up an art show

Get out there and do it!

There is no denying that any exhibition be it self-organised or organised is hard work. That’s what being an artist is about. But it can be fun too, looking back I have had some of my best ever nights at solo events, in fact I think I might even get back into the game at some point!

Expect rejection too and never get despondent when rejection comes. Rejection happens for all sorts of reasons and it’s not always negative. Whether your work is suitable for any show is subjective and just because a piece of work gets rejected for one show doesn’t mean it will be rejected at another. 

Perhaps you need more time, more practice, whatever the reason is you won’t be showing anything if you don’t have a go and start submitting work. As for the fee’s, I mentioned earlier that some shows are not worth any artist’s time, other shows might be scams, but a majority will be well run and more importantly affordable.

I see a lot of calls for artists in my Facebook groups, The Artists Exchange, The Artist Hangout, and although they shouldn’t appear in the Artists Directory they do. Those latter ones get removed because that’s not what the directory is about. But I expect that a minority of those shows might fall into the amateur let’s get some money from inexperienced artists category, some may even be scams, it is often hard to tell. Check absolutely everything, talk to artists who have previously exhibited, check with local art groups, and follow your gut instincts too. 

I will soon be publishing a poll of current members to see if they feel that any of these calls for artists are relevant to the groups, or whether we should just not allow them at all, or maybe screen the best ones who can provide evidence that the show will be well run, professional and is not a scam show. 

I have always loved solo shows because they are so much more personal and everything is within your control to an extent. Coming together as artists and creating joint shows is a great idea too, often it’s way more fun and supporting each other will get you through what can be sometimes stressful. 

The prestigious nature of some events is difficult and often impossible to replicate and unless exhibitions and shows are well established and professionally run, some just won’t carry the relevance that shows need and so you might be better off going down the self-organised route. 

Whilst putting on your own professional show can be expensive, if you get the right location and the right audience, and don’t go too overboard, you can work within a modest budget. 

Some shows are most definitely more elitist than others, those who can afford a high submission fee will attend whilst those with talent and no money can be denied access, that shouldn’t put people off from being creative about doing any of this though.

Some artists have successfully turned to crowd-funding sites to help them organise shows, others have literally set up pop-up shows in empty spaces, it doesn’t matter so long as people come and see your work because no one will ever buy your art if they can’t see it.

I hope you have enjoyed reading through this week’s article, hopefully it will inspire a few of you to get out there are participate more in this wonderful world of art that we are all a part of. If you do plan on setting up your first solo show, let me know and I will try my best to cover you and the show right here on this site, hey you could even send me a press release!

What about those alternative venues? Well I have got you covered! I have written a feature on choosing the best alternative venues and what you need to consider before you decide.  I’ll be publishing it right here on this site very soon, stay tuned!

About Mark…

Mark is an artist and blogger who specialises in abstracts, landscapes, and seascapes but also carries out a limited number of commissions for book covers, posters, and personal commissions too. 

His work is sold in more than 150 retail locations across the USA and Canada including The Great Frame Up, Framing and Art Centre, and Deck the Walls and you can also buy from Fine Art America or his Pixels site here: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com 

All artwork and art collectibles sold through Fine Art America and Pixels also come with a 30-day money back guarantee. Any proceeds from the sale of art through Fine Art America and Pixels go back towards maintaining this site for the benefit of other independent visual artists and art buyers. You can also follow Mark on Facebook at: https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia


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