How to Prepare for Your First Art Show

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Have you been accepted into a group show? Are you showing your work in a local business? Did a solo show opportunity fall in your lap? Whatever display opportunity has been presented to you, congratulations! It is incredibly exciting to be able to show your work in public for the first time. Now you’re probably wondering how to prepare. Well, I’m going to help!

I have shown my art in a variety of venues. Group gallery show, large weekend art fair, small craft fairs, solo shows at a hair salon, tattoo parlor, library, breweries, and more. With each opportunity comes new preparation challenges. For this post, I want to focus mainly on how to prepare for an art show in a gallery or informal business like a coffee shop. First let’s look at:

Space Size and Location

Before I agree to a show or bring my work inside to install it, I always take a look at the space. I take pictures of the walls, get rough measurements, and even draw little diagrams. Some venues happily provide a drawn layout of their space with measurements (and I love those venues!), which makes things really easy.

When you are displaying in a group show, you don’t really need to worry about these details as much, but this will be very important for a solo show. Getting an idea for a layout lets you figure out if you have enough work to fill the space. Do you need to create more? Can you create a collection from what you already have?

Contracts, COmmissions, and Important Dates

Once you agree to do a show, a venue will likely provide a contract for you to sign. This will often include the show dates, the install and tear-down dates and time, a general waiver of responsibility of damage (if your art gets damaged, the venue will not be held liable), commission percentages, and any other important details. If a venue does not provide a contract, get the details that are important to you in writing. Whether that is through email, or by writing your own contract.

If your art is available for sale, decide who will handle art sales. Some venues will handle transactions and cut you a check once the show is over. These venues will also likely take a 10%-50% commission off the sale. The more informal venues like businesses that just want to support local artists will often let artists keep the entire sale, but they will leave you to handle the art sales on your own. Work these details out before installing your work so you are all on the same page.

HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR WORK FOR A Group Show

If you are doing a group show, this will likely be the easiest experience for you. The show coordinators will usually give you a size range for your work and a time to drop your piece(s) off at the venue. They will usually install all of the work.

When you are choosing what work you want to display for a group show, first pay attention to the theme of the show if there is one. Show coordinators are trying to create a cohesive collection when choosing a theme, so choose work that will fit in among the other artists. If there is no theme, then choose work that exemplifies what you do all around. If your subject matter is all of the place and you really don’t have one distinct style yet, then choose the work that makes you proud.

How to Choose your work for a Solo Show

Solo shows can sound really intimidating at first. It’s just you and your art in a venue *gasp*, but take a breath. It’s going to be fun!

Depending on the venue, you can be super serious and intellectual with your show and have a show title, artist statement, and give a speech at a reception–or you can be relaxed and do things more informally. If you are doing a solo show at a legit art gallery, then prepare to be more professional with your show. If you are showing at a location where people primarily go for non-art reasons, then informality is more appropriate. Read the room and stay true to who you are as an artist. Here are a few things I keep in mind:

  • Choose a body of work that fits together– If you are doing a gallery show, think of a title and theme for your work. Make sure all of your pieces can tell a part of your larger story. If you are doing a more informal show at a coffee shop or brewery, then you can be a little looser with how things fit together. You can skip the title/theme and choose the same color scheme or other consistent design element.
  • Have a couple of stand out pieces– I will often plan a show around one piece that I really like and I will set that as the focal point (put it on the best wall in the venue!).
  • Create flow with how you hang your work– Let’s say you are all over the place with your art. You work with all sorts of colors and styles, and you don’t have time to create a whole new cohesive body of work for your show. Then, create flow from one piece to the next. Start piecing your work together like a linked chain on the wall. Your purple sunset can flow into the abstract geometric purple piece, then you add your geometric red piece to the chain, and a hyper-realism red delicious apple comes next. Connect your pieces however you can.
  • Use the pictures and diagrams from when you scoped out the venue and visually plan out your show. I will often draw pieces to scale into a diagram so I can install quickly and bring exactly the number of pieces that can fit in a space.

Create an Inventory List

Once you have decided what work you will display, put together an inventory list in a spreadsheet. I always include the following:

  • Title
  • Size
  • Medium
  • Price

When a venue doesn’t supply a contract, I will often use this inventory list to gather all of the show details. I then print off a copy for the venue and hand it over when I install my work.

Title Cards with Contact and Purchase Info

After I compile my inventory list, I save it and create a title card in a Word document. For my title cards, I list everything my audience needs in order to get in contact with me and buy this piece. I include my name, social handle, email, piece details, and the URL needed to make a purchase. I like to create a page on my website dedicated to the current show for my cards.

Some venues ask you not to list a price to protect art from being stolen in more public places, so don’t hesitate to ask your show coordinator what they prefer.

Once I create the card, I use the inventory spreadsheet and create a merge file so I don’t have to individually type out a card for each piece. Then I print on nice cardstock, cut, and hang the cards next to each piece using poster putty (see my Art Show Tool Kit list).

Bio And Artist Statement

Not all shows require a bio or artist statement. If you are showing in a gallery, yes, plan on writing both of these. If you are showing in any other location where art is a secondary focal point, then it’s really up to you if you want to put in the effort. Some locations will request this info if they are good with social media and promotions, but others are more chill.

For a lot of my shows, I will create a one page bio/statement combo and hang this sheet with poster putty near a high traffic area of my display. Those who are interested in your work will happily read more about you.

Always include your name, contact info, and directions for how to purchase your art.

How to Hang Your Work On Walls

When working with an event coordinator, I always ask how they want me to hang my work. If a venue has a wire hanging system, be prepared to wire the backs of your work. If they simply use nails, then a saw tooth bracket or hanging wire will work. If the walls cannot be touched at all and there is no wire system, 3M Command strips can work really well to hang lighter pieces. I have worked with venues who will hang all of the work themselves, but the majority of the time I am hanging my own art. (For more details on how to frame and hang your art check out this blog post.)

Anytime I got to a venue to install my work, I bring my own tool kit. I’ve linked the exact products I use, and some functionally equivalent products on my Amazon Associate Page (I will earn a commission if you make a purchase after clicking that link).

Before I Install my work, here are the questions I ask:
  • Does the venue have a ladder if needed?
  • Wire hanging system or nails?
  • Do they want you to patch any nail holes you’ve made after tear down?

While hanging my work, I do the following:

  • Use a level to make sure pieces aren’t wonky.
  • Use a laser level if hanging multiple pieces that are the same size.
  • Use a tape measure to measure distances between pieces and distance from floor and ceiling if I don’t have a laser level with.
  • Stand back and eyeball the accuracy of each piece after hanging, and view entire collection as a whole.

Wire hanging systems are wonderful for making small adjustments to how your pieces are hanging. With these systems, you can raise, lower, and slide your art around easily. If you have to use a hammer and nails, then take advantage of your tape measure and level to make sure you’re not pounding a bunch of unusable holes in the wall for each piece.

How to Price Your work

I wrote a long post about this a while ago, and it still has some good info. In short I will say, price your work according to the profit you will make. When you sell at informal locations like a coffee shop, lower prices will work better. When you show at a gallery, they will take a significant cut of the sale, so your prices will need to be higher. Though, be careful to be able to explain why your prices are higher or lower. This could mean that you display your smaller and less labor intensive work in informal locations, and you save your high quality, labor intensive pieces for galleries.

There is no exact science to pricing, but that also means you can wing it and adjust accordingly from there. That’s what the rest of us do.

Opening or Closing Reception

Now you’re ready to party! Once you have a show planned, generate some buzz around it and have a closing or opening reception! For one, it’s fun! Two, this helps get more people in the door to see your work.

Work with your venue and get something on the calendar. Plan an event with food vendors, musicians, or even just a tray full of cookies. If your venue has high foot traffic already, then great! If not, you might end up having a party with just friends and family, but that’s still something to be excited about.

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And I think that about does it! Did I miss anything? Do you have any questions? I write these posts to help other artists, so I am always open to hearing your questions.

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every Tuesday (…sometimes Wednesday). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

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