Exhibiting Your Artwork

Starting Out Exhibiting

We talked to Simone Tippett, a leader in the South Australian print-making scene and self-made curator for her tips on organising an exhibition. Simone has never applied for a government funding or support for an exhibition; her approach to organising an exhibition is to just do it: all you need to get started… is to get started.

Simone says that later, when you’ve made a name for yourself, you might do things differently.

But for now, when you are starting out, just give it a shot… and think smart. It is amazing what you can achieve if you are thoughtful, resourceful and hard working.

A woman stands smiling in the centre of the photograph, next to her is a chalkboard with dates of the week written on it
Simone Tippett started casual printmaking classes at Union St Studios in 2009.
How do I find the right venue for my work?

Do your research.

Ask artists who make similar works to you – where they have exhibited and how.

Attend as many openings and galleries as you can. Talk to people at the openings: to other artists, to gallery goers and (if you can politely make an opportunity) introduce yourself to the gallery owner/manager. Don’t talk about yourself too much and never bumble or ramble about your own work.

Go with intelligent questions and comments about the space and the exhibition. If asked what you think about a gallery or an exhibition, find something constructive and interesting to say.

Rehearse something brief, concise, clear and intelligent about your own work – your “elevator pitch”. Have a professional business card ready, listing your contact details and website. (And yes, you do need an online presence with professional images. Think of your website as a curated gallery of your current work.)

When the opportunity arises, speak briefly and confidently about your work, and offer your business card.

Ask gallery owners and curators about their criteria for exhibiting – but only after you’ve done your homework – if their criteria is already on their website, read it first. If a gallery/curator has an email list, subscribe to it. Galleries will often put calls out for exhibition proposals one to two years in advance.

When asking about exhibiting, make it clear that you’ve researched the gallery or curator. And never ask questions that are already answered on their website.

A good way to start exhibiting is through group shows, with likeminded artists. Group shows enable you to spend more time making fewer and more evolved works. They allow you to participate in more exhibitions per year, thereby raising your exposure.

Group shows allow you develop your professional profile at the same time as your artwork, whilst sharing the risks amongst a group. (A solo show can be overwhelming when you are starting out, and can involve tremendous responsibility, effort, time and resources.) Once you have participated in a few group shows, and have started making a name for yourself, you will have the documentation, resources and reputation to apply for your own shows.

What costs should I be budgeting for?
When you start out, most likely, everything.

Best to assume you will need to pay for the cost of making the work, framing/presenting it, venue hire, transporting and installing the work, any hard copy invites, drinks and nibbles for the opening, photography, commission on sales, uninstalling the work, packaging/delivering sold and unsold works, etc…

But you can be smart about this.

If you are paying venue hire and commission on sales, the venue/gallery should contribute in some way: hard copy invites, effective promotion via social media, liquor licensing, drinks and nibbles, packaging of sold works, something. An established gallery will have clear guidelines, so ask for this information up front and early.

A temporary space, popup or ARI (artist run initiative) may require you to organise all this for yourself. More than likely, any venue hire will cover just the cost of the venue and the liquor licence. (By definition, ARI’s are DIY. Think of them as a way to creatively learn, from the ground up.)

When starting out, you can do a lot to make your exhibition a success without blowing your miniscule (or non-existent) budget.

Promotions via social media, your website and Guildhouse are free. Don’t forget to do these in time to generate and perpetuate interest in your event. But don’t spam or stalk people. Offer beautiful photos (taken for at no cost on your smart phone) that people will share on social media… And include a subtle reference to your exhibition that can be clicked and followed back to you, if they want. Give people something fabulous – a picture, not words – and they will promote your show for you. Easy and free.

Ann Lai and Rae O’Connell installing Nature at San W Gallery /Studio in Shanghai.
Shifting Senses, Curated by Rayleen Forester. Photograph David Campbell.
Organise a wine sponsor. Ask close friends/family to support you by bringing cheese and dips to your opening night. Publicly thank your friends/family and your wine sponsor. Generosity at an opening or a viewing makes everyone feel good.

Offer an artist talk or a special viewing. Make sure people book into it. Have a colleague/friend on hand with carefully designed questions so you can shine. And use your leftover cheese and wine to lubricate the proceedings.

And if you are fortunate enough to have a sellout show, but no ready funds to package up the work… recycle old clean t-shirts and pillowcases, make your purchasers smile and help them to think they are saving the world by eschewing plastic and bubblewrap. You are an artist: creative is your middle name, so be creative. And in the process, give a people a great story to tell at their next dinner party.

What should the gallery or exhibition space contribute to the exhibition?

This depends on the space, and how well established you are.

In a perfect world, you will be paid to make and exhibit amazing art, people will be paid to help you, your exhibition will sell out and everyone – especially you – will be paid handsomely.

But when starting out, be prepared for the reality to be somewhat different.

When I started out, I made my own opportunities, organised shows for me and my friends to be in, paid for all the extra materials to install (and occasionally remount) works, called in huge favours to install the shows well, purchased the wine, organised the opening speakers, arranged gifts to thank them, etc, etc.

You do what you have to, to get started. Later, when you have made a name for yourself, you can choose between opportunities, negotiate better terms and call the shots.

And it is fun – making something out of nothing is really satisfying. The freedom in doing something your own way is a gift. (Later, when you are famous and in demand, you’ll probably look back on these moments with nostalgic reverence.)

In exhibitions 101: part 2, Simone takes us through a check list for putting together an exhibition.

Guildhouse financial members are able to obtain one on one professional development support about many areas of their practice. Find out more about membership here.