The First Step to Curating Your Art

Let’s face it. Artists are terrible at curating their own work.

There’s no way you can be objective. You love everything, you hate everything, you want to show everything you have, or you don’t want to show anything at all.

Sound familiar?
empty gallery
Today’s article is inspired by an email I received from Karen Meredith, in which she wanted to know about the proper number of works to have on a website, in an exhibition, or at an open studio. I promise to discuss those details in next week’s article, but first let’s talk big picture.

If there is a sweet spot for the number of works you should show, you still have to whittle down the inventory. You must be a curator of your work.

Curate is a hot term online these days. Everyone is talking about the value of curating content.

But you and I know that curating art goes way back. To curate art means that you select, organize, care for, and make sense of the work. Got it? A curator:

  • Selects the art
  • Organizes or arranges the art
  • Cares for the art
  • Makes sense of the art

The Role of a Curator

Curators – whether they’re paid museum staff, volunteers, independent, or otherwise – are a necessary part of the art ecosystem.

Most juried exhibitions are weak because there is no curator. The work is only selected from what was submitted to the juror(s). There is no say in what ends up being submitted and no time or designated person to make sense of a bunch of disparate works.

Juried exhibitions weed out work from submissions. They subtract.

In contrast, curated exhibitions start with nothing but a curatorial thesis based on knowledge of what the curator has observed across a wide range of gallery visits, articles, and conversations.

Curators research, review, study, and select the best examples to support that curatorial thesis. They add.

Don’t get me wrong! Juried exhibitions serve their purpose, particularly for the emerging artist. But it’s vital to understand the difference between what a juror does and what a curator does.

The First Step

Just as in the examples above, most artists start selecting art for an exhibition by looking at everything they have available and then taking out work. There’s a point in the process when you must remove certain pieces, but it’s not at the beginning.

The first step in curating your art is to start with a piece or two that best represent what you’re trying to communicate. After you’ve done this, you can build your exhibition or Web page around that piece.

If you find you have too many in the end, you can start subtracting.

See this post about how museum curators do it.

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51 thoughts on “The First Step to Curating Your Art”

  1. Oh, Alyson. What perfect timing. I was just looking at an rtist’s site thinking that they had too much work on it that it would have been stronger if they had edited it and just used the strongest work. Then I thought, “Wait! Is MY site edited?” Have clean my own house. Looking forward to next week’s advice!

  2. Alyson, thanks for this post. It’s such important information. Our art works are our “children” and curating our own work can feel like “playing favorites” and we don’t want to do that! Plus sometimes I’ve been surprised when a painting I don’t feel strongly about turns out to be a favorite for someone else. I recently edited my website to remove older work that is less developed. Those pieces are still available for sale at open studios or small local shows but I want my website to have the greatest exposure for my best work. It takes discipline as well as intention!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Dorothy: No, it isn’t easy. Yes, it must be done. Good on you for doing the hard work.

    2. It’s interesting that you did that. I’ve been wondering if I’m doing myself a disservice representing all my works on my website. On one hand I share your sentiment and on the other I’m wondering if I should so this part of my work as it shows people my craft development. Any thoughts?

  3. Curating my photographs for my book, AWAKE, was certainly a big challenge for me to add to and subtract from the body of work so that it made sense as a whole. I started with the frames that garnered the most attention, comments, feedback whether it was good or bad…even when it didn’t include my favorites or the ones that I saw as more rare or valuable.
    For my recent show, I proceeded much in the same way: I started with the work that people respond to first. I use my Facebook page to follow traffic, likes, comments, and even survey questions to collect the data. Out of a collection of 25-50 photographs, only a few get comments or a thumbs-up like. I am careful though not to fall over myself to please my customer base, and will always present new work, a new point of view, or my latest musings as a segue to develop myself as an artist.
    I’m looking forward to reading up more on your thoughts on the curatorial thesis and grouping work. I definitely see it as a competitive advantage when presenting myself to galleries, online, and for contests!

  4. I haven’t finish making the art for my upcoming solo show and the gallery is asking me for a single picture that would represent the work. My face was blank and almost passed out. I told them to give me few weeks to finish this special piece I’m making and if and only if I’m happy with it we can use it or they can pick themselves from the ones they already saw. Oh dear…

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Sikiu: What if, before you went to bed, you asked for guidance? Wonder if it would come to you?
      The alternative is to sit in a space with all of them surrounding you until they start talking back. You’ll know – if you can be patient long enough.

  5. Hi Alyson,
    Thank you so much for addressing my question. I agree with the above comment by Dorothy that it can be difficult to eliminate, when often those less “keen” paintings are loved by someone else! What to do??? But then you said not to consider things purely from the standpoint of elimination! So I will wait patiently for your next installment!! And you DO have an interesting perspective, having been a curator in your earlier life! 🙂

  6. Anuradha KHURANA

    Alyson, thank you. I am just beginning my art business and have only just become enthusiastic about the art business vis a vis an ostrich-in-the-studio mentality! Look forward to your article.

  7. Thanks for this post. I appreciate your emphasis on artists considering these issues for their own work and am glad you also show the role of outside curators. Artists can and should seek these informed curator perspectives!

  8. I am suddenly realizing the value of themes and/or series. Once I started curating my work, the look of my exhibits improved dramatically. Since I am someone who is constantly experimenting, though, it’s always hard to have enough work to “fill”‘a show or open studio without it looking like a group show. I interpret this dilemma as a need to focus a little more on my strengths and the work I love..

  9. Thanks for this Alyson. I’ve my annual studio show coming up as well as an exhibition and questions that I pose to myself about what to show is “Am I excited to talk about the work?” and “Is there a clear connection between these pieces?” This helps me winnow.

  10. I get tripped up because other people often like pieces I don’t. Or the pieces I’m least happy with sell first. So I lose trust in my ability to curate my own work. I do have other artists help, which is always interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Christine: Be sure to engage the people who buy the said work in dialogue. Ask what they found most appealing about it. You might learn something new about your own work.

  11. Hey Alyson,
    Love this series already. I have on the back burner, a project of curating my work for a show at the local Botanical Gardens. I have gotten some samples printed, and next step is to lay them out where I can see them every day for several days. I find when I do this certain pieces will keep jumping out, and others will fade into the background. But this series also helps me be more mindful throughout the process, of building around those few pieces that jump out over and over, of considering a theme, or finding a theme within my work. Thanks, I’ll look forward to the next installment.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Exactly what I recommended to Sikiu above. Sitting with the work is important. I used to spend hours doing this.

  12. I love synchronicity. The month of September my art will be displayed in a restaurant on our cultural trail. While it isn’t an exhibit, it is really taking on a life of its own and feeling like a one woman show since I will be the only artist. I’ve never done a solo show or exhibit. Perfect timing for this article. I’m feeling a bit crazed making choices and this has reminded me to think about a curatorial theme and what I am trying to communicate. Enthusiastically waiting for next week’s follow up. Thanks.

    1. I guess my thinking, being new in the art biz world, that since it’s a restaurant venue instead of a gallery or gallery-like venue, it’s not really an exhibition. As well, it’s a little scary to call it an exhibition. And the question as I ponder this from the balcony and a very raw truth, I wonder if I am professional “enough” to call this an exhibition. Thanks for changing my focus and how I view my artist’s self image. I am now calling it an exhibition. Appreciate the nudge and your faith in all we artists!

  13. Alyson, this was an excellent article and i look forward to reading the rest of the series. I agree with the comments previously posted, but the most important “aha!” moment was the differentiation between juried shows “subtracting” verus curators “adding”. It seems obvious now, but was a revelation. I was just (this week!) asked to be part of a curated event and have been thrilled and honored with the invitation – now I think I know why I feel so strongly about this event. Thank you.

  14. Alyson, curating my own work is the most difficult. I never know what to take out and what to keep because my work is either light on some levels, and other work is not. Add to that I am looking into the commercial end of it all to add to multiple streams of income. I look forward to this and thank you for sharing!

  15. I think in curating your own work for a one person show for example simply boils down to doing your best and putting your best work forward. They should all be consistent in quality. Read and listen to others advice, but ultimately select what’s doable for yourself and go with it. It’s not an exact science. Ultimately it’s a reflection of YOU even as your art is. One time I had a gallery ask about my custom framing on a particular piece I sent them. I personally picked the frame for that work. The gallery told me they thought they couldn’t sell the painting because of it. Well, in a short time the painting did sell and I had an opportunity to meet the people who bought it. They told me the frame I had selected was a big factor in their decision to buy the work. Other times I’ve included work in a show that was good, but what I personally thought was not as significant a piece as the others in the show and yet it was the first one to sell. Go figure.
    As for how many pieces to show depends on the venue. But I recently read something interesting to me. It was regarding another artist and how many works displayed or not displayed in their galleries contributed to sales or lack thereof. When there were only a few (5 or less)sales slowed. Not enough selection. If too many (10 or more) works also slowed in sales. Too much of a selection and it didn’t generate a sense of urgency. So they saw what was good for sales was to have around 8 in a gallery. However, if it’s a one person exhibit, obviously you can show more. That would be expected. Same would hold true for showing in a art festival booth. So consider the venue and space.
    Think of your exhibit space overall as a blank canvas. You’re an artist, you should already know about composition, balance, color, contrasts etc. You make those decisions all the time in your own art. What is your main subject, or center piece for the show? Have you shown variety in the supporting works? Try to strike a balance of what you would like to present that you personally find artistically pleasing and what you’ve learned from others and what they like in your work, especially if you want to increase sales potential. Just a few thoughts to ponder.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      William: I would love to read/know the source of the “8” decision.
      And excellent point to remind yourself that the exhibition is also a composition. (I think this is in my upcoming article.) I try to get artists to do the same think with their marketing.

  16. In terms of the number of pieces to exhibit during a show…Last year, during an open studio tour, I borrowed an idea from a friend, who borrowed it from someone else…
    I arranged my paintings throughout a large part of my house, including my studio. There were over 70 total, which could have been overwhelming…and perhaps it was… to a certain extent. But I gave everyone a small clipboard with a form to fill out (including their email address.) They were asked to be a “juror” and vote for the top three paintings they liked. This way it slowed them down and got them involved in the looking. When they submitted the form it went into a drawing for a framed print. Folks really got into the activity, many taking it VERY seriously! It was great feedback as well. And BTW the sales were excellent!!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Great work, Karen! You could have also had them do a treasure hunt – to look for certain things in the work.

  17. Curating our websites is a job I think that we all dislike doing because we are so close to the work so we have a hard time choosing which should go. But in the end it must be done. Thanks for the push to look again. Can’t wait for the next installment. Really enjoy your newsletters.

  18. This is so timely. I have a three person show coming up in a corporate office. Not exactly a DIY but its not a typical gallery setting either. A capital investment firm wants to help artists by having openings during our city’s art walk. The events bring in new opportunities for them to build their client base and for artists to widen our audience and possible collectors as well. The shows I’ve been in have been group exhibitions / juried shows or student competitives where the works varied drastically from each other. I want to show the new audience at the office show that I am versatile in my skills / style / media, but want a unified show. I’ve decided to go with large abstracts and leave portraits / fine art prints for another time. My art buddies and I are working hard to develop DIY / pop-up exhibiton opportunities and networking with businesses on the periphery of the art scene as well as art related businesses. I appreciate the simple guidance I get daily from Art Biz Blog. Thanks! (Website under construction).

    1. Thanks, Alyson. Glad to be here!
      I will take your advice. I will handle getting the word out in take away materials re: other art I do.

  19. I love this idea, Karen! It made me think of having my art buds come over for a group critique as I work on new pieces but also same group to help me select which works to submit. I like your idea of getting folks involved with this process. I’ve found that when people help me they become more interested in following my career and in my success. Its like a personal cheerleading squad. They feel they took part in the behind the scenes of the exhibit. It also makes the “art world” accessible. Brilliant! Thanks!

  20. I too am excited about this series! Just yesterday I visited the gallery where I will have a solo exhibit and on-site mural project in September. My thought upon leaving the gallery was “what work will I show?”. I am also curating my first show of artwork by others in a few months-so your guidance is appreciated all around! Of all the art newsletters that land in my box, yours Alyson are always relevant to my art practice.Thanks again!

  21. Curating? = Organising your art on your website?
    Oddly enough I did this as part of my major rethink about me, my art and my website…The buildings Collection, The Door Collection, The abstract Collection and The Miscellaneous Collection. With reflection it was long overdue and I hope this article helps others think about their website visitors and what is on their website.
    It is a good way of thinking about the art on the website and the visitor to the website. It makes it simpler for them to find art that they are looking for and it saves them from wading through all of the art and giving up.
    You never know when you are going to be put on the spot for that one favourite artwork, so have one in mind you can always paint a better one in a leisurely manner. The one you are going to do now as that favourite will never work!

  22. I like the idea of approaching a web page display from the perspective of a curator and am now thinking of re-designing my site to have both pages that are traditional collections of type and pages that are designed around some theme much as a curator might do. I am eager to read the nect installment on this topic.

  23. I’m curious how invitational shows fit into this. Usually the works aren’t juried, nor are they typically curated. The artists, I suppose are curated in a sense when they are invited to participate? The reason I ask, is that I am talking with a few others about possibly creating an invitational show. If a theme was established and artists chosen, to what extent should the work itself be curated?

  24. When curating you have to take the emotion out of the process. A lot of artists are extremely emotionally attached to their work — they want to show it ALL because of that connection. A big step is realizing that not every piece is worth showing. For example, I see people uploading images of artwork they did as children! I’m sorry, but that work — in most cases — is NOT on the same level as current work. You don’t want to overwhelm site visitors OR gallery visitors. Less is more.

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  26. This was very timely. I am getting ready for a small group show with friends and have 13′ of wall space. I’m balancing putting more vs less on the wall, and trying to sort out which pieces and what arrangement.
    Having now read this, I can see I need to make some hard decisions, so that the work that is shown “hangs together.”

    I can see I am going to need to edit down the web site as well.

    More articles on this topic (is it okay to stack work salon-style? etc.) would be great.

    Thanks for your great blog and newsletter.

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