Warning: Exhibiting Your Art is Good for You

The virtue of exhibiting your art is something I never thought I’d have to write about. I took it for granted that all artists want to exhibit their work. Not so.
Many artists are relying on Internet sales. If you can make a living and be fulfilled as an artist by showing your art only online, good for you. If you crave more, read on.

Kathy Knaus takes some pride in seeing her work Joni IV on exhibit in a Denver gallery.
Kathy Knaus takes some pride in seeing her work Joni IV on exhibit in a Denver gallery.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about why you shouldn’t trust any single marketing method to get your message out. I told the story of almost missing a local event because I wasn’t connecting with the Facebook feed of one of the artists.
What I didn’t discuss in that article was the brilliance of the exhibit itself.
The artists didn’t wait for a venue. They made their own!
Six artists rented a conference/banquet room in a boutique hotel for a one-night only event. They set up booths and relied on their lists and connections to get art-lovin’ bodies in the door.
It was crowded in there! Lots of people came, and sales were made.
Best of all, visitors experienced the art in person.

Exhibit More

As a former museum professional, I am trained to be objects-focused. That means I look to the object (art) to tell me its story rather than relying on critical discourse or historical theories. I will go to my grave preaching about the virtues of exhibiting your art.
The Internet is an amazing tool, but it can never replace encountering a real work of art. (Other than, of course, art created for the Web.)
Art is a form of communication. You might think you make art as a form of self-expression, but you know that your work is incomplete until people see it and respond to it. You understand the synergy that erupts when you are in a room full of people looking at and talking about your art.
Nothing in the artist’s experience compares.
Exhibiting your art provides a space and a time frame for people to appreciate the true colors, lines, textures, patterns, and scale. Art takes on richness in this environment that it doesn’t have when it’s sitting in your studio.
Perhaps more importantly, exhibiting your art allows you to have a dialogue with people about the work. You can’t help but learn and grow from these experiences.

Exhibit Anywhere

It isn’t necessary to wait on venues to say Yes to showing your work. Follow the example of the artists in the opening of this article and rent a space. Or host an open studio or open house.
Do anything to put your art in front of flesh-and-bones people and begin the conversation. It’s good for you!

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54 thoughts on “Warning: Exhibiting Your Art is Good for You”

  1. I really appreciated today’s post. Thank you for what you do and share Alyson! I have curated a church gallery and artists are often surprised at how wonderful this can be. Our gallery space is the walls surrounding the receptionist desk and the church is in the center of our community and used for many community events. We exhibit church members and non members…..with the purpose being to recognize that God created artists. Therefore sometimes the art is faith based and sometimes it’s not. It’s a win-win situation for the artist and the viewer/patron. So glad you put churches on your list of venues and I’d encourage those that worship in a church that doesn’t have a gallery to explore adding one to the space.

    1. Jenny: Sounds like a great church! I curated an exhibit in a church once – a contemporary installation. It was a lot of fun!

  2. I totally agree with Jenny. We’ve had a few exhibits at church and included a larger venue for our Tailgating event for the Homecoming weekend. With hundreds attending Homecoming, it gave the artists a lot of exposure and with that the potential for sales. Next month I will be selling my original to an interested buyer who saw my work at the Tailgating event.
    I haven’t mastered the ability to sell work on the internet. Currently I have had more success in arts fairs, markets, and exhibitions. There really is something to be said about having your art up there in person for people to see. I kind of look at it as a self-esteem builder.

  3. I love to exhibit but find it hard to exhibit in galleries as I am a portraitist. Almost all my work is in other people’s homes so gathering enough work to exhibit is an issue when it is scattered all over the world. But last year I took part in an Open Studios event. It was very rewarding. Most of the visitors were artists themselves and we discussed techniques and materials and I learned of some new pencils that were very helpful to me. I am going to do it again this year.

    1. Yes, galleries aren’t a great venue for portrait artists. I’m glad you looked elsewhere.

  4. I have always had the best luck showing my work in person and tend to do smaller venues. I am just starting to remember to enter pieces into Guild shows for more exposure. I’ve actually won cash prizes the past 2 years in a row too!
    As much as my generation loves the internet and to shop on the internet, I rarely sell that way, so I make sure to have a presence, but don’t depend on it for sales. It can be so much more gratifying connecting with a buyer face to face!
    Thanks for the reminder Alyson!

  5. So well said, Alyson! My work really does seem to change when it’s in a gallery full of people versus sitting on an easel in my studio! I too like to think of the viewers as completing the creative process. They bring so much to the experience of being an artist.

  6. Artists! Exhibit whenever, wherever, as often as you are able to! Develop a strategy connected with each venue. As Alyson mentioned, it need not be an art gallery. Scope out better clothing boutiques, locally owned furniture stores, and high-end hair styling salons. Arrange a Saturday exhibit. Include a talk with your compelling / fascinating story. Consider donating a percentage of profits to a local non-profit. As Alyson says, the opportunities DO exist; however, you must decide which ones are right for you and how to create win-win situations for all involved!

  7. So true! Exhibiting can be incredibly empowering – both for the artist who gets to see people appreciate their work and to practice talking about it, and for the visitors who get to interact with ‘live’ art and perhaps buy it for the first time 🙂

  8. Thank you for mentioning our 6 artist “One Night Stand”. The exhibit was an idea birthed by thinking outside the box. We had no expectations since it was the first time we had tried such a venue and we were overwhelmed with the response as well as sales. My advice to all: think outside the box. Alyson has been talking about that…we just followed up!

    1. Amy: I’m glad you saw yourself here! I didn’t have authority to mention you by name, but I’m glad you’ve unmasked yourself. I am so glad the night worked for you. It was lovely!

  9. Exhibiting used to scare the beegeezus out of me. Then, I reached for an opportunity and provided the backdrops for a dance benefit production. My art was the largest that I have ever seen it. It brought tears to my eyes and I was so glad that I did the show. Thanks, Alyson, for talking about this today. Folks, go try exhibiting, it is fun and a great tool for growth. If not by yourself, then do it with a friend. Just do it.

    1. Isn’t that neat, Paige? Your art as a backdrop. So many people looking at and interacting with it.

  10. This one is so timely as always…Just last saturday, I exhibited at a local Med spa…we were 4 artists and few jewelry artists..it was just for 4 hrs and so I did not put up a huge display…but was amazed to see how other artists came prepared. As a newcomer for me it was an excellent experience from getting ready for the exhibit to setting up and then connecting with other artists there…there is always something new to learn and not to mention talking to the audience about my work, watching their reactions….
    Here is blog post of the event…

  11. Happy to see this post!
    I had been told that people would not take me seriously as an artist if I exhibited in “alternative” locations (i.e. outside of a gallery). I live in a tiny town and got the opportunity to hang my work at the local coffee shop. I decided to do it despite the naysayers, because I figured it was better than having the work sit around my house. I’m so glad I went ahead and did it anyways – I’ve made some sales, lots of contacts and requests for future work. It also gave me a little more confidence about getting my work “out there”.

    1. Debbie: I’m so happy you listened to your inner voice and didn’t do what others deemed “appropriate.”

  12. What a fabulous blog! I totally agree with you. I just had a month long exhibit at a local coffee shop and, as a result of my efforts, I sold two paintings. Someone from out-of-town just happened to have coffee at the cafe, saw my work, called and I shipped the two paintings off the day I took down the exhibition. It works.
    My plan each year is to show at least one painting at a local venue each month. At the beginning of every year, I make out a chart for each month and plan out my exhibition schedule. This year, I have exhibitions planned for every month, except October, so far. I’m working on October right now, to finish out my chart and have my plan in place. Then the rest is showing up and hanging the work.

  13. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the photographing your work to show and sell on the internet that I forget about what a different experience it is to see the work in person. This post is coming at a great time for me along with all the great comments I’ve read. I love to get a peek inside the thoughts of a museum professional 🙂 Thanks Alyson on a great eye opening post.

  14. Exhibiting my work always pushes me a bit closer to the edge of the proverbial cliff…or that is the way it sometimes feels. Having an upcoming exhibit forces me out of my comfort zone and into the I Need To Zone…as in “I need to create some new work” and “I need to push myself in a new direction”.
    I am also always pleasantly surprised by the wonderful connections made from exhibiting my work. Exhibiting Has lead me to other shows, commission work, new followers, teaching opportunities, and Face Book followers.

    1. Good point, Elaine. We need to push ourselves in order to grow. And I’m glad you added that last bit, too. Many more opportunities come as a result of showing live.

  15. I just did a show this last weekend with 6 other artists as a fundraiser for the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance. They rented an empty office space in Cherry Creek and the artists agreed to donate 30% of our sales to COCA. It was a huge success and a win /win for the artists as we made more money than we would in a gallery, and the Cancer Alliance got a lot of money raised. They also charged $40 a couple so the event brought serious donate-rs and art buyers.

  16. Great post. I’ve had one solo and a couple of group exhibitions. While they have been incredibly nerve racking, it was a valuable experience. I will continue to pursue exhibition spaces. I think I underestimated the ‘new legs’ it would give the work, and how it would spark even more ideas for new work. Plus the opportunity to talk about my work and show it to people was also wonderful.
    Meanwhile, thanks for posting Kathy Knaus’ work. It’s fabulous!

    1. Naomi: Kathy’s work is wonderful and it was so cool to talk with her about it at the gallery. That wouldn’t have happened if I saw it online. I know much more about yupo paper and how ink reacts on its surface.

  17. I am just about to have my first solo art show in March. I have been in group shows but never one on my own. I am using social media to advertise my show as well as non social media venues. I’m really excited,but a little nervous as well. If you have any hints for me, I’d greatly appreciate it.

    1. Jo-Anne: Be sure to click on the link “story” in the first paragraph under the image of Kathy Knaus.

  18. I really enjoyed this blog post. After five years working as an artist, I decided back in November to create a big show. I didn’t want to have the typical art, cheese & wine show. I wanted an evening that people would talk about the next day. I more then succeed with the first Matt LeBlanc FUSION evening. It was an evening of art & entertainment. I brought in musicians, dancers, singers, stand up comedians and much much more to an audience of 300 people. We then had catering, a bar and a DJ. The place was packed and it was the talk of the town for weeks after it. People are already asking me about the next event. No need to say that it was a true success and also financially rewarding. If you want to learn more about it, take a look at these links:
    Quick description: http://www.mattleblancart.com/en/fusion/
    Photos: http://www.mattleblancart.com/en/fusion-photos-2011/
    Videos: http://www.mattleblancart.com/en/fusion-videos/
    Thanks !!

  19. Thanks for the post, Alyson. I very recently made a tough choice between exhibiting in the foyer of one of the larger office buildings in our city, and renting an exhibition space which has worked for me before. The office building appealed to me because of the ‘unknown potential’ especially for reaching new people, but I was warned away due to lesser security, and the thought that most of the people walking past each day would not be so interested in art, as opposed to those who would make a point of visiting the rented exhibition space because they are specifically interested. Curious what others would see as the better option…

    1. Hi Ruth,
      Based on experience, I really think that the exhibition would work better if you are looking for sales. I’ve done many many projects like your office building one and it’s great to build your brand and brings attention to your work but sales are typically limited. Make sure you have a place to leave cards and a possible bio for people who really like your art. I’ve done many sales this way. Good luck !

    2. Thanks, Matt – I did decide to go with the rented exhibition space (exhibition happening in May) but am still curious what the potential at the office building foyer might have been. Your feedback ties up with what others have said.

    3. If the building is not charging you anything (they should not !!!) then you have nothing to loose. The only drawback in this kind of thing is that it can tie up a lot of your inventory. Make sure it’s worth for you. You will most likely get a lot of requests like this over the years because it’s VERY beneficial for businesses. It doesn’t cost them anything and they get free art on their wall. It’s not necessarily a win/win situation. Make sure it’s worth it for you and good luck !

    4. This has gotten pretty popular in recent years… but think about it. As you said, they get FREE art on their walls. Of COURSE it’s very beneficial for businesses. But think about it… what does it really do for the artist?
      Wouldn’t you rather they lease or buy artwork – from you or another artist? If the exhibit is in a non-profit space, that’s one thing…. But a business can deduct it as an expense. Do they give away their work for free? Not if they want to stay in business.
      This is an area where artists can shoot themselves – and each other – in the foot. If a business can get good art on their walls for free, why would they want to buy it? Don’t you think you’d rather make the sale (or rental)?
      Do yourselves and other artists a favor – don’t give away your work for free to businesses who could otherwise be your (or someone’s) clients and collectors….

  20. I totally see your point Karen … that’s why I wrote that it’s important to make sure it has value for the artist. It really depend on the opportunity itself. Don’t forget brand recognition and exposure. You can’t put a price on that. I spent 10 years working in advertising and I know how expensive it is to build a brand. It’s not always about direct sales. I could give you many examples of stuff I’ve done over the years that brought me sales after the fact. I’ve exposed some of work in buildings before and sold pieces in the thousands plus it brought me other business opportunities. It’s not all about the sale right then and there. It’s about the opportunities it can bring you to be in front of people. Just my two cents … It’s all good ! 🙂

    1. Of course it’s a benefit to just the venue if all you do is hang it there. If you look at it as an opportunity for a free space and USE your time there to get people in the door to see the work, it is much more beneficial to you than the venue. Remember, they were doing fine before you came along.

  21. So… one of my experiences doing this was not a good one – though it was very instructive…. It was at a new dental office. They LOVED my work, and wanted me to continue keeping it there when the two-month hanging period was up. I suggested renting the paintings for a very modest fee, mentioning it was a deductible office expense.
    Before I could come to collect the paintings, they had taken them off the wall (a BIG no-no, stacking them in ways that could have seriously damaged the paintings) and had replaced them with lovely abstract paintings by another artist.
    And, by the way, the dentist had a reception, after I hung the paintings, to welcome people to his new clinic – to which I had not been invited. If I had been, perhaps I could have made something more of this….
    So – artists – be wary of the venue! And know that, with what dental work costs, you DON’T need to give your work for free to dentists – or doctors – or other successful businesses. (At the very least, they could barter with you for services, right?) And if you do give them your work for nothing, it means SOMEone doesn’t get a sale (maybe you). Because if the office can’t get it for free, they WILL buy or rent it.
    I also think this kind of thing depends greatly on the venue. I have had other shows with which I was quite happy, including at my state senator’s office and at a large, upscale hotel (designer Vern Yip walked by and at least took a look while we were hanging the show).

    1. Karen: It seems to me that some of your concerns could have beeen addressed in the original agreement. Would you do it differently next time? Or are you just saying Never?
      I don’t know what happened in your situation, but I do know that many people presume that this or that will happen and it’s never actually discussed or put in writing. Part of the responsibility of artists in any situation is asking questions and making sure their expectations are understood.

  22. Hi Alyson! Thank you for your response!
    It wasn’t the kind of place I would normally hang my work to begin with, mainly for the reasons I mentioned. Our local arts council was trying to get art out all over the community, and my artwork was listed on an online registry they had put up. When this office contacted me, I participated partly because I wanted to support the arts council’s efforts – and partly for a simple and practical reason – I was going to move, and figured these would be that many fewer paintings to worry about during the move.
    I think some of the businesses that participated in the program actually did more to make it a more effective show for the artists, including a reception and some promotion. I also know a sculptor who used to show his work in organized shows in very nice corporate spaces, arranged through an art consultant, with which he had some success.
    In this particular case, artists were pretty clearly being used for free wall decoration (I just happened to be the first one). Because it was a new office, and they had no experience with handling art, they didn’t understand that they needed to let the artists take down and put up the artwork, and didn’t recognize that they could very easily damage pieces because of the way they were handling them. I made an appointment to take the show down, and had no idea they were going to move the work.
    For me, it confirmed the need to be very aware of your venue. I’ve had shows in other spaces, as I mentioned, and including non-profit spaces where I didn’t expect any sales but it was more or less a favor to local arts groups – and I think generating goodwill is significant. With this show, what I got out of it was a good lesson and not having to worry about moving those paintings when I moved to my new home and studio.
    Would I do it again in that kind of office setting? No, probably not. If they wanted a show, I would propose a rental agreement – or a rent-to-own arrangement – or some sort of barter arrangement. They run a business – and I run one, too. It works both ways.

  23. I see so many spaces in offices, buildings, shops, and restaurants that could have original art but is wasted with blank walls or bad reproductions. As an art lover and collector, I long for more original art everywhere! I’m a big proponent of pop-op galleries in non-traditional spaces. Thank you for your insightful and optimistic blog post!

  24. Great post. I’m preparing for my first solo exhibition (for this project http://anthonyquinnartist.com/project-52/) and rapidly coming to the conclusion that non-conventional venues are a viable option.
    I’m also of the growing opinion that exhibiting (online and offline) is a discipline, ie a practice that improves over time. In this respect, the idea of using low-risk, low-investment venues that are not necessarily galleries reduces barriers to entry for the emerging artist and provides the opportunity to test the waters, improve skills and gain confidence.

  25. I couldn’t agree more that exhibiting your work is very important. I had an instructor at an adult ed class who would hold a one day exhibit for her students twice a year in a lounge room at the local community college. The students were taught how to mat and frame their work and then participated in hanging the show. Everyone was amazed at how different their work looked when framed and hanging on the wall, many visitors came, the students (about 75 of them) all got to meet each other, and all were encouraged.

  26. Great article. I’m happy to say that I have a piece hanging in my very first show in DC. It’s a 6-month show, ending in May. It’s been very exciting.
    I was invited to submit work, along with several other artists. I submitted three pieces, and only one was accepted, but I’ve gotten lots of compliments on it (I just hope it sells!)
    I’m becoming more and more open to the idea of showing my work. I already regularly do craft shows for my handmade items and photography. I’ve been slower with my paintings.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Congratulations on your first show in DC, Jen. Six months is a long time for an exhibit!
      Get the work out there!

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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