Although photographers often work hard so that they can eventually exhibit their work, some actually lack the experience and the knowledge of how to show their work professionally. To be honest, there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to exhibit your work correctly and hit the jack pot. There is, however, a set of guidelines and principles to follow and those to stay away from and this is what we will be talking about today. Of course, in the end, every photographer (or artist for that matter) should go with what suits them, their needs, their goals, and their work best.

So, what is an exhibition?

Most simply put, an exhibition is an organized presentation and display of a carefully selected number of items. Exhibitions have vastly become the medium to show art, gain recognition, and move forward with your career, and are mostly held in museums, galleries, and exhibition halls. Exhibitions fall in either one of two categories. An exhibition could be permanent, or it could be temporary opening and closing on a pre-scheduled date which is mostly the case. Exhibitions can be held in one venue, or they can be thrown in multiple locations, which is commonly referred to as a traveling exhibition.

AIPAD Photo Show New York
AIPAD Photo Show New York
© Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com

What to expect from an exhibition?

Many inexperienced artists tend to have great misconceptions and expectations about an exhibit. The truth of the matter is, throwing an exhibition is a complex, time consuming process. It requires a fine touch, and attention to detail. That said, knowledge of the common guidelines of throwing an exhibition can be easily acquired. It is also worth mentioning that having an experienced curator can help things go significantly smooth and successful.

First time exhibitors may tend to believe that having their work presented to the public would get them recognition overnight, while the truth is their work might actually take a few weeks to be reviewed. So it is very helpful to keep in mind that throwing an exhibition is an exhausting process, with no direct outcome to be seen or felt. But the process itself is very rewarding in so many ways.

Why would you want to exhibit your work?

There are many reasons behind which you might want to throw an exhibition. Recognizing and prioritizing those reasons would help set you on the right path of getting the most out of your efforts, and succeeding with your exhibition. Those reasons would include:

  • Getting recognized as an artists:

    This is obviously the main reason behind throwing an exhibition; Getting recognized amongst the art medium, building a reputation, and communicating your work with the public.

  • Selling your work:

    Selling your work is an important asset in your career, not only for getting paid in return of your efforts and hard work, but also because making sales would insure that your work will continue to circulate and reach other people even after the exhibition have ended.

    Making sales would also give you an idea of what the public likes and what they don’t like. That said, it is important to not let this put you down, abandon your own style, or change your ideals. It is a way to note when your ideas are running out of style, and when it’s time to be more productive, inspired, and dig into your inner self for new stuff that have your own taste and signature marked all over it.

  • A milestone in your career as an artist:

    Holding an exhibition is indeed an important benchmark in your photographic career. It’s like submitting to an exam to gain a certain certificate.

    Exhibitions are an important part in building your CV, which any major gallery curator or director would actually want to see besides your portfolio before deciding to go through with the exhibition or not. Thus a good track of exhibiting is an essential asset if you are serious about pursuing an exhibited career and keeping the work coming.

  • Getting feedback:

    Another very important benefit of exhibiting your photographs is to gain insight from friends, colleagues, fellow photographers, and professionals in the industry. I’m not just talking about waiting for reviews from the art press, I’m talking about communicating with the attendees, being ready to ask for opinions, being ready to give responses and explanations, and walk away with a higher level of knowledge.

    You, as an exhibitor, should be aware of those you would want their opinions; those you know can benefit you and help you excel in your career. Gallery staff should also be ready to get feedback from the attendees regarding the work, how it was received, and how it was made sense of.

    An important thing to make note of is how well your art was received, the audience’s reaction to your photographs, and how well the work was interpreted in comparison to what you had in mind in the first place. An exhibition can be a liberating, life-changing experience so make sure you make the best of it.

    It’s also worth noting that you should be prepared for negative feedback, destructive responses, and results you did not have in mind. Don’t let this put you down, for the more you exhibit the more you will become experienced and the more you can build upon this new knowledge.

  • Gaining expertise

    Exhibiting your photographs is always a good practice that will help you get the hang of things, and will make the process more enjoyable and fruitful along the way.

    Gaining insight of how to display you images, will help you not only with future exhibitions and galleries, but also will benefit you in your own work as well.

    An exhibition also marks the completion of a project, the end of an idea. The photographer can then step back and look at their own work from a brand new perspective, they can assess their own work on a whole new level. They can mark their weaknesses and their strengths, their failures and their successes, learn their lesson and set on a brand new creative adventure.

  • Opening up new doors

    No one really knows what might come out of their exhibition. Who might see it. Who might like it. To where this will take them. The point is, you will never get a chance to make something of yourself unless you put yourself out there and take what life has to give you.

    On a different note, an exhibitor should always make sure to build new mailing lists of attendees and viewers of their work. A photographer should never only depend on the gallery’s mailing list but should also work to build their own. Ask for phone numbers, business cards, and contact info from the ones you feel are actually connecting with your work and showing an interest in it.

When not to exhibit your work?

As we’ve already seen, exhibiting your work is an exhausting process that demands time and commitment. And although it is flattering to receive an invitation to exhibit, you should carefully weigh the pros and cons before making a commitment prior to fully realizing what you’ll be getting yourself into.

Some things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to go with an exhibition would include:

  • Is the curator and venue professional and well organized?

    This is a very important issue here. You’re putting your work in the hands of others, so you better make sure they will take good care of it against damage or theft, that the gallery is well-organized and has a good reputation and previous exhibiting track, that the staff is experienced and organized, that your work will be displayed appropriately and professionally, and so on.

  • Is the artist able to meet the deadline?

    Before deciding to go through with the exhibit, an artist should always make sure their work is ready. This of course depends on the individual. Some people work best and get all creative and inspired under pressure, while some just stumble and fall. So you have got to go with what’s best for you, just make sure you don’t let any external factors affect or otherwise alter the quality of your work.

  • Is the work going to be decently and professionally displayed?

    No artist wants their work to be poorly displayed to the public in an inadequate manner, bad setting, or with a much higher or lower other work quality. Of course every photographer would strive to make sure their work is the best, but exhibiting your work with much lower competition would reflect badly on the overall atmosphere and consequently on your own work.

  • Is the financial burden of exhibiting worth it?

    Galleries and exhibitions have become more and more expensive, and the financial costs of shipping, handling, mounting, printing, and framing the work can become more of a burden on the artists. So before getting yourself into this mess, you better make sure you’re financially prepared to handle all the costs it might impose. It is also very important to be clear with the curator from the very beginning on who pays what and how much and who handles what.

  • Has the work been exhibited too often?

    Although a piece of work can hardly be recognized for being shown too often, and although it is always tempting to accept yet another exhibiting offer, only an artist can decide when their work has had enough display and when it’s time to move on with something new.

Planning an exhibition

Most artists after graduating college are confused on what to do next and how to get their work seen now that the support of the educational system is gone. Artists might feel desperation and neglect having a hard time finding an audience that is willing to display, see, or purchase their work.

What a starting out photographer needs to do is be proactive, not wait for invitations and requests but rather getting themselves out there and looking for interesting galleries to exhibit their work. This is hard and you’ll get rejected a lot, but what you can do meanwhile is keep up to date with upcoming galleries, building relationships with exhibition curators, engaging your work in exhibiting websites and competitions, building a list of professional contacts and people that might be able to help you or people with similar interests.

Another option before landing a proposal would be displaying your work in a less conventional, less formal place such as cafes, cinemas and theatres, restaurants, clubs, and pubs. These are usually willing to display you work and you can even make sales off it from interested customers.

The important thing is to keep showing your work so you can gain experience, see the public acceptance of your work, and keep sharp lingual skills talking about your work and offering thoughts and explanations. If an artist would rather focus on the work for the time being, a good idea would be to show their art as work in progress in their own personal space or studio and have people over regularly so that they can take advantage of their feedback and opinions to learn and evolve the work all the while getting ready and preparing for a long term exhibiting plan.

Art Show in New York City
Art Show in NYC
© Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com

The decision of exhibiting one’s work is something that is solely up to the artist and what suits them best. Some artists have a main aim to exhibit their work whenever possible and they enjoy the process. Some might like to concentrate on the work itself or are not very open to criticism or unexpected feedback, and thus should wait till the work is complete and till they are more comfortable letting go of their work and having people see it and comment on it.

Planning a solo exhibition makes the artist in charge of the process. One might be comfortable holding an annual open studio meeting for example, showing with a group of local photographers, or they might go after prestigious galleries and regularly apply to competitions. The process should be varied including short term and long term projects, challenges and decisions, and above all it should suit the artist and the way they see their work.

Promotional tools

A photographer can choose one or more of a variety of tools to promote their work. Those tools would include business cards that can be given to contacts, CDs, portfolios, postcards that can act as complimentary slips when sending out information or as reminders to clients and curators, and websites. All of these tools are beneficial to the artist either in reaching a wider audience, or keeping good track of their work.

promotional-tools

So how does a gallery work?

  • The curator

    The curator is mainly in charge of a gallery or exhibition. In general, a curator decides on a gallery concept and vision, select the participating artists, pick the art work that is to be displayed, and determine how the work will be arranged and shown to the public both in the exhibition space and in the art world.

    Pieces of art at a gallery are somewhat like a melody, and the curator is the one that makes sure that everyone sings along together and no one is off tune.

    The curator’s job is both administrative and creative, and a professional curator is one that can balance their time to make sure each category gets the right share of attention all the while meeting the exhibition’s deadline.

    Most curators also meet with each other and share pieces of work and give out artists’ names and contact details if, let’s say, they have a great piece of art that is not coherent with the current exhibition theme but that might be of great use or interest to other exhibitions.

    The photographer’s job at this point is to realize that their work has been done and that it is now being transferred to a second party along the chain that will take it from there. It also helps if the photographer has ideas about presenting their work, to discuss them with the curator. This would build a better relationship between the photographer and the curator, and will also arm the photographer with curatorial skills and expertise time after time which can really come in handy if a photographer ever happens to throw their own exhibition, and act as a solo curator displaying their work.

  • The exhibitor

    The exhibitor’s role kind of ends when their work is being received by the gallery staff. Although exhibitors tend to feel attached to their work and would want to make sure it is shown in the best way possible, that they are willing to work hard and dedicate their time to make sure their work gets the appropriate treatment and attention, it is very important that they note that while this is true for them it might not be the case for the gallery staff. The gallery staff’s concern is to take it from there and do their job regarding handling the work and hanging it, besides their other daily tasks that would include keeping the exhibition’s schedule on track and preparing for other simultaneous or future exhibitions as well, and much more. So the sooner the exhibitor gets this, the easier it’ll be for everyone to work smoothly together and avoid clashes.

  • The gallery director

    The gallery director’s main concern revolves around financing the exhibition, making sure that promotional campaigns and publicity be sponsored and well executed, making sure a gallery show opens on time, and working for the gallery’s agenda for the whole year ahead. That said, you might not even see a gallery director at the premises, they might be off doing their work and building relationships and closing deals outside.

Conclusion

It is one thing to be a famous well known artist with a long track of exhibits and shows, and another to be a fresh one just getting started and trying to get a grip on how to get your work out there and be recognized among the art industry. What you need to keep in mind is that practice for one makes perfect, that you should be cooperative so that you get what you want, and that it is a wild world out there so you have got to be prepared and armed with confidence and determination so that you can reach your goals and get where you want to get with your photographic career.

It is worth noting that the more you try and the more you put yourself out there the easier it gets and the more experienced you will become in the field. This, my friends, was just an introduction to help you set out on your journey to exhibiting you art, hope you found it helpful and good luck to all.