Staging an exhibition for the first time, a daunting prospect.
The more you look into it, the more complexity the task takes on. The aim of this post is to pull together advice from a number of areas including friends and colleagues with exhibition experience: highlighting potential problem areas (and possible solutions), and suggesting areas for further investigation. Some of the points raised may seem to be obvious, even common sense – arguably that makes such points even easier to overlook.
Clarifying the reasons for wanting to stage an exhibition is fundamental.
Consequently, the first question I asked myself is ‘why do I want to exhibit my images?’
The obvious but superficial answer would be that I want people to see my images. Perhaps the biggest hurdle to jump in terms of setting up an exhibition is convincing someone to hand over part of their real estate for a period of time. So, a more persuasive set of answers are needed.
More robust reasons include the following:
Sharing my work is mutually beneficial, providing positive publicity for me as a photographer as well as for the venue owner
Anyone who agrees to lend space for my work to be exhibited is supporting both the local community in general and, more specifically, the local art community
Hopefully, my work will help decorate – perhaps even beautify – a space, even if only for a short period of time.
Establishing a goal is essential – not least of all because a benchmark by which the success of the exhibition can be gauged is needed. Is the purpose of the exhibition to generate revenue? Or for CV development? Perhaps to raise public awareness regarding a particular cause? Or to create networking opportunities?
There are a number of different types of venue in which a physical exhibition of artwork can be set up, for example, some offices have a reception area where wall space is given over to exhibitions of artwork on a rotating basis. Having first convinced myself of the validity for an exhibition of my work makes it so much easier to convince someone else to grant me access to their exhibition area.
Portraying a professional image is key in establishing a successful relationship between an artist and an exhibition venue owner. Images, mounted to a professional standard and carried in a dedicated print transportation box, demonstrate that you have both the professional attitude as well as the craft skills needed if they are going to hang your work on their walls.
Make it easy for venue owners to contact you – a business card is an absolute minimum, but ways for the venue to contact you can include a brochure which features examples of work.
Once a space for an exhibition has been secured, final decisions on which images to show can be made. A number of images may have already been identified prior to securing the venue. However, some changes may be required depending on the venue, for example, will images be needed, or fewer? Are the images appropriate for the venue?
Crucially, the images need to have cohesion – a theme helps images work well together as a body of work.
Due to layout, some exhibition spaces don’t allow all the images on display to be seen at the same time – images which can stand alone work well in such areas and can be linked together by themes such as geometry, texture, and colour.
An exhibition space which allows images to be seen together, for example in row along one wall, favours images which work together strongly as a series.
Colour needs to be consistent throughout all the images, as does printing style in general. This is especially true if you are planning to sell work, unless that artwork is a one-off piece, the printing needs to be reproducible and repeatable irrespective of whether it is in-house or outsourced printing.
Image size can be determined by two things: cost of printing, mounting and framing an image – obviously larger images cost more to prepare, and available space in the viewing area – larger images requiring more space to both hang and view, and vice versa.
Something which is quite often overlooked, and yet is as important as the image itself – being almost art of the image, is the mounting.
The purpose of the mounting is several-fold: it provides a means of securing the artwork in the frame, it helps protect the artwork by preventing direct contact between the artwork and the protective glass, and it helps guide the viewer’s attention towards the image.
White, or slightly off-white, tends to be favoured by museums and galleries. Most people find white or off-white agreeable and a simple, but classic mounting avoids the potential loss of a sale which can arise if coloured mounts are used. White or off-white is complimentary to the majority of images.
Standard (plain, not ornate) black frames work well for the same reasons.
Simple titles help a viewer engage with an image, whereas ambiguous titles can help lose a viewer’s interest.
A discrete label featuring the image title, together with details of size and type of print, should accompany each image. Again, consistency and professional finish are paramount.
This label can also be used to carry information relating to the cost of the artwork (pricing is beyond the scope of this post).
In terms of sequencing the images, there are certain psychological responses associated with the viewing of art.
A light area at or near to the edge of the image will usually be an entry point for a viewer to access an image. Subsequently, the viewer’s eyes will move through the image until a focal point is found and typically this is the area of greatest contrast – the point where the darkest blacks meet the lightest whites.
Other features of the image – colours, textures, tonal range, lines and patterns – will determine the viewer’s response: either holding the viewer’s gaze, or leading it out of the image.
This information can be used to provide a flow, or transition, from one image to the next with, say, an image with lines which lead towards the right edge, creating a sense of motion, being placed to direct the viewer’s attention towards the next image, placed to its right.
A statement of intent, in keeping with the title label for each image, should be placed in close proximity to the introductory image, giving the audience some context regarding the artist and the art.
An exhibition is clearly a sales opportunity. But it is also an opportunity to grow, to develop as a photographer. Collecting audience feedback is a key part of this development process. This can take several forms, for example, a recent combined exhibition of work by GCSE and ‘A’ Level photography students at my daughter’s school provided a guest book for those who wished to comment on their viewing experience.
Equally important is setting up a means of dealing with any leads which result from the exhibition? Will an incentive, financial or otherwise, be offered to those who view the exhibition in order to generate leads?
In reality, most exhibitions will have to work with the environmental conditions of the venue. Only large-scale, high-profile exhibitions will find that environmental conditions, for example, décor and lighting, will be changed to suit the exhibition.
Consideration should be given to the level of photo literacy expected from the audience. Too much or too little will both cause an audience to disengage with the art. If the chosen theme itself requires some specialist knowledge, it is worthwhile considering an appropriate publication to accompany the exhibition.
How should the artist engage with the audience, other than though the exhibition per se? Perhaps workshops are one way to do this?
What of the audience itself? Will there be one audience? Or will there be different audiences, each with differing needs?
And where would an exhibition be without an audience? Which leads us to marketing the exhibition. Advise the local press regarding the exhibition at the earliest opportunity. Preparing a press pack will help (invitation to the exhibition, exhibition announcement and other promotional literature, CV, offer of an interview, photographs).
With regard to promotional literature, care needs to be taken in identifying and then reaching a target audience. Trying to ‘tailor’ promotional literature to reach all the identified target audiences results in failing to reach any. This is purely because no group feels you are addressing them, you are not speaking in terms that they, as a group, understand.
Of course, this advice makes a large assumption, that those agreeing to provide exhibition space will allow the exhibitor to set up the exhibition themselves. But what about the venue which only allows an exhibitor to hang artwork using existing fixtures? Or insists on the artwork being handed over to them for hanging?
It then becomes a question of integrity on the part of the photographer as to whether they wish to hand over authorship of their exhibition to that extent?
As mentioned, pricing of artwork is beyond the scope of this post. Other subjects which can be deemed to be beyond the scope of this post, but are nevertheless worthy of a mention, are: the copyright and other legal issues associated with exhibiting; funding, sponsorship and the legal obligations associated with sponsorship; and contracts between the exhibitor and the venue.
See also: On Reflection: Week 6, Module Three