Organize an Exhibition of Your Paintings

How to arrange an art exhibition and, crucially, get people to come see it.

The Royal Academy Of Arts Hold An Exhibition Of Revolutionary Art From Mexico
Oli Scarff / Staff / Getty Images

It’s one thing being an established and famous artist, where all you have to do is paint the pictures and hand them over to an agent, then show up for the preview evening. It’s another to be at the beginning of your career as an artist.

Most of us have to plan our own shows, as I have done over the last few years, and there is a lot of work involved if you want to get the most out of your art exhibition.

I was fortunate in that I worked as a gallery assistant for artist Nerys Johnson when I was at Durham University and assisted her with preparing for her shows. Even though she was an established artist, there was still a lot to be done.

After you have planned an exhibition of your work, you will see that the commission galleries request is well worth the effort they put in!

In the Beginning: Your First Art Exhibition

First of all, you must secure your ‘gallery space’. I had my first solo art exhibition at Pizza Express in Darlington, UK. As a corporation, they have a huge commitment to the arts, in particular, local artists. Their restaurants are often designed as galleries themselves, and they know that their customers really appreciate the ever-changing work on their walls.

Restaurants might be a good place to start, it works for both the restaurant in terms of attracting customers, and the artist.

It is also a good place to get over your ‘art exhibition anxiety’ in a far less intimidating atmosphere than a public gallery. They charge no commission, but you have to do the work yourself…from the hanging to the promotion and subsequent sales. So, it is from this perspective that I write.

Planning an Art Exhibition

I spent a couple of years developing a body of work before I was ready to exhibit on my own, so the assumption is that you have a decent collection of work to show.

Then I developed an art exhibition plan which listed all the things which needed to be done prior to the opening.

The first thing to do is to establish the dates, allowing time to have some promotion materials printed. It is useful also to give your art exhibition a name. I do it by picking out one painting, and working my promotion materials around that. My first art exhibition was Firebird and I chose a Bird of Paradise painting I was fond of. My 2004 one was Catch the Vision to go with a series of my visioning courses held during the run of the show. I find a postcard-sized art card is particularly useful, as they can be mailed to your contact list, and the remainder left for people to take when they visit.

Creating an Art Exhibition Mailing List

This is very important. If you have not started one, do so now. I use Microsoft Access for this and, whenever I meet anyone, their name goes on the list. If you do not have access to a computer, a secretarial service will maintain one for you and provide you with a set of labels when you are ready. Remember to send your cards out to everyone you can think of…every time one goes out it adds to your name recognition, and therefore to increased prices.

Don’t forget regional galleries and the media in your area. They will notice an art card more than one of the hundreds of press releases they receive on a daily basis!

Writing Press Releases for an Art Exhibition

Having said that about art cards, I don’t mean that press releases are not important. They are. Try to find an interesting angle and invite specific writers to your opening. My first article was in conjunction with a national story my local paper was working on. You will need to write an Artist’s Statement and/or an ‘About the Artist’ piece to hang in a prominent position. I think it is a good idea to include these along with your press releases.

The Paintings in the Art Exhibition

I think it is important to make a gallery plan to give you an idea of how you are going to hang your work, and the number of pieces you will require.

It doesn’t have to be set in stone, as you can always make changes when you are hanging, but having a plan takes the worry about not having enough work available.

Be sure to have someone lined up to help you with the hanging. Even though I have an eye for where things should go, I am really useless when it comes to the technicalities of hanging pictures in a straight line. I have a couple of friends who can do it to perfection…for the price of lunch!

And don’t leave the framing until the last minute. At one of my shows, my regular framer went on holiday two weeks before my opening, and I still had work to frame. Fortunately, I found another good framer who I have consistently used since then. Even so, it is best to get this done as early as you can.

Pricing Paintings in an Art Exhibition

Pricing is always the most difficult part of the process. Particularly when you are on your own. There has been a lot written about pricing art, so I won’t go into detail here, but generally I rely on instinct. I keep a list of my paintings, both on the computer and in hard copy, with thumbnails, sizes and prices on which I update regularly.

Each of your paintings in the show will need a title/price card, which in its simplest form can be the back of your business card or, as I do now, a small clip frame beside each work, which looks more professional. I often make a mini ‘exhibition guide’ similar to my paintings list for people to take away with them, but if your paintings are well priced, I don’t think that is absolutely necessary.

They are, however, useful for tracking your pricing structure over the years.

Having Something for Everyone in an Exhibition

Not everyone can afford to purchase original work, so I try to have something to offer those who cannot. For instance, I have had Giclee prints made of some of my more popular pieces, and I always have a selection of greetings cards which I make on the computer, available during the exhibition. I find these sell very well. There are wholesale outlets for purchasing really nice card stock, envelopes, plastic wrappers, etc. I use a company in England called Craft Creations; a company that makes a low-cost version which is perfectly okay is Vistaprint.

Organizing an Exhibition Preview 

I love a good party, and I usually invite my friends to a preview evening, prior to the event actually opening. It’s nice to have that support, and it can be as simple or complex as you wish, but I find that wine and light finger food works well. One of the good things about being in a restaurant is that they can always stay for dinner afterwards if they wish. Another thing I have done in the past which works very well for me is to plan a fundraising evening during the run of the show. I have friends in this field, and together we have raised quite a lot of money for various charities, and it has brought more people in to see my work. They will generally promote it themselves, so it is certainly another audience to consider.

And, most of all, during the preview party, enjoy yourself.

Enjoy your friends, and most of all, enjoy the accomplishment of seeing your work on display. Take compliments and feedback with grace, and get ready to make a trip to the bank. I sold three pieces on my first preview evening for 500 pounds, 375 pounds, and 75 pounds. It was hard to believe that people would actually part with their hard-earned cash for my work. I keep a photograph of that evening where I can see it all the time. It gets me through the difficult times.