Monday, May 4, 2009

How's It Hangin'?

“Put yourself on view. This brings your talents to light." - Baltasar Gracian

As with every semester and round of First Friday receptions I usually wind up reflecting on the lack of preparation and planning that many artists put into their exhibitions, particularly students. Granted this comes simultaneously with a whole herd of surrounding stressful situations and learning to juggle multiple deadlines while herding cats can be an overwhelming experience. So I thought I’d jot down a compilation of basic pointers, in the event that someone might get an idea of what might go into putting up a show, and some random questions thrown out for consideration.

There are some specific things an artist can and should do before, during and after an exhibition opening. Gallery owners and agents are supposed to take an aggressive, proactive role in representing you, seeing as how they have a vested interest in your success, but more often than not, the artist is alone in making sure the exposure and opportunity is maximized. This begs the question that one is comfortable marketing oneself (confidence comes with experience), and also that you have the time, energy and other resources to devote to the logistics of such an undertaking. Doubly since it coincides with the requisite output in putting together a show to begin with, and not many folks have the drive or discipline to go above & beyond the norm.

But the fact is, promotion is almost as important as creating the work itself; most galleries will sit empty after opening night and the work won’t sell itself. Maybe your motivation isn’t sales, but since this is the single-best opportunity at having potential buyers all together at one time – it’s an ideal time + place to capitalize on it. And this isn’t just profit-driven attention whoring, it’s a shot at making connections, networking; investing the most valuable capitol you have – your creative self. Roping in as many coworkers, schoolmates, friends and family as possible; most are more than happy to help out in some way. It’s an exciting time for everyone involved, and, counter-intuitively, like weddings and funerals, it ain’t all about you.

Press release: a short, 1-page/3-paragraph statement, description of the works, themes, media etc. maybe biographical info, plus don’t forget the gallery location, exhibition times, and dates, phone numbers/email addys etc. This can essentially be a simple remix of artist’s statement, and in turn could double as a PSA and press release to distribute amongst the media. Local newspapers, TV and radio, especially college and public broadcasting stations are usually hungry for community content and to support the arts. Let every single art group know about it also; photography, watercolor, potters, painters etc. – they’ll all be interested. Personally inviting reporters and feature editors is always a good move: contacting the right people and knowing their deadlines far enough ahead for inclusion in any event calendars and bulletins is crucial to a successful opening, but don’t forget about follow-ups for reviews/interviews and the chance to maintain media presence in order to generate and maintain traffic to the exhibition for the rest of the month. In fact, pacing it out over 30 days is advantageous when one of the hidden costs is too many folks at an opening – sometimes it’s better to schedule private shows and reviews when it isn’t so utterly insane and you can devote attention to interested parties and individuals.

Personal hand-delivery of invitations to prominent individuals in the business and political community and taking advantage of common-interest groups is another route to explore if the content of the pieces is remotely related. If your show is about beavers, why not reach out and promote the show to wildlife agencies, hunter & trapper groups, park and zoo people, science and museum associations, sport teams or shops that have beaver logos and mascots, etc. Real estate folks, architects and interior designers who deal with big empty spaces are another potential avenue. If you have a goth show or are preoccupied with images of death, get a local mortuary service and psychiatric counseling and suicide hotline services involved – the possibilities are as endlessly creative as your own works.
And while you’re at it, hit ‘em all up for sponsorship and donations: I’ve done trade-outs on getting deals for printing, on-the-air giveaways with DJ’s, live music, food and booze. Those are all crucial elements that will make for a kickass opening event. Think about door-prizes from business sponsors, raffles, drawings auction items etc. Why not get the local Chamber of Commerce involved, invite tour groups, lease out the gallery for functions like wine-tastings.

Private receptions with the artist can be a big draw and a nice, personalized touch; this is another opportunity to generate buzz and interest in your work by offering lectures and workshops. University classes and schools might be interested in planning a special field-trip to the gallery while your show is up.

A visible price list is another component; pricing works can for many artists be as much of a pain in the ass as actually meeting the public or talking about their work. Gaging the local market with some sorties to other galleries, asking owners for honest input and suggestions and taking advise from other artists helps to get an idea of what prices, in conjunction with less tangible factors like experience and popularity, would be fair. Also some artists deliberately stagger the range of prices so as to have something available for everyone regardless of income. An example of this is offering high-ticket items like originals alongside with Giclée archival prints at the next lower tier and even cheaper digital laser posters or pieces.

A gallery contract, what % of sales, who will be handling the money and miscellaneous responsibilities such as insurance and installation are not to be overlooked. The logistics of hanging (and lighting) a show is another potential speed-bump that definitely needs to have some time and consideration devoted to it, and again, the gallery will probably weigh in to some degree with this as well. Familiarizing oneself with artists rights and responsibilities insofar as copyrights is also a necessity. Documentation of not only the opening event but individual pieces beforehand is still another detail to remember – I really regret having let so many pieces go out without retaining any visual record of them.

Show cards: print up a1,000 as there are far more uses for them than just the gallery’s mailing list to think about. Pick the best piece to put forward that epitomizes the show and/or your work; this is more often than not the singlemost visible aspect of your exhibit, and often the only piece most folks can afford. Secondary exposure through cubicle walls, break rooms, lounges, bathrooms, outhouse and refrigerators in invaluable. Use a remix of the card for images on fliers and posters, plaster them everywhere you can think of.

At the opening it’s important to have a stack of show cards, and/or business cards; leave a batch by the artist statement/price list/guest book as well as handing one out personally to every attendee. These should have your contact info on them as well as email and website addresses. Oh yeah, and well before the opening set up a website or a blog, utilize social networking sites like MySpace & Facebook to promote the event - get some bloggers to pimp the show by posting images of your work.
Wear a tag or tshirt that identifies you to folks, have everyone sign the guest book; not just with a comment, but have them also provide contact info as well so as to follow-up with a thank-you card or email.

Shameless whoring, er, self-promotion while out and about at the previous First Friday opening exhibition circuit armed with show cards is good networking and spreading word-of-mouth, and I’ve had the best guerrilla marketing strategy is to do random sweeps of places like Fred Meyers. Needless to say, don’t leave home without the propaganda!

Damned if this all don’t seem like a crazy amount of preparation and planning to pull off an opening. This is why being a successful exhibitor can be so stressful, but it gets easier with experience, and it’s inevitable some details will get lost in the shuffle. And remember, the vast, overwhelming majority of artists don’t put anywhere near the amount of time and energy into their openings and shows as they do with their own work, preferring to somehow hope that it all takes care of itself, and their work is seen and is sold by pure magic. That’s fine if it’s not a priority, or if you’re lucky enough to have either an agent or gallery representative pick up some of the slack, or if one lives in a community that already has an extensive, supportive infrastructure in place to take advantage of.

Here’s a few useful links with some other ideas:
"Your Art Exhibition Checklist"
"Preparing For An Exhibition"
A sampler of local galleries:
The Annex
Well Street Art Company
The Alaska House Art Gallery
New Horizons Gallery
Fairbanks Arts Association/Bear Gallery
Anyone else have any ideas or experiences; please feel free to add a comment, I know there's lots of stuff I've forgotten to mention. Thanks!

“We artists stick ourselves out. This in itself deserves respect.” - Robert Genn

1 comment:

  1. PS: Shows are also useful for accumulating references and fodder to fluff up resumes or vitae for prospective grant or fellowship applications. It’s important to always remember to compile your experience with documentation aside somewhere, or else you wind up flailing around trying to recall details at the last minute over a deadline.