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My First Exhibition – How To Hold Your Own Exhibition (Part I)

April 18, 2013 by Cissi Tsang

Your friends have long admired your work. “You should exhibit them”, they keep telling you. Plus, you have been getting good feedback from places like Flickr (or, God forbid, Tumblr – who in their right mind would use that? I digress…). The positivity is overwhelming.

Finally, you have decided to take the plunge – you are going to organise your first exhibition. One problem. Where do you start?

The art world can appear daunting to the first-timer. Being part of the art world myself, this has to be said – artists are generally an insular lot. Of course, you get wonderful people who are welcoming to all. Sadly, there are just as many artists who would prefer to man the gates to threaten strangers with pitchforks and rocks. “What, you don’t go to an art school? Stone the heathen!

photography exhibition
photo by BurnAway

However, it is completely feasible for someone who has no prior experience in the formal art world to organise their own exhibition. Not only an exhibition, but a successful one.

Here is a guide on the process. It will be fun – trust me.

Working Out The Theme

Despite some art exhibitions appearing more like a hodge-podge of works than anything cohesive, all exhibitions have an underlying theme (or they attempt to portray one). The works are all commenting on a certain idea. It is not just a matter of choosing your best work, then hoping for the best. Therefore, your selection of works should also make the elements of an overarching narrative.

Having a good narrative is important because it gives your viewers a sense of direction about the exhibition. It gives the exhibition a sense of purpose. It also enhances each individual work because each makes sense to the viewer. Think of it as the visual equivalent of a story, with each work representing a different character. Each character’s motivations and perspective will make sense if there is a strong story as context, and you can appreciate why a character would hold a certain perspective. The same philosophy goes for exhibiting.

One of the best ways of learning how to put a theme together is to hit a few local art exhibitions. Community boards and newspapers are a good starting point, as are local online art sites. You can see how other artists have tied their work into a part of a narrative – or not. Learning by bad examples can be valuable too, so you can avoid their mistakes.

The next step is to work out your own theme. Basically, work out what you would like to say to your viewers. What points would you like to make? The more specific, the better. For instance, you might want to explore the interplay of light on the environment. “Light and Dark” doesn’t say much even though it fits in with your idea (light and dark what? Oreos?), but, “Nature By Dark”, or “Urban Landscapes and Light” gives a lot more information to viewers.

Also, the more exciting, the better. You want to attract attention and interest, not make people glaze over. Would you choose a book with the title, “The Evolution Of Birds”, or would you rather its neighbour, “How A T-Rex Became A Chicken?”.

To Collaborate Or Not, That Is The Question

You can hold an exhibition two ways – jointly, or as an individual. Both have their pros and cons.

Exhibiting with others is cheaper for you, because you can share the costs. You can also divide tasks between people, which means less responsibilities on your shoulders. If you are unsure about the volume of your work, there is less pressure to produce enough for an exhibition because other people are exhibiting as well, and are therefore filling up the numbers. Finally, if you get to work with artists whose perspective challenges yours, it can add a fiery dimension. There is nothing like a bit of tension to build interest.

On the other hand, a collaborative exhibition only works as well as the participants. The more people that are involved, the more opinions – and the greater the likelihood of disagreements. What starts out as a difference of opinion can devolve into immense butthurt. This can derail the exhibition as people start spending more of their time stamping like a herd of angry dinosaurs. Or you might end up with a stalemate, with various people refusing to compromise. Then there’s the risk not everyone shares the same work ethic – or possess any work ethic, at all. Things are done slowly, or not done at all. You might end up having to take on extra responsibilities to pick up the slack.

Working individually means you have full control over the entire exhibition. You set the theme and you set all the works. You get to choose what goes in, and what goes out. All profit that you make on sales goes to you, which can potentially be more than the outlay. On the other hand, it means you will have to shoulder all the costs and responsibilities, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

Bottom line – if you are keen on exploring one theme, are confident in your work (quality and volume) and have a decent amount of time and money to outlay, then a solo exhibition is worth considering. If you’re not absolutely sure about your work or your ability to arrange a solo exhibition and have limited funds, then a collaborative exhibition is a better option.

My First Collaboration

If, after careful consideration, you decide to collaborate – the next step is to actually find some partners. Pick your partners carefully.

You could be one of the lucky ones with artist friends who are also eager to exhibit. In that case, it is a simple matter of gathering the troops and working out a theme over coffee and biscuits. You know the quality of their work, and how they go about with the creative process.

If none of your friends are artistically inclined, then it is time to make some new friends.

One way of making new artist friends is to, again, go to local art exhibitions. If you like a particular artist’s work, then you should approach them for a chat. Mentioning “exhibition” to most of them will provoke a positive response and you might get the opportunity to have a private discussion later. The majority of artists are eager to exhibit as much as possible, because a) it raises their profile and b) selling art means an income, which can be great for buying pesky things as art supplies and food.

Another way is to attend art club meetings. They tend to be fairly informal gatherings where artists meet to discuss their work and otherwise connect. You can use those to network with other artists in your community. You might be able to find an artist who is eager to have further discussions, or at the very least receive recommendations about artists who might be interested.

There is no need to limit yourself only to photography. Variety is the spice of life, and can also be the spice of exhibitions. Feel free to ask practitioners of other mediums – painting, print work, sculpture, and more.

There is no rush to commit someone to an exhibition. Take your time to learn about their approach to art, and about them, the person. You will be closely working with them for a while, so make sure you actually like them.

The Next Step

Part II will cover the delights of working out when to hold an exhibition, and writing proposals to galleries so they will be ready to take you on.

Cissi Tsang

About the author: Cissi Tsang

Cissi Tsang is a photographer and writer from Perth, Western Australia. She is an experienced live music photographer who has taken photographs for multiple publications. She also has experience as an artistic photographer and has exhibited around Australia. You can also find Cissi on Google+.