How to: Plan, Show and Promote a Photography Exhibit

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I’m sure most, if not all of us, at one time or another have attended an art or other exhibit at a museum or art gallery that features photographs in an exhibition–artistic or educational.

Very likely if you’re an aspiring artist to be “seen” or “shown,” certain emotions may be evoked while looking at other artists having their own shows. Even more to the point, I bet most here reading this post would wonder:

“How did they get their photos shown, how did the gallery or museum organize to have the show, who arranged and designed the show, and how can I do it?”
This post should be able to steer you in that direction, if you’re readily inclined to do so. Note: It takes planning, money, and a lot of “sweat” equity to get from here to there. But there are several steps and processes that should assist you toward this goal, although the marketplace is crowded and the economy is down.
So I’ll briefly go through each one of the steps that should significantly increase your chances of getting a show, selling your work, and to get noticed.

1. Have a credible body of work to present along a similar theme
Although it sounds simple enough, you’d be surprised at how many artists and experts in their field are not organized, or can’t stay focused. The point is, that in order for others to take your work seriously you have to first, and the most basic step in that direction is to stay focused along a similar theme that you want people to recognize, identify with, and view. This may not be your only area of aesthetic that you want to show at any point in time, but sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk.

Past that point, if such an opportunity presents itself to show or promote your versatility, by all means that would be something that nobody would intentionally refuse. As a frequent gallery and museum patron, it never ceases to amaze me how some photographers and artists as well, think that just because they get to show their work, people will automatically respond, relate, understand, or for that matter like it or want to purchase it. That’s called “rejection,” and it happens to everybody. As an artist it’s something you’re going to get plenty of, so get used to it.

2. Start Small
Frequently, many of your local city halls, libraries, restaurants, businesses, churches, schools, and other ubiquitous public and private institutions, will allow you to hang your work for free.

All it takes is a bit of investigation, a phone call, and possibly a personal visit to make your “pitch.” But it’s up to you and it’s a lot of work —and if your friends can help that helps—to organize, plan, hang, and promote the show. But don’t underestimate this option—many a show and artist get noticed this way.

3. Build your Curriculum Vitae
As an artist, especially one that’s interested in selling your photographs, people want to know more about you, before they make a decision about buying your artistic work.

Don’t lie, and don’t embellish your education, shows, experience, and history. Although it may help you in the short run, in the long run, it will hurt you. Besides your artwork, your character and reputation will quickly be established.

To have the most effective Curriculum Vitae—the more shows that you have, the stronger your chances of getting that next show. Which leads to greater opportunities for you to be noticed, represented, and sell your photographs.

There’s no way around these basics ways to promote yourself. However, with that in mind, with the advantage of the Internet, it would be wise for you to create your own website, showing your various works, and other information about yourself.

Personally, besides perhaps purchasing a poster, I wouldn’t buy a piece of art from the Internet. But that’s just me—I’m sure many have succeeded in doing it this way. But again, it’s a tool and means to an end to get more exposure for your real-world physical body of work.

4. Get to know your local art supply stores, framers, matt cutters, galleries, foundations, and museums.
You’ll soon find that art supplies are expensive if you’re planning on having a show, printing, framing, and publishing your own work. Getting to know the people and organizations listed above will save you time and money if you can buy wholesale for mattes and frames, and the multitude of other things that you’ll need to make sure that your show and work, is as good as it can and should be.

In fact, at some time, with the digital alternatives available, it’s probably a good idea to eventually purchase your own Giclee and matt cutting equipment. If you use mixed media with your photos, like paints, etc., the price of all paints—acrylics, oils, and watercolors, are not cheap.

Use this time wisely to build your contact list when you’re ready to approach people that you want to show you. Call any particular gallery, or museum, and they’ll likely give you a basic breakdown of what and how they might show “new” talent.

Knowledge is power—so use it wisely.

5. Choose your best work to show
Yes we know—it sounds perfectly simple to assume that everybody does. Wrong!

You’d be surprised at how many artists and photographers have shown work that has defects—tears in the picture, back papers, end-papers, matte’s, Knicks in the frames, scratches, etc. This is totally unacceptable if you want to sell your work, and command decent if not exorbitant prices at some time in the future. Three words to remember as it applies to this rule of the thumb: Don’t do it.

People judge you not just by your great art; but also the quality it’s kept in and preserved, and how you decide to present it at a show.

6. Getting a “Known” Gallery to Sponsor and/or Represent You
This is by far is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. You are in competition with literally millions of other artists and photographers vying for that coveted spot.

There’s no “best” way to approach this conundrum of not being “Well Known,” and/or having a name for yourself. While being “Shown” gets your name known sometimes to all the right places and right people–but a good way to start is to pound the pavement. Literally.

Find a list of galleries, and go to each one. A phone call sometimes may get you an appointment, but being at the other end of these countless calls while I worked at a gallery, we unfortunately had to try and get the artist off the phone as quickly as possible. Point being—nothing is a substitute for an in-person meeting.

Now, this is the part of the rejection process—most of the time, the gallery and/or museum will quickly, but nicely inform you that they’re not interested, or not currently showing “new artists or photographers.” This isn’t necessarily the case—they show the artists that came recommended from someone else, or is the artist who’s in current vogue.
Don’t despair because this is part of the game and the world of the art industry. Keep pushing, and pushing harder and harder. It’s a numbers game as much just as much as it’s a relationship game. The two are connected. The more people that you meet, the more relationships you establish, and the more chances that people will recognize you and your work when it’s “Prime Time.”

Fair? No. But such is the way of the world, and the business and life you’ve chosen.

If by chance, when you do secure a meeting with a gallery owner and you’ve got your portfolio in hand, be prepared for rejection afterward as well. But here’s a critical piece of advice–it never hurts to ask the person reviewing your work why they feel they can’t show it. Typically you probably won’t get an honest answer, most likely either because the people in the gallery don’t know you, aren’t interested in you, are busy, have financial constraints, and are in the business of selling what’s already in their gallery. But persevere—eventually you’ll obtain an unbiased and professional assessment of your work and if constructive criticism is given, then take it in stride, and be sure to always stay in touch with these decision makers. Persistence definitely can pay off.

Rejection for anyone is a bitch—but again, you may never get used to it—but with the goal of making it and getting shown, this should get easier as time and your goals become closer, and more reality than dream.

7. Prepare an Invitation List for your Showing
You’ve got a show! Although it sounds simple enough, but just because you “Build It” doesn’t mean “people will come.” Build up a mailing list, and send out invitations when you’re ready to show. If it’s at a gallery, they’ll use their own database, but don’t only rely on that.

8. Marketing and Promotion
Believe it or not, although an artist typically makes for a terrible businessman, there’s a lot to be said for reading as many Art Marketing and Art buying books as possible ,to learn the ins and outs of how best to market and promote yourself. Since the advent of the digital age has changed previous approaches immensely, that too must be calculated into your learning curve.

In the end, it will all be worth it. Be that as it may, I’ve found that the seminal book Art Marketing Handbook. And the book, Marketing art; A handbook for the artist and art dealer, to be timeless. I’ve had a few consultations with its expert author, Calvin Goodman, Management Consultant to the Arts.

By now, especially with the rise of the digital revolution and its relation to making, producing, and presenting art and photography, there must be thousands of other resources to assist you. Get them, read them, study them, and use the recommendations that best fit who you are, and what you’re after. It will make your job of making and having your photography shown, sold, and represented easier.

In the end, I’m sure that armed with this basic primer, and some hard “sweat equity” into your own career– along with the expected hits and misses along the way–you’ll find what best works for you, and listen to your instincts and heart to Plan, Show, and Promote your own Photography Exhibit.

The chances of being successful by following this logical method will greatly increase your chances of doing what you love, and get paid doing it–being a professional photographer.

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