Exhibiting your work

For an artist, exhibiting your work is the final stage in the process of production. You have spent an immense amount of time, energy and often money getting the work exactly as you want it, so the decisions around how best to show it are vitally important. Borris Montfeliski, a photographer, outlines some of the most important issues to take into account when exhibiting.

Although it is not exclusively true, most artists do want the public to see their finished pieces. The opportunity to engage with an audience can be an extremely rewarding experience. It allows you the possibility to initiate a dialogue between your work and that of other artists as well as being a chance to sell work and therefore help sustain your practice.

Exhibition space

There are many different kinds of shows in which artists can participate and many different kinds of spaces in which to exhibit. Perhaps the most obvious distinction to be made is between commercial and non-commercial venues. The former clearly have to prioritise showing work that they feel will sell, whereas the latter can exhibit whatever they perceive to be the most interesting and may, therefore, be more inclined to take risks. The artist Franko B, for instance, feels that, ‘If the commercial gallery and the non-commercial space are both good, there should be no difference... Of course, the former is trying to sell the work, but if it is a good gallery it does this with dignity.'

On the flip side, artists have never been restrained from showing their work outside a commercial context. Ironically, during economic downturns, the opportunities for showing in vacant business premises increase significantly. The rise in 'pop-up shows' has allowed artists to come together and put up exhibitions in short time-frames and with limited costs. There are also more permanent non-commercial galleries, ranging from artist-run spaces (such as the James Taylor Building Gallery in Hackney) to more established public institutions (such as The Jerwood Space or The Camden Arts Centre).

The Right Time for Me?

It can be tempting, especially early on in your career, to take every opportunity that comes your way. But it is important to be selective about which gallery or group of artists are the right match for you to exhibit with at that particular moment in time. It is not arrogant to consider whether a particular exhibition will reflect well on you, it is simply being pragmatic. ‘It is important who I show with,’ says the artist Jo Longhurst. 'I want my work seen in the context of other art that either compliments it or opens up alternative ways of viewing it, or with people whose work I admire.' So think carefully about each offer that you receive and whether it will be of benefit to you in the long term.

Selling Work

When showing in a selling gallery, it is crucial to try as hard as possible to remove all thoughts of potential profits from your mind during the process of both making and selecting which work to show. You can never predict what potential buyers will like: never underestimate their intelligence by producing or selecting what you perceive to be 'easy' or 'accessible' work. Most importantly, if you focus too much on what you think people might want, you are most likely making bad work and bad decisions.

More practically, if you are showing with a commercial gallery, think carefully about how you will split any revenue as well as how you will share the costs of production. Every gallery comes to its own arrangement with its artists but you should be able to negotiate a split in costs (such as framing). If you do not, you may find that the 50 per cent of the sale you receive ends up being closer to 25 per cent, which could lead you to resent selling anything at all, knowing that the gallery is making twice what you are from your own work. So be assertive and try and establish those details from the start.

Protecting your work

Insurance and copyright are essential to consider when exhibiting. It is advisable to make sure that the work is covered for breakage or theft from the moment it leaves you until the moment it returns. Even reputable transportation companies can damage work, and it is not unheard of for art handlers to open up the packaging of valuable paintings with a Stanley knife and cut the canvas right off the stretcher frame. For copyright issues the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) is a helpful organisation to know. They arrange copyright licenses for artworks as well as establishing resale rights for artists when work is sold on at auction or through galleries. This is to ensure that if a work is sold more than once the artist receives a percentage of every sale.

Promoting your work

In the first instance, you need to get the attention of a gallery or curator. Jo Longhurst recommends that, 'You should not approach busy curators until you have work you are really confident about. You may only get one chance to make a good impression.' While it is a good idea to try and create a level of awareness about your work, you should avoid sending off casual emails with jpegs attached to high profile galleries. They receive hundreds of these every day. If you want to make a good impression and you are confident that your work is suited to a particular space or venue, put together a physical package that includes good quality documentation of your work along with a biography and an artist statement. Remember that the presentation of your work is almost as important as the work itself.

Once you know where and with whom you will be exhibiting, you should think carefully about how you get people into the gallery. There are several art magazines and journals that have listings, as well as publications such as Time Out. You could consider putting a quarter page advertisement into a high-profile magazine such as Frieze or Art Review. However, this will be expensive, so ask the gallery you are showing with if they would be willing to cover some or all of that cost, if they think it is worthwhile. And make sure that you send out emails to all your best contacts. Even if they cannot make it to the show, it is good that they know you are busy.

Finally, try and enjoy the process of exhibiting. Although sometimes stressful, it is extremely rewarding if you apply the same level of attention and focus to it as you do to making the work in the first place.