How to Prepare a Photography Exhibit of Your Work

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There is nothing like having your work displayed up on a wall for everyone to see. Even better, is seeing little round red stickers underneath to indicate that the work has been sold. For most artists, that is their driving force and anyone who makes images that are intended for walls and display. However, where and how to go about having a photography exhibition can be harder than you think. It can also be a very expensive exercise.

This article will help answer a lot of the questions that you may have when it comes to exhibiting your work.

photography exhibit tips

If I were to have an exhibition now this image would be in it.

Why do a photography exhibit?

Artists have been exhibiting their work for centuries, now is no different. The reasons for doing an exhibit can vary from artist to artist. Before the internet, it was one of the best ways to showcase your work to everyone. However, artists used them to make money. They would invite special clients or benefactors to the openings in the hope they would buy one or a few pieces.

Selling artwork is harder these days, so if your sole reason for exhibiting is to sell some, then you may be very disappointed. However, if your goal is to put your work up on a wall to show people what you are capable of, then it can be very rewarding. Having all your best work up for everyone to look at can feel like quite an achievement.

Another reason many artists exhibit is to be able to put the exhibitions down on their artists CV. The CV or Curriculum Vitae is a list of all their exhibitions, plus education and a few other things, similar to a resume. It is what galleries look at when seeing if they will have a show with an artist.

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This image would be ideal if I decided to have an exhibition of just my macro work.

Costs and Budgeting

Exhibitions are not cheap and before you decide to have one there are many things you need to take into consideration. What sort of space will you exhibit in and how much will it cost? What other expenses will there be? How many images will you prepare for the exhibit and what will the reproduction outlays cost? Should you have a solo exhibition or start with group shows? These are all questions you need to think about.

Group or Solo

Solo shows are fantastic and ultimately what every artist wants, to have their own show. But they are also very expensive and you have no one to share the expenses with. Having said that, most artists build up to solo shows and often have had some success in group shows first.

For most photographers, group shows are a good way to get your feet wet and start building your artist’s CV. Find some friends who are also interested in exhibiting. Apply together to galleries to see if you can get an exhibition. Many galleries advertise for artists to participate in group shows they are holding, so look out for them and apply.

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This framed image was in a group show for street photography.

Where to exhibit

This could be an endless list, but the most common places are galleries that specialize in the work that you want to show. However, there are other places, like cafes or restaurants, that like to have exhibitions which feature different artwork on their walls. There are benefits and disadvantages to each.

Cafes, Restaurants, and Foyers

These are often free for holding an exhibition. They don’t always have schedules so you could possibly have your work up for longer than you could in a gallery. These types of venues may not want a commission from the sale of work, though they may want you to handle all the sales, so you would need to leave contact information. They usually won’t take any responsibility for your art pieces, so be aware of that (loss or damage is not covered).

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This is one of two images that were exhibited in a cafe down near the coast.

With a place like this, you won’t have access to a mailing list and will have to do all the advertising yourself. People can’t generally just wander in to look at the work. All the customers will see your images, but they are there for different reasons, such as to eat, and buying images isn’t one of them. While it isn’t impossible to sell a piece from a cafe exhibit, your audience isn’t there to necessarily buy what you are selling.

Your work will most likely need to be framed for hanging, and you will probably have to install it yourself at the exhibit space.

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This is the other image that was exhibited in the cafe.

Galleries

There are many different types of galleries, and it is up to you to decide which one you think will work for you. They usually start with artist-run spaces, then come staffed galleries which are either non-commercial or commercial.

Artist-Run Spaces

Possibly the cheapest spaces to get are those which are artist-run. You pay less to use the space, but you are expected to do what they call, “sit the exhibition”. That means that when the gallery is open you have to be there to watch your work and manage any sales yourself.

Having to be there the entire time the gallery is open can be time-consuming. Many artists will get together for a group show, split the costs of renting the space, and draw up a roster to sit the exhibition. For artists starting out this can be a much better option. If you want to do this, but don’t know anyone to exhibit with perhaps you can contact the gallery as they may know some artists who are looking for someone to share.

You need to take on most of the expenses in this environment. The cost of the opening is covered and organized by you. You must pay for most of the advertising as well, though some galleries will have a mailing list for you to use.

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Still packed up from when it returned from an exhibition last year.

Staffed Galleries

Staffed galleries are the next level. They cost more, but you are relieved of the burden of having to sit the exhibition. There are two different sorts of galleries, the commercial and non-commercial kind, and they often have different directions.

Non-commercial galleries

These are often smaller galleries that will charge you for renting the space and for their service to sit the photography exhibit for you. They are often the most expensive galleries to hire. Non-commercial galleries will help advertise the opening, but they are generally not interested in helping to promote you and your work further beyond the exhibition and the relationship is short term.

They make their money from you hiring the space, and taking a commission from any work you sell, usually around 30%. It is a good way to start getting work on your CV or finding galleries that do a lot of group shows. See if you can put work into them.

Non-commercial galleries aren’t typically picky about who they choose, as long as the quality of work is good. They are not going to mind if one exhibition is all abstract paintings and the next one is more landscape photographs. It can be a lot easier to get a show with them than the commercial galleries.

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This image was also popular on social media so it would definitely be in the macro exhibition.

Commercial Galleries

These types of galleries are a lot harder to get exhibitions with as they have so many artists to choose from and usually have a particular type of artist in mind that they show. They are more interested in helping you establish yourself as one of their artists, in other words represent you. Commercial galleries will keep some of your work in a stockroom and advertise what you do. They try to get collectors to view what you have done so they can begin collecting and supporting you as well.

Commercial galleries usually have a niche market they represent. If you are a photographer and you send your work to a gallery that only deals with Indigenous art, then they are not going to be interested in your work.

When approaching these galleries you need to do your research and make sure you work fits in with the other artists they represent. At the same time, if they have another who does work that is almost the same as yours, then they are not going to be interested either.

The commercial galleries often cost a lot less for an exhibition, however they are harder to get shows in and they will take a higher commission. Here in Australia that rate is usually around 40%, compared to the 30% that other galleries take.

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Another image that would be used if I were to have an exhibition now.

Submitting your work to galleries

All galleries tend to advertise when it is a good time to submit proposals. While you can send in inquiries at other times, it is best to look for submission dates, times when they are asking people to send in exhibition proposals.

Commissions and pricing your work

All galleries charge a commission and some cafes may as well. You need to consider how much the commission is when you are pricing your work. Make sure you find out how much the commission is when first inquiring about exhibiting in the space.

When it comes to pricing you should be realistic. If you are new to the art world, charging thousands of dollars for your work would be unrealistic. Only established artists can command prices like that. To get an idea look at the space that you will be exhibiting in and see how much previous artists have charged for similar work. If you are happy with the prices you could try charging the same, or similar.

As your reputation grows and more people start buying your work then you can look at charging more.

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This is from an solo show I had in the foyer of a theater company.

Loss due to damage or theft

When you hire a space to show your work you also take on the responsibilities of it as well. The gallery or space is unlikey to cover any damage to your artwork or the theft of it. It is often in the contract or terms of conditions. Make sure you are aware of it, and if you are worried then insurance could be an option.

Insurance

As previously stated most places will not cover your work for damage or being stolen, so insurance is  something that you need to consider when putting your art up anywhere. Do you need to take out insurance on it? Most artists don’t worry about it, but that doesn’t mean you should do the same. Look into it and see how much it will cost and if it is worth it for you

If the work has cost you a lot of money to produce, then you may want to consider getting insurance. Talk to the gallery and see if they have had problems in the past, especially with theft. If the work is going into a high traffic zone, like a walkway, where it can be damaged or someone could walk off with it, then it is worth considering.

It should be done according to the place where you are showing. If it is a café then the staff may not have the time to watch the work at all, especially during busy periods. However, a gallery is going to be in a better position to watch if they have the staff. If you have to man the space yourself, can you watch everything?

To frame or not to frame

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Testing out a framer and had this macro printed on canvas.

Many places will answer the question of framing for you. tThey will either say the work has to be framed or it can be pinned to the wall.

If the work has to be framed then you must decide if that is something you can afford. Getting work custom framed can be very expensive. But what a lot of artists do is make all their work the same size (or use the same size frames and just alter the mat sizes according to the images), then go to somewhere like Ikea and buy cheaper frames. If you do the framing yourself then you can reuse the frames every time you want to do a show.

If you don’t have to frame and can pin the images on the wall, that doesn’t mean you can’t get the work framed. Again, your budget is going to determine that. However, if you choose to pin them on the wall you need to find out what is going to be the best way and if the purpose is to sell your work then pinholes in your photos might not be desirable to potential buyers (it also isn’t as professional looking or finished for the buyer, they can’t just take it home and hang it up).

What size and how many images to exhibit

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If I were to have an exhibition now this would be in it along with the others.

This decision comes down to price and space. How much money you have for the exhibition can only be determined by you. But how many pieces you can make, and the size you can get your work reproduced is going to be determined by your budget.

It is also important to know how much space you have available for the exhibit. If the space is only three meters (10 feet) of wall space, then putting up three images that are one meter (39 inches) across will make it crowded and not allow enough space in between each one. However, if you have 10 meters (33′) of space, and you put up four images that are only 50cm (20 inches) across, that will give you too much space between them.

Consider the space carefully. If you think your work looks great when it is enlarged, then perhaps having fewer large pieces is better. The larger they are the more they will cost.

The same goes for the number of images. You don’t want to completely fill the space you have, as giving each image room will allow them to be shown better. Just because you have paid for the space doesn’t mean you have to fill it up. Consider the size of the frames as well, if you choose to frame.

Editioning

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Trying out different papers to see which one will work best for this image.

Editioning is also referred to Limited Editions and is something to consider with photography. Printmakers have been doing it for centuries. It basically means that you are promising your clients or potential ones that only a certain number of those images (prints) will be available for sale.

Editions can be a good way to make your work more valuable. If you have an image and do an edition of 20, then you need to make sure that the buyer knows what number in the edition they are receiving, for example, 8/20. You need to keep records of it, so you know how many of the image you have sold. Once you have sold the 20 you can’t sell anymore. You made a promise to those that bought the first 20 that you would only sell 20 of them. Be sure of how many you think you might sell from the start, and be realistic.

Another thing you need to be careful about with editioning is to make sure they are all printed exactly the same. They all have to be consistent. If you put up a piece in a show and sell it a few times, people won’t be happy if the image they receive is not the same as the one they saw in the exhibition. You don’t have to get them all printed at the same time, but make sure you use the same printer for all of them and that the printer knows how to replicate them identically.

Medium for printing

What medium you choose for printing is again going to be determined by your budget, but also consider how your work will look the best. Do you want prints in frames? Perhaps canvas will work better for the type of image you are getting printed. Getting work printed on metal is becoming popular now as well, though it is also very expensive and perhaps might only suit some styles of photography.

Whatever you choose, you need to be careful that it shows off your work in the best way possible. Consider getting some images printed in different ways and then deciding which you like the best, and which one will fit into your budget.

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My new printer did lots of tests for me to see which would work the best on what medium.

Curating and choosing which images to exhibit

Choosing which images to put in the exhibit is the hardest part for most people How do you know what images will be the best to show? There is no real way to tell. If you are working with a gallery that has a curator you can likely get a lot of help from them using their experience with the gallery and what sells. If a curator isn’t available you might have to enlist the help of friends, find out what are their favorite pieces. Perhaps your social media sites will help you see which images were popular online.

When it comes to curating the show, there should be a cohesiveness to the work and to the final exhibition. Make sure all the work fits together and flows. Be clear on what your vision for it is. The better it looks on the walls, the more you could sell.

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If I were to have an exhibition now this is another image that would be in it.

Start planning your exhibition

Hopefully this has answered many of the questions you had and explained some of the ways that galleries work. There are many decisions that need to be made and before you start it is good to have a plan of what you want to do, why, and how you will pay for it.

Have you done a photography exhibit before? Please share your experience or post your questions in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Leanne Cole is a fine art photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. She loves Melbourne and photographing it, along with other parts of the state. She likes doing architectural and environmental photography. You can find her on her website or on Instagram.

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