Idiot’s Checklist For Exhibiting Your Work When You’ve Never Done It Before – by A.N Idiot

It’s not quite true that I’ve never done it before but, compared with a table in a village hall and a tent in a garden, actual wall space in an actual gallery room was not only a step up but also came as something of a culture shock.

There’s a big difference between unstable carboard easels at child grab height or chasing after art work knocked off its stand by a heaving tent flap, and fresh white walls with barely visible hanging devices you’ve no idea how to make use of. Who knew fishing line played such a part? Or sticky things that aren’t sticky and hold paintings flat against the wall? Those are Command (not Commando – different thing altogether!) strips. And labelling is an art form on its own.

So it was that I had to leave my paintings propped up against the skirting board in the gallery because, despite thinking I had them prepared to hang anywhere, the anywhere in my head depended on hooks to accommodate the loops on the boards or the wooden stretch frames of my canvases. The other two artists, probably struck by a combination of horror and sympathy, got them on the walls for me, and so began the search for advice about a process I had never had cause to know anything about before.

The videos below give an indication of the kinds of climbing, hammering, measuring, limbering, lifting, manipulating, and in one instance interior decorating, skills artists seem to need to participate in the simple act of showing their work. It’s quite physical.

I’m not in the first flush of youth and, while I have no registrable disability, I do have some limitations that generally fly under the radar until challenged by unusual circumstances such as ladders, holding large pieces of unsupported work steady while on top of a ladder, being able to see the invisible fishing line while not losing my balance, or negotiating stairs with big things in glass frames. That’s the short list and I began to wonder how some of my colleagues on the OCA art degrees manage; people whose disabilities qualify them for aids and supports but nevertheless hamper their physical range and are much more than a perfect storm of inconveniences. Is it essential to be physically fit, able-bodied, youthfully agile to be a practising artist? It kinda looks that way.

There’s a lot of advice in these videos, and I know I would have found them extremely helpful had I been as physically able as the presenters. But I’m a bit short, a tad balance impaired, I need two pairs of glasses to get from measuring a wall to making a dot to lining that dot up with another dot. Then I need another hand to balance a spirit level on something I needed a third arm to grab. I have a bit of arthritis, an injury which is invisible and tolerable as long as I don’t do a lot of bending, standing still, or sitting in unsuitable seating; and I could probably do with a roadie to get to some venues with my stuff.

So do I give up and just accumulate art work in the loft for that time when family inevitably has the task of emptying it? Do I aim for digital only products? Or do I pull on my big girl inventive pants and find a way round this?

For now I’m going with the Big Girl Pants.

The solution seems to be preparation, scouting the territory and making notes about the set-up. What’s there and what isn’t; what sizes are their usual displays; how do you want yours to appear; will you need a roadie to help with transport and hanging? This is the conclusion I’m coming to and obviously there’s a cost implication. But before I get all uppity about that I have to remind myself that I already pay now for several services that I wouldn’t have needed to purchase before, and this one differs significantly in that I stand to gain monetarily from an exhibition.

So what do I need?

  • Ideally a packer who might be the same person as the lifter, shifter, and hanger.
  • A roadie to collect, load, transport, unload, and deliver to the venue, then reverse the process when the exhibition closes. That’s two chunks of time.
  • A checklist so let’s start here:
    • Speak to the organiser of, for instance, an art trail to find out what’s expected generally.
    • Speak to the owner of the venue, which might be a shop/gallery, a gallery/shop, or an actual gallery if you finally broke through the ceramic ceiling. If you’re in a tent, be ready to chase after escaping art work as adverse weather conditions can interfere with the stability of any display. Also you might find you’re expected to help put up and then dismantle the tent.
    • Visit the venue and ask about space, expectations (how many exhibitors, what size paintings for instance), and what hanging systems are already in place. Will you need to fix your own and if so, what constraints are there? And are there some items that can’t be moved? If this isn’t a permanent exhibition space, it will probably be used for something else the rest of the year.
    • Agree your stewarding duties.
    • Agree the venue’s commission. Industry standard is 40%.
    • Ask how sales are managed. Do they go through the venue’s own books or do you need to supply your bank or PayPal details?
    • Agree dates if those aren’t set by an external body (such as the art trail organiser).
    • Agree delivery and hanging date and times.
    • Agree take-down date and times.
    • Hire roadie and agree hours plus rate per hour. You can offset this, along with any other costs, against tax so don’t be mean.
    • Make a contract for the roadie and ensure you both sign it. Include a cancellation clause that covers fees due to them if you cancel, especially at short notice. Have a backup plan in case you need to replace them quickly or manage alone.
  • When you’re stewarding, remember you’re the face of that exhibition, so if you’re sharing the space with other artists, ask them about their work so you can talk about it to people. And do this before you tell them about yours because that’s just courteous.
    • Find out about ventilation. This pandemic won’t last forever but while it’s here, be safe.
    • Find out about refreshments. Sometimes the venue owner will provide tea/coffee/water but probably not food, although once my host emerged from her kitchen with a full-on salad followed by home-made scones with cream and jam.
    • Take any essential refreshments you’ll need. Fluids will be important (so find out about the loos as well!), and you may need something light to top up your energy levels or blood sugar. Remember stewarding is physical and mental work, draining if you’re not used to it, and that will cause your energy levels to plummet. Best to keep it to something you can quickly set aside so that you’re not inconveniencing a visitor. Bananas and snack bars are a gift.
    • Try to tell the story of the painting a visitor is looking at. Also know when to shut up!
    • Remember questions visitors had about works by the other artists then ask them at handover or by other means so you have that story to hand next time.
    • Remember also that you are representing yourself even – maybe especially – when you’re talking about someone else’s work. People may not buy your paintings but they will remember you and they’ll probably look out for you next time.
  • Populate Instagram, twitter, and Facebook with your work. QR codes next to your works can link to added extras like blog posts showing how it was made, a video of you talking about it, quick vids of animations, you tik tokking it, AR (augmented reality) ‘easter eggs’. If there’s no wifi and the phone signal is poor, do that where those facilities are available and make sure the labels, your business cards or flyers, have those links too.

This list is not exhaustive; in fact much of it is post hoc, things I should have done this time but hadn’t thought about. So please print it, add to it – for yourself, in the comments, or both – modify it according to your own circumstances and what you’ve learned from each exhibition, and pass it on to the next novice exhibitor you meet along the way.

Post script.

My costs at their most basic for this exhibition are £170.00. This includes the participation fee of £40.00; £30.00 for the roadie to get my work down stairs and into my car; and £100.00 for my time on-site, calculated at £10.00 per hour which is just above the National Living Wage for everywhere but London. It doesn’t include preparation of, for instance, labels, the cost of flyers and business cards (I can use those elsewhere), the pre-exhibition meeting with the other two artists and discussions with the owner of the gallery, or my time getting the work to the venue.