Planning and executing an Art Exhibition: a guide & some things you may not have thought about

This week I have been a little M.I.A because on Thursday I am going to have an opening for a group show where some of my work will be on display. What I have learned in the past two weeks or so is that art does not hang itself, and art exhibitions most certainly do not just “fall into place.” The process of making sure a show will open and run smoothly is much more akin to the art of baking a soufflé – and sometimes the dough just won’t rise.

If (like me) you’re approaching your first art show thinking all you have to do is get your work up on the walls in a semi-neat order and the rest will sort of follow – you’re in for a surprise. If you’re famous enough to have a curator deal with all the particulars, that’s great (one day, Valerie, one day) but if you’re doing most of the legwork yourself or as a group, here are a few of the things you will have to think about:

Whose work goes where?

Specificity of the space to each artists’ work (if you’re in a group show) is important. Maybe someone has a sculpture that needs more breathing room than prints do – or a video installation that requires dark surroundings. Measuring out space for everyones’ work is essential to avoid over-crowding or competing work down the road.

Wall Text

The show title, artist names, and individual artwork labels all need to be produced and accounted for in the budget, and you will probably have to outsource and figure this out on your own. Vinyl is industry standard and very professional looking, but it is expensive. DIY-ing can look a little “arts-and-craftsy,” but it can also pay off. I recommend asking people you know who might be able to help. You could wind up cutting costs and have something really unique to show for it. For example, Jordan asked a friend of hers with a laser-cutter to help out by cutting the letters for our show title out of plywood. A comparable sized title made out of vinyl would have cost us up to $100. We were then able to have our names printed in vinyl for around $30, and save more money for marketing materials.

Tip: When it comes to getting vinyl text that fits into your budget, don’t take no for an answer. Before finding an option that fit into our budget, I worked with several sign companies around the Bay Area who would not produce anything for under $50. If you just state your budget ahead of time and talk to as many companies as you can, nobody’s time is wasted and you get to a solution quicker. I have found that there are companies out there who are willing to make sacrifices on their end to get you what you need. I ended up working with Maria at Signographics. She even came in on a Saturday to get the finished product to me.

“Ask not what you can do with your budget, but what your budget can do for you.”

– Someone really wise who just planned an art show.

Getting the word out

Who is coming to your show if nobody knows about it? You. Just you.

Flyers, postcards to mail out, posters to put on every pinboard you lay eyes on and a Facebook event page. These are some of your options. I would say creating a Facebook event page for your show opening is the best way to spread the word and gauge (roughly) how many people might be attending. Do this well ahead of time, so people can start to put it into their calendars. Flyers and posters are, however, your best bet for reaching people you don’t know. Print liberally and disperse as if your flyers are dollar bills and you just won the lottery. Such marketing materials are easy to design in Adobe Photoshop or InDesign, and you can have them printed on (more bang for your buck,) (amazing quality,) or a local printer depending on your budget. I whipped up the below postcard and poster on Adobe InDesign for our show in just an afternoon, so it’s not too complicated. Make sure you include relevant dates, times, the show title, artist names, gallery name and address and any website links that might be useful. It is also wise to consider turnaround times for production, so get on these early.

Image: Jordan Jurich-Weston

Image: Jordan Jurich-Weston

Install Tips

Depending on your medium, this could be entirely useful (or not.) But when it comes to what materials to use to stick your work up on the wall, err on the side of permanence. Depending on your space, you can always spackle up the holes you make, and re-paint the walls after the show. I had a bunch of mounted prints that regular old double-sided tape would not hold. I ended up using carpet tape (you can get it from the hardware store) and that did the trick. If you have framed work, canvas or just plain large prints, I recommend using nails or t-pins to make sure nothing is going to fall down. Have a wide range of sticky tacks, pins, tape, nails and tools in your arsenal for install, and don’t be afraid to improvise. Here’s a list of useful things to have:




Tape Measure


Painter’s tape

Double-sided mounting tape (it looks kind of like sticky thin white foam strips)


Large metal ruler


Eraser or paint and small paintbrush for touch-ups

White gloves

Retractable blade.


In terms of making your work look polished up on the gallery walls, I would say frames are the endgame for photographers. They are, however, expensive. Especially if you are printing big. An (almost) equally satisfying solution is mounting work on gatorboard or foamcore. And this is something you can easily do yourself if you have steady hands. Foamcore is cheap (about $6 – $12 a sheet) and when cut crisply on the edges it looks clean and professional. All you need to do is adhere your prints to sheets of foamcore using a thin layer of archival spray adhesive, then use a large ruler held down with some clamps and a retractable blade to cut the foamcore flush to the print’s edges (see image above for more detail.)

Tip: If you opt to use foamcore instead of gatorboard, do be careful not to bump the edges at all, otherwise they will crumple. And then you will crumple. Internally.

Reception & Refreshments

Your exhibition should have an opening or a reception. There is no explicit right or wrong way of hosting a reception for your show, but make sure you consider the following: refreshments, nibbles & entertainment. But I don’t need to tell you how to throw a party, do I?

There you have it. If you have any handy tips of your own, or think I’ve left something important out, tell me about it in a comment.


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