Most photographers want to share their work with others – even if it’s only showing holiday snaps to friends and family or having a few favourite images framed and hung around the house. Some want a higher profile and the thrill of having their own exhibition – their favourite images hanging in a public space for the world to see and hopefully admire.
But exhibiting your work, particularly for the first time can be a daunting and stressful experience. Organising an exhibition is often a complex exercise in logistics requiring considerable planning with few guidelines available to help you through the process.
For those of you considering taking the plunge into the world of exhibitions this article will I hope provide some practical advice based on my learning done the hard way i.e. through trial & error.
I’ve identified 10 steps to planning and organising a successful exhibition:
1. Clarify your purpose
Being clear about why you want to hold an exhibition is a vital first step. My exhibitions usually have two main objectives – firstly to promote me and my photography to as wide an audience as possible and secondly to get some feedback on my work. Selling prints is secondary – for in my experience if your sole goal is to make money from an exhibition then you’re likely to be disappointed!
2. Decide a theme for the exhibition
A theme is very important but this can loosely defined – it could be based on subject matter, shots taken in one locality, a photographic style etc.
The important thing is to find a concept that gives some coherence to your chosen work.
You’ll also find that a themed approach is usually more attractive to potential sponsors (see ‘5 – Find Funding’) and can also provide a pointer to possible venues.
3. Identify and approach potential venues
Start by making a list of likely exhibition venues in your locality. Once you begin you’ll be amazed by how many there are – for example galleries, local businesses who have reception and waiting areas, libraries, hotels, recreation centres, craft centres, country houses open to the public, gardens and garden centres.
Prioritise this long list down to a shortlist of your favoured venues and then find out who the relevant decision makers are at these places. Send them a letter of introduction and include a few prints (10” x 8” max.) to whet their appetite and test out their level of interest. A positive response should hopefully lead to an appointment to show your very high quality portfolio of relevant images.
4. Produce an action plan
Once a venue has agreed to host your exhibition and you’ve set a mutually convenient date then the production of a detailed action plan (with timescales) is the next priority. My advice would be to allow for a long lead in time – 3 months would not be unreasonable.
A ‘to-do’ list of tasks with deadlines will help you deliver what is required in a timely and efficient manner. This will in turn demonstrate to the venue that you are organised & professional in your approach, build their confidence in you by re-assuring them that you won’t let them down and maintain your self confidence & belief that you will meet your commitments.
Realistically accept that in spite of your best planning something will go wrong (because it will!) and allow yourself time to sort it out.
5. Find funding
Undoubtedly any exhibition will cost you money – even if in the long term you make a profit you will have to meet the ‘up-front’ costs of printing, framing & mounting, producing publicity material etc. This can add up to a substantial sum – to give you an indication, a recent exhibition of mine cost me in excess of £1500.
The trick is to reduce as many of the costs as possible – this could include seeking sponsorship from local companies & organisations and negotiating discount on frames, mounts, paper etc.
Making the first approach can be daunting but it’s worth asking – after all people can only say no! Having clarity about the possible benefits for potential sponsors will undoubtedly increase your chances of success.
6. Develop a publicity strategy
How are you going to let the world know about your exhibition?
For a start produce a press release giving the basic information of what, where, when & who. Send this, together with an image from the exhibition, to as many magazines, newspapers (national & regional) and local radio/TV companies as possible. The need for a long lead in time becomes clear when you realise that some of the monthly photo magazines require a minimum of 10 weeks notice to publicise an exhibition in their listings pages.
Secondly, produce an A4 poster/flyer and send it to as many relevant locations as you can think of. My last poster was sent to 250 sites that included libraries, hotels, art shops, picture framers, the local hospital, Tourist Information Offices, National Park Centres and all the Photographic Societies in my region.
7. Decide – a private viewing or not?
You may decide that a private viewing, where you invite selected guests, is just one more thing to organise & fund and not worth the effort. You could be right – but it depends on your purpose for holding the exhibition (see 1 above).
Personally I think it’s worth recognising all your hard work with a gathering of family, friends and contacts. True it adds to the expense – but costs can be minimised by doing the catering yourself and buying wine on a sale or return basis.
And you may even make a few print sales as a result.
8. Produce the framed and mounted prints
Surprisingly this can be a very small part of the overall process!
The number of prints will be determined by the wall space available at the venue and the number of high quality images you have on your chosen theme. Be ruthless with your editing. Don’t be tempted to include poorer shots to make up the numbers – remember you’ll be judged on your weakest image.
In terms of printing and mounting you’ll have to decide whether to go down the DIY route i.e. producing the prints, mounting and framing them yourself or paying for someone else to do this work for you. This boils down to a cost/time compromise but remember that ultimately your work will be judged on its final presentation and it needs to be perfect.
9. Hanging the exhibition
Having done all this hard work it’s tempting to just want to get the prints on the wall and forget about them. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the details – the layout of prints (considering how they work together as a set), whether they are hung level and the glass spotlessly clean, the lighting (e.g. hanging darker prints in lighter areas), how they are labelled & titled and so on.
These presentational considerations can feel like the small tip on a large iceberg but they are fundamental to the impact of the final result.
10 Relax and enjoy!
The prints are on the wall – grab a glass of wine, relax and enjoy the fruits of your labours. If you’ve got this far in the process you deserve it!