Tips on planning for photography exhibitions
An exhibition should be the aim of any serious photographer; there’s little point producing work if no one gets to see it. So how is it done and what are the pitfalls?
Showing and selling artwork to the public is possibly the hardest method of generating income from your photographic works. Getting people to enjoy looking at your work and actually purchasing it are two very different things, and you have the best chance with the backing of a major gallery or dealer. Getting this backing is a long process of exhibiting, possibly writing about your work, meeting curators, and getting press about projects in the right magazines. It can take many, many years before you get to this stage where making some sort of living from print sales alone is a remote possibility.
For everyone else, it’s a rewarding experience and a great chance to share your labours of love, but an experience nonetheless for which you’ll be lucky to break even on a single show. We’re all creative souls at heart, and love the idea of producing something that communicates a concept or a beautiful aesthetic that does more than act as a tool to sell product. So this is the best way to approach a show; a chance to share your creative endeavours with others and spread the word about your work. If you’re on the long-term treadmill of being taken seriously as a fine art photographer, then it’s also an investment in your career. And remember that once the artwork is produced, you’ve got it for good, so there’s also the chance of selling something at another show down the line at little extra cost.
Getting to exhibit is itself a real toughie. The major galleries won’t look at you unless you’ve already made big inroads into this world, and even the smaller galleries usually like to find their own artists through research (it’s the fun part of their job) and will have programmes in place for a year or more in advance. There’s nothing wrong with sending links to projects across, but it could be a couple of years down the line before you get that all important email. That said, you’ve got nothing to lose in asking; someone may have pulled out of a show at short notice so your luck may be in. Provincial galleries outside of London are more of a possibility; wander in with a card with a link to your website and be nice and be humble; there’s nothing less likely to get you interest than pushy bravado.
Some of the spaces may be available for hire if they’re not interested in showing you as part of the programme, but expect to pay a premium. If you get the nod for a programmed event, you need to find out whether they have stock frames you can use, or whether you have to cover the cost. Do they charge you for marketing or the private view? What percentage do they take on sales? (50/50 on profit is normal). Will they hang your work or will they expect you to do the hanging? Ask nicely without sounding too worried or pushy!
If all this fails, it’s time to take the DIY approach. There are local framers, cafés, bars, restaurants, museums and even cinemas with the space to show that might also be glad of the extra traffic generated by the interest in the work, especially if there’s an opening night. Sticking four or five images above a row of restaurant tables isn’t really going to constitute a show worth inviting people too, so the space has to be decent; you should really be looking at upwards of 12 pictures, 18 is a good figure to aim for. If you haven’t got this many works, or you want to keep costs down, go in with three, four or five other photographers and produce a group show with a clear theme.
Try and visualise where the works might go before choosing a venue, as well as how the visitor flow might work. Lighting won’t be gallery standard, or necessarily pointed in the right direction, but try and find somewhere where things at least won’t be hidden in darkness. Turn up with a solid proposal and concrete dates of when you’d like to show (you want at least a month to be in with a chance of selling anything), and make clear that you’ll need an opening night with space for visitors and a table from which you can provide complementary drinks (unless this is a licensed venue, where your guests will probably be expected to buy their own). You’ll need to bang double picture hooks into the walls to be sure your artwork doesn’t fall (the Blutack-type stuff for pictures isn’t safe) unless the venue has a hanging system, so you’ll need to let people know. The panel pins used are small and leave tiny holes, but they are holes nonetheless. Mirror plates prevent artwork being stolen, but you’ll also need to drill holes in the wall.
Give yourself two days for the hanging (and enlist a friend or two), and aim to finish a day before the show; it always takes much longer than you’d expect; especially if it’s not something that you do regularly. For wire and picture hook-based work, you’ll need to measure where the wire is taught on the back for each picture to work out exactly where to bang the holes if you want to get work lined flush. You can tighten or loosen wire a fraction to make up small differences. Think carefully about the layout and the spacing; the format itself should be nicely composed as you would a photograph.
Cards or vinyls need to be made for each work, stating the size (image and total with any borders), the number of editions being released, the material printed on (e.g. C-type) as well as the title, the price for framed (and print only is a good idea) and your contact number or email. Of course, prior to the hanging you’ll already have invited everyone you know to the show. A nicely designed image with photo and all the info should be tweeted to all your followers as well as a link to the event on Facebook; a Facebook event will give you a good idea of numbers. Social media really is the best way to get people to turn up these days.
Be ready for the possibility of a sale on the opening night and be prepared to talk about your work to anyone who asks. You’ll need to get your sales head on. You don’t want to sell work off the walls, so let people know how long it will take to produce print only or framed work and make it clear that you’ll need half of the total sale price up front. You’ll increase the chances of sales after the opening night by leaving well produced A5 flyers with your best image on, and your website and contact details on the back. Shop around for a price from local printers, and have a CMYK proof print made by someone like theprintspace if you want to make sure your image comes out as expected. When the show’s over, make sure you turn up with a decent amount of bubble wrap so nothing gets damaged on the way home!
FRAMING AND MOUNTING
Trends in framing come and go but currently the trend is away from the traditional window-mount approach, which now looks very dated. Currently box frames are really popular as well as variations like the floating box, as are glassless options such as tray frames and keyline frames. Unlike the window-mounted approach, these options normally require that your print is mounted to some sort of substrate, so be prepared for this additional cost. Foamboard at 5mm is the cheapest option (3mm will bow with big prints) and pricier options are available in aluminium and dibond – more impressive if you’re intent is to put hefty price tags on your works. It’s best that you do your printing and mounting at the same place, as if they
mess up, they’ll just run off another print and mount again (it happens).
Hunt around for a good local framer somewhere out of the central shopping areas where they’ll need to add mark ups for high rent and rates. Look at the quality of work on display and check that they’re able to produce the type of frame that you’re after; some framers have little experience of anything but window-mounted frames. Make it clear that gloves need to worn as these prints are going on sale and any marks will show up under gallery lighting, and that the frames as a whole will need to spotless (you can’t sell anything that isn’t).
It’s worth asking for a price for the number of frames you’re having produced as you should be able to negotiate a discount. A good price for a 30 x 20in box frame if you’re having a few made is between £60-70, for example. Colourwise, stick to white, black or stained wood; anything else risks distracting from the work and offending people’s tastes. If you want a border, you’ll need to add it to the print itself for non window-mount frames. When the work is finished, check each thoroughly for fingermarks and dust on the inside of the glass, gaps at the corners of the frame, and whether the glass edge is visible from an angle (it shouldn’t be). Don’t hesitate to ask for something to be cleaned up or redone if it’s not right, otherwise you won’t be able to sell it.
Pricing is the biggest headache in many ways. Go too low and people won’t really value the purchase and may actually be put off (avoid going under £200 for framed work). People aren’t always confident in their decisions about art, and a decent price tag lets them know that they’ve made the right decision in liking it, and that it has value as an object. The cost of the production materials ensures that these are items that you can’t really pile high and sell cheap, so you need to sell the idea that the limited edition makes something of an investment.
Bigger is actually better if you want to command a premium price, as the cost of production isn’t that much more compared to the effect that the result has on people – there’s something
about seeing something 40 or 50 inches wide that has a real physical impact. So aim for this size if you want to go for £700 or more. It’s a good idea to have some smaller options around too for people who love your work but don’t have that sort of money. You can always tell people that the image they really like is available in smaller sizes and point to the size on hand.
Don’t go too low for the smaller size, or people won’t be encouraged to go for the big one.
Paper choice doesn’t matter a great deal if you’re putting an image behind glass; a matte fine-art paper won’t look a great deal different to a glossy C-type print. Cost is usually the most important factor here and C-types are normally cheaper than giclee (inkjet) prints – unless of course you have an inkjet setup at home. While the trend has currently moved away from frameless presentations, there are framed options that don’t feature glass, such as the tray and keyline frames. Here paper choice is important, as the texture will be far more visible and a matte finish will also be evident.
Hahnemuhle Photo Rag is a great matte option with wonderfully rich colours, while Photo Rag Pearl is a good satin choice, and Innova Fibaprint Warm Tone Gloss is great for gloss with a traditional darkroom feel. Ask for printed samples of your local printer’s paper stock if they don’t carry these. People used to have acrylic seals applied to protect their prints, but the trend has moved away from this; the seals themselves are easily scratched and you also lose the textured feel. Better to hang a sign asking people not to touch, or be prepared to run something off again. In terms of your choice of print house Spectrum Photo is probably the best in the UK (and very reasonably priced for its online service), handling the work of many high profile artists, including the non-editions of the Andy Warhol estate.