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How to Hold an Art Show

Here’s a step by step list of how to put together your very own DIY art exhibition.
Images courtesy Julia Sub

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You just finished art school, you now have bills to pay so you’re working a regular day job, and you're devoting what's left of your free time to your art. You’ll occasionally post pictures of work on Instagram, but you long for the critical and creative space your alma mater once provided. Of course, you want to put on a show and share your work with your peers, but don't yet have the ability to bust down the door of a fancy art gallery in Chelsea. So, you decide to throw your own art show.


What to do? Where to begin? The Creators Project spoke with independent curator Julia Sub to try to get an idea of some of the things you need to know in order to put together your own show. Sub is a recent Bennington College grad living New York and putting on pop-up art shows with her friends about town. She has a new show coming up in early February entitled Fake Funerals, and it features 2D and installation-based work, a lineup of musical acts, a tarot card reader, and even a tattoo artist.

The Creators Project, with the help of Julia Sub, put together a little step-by-step list on how to throw your own pop-up art show:

1) Conceptualize it.

First, think of a theme—something that ties the artworks together. But before you go ahead and pull your hair out trying to find the perfect aesthetic or intellectual conceit, simply ask yourself what you want the show to do. Do you want to display a collection of artists concerned with decay? Or would you rather simply show new paintings? Maybe you want to explore a certain emotion or critique a particular social issue. Sub’s Fake Funerals show, for example, looks at themes that are “reflective of loss, change, impermanence, and attempting to understand the things we love and their roles in space and time.” But it could be something much more simple, like a collection of black artworks. You're the only one who really knows what you want, so it's up to you.


2) If it's a group show, select your artists. 

Once you’ve landed on a certain theme, you’ll want to start looking for others whose work will help illustrate it. Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are, in fact, two of the best resources for cultivating relationships with other artists in your area, genre, or who share the same interests. Of course, artist websites often have contacts listed, and you should never be afraid to send a polite email or make a phone call. When reaching ou, you will want to include a general description of the show and an explanation of why you think their work fits. But also, and this is key, you'll want to tell them everything about your event's plans and logistics. Which brings me to our next step:

3) Find a location/venue. 

Even if it's in a public park outdoors, the space in which the art occurs is key. Sure, options are contingent on your budget, as well as the size, format, and number of artworks you hope to display. But really, any space will do, provided it's right for you; don't limit your event to formal gallery spaces, exclusive art world locations, or even known venus. Music halls, restaurants, hotel lobbies—even your parents' basement could work. What's key is that the space is open, safe, and accessible. Sub tells us that she likes to scout out locations on social media or by going to other exhibitions. What you'll want to do is think about the general layout of your show and the context in which you want the artworks to seen. Consider how you'll be able to space out the pieces, and how you want viewers to move about the exhibit. Draw a diagram or two. You'll know when you've found the right space, but you'll also need to know that you can lock in your time and date. Be sure to communicate transparently with the venue's legal owner and then get something down in writing.


4) Determine the cost. 

Not every show will break the bank, but even if it's a hammer and nails or plastic cups, you'll probably have to cover some basic necessities. The number of people you're expecting and the level of installation required will generally determine the cost of your exhibition. Bigger shows in bigger venues tend to come with bigger bills. If the money to rent a space is tight, you may have to consider putting up and taking down a show in the same day. You might even have to buy insurance. Once you’ve figured out how much the space will cost, factor in what it'll take to run it.

5) If necessary, figure out funding.

Even if the government decides to cut the NEA, there will still be multiple ways to fund your art show. Sometimes your venue will host your show for free, and other times you can make a deal for a percentage of the works sold. Some artists and curators raise money through crowdsourcing sites like GoFundMe. You can also crowdfund from participating artists, like Sub did for Fake Funerals. “I asked each artist to pay a small submission fee for their work which I saw as a way we could all contribute to sharing the space," she explains. "This way we all had some financial stake in it and actually helped foster more of a collaborative and responsible atmosphere.”

6) Installation is everything. 

Let's break it down: every artwork needs to get into and out of the building. Transporting works will require you to coordinate load-in times with both space owners and participating artists. If it’s a group show, you should probably already have some idea about how you're going to divvy the space up to display each participating artist. Here's where you'll need to know the extent of your role as the curator. Will you or the artists be in charge of putting up the work? Are you staging the work in a way that creates an overall experience, or are you simply displaying the work? Try and give yourself ample time to experiment and make things presentable before the show opens. Consider the beginning, middle, and end of your event, and take into account seemingly mundane things like foot traffic. Oh—and wall text. It's entirely up to you, but you should be conscious of how your wall labels (if any) will present the names of artists, works, even mediums, prices, and even explanations. Also, be aware of lighting. Excessly dark or glare-y works can be challenging, but everything theoretically could work. The secret to healthy installation equal parts spontaneity and intent.


7) Getting people to attend. 

You're about to embark on quite a lot of work, so make sure you get the word out! Consider making a website or event page that people can access online. Send out your invites and announcements in the time leading up to your opening. Tell your friends! Tell your family! Tell them all to tell their friends and family! But really, think about your ideal viewer, and then think about the best way to reach them. Even if it's just for internal use, put together a press package with a detailed description of the entire show, a simple but detailed catalog of all of the artists and works, and pictures. Also, don't forget to consider the humble flyer. There's a reason people have been handing them out for centuries now.

8) Now, the opening. 

Vibes tend to attract similar vibes, so the atmosphere is on you. If you want it to be welcoming, be welcoming. If you don't, don't (although we gently recommend you do). The key to controlling your environment is preparation—anything can happen when you're hosting an event, so the best approach is an even keel. Quite literally everything depends on you, but also remember to enjoy yourself. (Don't get too drunk or make a scene unless that's the plan.) Damaged art can be replaced, but a hurt reputation could be forever.

9) Taking it all down. 

You did it! Now: leave your exhibition space in the same condition it was in when you arrived (or better). More people helping break down the show will make the process faster, but also increase the possibility for things to go wrong. Have copious supplies like tape and bubble wrap on-hand, and a handcart on wheels will help move larger works. Sub says she often uses spackle when striking a show in order to patch up any holes that might have been made during the installation.


With that, good luck!

Learn more about DIY curator and video artist Julia Sub here, and if you'd like to share your art show with us, email us images, info, and an artist's statement:


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