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When most artists think of an exhibit space, they typically envision a traditional fine art gallery. However, almost any public location where people dine, frequent, or walk through could be a suitable place to show and sell art. These types of exhibition spaces are often referred to as “alternative spaces,” and a venue for your work could be as close as your nearest coffee shop. I’ve seen art exhibits in all kinds of places, ranging from public airports to private homes. I’ve also personally displayed my paintings in a variety of non-gallery spaces, including medical clinics, a car dealership, a metropolitan library, a large bank, a small coffee shop, a retail chain clothing store, a local winery, an upscale restaurant and a cozy bistro. Although some of these places have been more productive than others, showing in alternative spaces offers people who might not bother to visit an art gallery an opportunity to see my work. They can investigate my paintings while they have a glass of wine at the local winery, or envision one of my large pieces in their new home when they visit the neighborhood real estate office.
Lots of Work, But Worthwhile
If you choose to exhibit in an alternative space, it will be up to you, the artist, to do most of the work to make the show successful. This means that you, rather than a gallery director, must transport the work, hang it, take it down and publicize the show, although sometimes a helpful business owner may assist with the hanging. This can require a large investment of your time, as well as money for preparing the work, mileage and any marketing costs you may incur.
Why bother with doing all the work of setting up a show and promoting it yourself? There are benefits which generally outweigh these factors, regardless of your previous exhibition experience. For artists who are new to an area, or to showing their work at all, exhibiting in alternative spaces can provide experience, exposure and a track record for a resume. For veteran artists, showing in alternative spaces often provides contacts with the public, especially with potential customers who may be intimidated by typical art galleries. Connections may later result in sales or commissions. For artists whose work itself is “alternative,” alternative spaces provide opportunities that may not be available in traditional galleries, where owners must watch the “bottom line” of their art sales more carefully.
Before deciding to exhibit somewhere, consider the presentation quality of the location, especially lighting and appropriate wall space. ~ Diana Moses Botkin
Washington oil painter Sharman Owings regularly sells online and from the studio she shares with her sculptor husband. She recently told me about her experience exhibiting in an alternative space: “I showed at our local city hall. A friend who heads the city art department asked me to do the show, so I couldn’t say no. As a capitalist venture, it wasn’t all that great; I only sold two paintings. However, the opening was worth every moment of hauling, hanging and labeling. A lot of people from our little community attended. This town, in the foothills below Mt. Rainier, is not a cultural mecca. I was surprised to be so busy. The conversation was quite lively. I was reminded what it is like to share information with folks who aren’t normally around the art scene. I would most certainly be willing to do it again.”
Diana Schuppel, an Idaho artist, told me her favorite alternative space has been a local book store/tea house. She says, “I have enjoyed several good shows there. The ongoing, eclectic audiences love seeing art on the walls. They make the paintings a topic for conversation with friends and new visitors. The pleasure of awakening the ‘art appreciator’ at an alternative show space is inspiring.”
Although Shuppel reveals that she has sold only lower-priced items at the alternative space, she feels the exposure is very important and the effort worthwhile. A significant portion of her art income comes from commissions, so staying in the public eye is fundamental. She often obtains orders for custom work from clients who have viewed her art at non-gallery showings.
Finding a Space
If you’ve never displayed your work in non-gallery settings, look around for places that may be appropriate for your style or subject matter. If you paint figurative work, a fitness center or dance studio may be an appropriate match. Perhaps your still-life pastels feature food or wine, or maybe you paint abstracts. If so, you might inquire at that upscale hip bistro or your local winery. Regional landscapes are also a nice match for restaurants, banks, coffee shops or your community airport. You could also try contacting your area’s art organization. They may already have businesses or public spaces lined up where artists can exhibit. Regular non-gallery art events, such as community Art Walks, also provide relaxed environments for the public to see the work of regional artists.
Talk to other artists in your area who have exhibited in the space and ask them a few questions. ~ Diana Moses Botkin
Before deciding to exhibit somewhere, consider the presentation quality of the location, especially lighting and appropriate wall space. Will the available lighting show your pieces well? Is the business clean, with good space to hang? Will the work be safely away from heat sources and customer bumps? If your work is small enough to easily carry off, will it be in view of the proprietor’s watchful eye? Most businesses are not in the position to insure your work while it is on display, so you’ll be on your own for losses.
Talk to other artists in your area who have exhibited in the space and ask them a few questions. Was the business owner helpful? Were sales made there during the show? Did the venue hold an artist’s reception for an opening there? Did they help advertise the event or send out invitations? Did the venue help hang or take down the show? Would the artist show there again if asked?
Once you find an appropriate space, protect yourself by getting your paperwork in order. It is crucial to have an inventory/price list indicating which pieces are in the show, as well an agreement stating that the work is loaned for exhibit. Include any other pertinent information in the agreement, such as your contact information, the length of the show and how sales will be handled. For example, will the business hold a check from the customer, or are they willing to run a credit card sale?
Another ingredient in the mix is sales commissions, which are typically low for shows in non-gallery settings. It’s reasonable for artists to pay the proprietor some percentage for a sale — usually 10 to 20 percent. It’s even better to also pay the actual salesperson. A promise of an additional five to 10 percent to the waiter or waitress who writes up your painting sale at a restaurant, for example, is a good investment.
Outline all of these details in the agreement. You should keep one copy, and the venue should keep one, with signatures from both parties.
Promoting the Event
Once you commit to doing a show, you’ll want to let the public know about it. As we discussed earlier, publicizing the show is typically left up to the artist. Depending on your marketing plan, promotional efforts may include writing press releases for local newspapers, getting mentions on public radio or television, ordering and mailing postcards to your collectors, hanging posters around town, and announcing the event on your blog or artist Facebook page, or in your e-newsletter. During the exhibit, it is also valuable to display a sign on an easel outside the venue or a poster in the window announcing the show.
Once you find an appropriate space, protect yourself by getting your paperwork in order. ~ Diana Moses Botkin
You may be able to design and print some of your promotional materials on your home computer and printer. If you are really savvy, you might also be able to land a local print shop as a sponsor for the event, and have them print your materials in exchange for sponsor recognition. When designing your promotional materials, try to use one of your featured works of art from the show as a focal point. That killer image will help to grab the viewer’s attention. Also, consider giving your show an intriguing or witty name. This can help to create a niche in people’s minds that gets reinforced when they see newspaper articles or hear about your event on the radio arts calendar. Remember to include all the essential information within each promotion: the name of the show, location (including address and town), the time and date of your opening, and the duration of the exhibit.
How you hang the show affects how viewers see the art. It’s important to work with available wall space, keep paintings at eye level, if possible, and not overcrowd. A level, lined up and orderly look for a show helps the viewer to flow through the entire presentation. Using sticky putty on the backs of pieces can help to steady them and keep them level day in and day out, since you won’t be there to check on things regularly.
While it’s important to have everything looking neat and professional, it’s even more important to make sure customers know your artwork is for sale. I tape a small tag on the wall just below each piece. This tag indicates the title of the work, my name, the medium and a price. For landscapes, I note the painting location, which customers often like to know. Remember, after the opening, you won’t be there to answer any questions in person, so the tag serves that purpose.
In your absence, a framed, short bio near the paintings can help viewers connect with you. You can also put your contact information conveniently in reach by hanging a little rack of business cards near your art. Additionally, a guest book for viewers to leave comments and sign up for your mailing list provides valuable contact information for possible commissions and future shows.
Remember, the primary goal of exhibiting in an alternative space is to begin to forge connections with potential clients in your local area. If you select a good alternative space and put together an impressive-looking show, you may be able to reach an audience you never knew was there.
Diana Moses Botkin is a wife, mother and award-winning artist who enjoys painting a variety of subjects, ranging from figurative to landscapes. She lives and works in north Idaho. Diana can be contacted through her website, DianaMosesBotkin.com.