5 important lessons I learned from organising a professional group art exhibition.
I know I have written about putting on an exhibition before, but bear with me, this is different.
In the past I have exhibited with large organisations where you pay for your space, hang your work and hope that people come and buy from you.
I have also had played a major part in the running of art group exhibitions both here and in the USA, where I lived for a number of years.
This past week however I put together an exhibition of eight professional artists. This kind of event I have not done before and I learned some valuable lessons.
The first and most important lesson is that when you ask people if they want to take part, many will say “yes”. It is not until you ask them to put their hands in their pockets and pay the hanging fees that true interest become apparent. At one point it looked as if I would have to abandon the exhibition because all those “yeses” disappeared into the woodwork. I’m not the sort to give up that easily and I managed to fill all the spaces with some really fantastic artwork, however for the next exhibition I organise, I’ll ask for the money straight away and not leave it until a month before the show opened.
Lesson 1. People will show their true interest only when they hand over the exhibition fee Until then don’t take it for granted that a “yes” actually means “yes”.
The next interesting element was watching how quickly people can become territorial. This wasn’t everyone, in fact there were only three people who reacted in this way. Thankfully I was able to distance myself from this based on the need to sort something else out. It was not a conversation into which I wanted to be drawn. The problem when putting on an exhibition like this is that you are dealing with people’s egos and sometimes it is not pretty. My advice: stay out of it, let people resolve their own issues and only step in if mediation is required. Most people will be reasonable in the end.
Lesson 2. People become territorial and will try and get you to side with them – don’t be drawn in and take sides.
Holding an exhibition at the beginning of February and, as it happens, when a bad storm is going over, has its problems. Trying to persuade people to come out in miserable weather is not easy either.
However, I spent a chunk of money on advertising using Facebook and Instagram and it seems to have worked. Whilst not everyone was successful in terms of sales, we did get people through the door and we did make great sales. I doubt we would have had anywhere near as many people had we not advertised. I didn’t just leave it to FB and IG though. I asked everyone to advertise the exhibition to all their friends, too. I am not taking full credit for the publicity but think about having some form of paid advertising. It does seem that the old adage “it pays to advertise” does work.
I am also a committee member for a local art group, where we have a dedicated advertising budget which last year we used to have flyers printed and delivered by Royal Mail to all the houses in the vicinity of the exhibition, and this resulted in a huge increase to visitor numbers.
If you can get a local paper or magazine to write a piece about your exhibition, that too will help let people know about it: ‘advertorials’ in these local newspapers are usually free but if you know that the circulation numbers are good it might be worth taking out some paid advertising in them.
Lesson 3. Using social media to advertise your event is an absolute must if you want to make sales. Any other advertising you can arrange is crucial too.
A mistake I made was to ask everyone to steward but I left it to them to decide when.
I divided the week up into two sessions per day, morning and afternoon and having made sure that we had cover for the whole time I didn’t want to dictate to people what sessions each person should cover. My only stipulation was that no fewer than two people should be on duty at any time and I assumed that people would be fair, and as grown-ups I figured we could just sort it out without a drama. One of the other exhibitors decided to organise a rota to ensure that we were all giving fairly of our time.
One lady decided that she was too busy to do more than two sessions, and felt that she was far too important to give more of her ‘valuable’ time to the event but was happy for us to sell her work for her.
Everyone else was fair and gave freely of their time. Having a minimum of two on duty worked. Despite various issues: one person had parental issues which needed her attention so wasn’t available each day, another person had very poorly children she needed to care for, and a third person was unwell after returning from Zanzibar, we always had my minimum of two people on duty and generally we had four people which meant comfort breaks and lunch breaks were easy to facilitate.
Lesson 4. People need to be organised. You need to ask them what they can do and then tell them what you expect of them. It is a bit like children needing boundaries. Some people will always go out of their way to buck the system however the majority prefer to know and conform to the rules and play fair.
The amount of work involved is far greater than you realise. Yes, I know how to put on an exhibition, but doing it for a small elite group like this comes with other pressures and it all falls on you. Most of the information I shared with the group prior to the event, was check lists and notes I had made for myself for other shows. It was time consuming gathering the information but not exactly difficult.
What I hadn’t considered was the amount of work needing to be done after the exhibition.
We had two card readers between us. One lady put all her own sales through on her machine which was perfect but as I was there when anyone wanted to pay, I put all the other sales through on my machine.
I then had to reconcile the purchases with the artists, and make all the bank transfers to everyone once the money had arrived in my account. Again not difficult but time consuming.
Also, I always have a visitors’ book for people to fill out and I put out forms asking people to vote for their favourite piece of artwork. We also invited everyone to share their email address with us so that I could start a mailing list to let them know about our next exhibition.
All this information needs to be typed up into a spreadsheet and the information shared with the group. It all takes time, time which I hadn’t put aside and time I simply don’t have right now. Next time I will either make sure that I have put time aside to deal with this or I will ask someone else in the group to take on the responsibility.
Lesson 5. you need far more time than you realise to tidy up loose ends and keep everyone informed and happy.
Overall, though, I am delighted with the way things went and I am thinking about doing the same week again next year with most of the same people.
Not everyone will be able to make the dates next year and some people wouldn’t want to show together again. That is their choice.
I know one lady didn’t think she would get many sales from the event as her work has high ticket prices. She did however have a lot of interest and just having your work seen means that there is a potential for sales later. I do not believe that any event is ever a waste: treat it as a marketing and advertising opportunity and any sales then become a bonus, leaving you to feel happy about any events in which you take part.