An artist’s guide to exhibition proposals

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Photo by gustavo centurion on Unsplash

As a gallery owner and curator, I am approached by artists every day, asking how they can have an exhibition in my gallery. I love helping artists wherever I can, but what I have noticed that is common to almost everyone who asks about exhibitions is their lack of preparation. My exhibition application process is laid out on my website, alongside other relevant information, such as the fact that mine is a feminist gallery that shows mostly craft and design. These are the kinds of things an artist should know before making their approach, and I love the artists who want to work with me because I’m a feminist gallery. Sadly though, more often than not the artist is unaware of my mission, and can’t articulate how their work would be a good fit for my gallery, beyond the fact that they want a show.

Therefore, I’ve put together a list of steps that artists can use to help make their exhibition proposals more successful. Some galleries accept unsolicited proposals, some have an application or invitation process, and some prefer to approach artists, rather than the other way around — but regardless of how a proposal gets of the ground, there are still some basic rules you should follow.

1. Visit the gallery in person.

This should be your very first step, as curators will know immediately whether you have a genuine connection with their space, or if you’re just sending proposals off left and right. Visiting the gallery will tell you if it’s the right size, if it has the right kind of audience for your work and if your medium, concept and quality are the right fit. It’s exciting for me as a curator when an artist has deliberately chosen my gallery because they know it is a good fit, but it can be frustrating to deal with artists who are way off the mark because they haven’t done the most basic of homework.

2. Follow the process laid out by the gallery.

Most galleries will have their process laid out on their website — they will tell you if they want unsolicited proposals or not, and whether there’s an application form to fill out. Nothing will move your proposal to the ‘no’ pile faster than not following the gallery’s own process — and this is especially true for public galleries. Don’t approach a curator before you’ve had a look at their website to see what it says about the application process.

3. Include samples of your work.

This can be links to your online portfolio or social media, images on a USB, or, if you like it old school, a hardcopy portfolio or photos. It doesn’t matter how you include your samples (unless the gallery’s process lays out how they want them, in which case you should follow that), but the curator needs to see examples of your work so they can see if it’s a good fit and visualise how it will look in the gallery. It doesn’t have to be the exact work that will be in your proposed exhibition, particularly if you haven’t created it yet, but your samples should be representative enough of your style so that the curator can judge whether or not it’s a good fit.

4. Explain what your exhibition is about.

You don’t need to be a professional writer, but you do need to articulate the concept of your proposed exhibition to the curator, so they can assess whether it’s the right fit and quality for their gallery. Talk about your themes, your process and what has inspired you to create (or want to create) this work. Presumably you became an artist because you have something to say about the state of the world — this is your chance!

5. Describe what work will be included in your exhibition.

Describe the type of work you want to show — 2D illustration is after all quite different from a large textile installation. How do you plan to display the work — will you need plinths? X metres of wall space? A stage? These are all important details for the curator to consider. A rough estimate of the price range of your artworks will help, too — the gallery can help you refine this down the track, but for now they want to know if your artwork sits within their buyers’ range.

6. Make sure your artist resume is up to date.

Your resume should include any relevant education, a list of previous exhibitions, awards and grants you have received, and other relevant details such as any important collections you are featured in and commissions you have received. It should also include your contact details, which artists surprisingly often forget to provide.

7. Ensure your presentation is professional.

This is after all a business relationship. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so professionalism means things like using a proper greeting and sign off even in email, proofreading your written material for spelling, grammar and layout before sending it, and being polite to the gallery staff in every one of your interactions. Treat your exhibition proposal like a job application, because essentially that’s what it is.

8. Ask yourself if this is the right gallery for you.

I’ve had way more proposals from landscape painters than a craft gallery should ever receive — and all it tells me is that the artist is not paying attention, hasn’t done their research, and is not someone I want to work with. I believe there is a gallery out there for everyone, but it’s up to you to do your homework and make sure you’re targeting the right ones.

By doing a bit of research about the types of galleries you want to work with, having a clear idea about what your exhibition is about, and taking a strategic approach to your exhibition proposals, you’ll have a much greater chance of a curator saying yes to you.

Art, feminism, business and tech from an intersectional leftist perspective.

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