Photo by Vincent Tantardini on Unsplash
Sometimes the best way to get your art exhibited is to take matters into your own hands, literally.
This is what artist Reni Gower did when she began organizing traveling group exhibitions in the early 2000s. Twenty years — and more than a dozen successful exhibitions later — Reni has developed a suite of best practices, gleaned from her time in the curatorial trenches.
Reni’s generosity in sharing her knowledge is likely the result of her academic career — she is an educator by nature and by profession. After 37 years, Reni retired from the Painting and Printmaking Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and is now a Professor Emerita. In 2020, she was awarded the prestigious Pollock Krasner Grant and has also been the recipient of the SECAC Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement and the College Art Association Distinguished Teacher of Art Award.
Based in Virginia, Reni has exhibited internationally including shows in Qatar, UAE, Australia, Italy, Peru, Korea, Israel, Belgium, England, Moldova, and Moscow. Her work is represented in numerous collections, such as: the Library of Congress Print Collection; the American Embassies in Lima, Peru and Osaka, Japan; Capital One; and the Federal Reserve Bank, among others. We sat down with Reni to get her insights on what artists need to know when taking a show on the road (the following article summarizes our conversation).
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that curating group exhibitions as an artist is not for the faint of heart and requires several skill sets. Among these are: logistical coordination, marketing, fundraising, public relations, and even branding. That’s a lot of responsibility for one person to shoulder (often in addition to a day job), especially considering that their time is rarely remunerated, financially-speaking.
But, forewarned is forearmed! If you are an artist eager to exhibit (with a cohort of like-minded peers), have a knack for spreadsheets, and the entrepreneurial spirit it takes to cold call dozens of potential venues, read on.
Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash
Collectivize and/or Incorporate With Your Artist Peers
The first thing you’ll need when organizing a group exhibition is, obviously, a group of artists willing to lend you their art for an extended period of time. Creating an artist collective is one way to establish a cohort, in which all members can shoulder some of the fiscal responsibility that goes into coordinating such endeavors.
There’s a precedent for this type of artist organization that can be traced back throughout art history. Many of the art historical canon’s most beloved movements — aesthetic, political, and social — were catalyzed by artist collectives, some more official than others. One more recent example would be the YBAs — the Young British Artists — a group of art school grads from London that regularly exhibited together, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers, and Sarah Lucas. In the mid-1990s, Damien Hirst curated the group show Sensation with financial backing from advertising exec Charles Saatchi. The show lived up to its title and ignited many careers in the process. Today, Damien Hirst ranks among the most successful (and richest) artists alive. But even Damien didn’t get there alone.
Reni agrees, “When I started curating group shows, it was a joint effort between five women. We were all seasoned artists with a parallel teaching practice at Research I institutions. We were frustrated by the lack of opportunities coming our way and wanted to move our careers forward with museum shows and catalogue publications. Pooling our resources proved to be a smart strategy.”
In her experience, Reni says that having an umbrella institution or fiscal sponsor (i.e. Saatchi) is very helpful. “Most of the time, venues want to deal with an official corporation, institution, or entity rather than dealing with an individual artist or curator. For a long time, my university was my fiscal sponsor. Now I have an S-Corporation (which is a Small Business Corporation) that I set up after I retired from teaching. Creating an S-Corp is not difficult — I did it through my accountant. It requires a nominal annual fee, tax filing, bylaws, and good record keeping. While it increases your responsibilities as the project coordinator or as the CEO of the corporation, it is not arduous — you just need to do it.”
So, make it official. If you are among those artists without an academic position, an S-Corp is a good option. There are plenty of ways to incorporate these days, including Legal Zoom. It’s recommended to put your most professional foot forward when reaching out to museums and other institutional venues, and being affiliated with a university or a legitimate company (the S-Corp) will make the best first impression.
Choose Your Co-Artists Wisely
For some, working with artists is a calling. For others, it’s a headache like none they’ve ever experienced. When curating a group show, it’s wise to consider not only the work but also the personality that created it. This is especially true if you’re planning a traveling exhibition that will require months of planning and potentially even years of collaboration.
Let’s say you have an idea for an exhibition — a loose theme, a working title, and a “wish list” of artists or pieces that you want to include. Take a second look at that artist list. What do you know about these people? Are they reliable? Professional? Good-tempered? Litigious? Certifiable? At the end of the day (and at the end of the show), your name will be associated with an exhibition’s residual effects, both good and bad.
If an artist you’ve included doesn’t “play well with others,” or demands their work be de-installed mid-way through the exhibition, or misses a shipping deadline that screws up delivery, etc. — that is on you. Your reputation is the one that will be tarnished. The art world is a small scene and word gets around, so the stakes are high. Do as much vetting as possible of every artist you include in any exhibition.
Curating can sometimes feel like herding cats. Every artist is different and unique and brings their own personality (and baggage) to any project. The more artists you include, the more difficult it can be to effectively mobilize and hit all your deadlines. Reni says her sweet spot is usually eight artists, give or take. So just keep in mind that, when curating, “the more” is not always “the merrier.”
Acknowledge The Time Commitment
Museums generally program their exhibitions two to three years in advance. That means that whatever artworks you initially propose will need to be reserved for at least that long, and possibly another two to three years depending on whatever travel schedule you ultimately secure. That’s a long time for artwork to be on loan and, most importantly, not available for sale.
Make sure you consider this time commitment — and explicitly discuss it — when negotiating terms with artists. Reni recommends having all artists sign a loan agreement (or “lender’s agreement) that acknowledges this time commitment (among other terms). To view a comprehensive example of a museum-quality loan agreement, click here.
In Reni’s experience, organizing the entire exhibition will usually take about one year.
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash
Get Creative With Securing Financial Support
Putting on art exhibitions is a costly undertaking. There’s crating, shipping, and insurance to pay for — and that’s all before the work even arrives at the venue. As an artist collective, it’s not unheard of to collect member dues, or “seed money,” which is one way to finance a show. Grants are another way, but they aren’t a sure bet and can have strings attached.
There are only so many Charles Saatchi’s in the world, but if you can find a patron to underwrite your exhibition, that’s ideal. Finally, crowdfunding (i.e. Kickstarter) is actually a great option and can be useful if you have a group of well-liked and highly networked artists who can spread the word on social media and help shore up micro-donations. Check out Artwork Archive's crowdfunding tips here.
There’s also the possibility that the exhibition venue could contribute funds as well. Reni says, “I started charging a nominal booking fee to the exhibiting venues — $1,000 or so. While this is not a lot of money, it gives me a little cushion for when things go wrong. (For example, if I have to replace shipping boxes.) Fortunately, I do not always deplete the cash reserves, which allows one project’s fees to support another project, and so on ...”
Do Your Research on Exhibition Venues & Tap Every Network
Lest we forget, there is a vibrant and wonderful art world that exists beyond the metro area of New York City. Reni agrees, “Artists need to realize there is a wide range of venue possibilities available for showing their work. Some of the most incredible spaces are in the most unexpected places.”
Reni recommends looking to smaller universities, private colleges with museums, and other hidden gems located outside of mainstream art capitals. “Recently, I had an exhibition travel to a small liberal arts university in rural Pennsylvania,” she explains. “While I was previously unfamiliar with the area, we did the show and it was a lovely experience. The exhibition was beautifully installed and the curator of the gallery was terrific.”
There can also be unexpected bonuses to venturing into the great unknown. Reni elaborates on her experience, “Because we couldn't go in person (due to the pandemic), the curator created a lot of programming online, which is all now part of the digital archive for the exhibition. She even paid the artists for their Zoom talks, which many institutions are not doing yet. Student interaction with the exhibition was also incorporated into several university courses.”
Cast a wide net when researching institutions and galleries — sometimes the lesser-known venues can yield the best experiences.
It’s also possible that the artists in your exhibition may have connections that you’re not aware of, so always ask everyone to offer up as many introductions as they can. Referrals go a very long way in the art world and even if the curator or museum director you’ve contacted doesn’t have a slot available in their program, chances are they know someone else who might. Explore every lead.
Prepare your Proposal & Embrace the Numbers Game
Once you’ve done all your research on suitable exhibition venues, prepare your proposal. A quality exhibition proposal — known as a prospectus — will include the following:
The exhibition title, description (no longer than a half page), and featured artists
Artwork images, details, and insurance values
Each artist’s bio and/or CV
A proposed timeline
Suggested supporting events, such as workshops and artists talks
A list of any other venues that have already agreed to host the show
Package it all up with thoughtful branding and graphics. An exhibition logo may seem extraneous, but it will leave a lasting impression and attest to your professionalism. Your exhibition proposal is essentially your pitch deck — think of it as a sales tool and make it attractive enough that whoever receives it will want to buy what you’re selling. It should be in PDF format and small enough to attach in an email (generally 20MB and less). It’s also recommended to include some customization for each venue — why this venue, etc.
“I always send the email as an Invitation to Participate,” Reni says. Then, prepare to embrace the numbers game and mitigate your expectations.
“You might have to reach out to 200 venues, in order to book five,” according to Reni.
So, don’t despair if your first 20 (or 50...or even 100) replies are a hard pass. Keep going and always be polite. Thank the person who took time out of their day to crush your dreams — you never know when you’ll cross paths with them again. Always be gracious and, if possible, get feedback on your proposal. Then, refine, refine, refine. Like all things in art, it’s a process and you’ll get better as you go. To view one of Reni's proposals, click here.
Photo by Alex Suprun on Unsplash
A Paper Trail Is Your Best Defense Against All Potential Pitfalls
Congratulations! You secured your first venue(s). Now it’s time to create a contingency plan for every possible disaster that could befall your exhibition. Do you have a shipping deadline? Subtract at least five days from it and that’s the date to tell your artists they need to be ready for pick-up.
Get literally everything in writing. Who pays for shipping? Who pays for insurance? Get a COI (certificate of insurance) from every artist if they are covering shipping in any direction. If you are using a common carrier like FedEx, have the artists sign a form that says they have insured their work while in transit themselves and that they acknowledge, and approve, your choice of carrier.
“One thing I always require from the artists is that they invest in a box — or a crate — that will withstand multiple shipments. That can be quite costly,” warns Reni.
Do any works need special lighting? Put it in writing. What about pedestals? Who pays for those? Do they travel with the works? Decide this up-front with each artist and/or venue. It’s always recommended to have each piece shipped “ready to display,” so that there’s no last-minute scrambling.
Do certain works have unusual materials? Make sure those can be imported wherever you are shipping work. If you are shipping internationally, good luck. (It’s highly advised to work with a customs agent or fine art shipper in these instances for about one million reasons that we can’t get into here — that’s a separate article.)
Do any works have unusual dimensions or weight? If so, check with the venue that their floors can support, say, eight tons of bronze. Do any works need to be installed a certain way with specific hardware? If so, include the hardware and a technical rider, which should outline, in granular detail, all the steps to successfully uncrating the work, installing it, maintaining it over the course of the exhibition, de-installing it, and re-packing it. Include photos of proper packing, installation, etc. Include even the most obvious instructions, i.e. “wear white cotton gloves when handling this artwork.”
A paper trail is your best friend and could potentially save you hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars. Save a copy of everything. Include a traveling binder with condition reports from each venue. If something goes wrong, goes missing, or shows up broken, don’t be surprised if everyone points the finger at everyone else. This is why pedantic documentation of each artwork (and its corresponding packing materials) at every stage in the exhibition’s life cycle is utterly critical.
Artwork Archive makes it easy to keep track of all this paperwork — simply upload your condition reports and other documents under "additional files." In general, an art inventory database is the most effective way to manage all the administrative materials that are needed when organizing group exhibitions (or solo exhibitions, for that matter). Artwork Archive enables the coordinator to keep an eye on the big picture, the minutea, and everything in between, from shipping deadlines to wall labels to delivery receipts— no matter where they are in the world.
Consider the Catalogue
Producing a catalogue can be an expensive and time-consuming effort, but it will provide you with a written record of the exhibition you worked so hard to create. It’s always recommended to pay your contributors, but there are also countless M.A. and terminal degree programs full of fledgling curators who are literally desperate to have their writing published (for a very nominal fee). Reach out to those programs. You might even find a designer who is willing to work on your catalogue for course credit.
If you want to keep it all above board and totally professional, expect to pay around $1 per word and budget at least $1,000 for an essay. All your images will need to have a resolution of 300DPI. There are scores of online options for production so you won’t need to front all the printing costs. Reni recommends Blurb.com, which is essentially a print-on-demand service.
Develop Programming for Added Revenue
Here’s the good news: there is some (potential) money to be had.
In Reni’s experience, “I can make some money when I'm invited to do the extra programming with the venues I’ve booked (in addition to the booking fee). For that reason, I always propose workshops, lectures, studio visits, gallery talks. The venues pay the travel expenses, plus an honorarium. Plus, you can charge the going rate for that — it can range from $300 to $500 for a lecture or gallery talk and $1,000 to $2,000 for an on-site workshop. It's not a tremendous amount of money, but you get to travel and meet a lot of interesting people.”
If this seems like an awful lot of work for not a lot of money, you’re not wrong. That being said, most artist-curator-project managers don’t do this type of work to get rich. “I never went into this to make money,” Reni says. “My goal was to get the work out there, and have it seen by a broader public.” As such, consider the investment and the potential outcomes before beginning any exhibition proposal. The traveling component is a way to “get the most mileage out of the project,” in Reni’s words.
“You’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting behind the scenes that a lot of people don't realize is even involved. You have to weigh that out and see if the benefits of what you're able to accomplish outweigh all the upfront time you’ll have to put in,” Reni advises. “For me, it has really been fruitful and something that has allowed me to travel and collaborate with a lot of really fascinating people, whom I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with otherwise.”
To summarize: artist-curators who take on this kind of work are doing it for the greater good and rarely for personal profit.
The amount of effort it takes to organize a traveling group exhibition is considerable, but these experiences will often enrich your life in other ways. It takes tenacity, determination, a bit of flexibility, and calculated risk-taking to make such exhibitions happen; however, those are also the qualities that make a great artist.
Good luck, intrepid artist-curator. We’re rooting for you.