How to Host Your Own Exhibition

(The following is excerpted from 99 Ways to Make Money from Your Photos, by the editors of Photopreneur.)

Photographers who want people to see their images — and buy them, too — often find themselves caught in a Catch 22. They can’t get exhibitions until they have a track record of sales, but they can’t develop a track record of sales until they get the exhibitions.

One solution is to organize your own exhibition. It’s a solution that takes a lot of work. It will require plenty of preparation, at least a little expense and some tough marketing to make it all happen, but it is something that many photographers have done successfully.

The benefits are clear. Your fate as a photographer is in your hands. You won’t have to persuade a gallery owner that your images can sell — and you’ll be able to pocket most or all of the sales you generate, rather than splitting them with the gallery.

If you’re interested in exhibiting in galleries in the future, hosting a successful exhibition can supply the sort of experience that owners look for when they consider taking an artist. And the people who attend your exhibition may well be exactly the sort who can move your career forward.

What to Shoot

When you’re thinking of selling art, there’s no simple answer to what sells and what doesn’t. Tastes vary tremendously, and the market ranges from the avant-garde to the sort of mainstream pieces that even your grandmother would love.

That means you’ve got two choices. You can shoot the images that excite you and hope that there are enough people in your area who share your taste to buy them. Or you can browse your local galleries, see what’s selling and produce images that it appears your local market wants.

Perhaps the most sensible solution is to do both: to find a topic that interests you and shoot it in a style that appeals to local buyers. But when you’re in the art world — and more to the point, when you’re just starting out in the art world — life’s too short to shoot the sort of pictures that don’t give you a thrill.

Creating your own exhibition is going to be a lot of work, so whether it succeeds or it doesn’t, you’ll want to feel that the exhibition was genuinely yours. When you find a gallery owner willing to take you under their wing, he or she will help to point out which of your images are most likely to sell in the future.

Finding a Venue

Choosing the images you want to shoot is always going to be the easy part. The tough bit is going to be organizing the exhibition and the toughest bit of all will be finding a venue.

A successful homemade exhibition really relies on two elements: the right images and the right marketing. If you have the talent and the photography skills, shooting the right images should come naturally. The marketing tends to be a little less familiar, but the golden rule is to be inclusive. Make sure that as many people as possible know about your exhibition and are invited. This isn’t a time to be shy.

Begin by putting together a portfolio of your works, then find a venue to show them. A café or restaurant might be the easiest place to start.

Increasing numbers of restaurants have come to realize that their wall space is also a resource. By allowing local artists to display their works on it, they get some free decoration and appear to be serving their local community. The publicity, too, especially the opening, can help to drive up business and raise their profile.

The pitch shouldn’t be too difficult, either. Café owners are likely to be much more approachable than gallery owners, who will expect you to make an appointment and bring a resume and artist’s statement. Offer a share of the sales price — an amount lower than the 50 percent usually demanded by galleries — and you’ll give them an added incentive to agree.

An alternative to a café or restaurant is to use a private space such as a home or a garage. Some photographers have done this with success, even though it does have its limitations. The biggest is that you’ll need a space large enough to hang your pictures and still allow plenty of people to mingle and view. These kinds of venues also don’t have the built-in foot traffic of a dining establishment.

Printing, Framing and Marketing

Once you’ve found a venue, you’ll need to prepare the images, which will mean printing and framing them. You’ll then need to do the marketing, and this is the part of the exhibition that requires the most work.

You’ll need printed invitations that you can send to key movers and shakers, such as the art critic of your local newspaper, gallery owners, any collectors you might happen to know of, and even photography teachers at your local college.

But don’t stop there. You should distribute invitations broadly to both increase the number of potential buyers and open up new networks that can help you in the future.

Friends are going to be particularly helpful here. They can distribute invitations to their clients, colleagues, family and email lists. Local stores can leave them on the counter where people can pick them up, and any cultural outlet — such a museum, theater or art center — is also likely to be willing to make the invitations available to their members, spreading the word even further.

Social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace have proven to be good places to make announcements of these sorts of events, too. The further you can spread the invitations, the better. You could even write a press release announcing the details of the opening and send it to the local media.

All of this will cost money, of course. Even if you’re not paying for the venue, you’ll have to pay for the framing and the printing — unless you can create a joint venture with those suppliers in which they receive free publicity in return for free frames and printing. That’s been done successfully, too.

You’re in Control

Organizing your own exhibition involves plenty of difficult challenges, from finding a venue to printing and framing your images and from creating the works to filling the venue with buyers and important cultural figures. But it can be very effective, both for making sales and developing the connections you need.

Best of all, you’re in control. Whether your exhibition succeeds or fails will have nothing to do with the marketing power of the gallery or the whim of the gallery owner. It will depend on your skill at bringing people in, and the quality of your photographs. When it all works out, you’ll have the satisfaction of being able to stand back and say “I did that.”

5 Responses to “How to Host Your Own Exhibition”

  1. Last month I had my first exhibition at a new gallery in the area. The gallery owner liked my work and offered to give me an exclusive one month exhibition.

    I can certainly say it was a lot of work. My exhibition had 61 images in it that all had to be hung by just myself and the gallery owner. Then there was finding the best deal on printing and mounting, which was no small task or expense.

    Opening night I was able to sell two prints that covered about 35% of the total cost I put in. I have heard from the gallery owner that more have sold and I should end up with a small profit from the exhibition.

    This sounds like it was a great experience, but in reality it was totally nerve racking the opening night when only two photos sold (both to friends, so make sure you invite your friends, they buy!) and the place was not exactly swarming with people.

    If you can afford it, I can see it being a very fun experience. If you will be stretching a budget, then it will be stressful.

  2. Good article. The world would be better off if all artists cut out the middlemen and the 10 percenters and took responsibility for producing, showing, and selling their own work.

    The "art patron" and the European Salons went the way of the dinosaur years ago, but unfortunately, many artists, photographic or otherwise, are still looking for a "pope" or a "pimp" to save them from poverty.

    We should have more dignity when it comes to dealing with our own work.

  3. Good article
    Our gallery is specialized in exhibition of young photographers
    We are aways open to meet talentuous young artists
    Dont hesitate to send us a mail
    KR to all

  4. I do all my own photo exhibits. Right now I have two
    1. Peoples United Bank
    752 Boston Post RD
    Madison CT
    Until March 1

    2. Willoughby's Coffee
    752 Boston Post RD
    Madison CT
    Until February 1

    March 1-April 30
    EC Scranton Memorial Library
    801 Boston Post RD
    Madison, CT

  5. Interesting. The other issue would be making sure your pricing reflects profitability after your costs and time are factored in. Sale C. @flickrfumes. On twitter

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