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A Guide for the Emerging Curator:

Timelines for Curating and Coordinating an Art Exhibition

by Michelle Salter

There are many scenarios for curating an exhibition, each with its own appropriate timeline.  This guide is based on an exhibition that resulted from a number of workshops held by Gallery 96.  The artists were aware when they attended the workshops that their resulting work was eligible to be selected for an exhibition. Many galleries have their shows book two years in advance.

In this document, the curator is assumed to be inexperienced.  The gallery director would normally be responsible for many of the jobs listed here; however, frequently, an emerging curator must oversee all aspects of mounting an exhibition.

Developing the concept:

  • There are many ways to develop a concept for a group or solo exhibition.  Each is as individual as the curator designing the show.  The following are some basic approaches to develop an idea, any number of which can be combined, if desired:
    • Keep in mind known artists whose work would be a good fit to the concept. You may even be inclined to develop an exhibition around such artists in a thematic way.
    • Invite unknown or new artists with artistic oeuvres which fall within the parameters of the concept.  This can be accomplished by general advertising in the appropriate venues—for example, a 'Call for Submissions' in an arts magazine or website.
    • Build an exhibition around a central mid-career or established artist and look for two or three promising, emerging artists whose work relates in some way.
  • Attend exhibition openings, visit artist studios and get to know the artists and their work.  Make sure your artists are dependable and will deliver what they promise to do.
  • Limit the number of participating artists your first time.  The more artists involved, the tougher it is to keep people on track and to meet deadlines.  On the other hand, it is beneficial to have sufficient artists involved to cover any unexpected artist withdrawals from the exhibit.
  • Define your target audience and brainstorm how to reach them.  This will determine your publicity and promotional strategies.
  • Look for possible external organizations with which to collaborate, in order to enrich the audience’s experience and bring in a variety of viewers. 

Submitting your proposal to a gallery:

  • Research a number of galleries by going to their websites to find one that suits the type of work that will be shown in your exhibition.  Remember, not every gallery is a good fit.  Check their mandate to see if they will be interested in showing emerging artists.  Look at their floor plan to ensure your show will have enough room, or alternately, to verify if it can fill the provided space.  Check for exhibit submission deadlines, to determine if they are fixed or ongoing.
  • Once you have narrowed down the galleries to a few candidates, visit each gallery in person, if possible.  This is an opportunity to speak with the director of the gallery and perhaps members of the selection committee.
  • Put together a professional package. Include the exhibition name or your name on every page of the proposal, as well as on any support material. This ensures that if pages get loose, the selection committee can piece them back together.  If there are multiple pieces to your submission, consider using a folder.  Confirm with the gallery that you have submitted all requested materials.
  • Always keep in mind the cost of transportation for the artwork and the artists. 

Other venues:

  • Not every exhibition will be best suited to a conventional gallery.  Consider public spaces or unusual sites such as an old factory, a mall or an empty store.

Equipment:

  • If you need special equipment for your exhibition, as with new media art, make sure you determine who will supply this equipment and for how long.

Four months to opening:

  • Call for submissions to the exhibition.  Be clear and concise on the parameters of the show.  Sometimes the contract is built into the Call for Submissions form.
  • Notify participating artists of their acceptance to the exhibit and, if necessary, send out their contracts. Contracts should clearly detail responsibilities, such as for the equipment needed by the artist, for any construction needed for an installation, etc.
  • Set a budget and get approval from your Board of Directors or the organization funding the exhibition.
  • If you do not have a space already, book one now.
    • Find out what the hanging policies in the space are.  Some do not allow installations to be attached into the woodwork, ceiling or floor.  Pass this information on to the artists if it might impact their work.

Three months to opening:

  • If the artists are active participants in the exhibition, call a meeting of the artists to:
    • Go over the budget.
    • Collect any costs the artists are responsible for covering.
    • Brainstorm for an exhibition title.
    • Decide on the reception date.  All participating artists should be at the reception.
      • There are advantages to either an opening or a closing reception.
      • Some galleries have a traditional day and time when they have their openings.
    • Decide on the length of the exhibition, unless it is preset by the gallery.
    • Distribute the floor plan, either by email or in person.  Indicate the linear footage of space.
    • If you are planning to have alcohol at the opening, decide on the type of license you will require from the LCBO: $25 for No Sales or $75 for Sales.
    • Generate a list of tasks for the exhibition, including set up and tear down of the exhibits. Allow the artists to volunteer according to their own preferences, but ensure that all tasks are accounted for.  Otherwise, you might be left assigning tasks at the last moment.
    • Decide on the type of promotional material that will fit the exhibition.
  • If you plan to have live music to accompany the exhibition, book the musicians.

Two months to opening:

  • Information for any posters and invitations should be firm at this stage. Send the following to your promotional designer:
    • The exhibition title
    • The dates, times and location of the exhibition
    • The date, time and location of the reception
    • The participating artists
    • The logos of sponsors, as applicable
    • Entrance fees, as applicable
  • When designing the invitation, and particularly if you are including other material, remember that a business envelope is 4” x 9.5”.  If you are using a postcard, leave space on the back for the mailing address.  Canada Post has specific regulations about the size and the back of a postcard.  Check with them to make sure that yours will be accepted before you print them, if you choose to mail them without an envelope.
  • Email copies of the posters and invitations to the artists before they go to print so they can check for spelling, etc.
  • Apply for the “For Sale” Liquor License ($75) now, if this is the license you agreed upon.
  • Take the poster and invitation designs to your printers, once they are finalized. It can take a week or more for the printers to produce them, based on the number of each:
    • To decide on the number of posters, determine where you can hang them and then request ten more.  These ten can be used for grant applications, submissions to other galleries in the future or your archives.
    • To decide on the number of invitations, compile a mailing list and give each artist approximately ten invitations.  (Most people are in the habit of sending e-invitations.)  Note: it may cost almost the same to have 500 invitations as 100, so balance cost and attendance.
  • Order your vinyl lettering for the show.  Consider having lettering for the window and for the gallery space.  If you do, then share this info with your sign maker since the sticky side of a sign should be on the front for a window and on the back for a wall. Note: it is easier to install vinyl lettering on a window when the window and the room are similar temperatures.  If you are putting up lettering in the summer, do it early in the morning before the sun heats up the glass.

Less than one month away:

  • Optional: I like to make a maquette of the gallery space.  I ask the artists to send me their label information and JPGs of their work. I then make a coloured scale-model of their work.  This is particularly useful if you have a limited hanging time.
  • Distribute posters and invitations about two weeks before the exhibition.  If you have the opportunity to piggyback on a mailing list, take it as it will reduce costs. 
  • Email e-invitations two weeks before the exhibition and send a reminder a few days before the event.
  • Press releases should be sent 10 to 14 days before the opening day, to allows weeklies—daily papers that highlight arts events once a week—time to insert them.  Have the artists check the spelling, etc on the press releases prior to sending them.  Try to send in your release on a Monday or Tuesday as these are often slow news days.
    • Press releases often follow a set formula.  The first paragraph spells out all the important information – who, what, where, when and why.  The following paragraphs flesh out the first.  Always include a contact person with a phone number and email address. 
  • Apply for the “No Sale” Liquor License ($25) at least ten days before the event, if this is the license you agreed upon.
  • Construct labels. The information on the labels should include:
    • Artist's name.
    • Title of the work and year it was created.
    • Medium used in the work.
    • Size of the work (including the frame).
    • Number in the edition.
    • Price – this is optional, depending on the type of gallery. Note: when the artist is setting the price for the work, remind them to include the percentage the gallery collects and to indicate whether or not the price includes tax.
    • Extended labels can include a short artist statement or an artist bio. There is controversy about having a statement about the artwork in the label, however.  Some people think it limits the experience of the viewer.  To decide whether or not to use this type of label, look at your intended audience.  If there is a high percentage of school-aged children or people new to the experience of art, then consider extended labels to give them a hook into the work.  If your audience is mainly artists and art collectors, then this will not be necessary.
  • Create a price list. There are many ways to price artwork, the simplest being random dollar values.  The following is a simple formula for pricing paintings:
    • Add length + width and then multiply by an amount that you think you are worth at this stage of your artistic career. If you are just starting out, it might be $10.00 per hour.
    • For example:
      • The piece is 36” + 40” = 76” x $10.00 = $760.00.
      • Add the cost of framing on top of this price.
      • Include the percentage that the gallery gets.
      • Some people include tax as well, as less calculation is involved when selling/buying.
    • However you decide, pricing should be consistent with all the artists.
  • Organize material for an Artist Binder.  Each artist should send you an artist statement, a CV or bio, some past or present reviews, past catalogs (if applicable) and a price list (if applicable).  The price list may be in the binder, on a separate printed sheet for distribution or on a laminated sheet that stays in the gallery.  This list should include all the label information and prices.
  • If the artists are sitting the exhibition:
    • Show the artists how to open and lock up the building.
    • Arrange for a place to pick up and drop off the key(s).
    • Go over how to finalize sales. 
    • Make a master list of who is sitting the gallery and include phone numbers.  Email this to all the artists.
    • Provide a binder at the gallery with the above information.
  • Arrange for bartenders for your event, if needed, or assign this task to a few artists, ensuring everyone gets a chance to circulate.

Hanging the show:

  • Arrange parking for loading and unloading artwork, as needed.
  • The artists should unwrap their work. Ensure they are aware that they must store the packing material themselves and return with it at the end of the show, if they are responsible for shipping the works.  If the gallery has storage space, ensure each artist labels their packing material to make it simpler to find afterwards.
  • Lay out the artwork. (Try to think of the whole exhibition space as if it were one painting or one sculpture.  Place the artwork around the room as if they were elements in a still life.)
    • Depending on the scale of the exhibition, allow for four to eight hours for this process.
    • Place 2-D work on the floor, leaning against the wall in the exact spot you will be hanging it.  If multiple stacked hanging is required, the highest 2-D artwork should lean against the wall and the rest remain flat on the floor.
    • Set out plinths for sculptures.
    • Follow this basic formula for hanging wall pieces with a mid-point of 60”:
      1. Measure the artwork and divide this number in half
      2. Add this to the eye level height (60”)
      3. Subtract the distance from the hanger or painting ledge to the top of the piece.
      4. Measure that number from the floor and hammer in your nail.
      5. Check the level of the frame with your level.  If it is out just a smidge then either tap the nail head from below to raise it or from the top to lower it.  Recheck until perfect.
      • Example: A painting is 40” high and has a 2” frame that will sit directly on two nails.  Add 20” to 60” = 80”; and then subtract 2” from 80”.  Your nails will go in at 78”.  (I tend to hammer one nail in and then use a level to find the spot of the second nail.)
    • If double or triple hanging work, then treat all the pieces and the spaces in between the artwork as one and measure accordingly.
    • If you are hanging in a random fashion, sometimes it is best to eyeball.
    • Label the artwork.
  • Have the following handy hanging tools at hand:
    • Hammer - (I wrap the head with tape to avoid marking the walls when removing nails)
    • Tool belt
    • Pencil
    • Exacto knife
    • Plastic level - (Again, it doesn’t leave marks on the walls)
    • Tape measure
    • Calculator
    • Pliers
    • Cotton gloves - (For handling delicate work)
  • Depending on your experience level with hanging, allow about half the time to hang as it took to lay out the work. Here are some additional tips for hanging:
    • It is often easier to hang with a partner, especially for larger pieces.
    • It is best to use two nails or screws at least 4” apart to hang a wall piece. This is for safety reasons and because it is easier to keep the piece level.
    • Always pick framed work up by the sides, not the top.
    • Experiment with the many ways to hang works in a show. For example, you can use salon style, where works are in groupings or where all the works have their mid-point at eye level.
  • Put up lettering, if you have it.
  • It is best if a person with experience in lighting does the lighting for the shows.

Exhibition:

  • Provide an accessible guest book and pen to allow the audience to comment on the show.
  • The guest book can also solicit email/mail addresses. This is a good way to build up a client list.
  • Use a system to communicate to the audience whether or not a work has been sold. For example, a red dot on the label could be for 'sold', while half a red dot could be to say that the artwork is on hold.
  • If direct sales are expected, keep a sales book on hand, along with other equipment you may need.

Reception:

  • The curator should welcome the audience to the reception and introduce the artists. Depending on what has been scheduled, some or all of the artists may talk about their work, as well.
  • At the bar, ensure that water and/or non-alcoholic drinks are available. There should be enough glasses for your beverages, based on your expected turnout. The license and the receipts for the alcohol must be displayed in plain sight by the bar.
  • You must have an adequate supply of food to be in compliance for your liquor license in Ontario. Either make sure that the purchase of food is covered in the budget or ask the artists to bring one or two dishes each. Assign someone to make sure that the food is replenished as needed and the food table looks appetizing.
  • If you need to document the evening then assign specific people to take photos and count heads.

Take Down:

  • Arrange for a time to allow the artists to pick up their work. Provide an area where they can package their work easily.
  • Patch the walls of the gallery, vacuum and make sure the gallery is ready for the next show.

Notes:

  • Factor in additional time for organizing and completing tasks if the exhibition comes just after a major holiday such as Christmas.
  • Read the Liquor License information attached to the application form thoroughly. It is now required in Ontario that the person responsible for the bar has a Smart Serve certificate.

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