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  • Jennifer Gillen

Showing My Art: 10 Take-Aways from a Season of Exhibitions


My painting, "The Countess Olenska" hanging in a recent art exhibition.

It’s been an exciting roller coaster type of experience to begin showing my art. My goal was to show my newest paintings in at least ten shows. I still consider myself as an emerging artist, so I stuck to local juried exhibitions. These help me to build a network of art friends and mentors and to become visible in my artist community. Here are ten things I learned from three months of showing my art in public spaces and galleries.


1. Seeing my work in a new context helps me to understand its value.

It’s easy to undervalue the quality of my art when it is just hanging in the studio. When I see it hanging proudly with other art, I can better understand where it fits in the broader scheme of things. One art show I entered was not at all the right venue for my work. The quality between my work and the other paintings was very different. The prices were also different. At another exhibit, the work was of such a similar quality that it looked as though all of the artists had taken the same art courses. These opportunities to look at the work of others helps me to find direction and to improve my art.


2. Artists are looking for connections with other artists.

The online art world is a pretty friendly place. My Instagram followers are very positive and helpful. It’s easy to drop a like or a nice comment. The real world is really the same. The artists that I have met while showing are always friendly. We can strike up crazy shop talk way too quickly. Most artists are relieved to find new friends who actually get what it’s like to create on a daily basis. I think there is this idea that artists are always competitive and secretive about their techniques. In reality, very few people I have met are like that. Art exhibits are a great place to meet other artists.


3. Submitting and showing art is expensive.

Art exhibitions pretty much fund themselves, unless there is a grant or donor funding. This means that each exhibition requires the artists to pay to submit work without the guarantee that it will be chosen for the show. It’s a little bit of a gamble. It’s also expensive to buy framing and packing materials. And then there is a commission to pay to the exhibiting organization if the work sells. That’s just the way it all works. Optimally, the work will sell and the artist gets the money back. This requires me to tack on the cost of framing and submitting to my price. Because I use high-quality frames it can sometimes make my work too expensive.


4. Creating a deadline calendar is super helpful.

Juggling multiple opportunities to exhibit art is tricky business! I’m glad that my past jobs have taught me how to use project planning tools. I keep an intense spreadsheet with columns for each type of deadline. There are several to keep up with: submission deadline, notification of acceptance, delivery deadline, exhibit receptions and pick-up deadlines. I also keep a spreadsheet that lists each painting with when and where it is showing. This helps me to avoid over-commitments.


5. Showing art inspires me to create more art.

At my last exhibition, my art was hanging in a central location and easy to see upon entering the gallery. It made me feel proud. It kind of confirmed that it is a good painting. That kind of pat on the back is intensely motivating. Just knowing that I’m on the right path makes me want to create more. Small wins such as making it into a juried show or hearing kind words keeps me painting. Maybe that’s the people-pleaser in me.


6. Some of the best art is small.

There is always this idea in my mind that masterful art is big. Any trip to a museum reminds me that it’s the big paintings that get the most attention. However, small works are not to be overlooked. I noticed that many artists in the shows I entered work small in beautiful ways. In particular, there was this one aquatint print that featured cacti that really took my breath away. It was about 14”x14” but it stood out among all of the other works in a recent exhibition.


7. Sometimes, who you know matters.

This take-away is a little on the negative side, but it’s also realistic. Lots of exhibitions feature an award category called “People’s Choice”. This award is about getting friends to vote or stuff the ballot box in order to win a prize. It’s a great way to get artists to invite more people to an exhibition. Ultimately, more eyes on art is a good thing. If you don’t have a hoard of friends to invite (I don’t) it’s wise not to take this award too seriously. On the topic of awards, it’s great to win awards at exhibitions. But even better than an award is the satisfaction of being selected to hang art in the show.


8. Exhibition openings take courage.

I usually attend art show openings on my own. My husband works a lot and my family lives too far away to visit. Going to a social event alone is difficult for someone who is not naturally extroverted. This experience is good for me. It forces me to initiate conversations with new people. Every time, without fail, people are interested and kind. I even made some new art friends doing this. It also takes courage to see others’ reactions to my paintings. It can feel disappointing if they pass by quickly with barely a glance. I try to keep that in perspective. Everyone has different likes and dislikes when it comes to art.


9. Accidents happen, so be sure to visit your own exhibition.

No matter how much you prepare, things sometimes go wrong. I was once mortified to find my painting had slipped out of its mat behind the glass. It was opening night and the gallery was filled with people. There was my painting looking shoddily framed right at the entrance to the exhibition. I think it had actually fallen off the wall at some time before I got there. The wooden part of the frame had scratch marks. Since it’s my art, I took it off the wall and repaired it on the spot. Not the best situation, but I’m glad I was there to fix it. Now I check on every exhibition where my work hangs.


10. Sales are rare, even for the best art.

Art exhibitions are not the best places to sell art. People like to see the art and think about it before they purchase it. An exhibition gives collectors a chance to see new art and meet new artists. Buying art is not something that most people do on impulse. They want to see what else the artist has made and get to know more about them. Exhibition visits may not be planned, so this might be the first time people are seeing the art.The advantage of showing art in an exhibition is that it offers exposure. Eventually, the artists become well-known and familiar to potential collectors.


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