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We’re often asked where to start by clients creating a print exhibition for the first time. There’s a lot to unpack from selecting a space to exhibit, to funding, managing, and promoting the event – let alone printing, framing, and hanging the artwork!
This article provides a basic intro to help first-timers decide what might work best for their show.
The variety and number of galleries out there can be overwhelming, and physically most are variations on the 'white cube,' so from the outside they can be hard to distinguish. But there are important differences behind the scenes, and understanding the basic categories of galleries will help you get started.
For a simple overview of the types of galleries you can exhibit in read our article An Introduction To Gallery Types.
Fine art print exhibitions involve building quality digital image files, then translating them to print using archival inks and papers.
With the right know-how and equipment you can print your exhibition at home, though it can involve a high degree of investment. Initially there are the upfront costs of purchasing a printer, inks, and paper etc. But it's important not to underestimate the investment of time required to learn the correct processes (screen calibration, printer profiling, paper handling etc.) for achieving fine art results. Certainly if you'll be printing regularly for a long period AND you don't mind getting into some technical nitty gritty, then it will pay off.
If this is you, don't hesitate to get in touch for guidance, and note that we offer knowledgeable lifetime support on all products we retail. However the majority of artists making print exhibitions use experienced fine art printing services such as ours, trusting our decades of experience, helpful advice and fully colour-managed workflow.
Whether printing at home or via a professional service, the responsibility for producing a quality digital file ultimately falls on the artist.
For digitising film or physical artworks you can enlist our film scanning or art reproduction services, but when doing your own digital capture (i.e. photography, scanning etc.) or digital illustration, it's best to be aware of the minimum resolution you'll require (get in touch if you're not sure) and take careful heed of our file setup guidelines for printing.
Being able to trust how a monitor displays image files can greatly simplify your workflow and reduce the need for test printing.
Unfortunately, unless you've edited your file on a correctly calibrated, colour accurate monitor, it's practically guaranteed that you'll experience some level of variation in colour, brightness, and/or contrast from screen to print. Hence the most common question we get from beginner printers: why is my print too dark?
We offer a range of colour accurate monitors that solve this problem from entry level to the most advanced. Though we also have a dedicated client machine in our store so you can view accurate digital proofs of your files in store before printing.
Even when working from a colour-accurate monitor, it's still advisable to do some level of testing (see our guide) to get a feel for how your artworks will come out on your chosen paper at scale, and therefore if any final file adjustments need to be made. There's nothing worse than spending the money to print a large-scale artwork only to find flaws that neccesitate a costly re-print.
Choosing the right paper for your work can be highly subjective, there isn't such a thing as 'the best paper' per se - it very often just comes down to your taste.
Note however that demand in the market for fine art prints is almost exclusively for editions on archival matte fibre-based papers. The principle exception to this is photography, where archival semi-gloss papers are also hugely popular, though even fine art photography has trended towards matte papers in recent years.
We have a high quality range of cotton rag paper types (not to mention our bamboo and rice papers). Some have a pronounced texture, some are smooth, some matte, some glossy or semi-glossy. If you're local then the best option is to come in and have a chat and a look at our sample stock. If you're not local then we can post you a $15 sample pack of all the paper types we print on as a service. A full list of the paper types we print on is available on the website here.
If doing your own printing we retail an even larger range of fine art papers, so again don't hesitate to get in touch for any guidance.
Large prints will certainly make an impact at exhibition, but just how large you can go will depend on the quality of your files. Generally speaking the larger you print the less sharp your image will become (unless working from vector based illustration files, in which case the sky is literally the limit). At what point specifically your print is no longer sharp enough can vary from file to file based on a number of factors - your own subjectivity not being the least of them!
You can read our article Five Thoughts On Printing Bigger for an overview of this topic. Put simply the quality of the original digital capture is just as important as file resolution, and the expected viewing distance from viewer to print is also significant. Many small flaws you'll get away with in modest print sizes become increasingly obvious the larger you go. Also, images of fine detail printed at low resolution are more readily interpreted by the eye as 'blurry' than low resolution prints of visual content that is actually meant to be blurry (think the sharp outlines of a tree's silhouette in the former versus an abstract picture of fog that is nothing but smooth shades of grey in the latter).
The most important thing is to be confident of your results before you pull the trigger on printing your show, this is where test printing is crucial.
Regardless of how large you deem your files could be printed, it's wise to also consider the space you'll be exhibiting in and work backwards from there. How much wall space is there? How much space will visitors have to step back from larger prints? How much breathing space will you require between prints to avoid crowding the walls? Does the space call for prints of different size? Are you framing your prints? And if so specifically what aspect ratios and margins will you require for your frames?
It's best to go to other exhibitions to develop a sense of what type of presentation you like. Spend time in your gallery space and chat with its staff for their thoughts on the topic and they'll be able to show you photos of previous shows to help visualise. Remember also that our perception of size is relative. On a small wall an A2 print can look large whereas in an expansive gallery anything smaller than A1 can look positively tiny.
Finally, you'll also want to consider whether to offer your prints for sale in set edition sizes (more on that here), and make sure these work with your exhibition space.
Once you're across the hurdle of taking your work from screen to print, the next is to affix your prints to a wall. Surprisingly, it can be a complex task, and one that beginners are prone to underestimate.
Ultimately, most would love to exhibit their prints in beautifully
handcrafted frames for a professional and elegant presentation. When
done well, a frame can elevate the ephemerality (or even the perceived
disposability) of digitally produced work to that of a tangible and
desirable physical object or 'finished product'.
Having artwork framed can be a minefield for beginners though, not least when you consider the potential expense (it's not uncommon for the cost of frames to far exceed the cost of printing).
Firstly we recommend allowing plenty of time to have your artwork framed before putting on the show. Many framers have lead times of three weeks or more, so chat with your framer early. This is how you then determine your printing deadline.
You'll also want to discuss what options are archival as there is a huge range in materials and quality. Cheaper glasses for example won't cut out UV rays and can have a green cast. Some matting boards, mounting boards and MDF-based frames can be acidic and compromise your print over time through outgassing.
Depending on what works with the aspect ratio of your images, you may also be able to opt for pre-made frames in standard sizes rather than custom frames. This can save quite a bit of time and money. We offer a limited range in this category, but if you're after something different and based in Melbourne we recommend Frames Ready Made in Brunwick East. For custom frame options we typically recommend Omnus in Fitzroy.
It's also prudent to discuss with your framer and the gallery what hanging style is most appropriate (there are several options such as D-rings and hanging wires etc.).
When cost is a strong factor there are of course other options to framing for your exhibition.
The simplest, lowest cost alternative to framing your works is pinning them to your gallery walls. You can source non-distracting clear plastic and aluminium push pins from just about any art supplier. With the aid of a level it is a very quick process, providing you're working with plaster board walls and not brick or concrete etc.
The two principle drawbacks to using pins is that they perforate the print paper and that it can be considered an unprofessional look (which could hinder sales). The former can be avoided if your prints are first mounted on foam core or card, though so long as you've allowed a comfortable margin of white space around your print then a small pin hole isn't actually a problem. Pin holes and damaged edges from handling are typically covered or trimmed off when/if a buyer takes your print to a framer.
In our opinion discerning viewers are unlikely to perceive prints to be of a higher quality just because they have a frame around them vs being pinned. But certainly the context effect is a known area of cognitive psychology that marketeers and gallerists alike exploit in the pursuit of more sales and higher prices. So best be aware!
Popular alternatives to pinning also include hanging steel bulldog clips off nails and reusable magnet systems.
Nails with bulldog clips are only marginally more expensive than using pins, are similarly simple and save you perforating your prints. Again with the use of a level you just place nails into your walls and hang your clips on these to grip your prints from the top. This works best with sheet prints as they will hang flat without much problem, however roll-based prints often have a curl memory that hinders them from hanging flat unless weighted or affixed at the bottom of the print.
Magnets are favoured by those wishing to avoid perforating their prints and/or where your gallery walls can't be perforated by pins or nails etc. Typically magnet systems involve first adhering metal washers to the wall using strong 3M style sticky pads. The prints are then placed over the washers (one in each corner) and held down with corresponding magnets. So long as your sticky pads are well adhered to the wall, and that they and your magnets are of an adequate weight capacity, your prints should be safe. There are a few drawbacks to this method: a strong gust through a door or a failure of adhesion can bring things unstuck, and installing your work this way can be dramatically slower than using pins because of the need to precisely adhere the washers in the correct locations. You'll also learn that while magnets of this sort won't perforate your prints, they can leave strong indentations in fibre-based papers.
A compromise between framing and cheaper forms of hanging your work can be to frame just one or two of the 'hero' images from the show to serve as direct tangible examples of how your prints can be presented as a finished product. Note also that an advantage to not framing is that it will allow your buyers to frame your work with materials and styles to suit their tastes rather than yours.
Putting a value on your own artwork can be a difficult exercise, and one that you'll likely revisit many times over the course of your career. In general you should incorporate your material costs + an appropriate rate for time spent. You might cover this rate by incorporating it into a simple price rule such as starting at 300-400% of material costs.
For digitally printed editions time spent can be less relevant per print. Instead you might want to consider how many editions you'll be printing and how that compensates your time and production costs overall. Note that the edition numbers you choose to print can also affect the perceived value of individual editions too (more thoughts on that in our article About Limited Editions).
More often than not people tend to undercharge, but there are advantages to that (i.e. establishing a buying market for your work). If you later raise your prices then your clientele will be thankful they got in on your pieces early. Winding back prices that were initially too high can be a lot trickier, particularly if people who have bought in catch wind of it and feel they've overpaid.
There are many ways to fund an exhibition that don't just include selling prints, though ultimately this should be a goal!
Government arts grants are the first cab off the rank and can vary greatly in application onerousness, dollar value, category restrictions, deliverables and funds acquittal processes. These are offered from local council through to state and federal levels. Our local council the City of Melbourne for instance has a generous grants program, but residents here can also apply for state and national level grants too.
Sponsorship is another avenue for minimising upfront costs. Would your project content or art practice generally be a natural fit for a businesses you can think of? It doesn't hurt to politely get in touch and share with them what you're working on and what costs you may need help with. Or perhaps they can offer sponsorship in kind (such as in a venue or catering etc.). Time is of the essence here as last minute requests for funding aren't generally well received!
The advent of crowdfunding platforms such as Pozible in Australia (or Kickstarter and Indiegogo overseas) have also been a boon for artists. With careful planning you may be able to build a crowdfunding campaign that puts you into the black even before getting started. Artists principally do this by offering pre-sales on prints (typically with extra rewards for getting in early), but many project supporters also donate just because they'd like to see a project go ahead, without any tangible reward for doing so.
Another popular option to keep costs down is to share expenses by running a group show with other artists so you can divide all gallery, catering and promotional costs etc.
The purpose of putting on an exhibition is to share your work, so it's crucial to let people know what's happening (and then remind them a few times for good measure!).
We recommend being as involved as possible in this process. No one will be as invested in your success as you, not even a paid publicist or gallery. Fear of being a 'self-promoter' (or being seen to be one) often becomes a barrier to artists putting in the necessary effort to share their work - but things don't have to be this way!
If you've gone down the crowdfunding route, you'll find that a successfull campaign will essentially double as a publicity campaign. There is a wealth of advice and resources on effective strategies online. If you're using Pozible in Australia we recommend starting here. It's also a good idea to build a general publicity plan that covers who your potential audience is, the timing and content you plan to release, and the methods of communication you'll use.
Remember that in the modern world we are all swimming through a constant barrage of advertisements, notifications and messages across many platforms. So don't be shy to schedule multiple announcements across your platforms at intervals leading up to the event. Also, the most effective way to build a minimum base of attendance is actually through personal, individually addressed invitations to people you know. Without an established profile or media exposure this is typically the most bankable way to ensure numbers.
Overt marketing/sales language can be a turn off, so spend time crafting your messages in language that feels authentic to you while still making it clear that this isn't just a party, your work is for sale!
Printed flyers are a very outdated mode of publicity at this point, so unless they're part of personal invitations (there's still an argument for giving people something they can put on their fridge) your money will likely be better spent elsewhere.
Finally, getting media exposure in the lead up to your event remains a powerful way to dial up attendance. For this to happen you'll need a press kit with all the key info and assets (images) clearly outlined for dissemination to relevant media. This can take some time and research to prepare, and will need to be delivered with consideration to the lead times of media with audiences relevant for your art.
Your exhibition is not just a showing of visual art, but an event - or multiple events over the time your work is in gallery - so you'll need to plan as such!
Avoid scheduling your 'opening night' too close to your install date (aka your 'bump in'). Instead allow a day or two as a cushion in case anything goes wrong (Murphy's law is very common during installs!). That way you'll be relaxed and confident the work is ready to be seen long before turning your attention to other key elements of the show.
Many attendees won't know you, and many that do won't have a clear idea what your artwork really addresses. So you'll want to prepare good written didactics (info panels) for the walls, and consider preparing a welcome speech that explores the stories behind your artwork. You needn't 'explain' your work per se (indeed evidence suggests that ambiguous art is more successful) but a good story can capture the imagination, communicate how much labour (and expertise) is embedded in it and attribute more value to the art in the eyes of your audience.
If you're not comfortable with public speaking (or in addition to your own speech) consider inviting a guest speaker to make a contribution. This will further illuminate and validate your achievements.
It's also a good idea to schedule an artist talk on a different day and timeslot than your opening night. This is an opportunity to go into further depth with your audience on the detail/methodology/meaning of your work AND provide an alternate event for those who couldn't make your opening night. Events where you directly engage with people are an excellent way to grow your following - and also lead to more sales (more on that below).
Catering is another area that will need attending in advance. Complimentary drinks and nibbles are often a feature at exhibition openings but be sure to discuss with your gallery in advance who is responsible for providing these (if in doubt it's probably you!). Note it's fairly common practice to provide refreshments by donation, and some galleries are licensed to sell alcohol too so will definitely not want you to cater.
Finally you will most likely need a person other than yourself to handle sales on opening night. You simply won't be able to get around and chat with all your guests while also recording sales details and accepting payments. Your gallery may provide staff for this as part of their service but if not then be sure to choose someone who is absolutely in your corner and won't disappear into the crowd with a glass of wine after 30 minutes. It's critical that you take full advantage of your captive audience while you have them and convert goodwill into as many sales as you can. Do not leave this to after the opening as chasing up sales can be like herding cats. If you need to lower the pressure for buyers offer to take a deposit upfront, this will ensure hassle-free follow ups.
What will success look like for your exhibition?
How you answer this question could undoubtedly vary a lot compared to other artists. Is your motivation to make a statement? Build experience? Draw a crowd? Build a following? Test an idea? Innovate? Earn repute? Make an income?
There's no right answer, any of the above are valid goals and achieving them worth celebrating. But note that several are also outside your control, so be careful with your expectations.
Remember you can't please everyone, in fact you really shouldn't try. Art is supremely subjective - not everyone will value your work, so don't be disheartened if you hear anything negative. Ask yourself instead how many people saw and enjoyed your work before the show, and how many after? It will be a net positive - nobody goes around keeping score of how many people don't like their work (although that could be a fun project!).
Not everyone you invite will come to your exhibition. This is the inevitable nature of running events. There will always be disappointing no-shows, but just as often wild cards show up 20 minutes early to chew your ear off. Don't get hung up on it, especially on opening night!
Don't get too carried away with sales projections either. Selling art is not easy, and for emerging/early career artists it's generally considered a success to just break even on costs.
Try to spend some time anonymously in the gallery. Observe how people interact with your work. Which pieces attract attention and provoke conversations and which don't? Why? This is where negative comments become interesting. Think about what can you learn about your own work, but be careful not to take in uninformed opinion too deeply.
Be careful not to compare yourself too closely to other artists. Growth doesn't come from measuring against others, it comes from achieving new things for yourself. So take stock of what you've learned, how your skills and experience have improved and then set new goals for the future.
- Robert A -
Just started working on the scans of old 35 mm negs you did for me a few months ago. Seeing things I've never seen before. Now I know what they mean by a beautiful scan!