In many professional artists’ careers, moving to the next stage involves competing for Featured Artist and Solo Artist Shows. In this third installment of her article “From Art to Art Shows,” Elaine Weiner-Reed provides information and personal experiences to assist artists in determining when and how to decide for themselves their readiness to shift gears and move on to the next level from their already-established history of participating in small- and large-group art shows, as well as juried shows at local, regional, national, and international levels.
Before continuing, I invite you to review the ideas and recommendations I shared in Part One and Part Two of my “From Art to Art Shows” article. I will build on what I have said, adding to previous information, including new ideas and sharing first-hand experiences. I will rarely repeat something, but…
Some points bear repeating because it is through repetition that we learn! Speaking of which: How good are you with time management, making and managing goals and milestones, and meeting deadlines with deliverables? When we apply for and commit to Featured Artist and Solo exhibitions, we must be organized, prepared, thorough, and focused. We must meet or beat every deadline presented to the best of our ability. Realistically, we should anticipate that there will be some challenges and issues. When they arise, we should try to handle them as quickly as possible, as calmly as possible. Professionalism must be our by-word. And we must always respond and interact respectfully. By remaining courteous and responsive with peers and show or facilities personnel, you will make advocates, and do nothing that could potentially ruin your reputation or diminish your serious, hard-earned status as a professional artist.
Worthwhile? Experience is always valuable, but the value to each artist depends on the artist’s level, experience, and what their goals are at any point in time. Also – before you exhibit somewhere, confer with other artists to hear how they found that venue: Were the owner and staff supportive? Would the artwork be safe? How might they handle any potential sales? Could you leave business cards there, etc? I have had several café shows in my life, all a good learning experience, but here is my all-time favorite. I leveraged the setting to try something new…
After years of participating in juried group shows, I applied for and was accepted to have a solo show in a local (Columbia, MD) Borders Bookstore’s Café Gallery. I only had about eight paintings in the show, but they filled the café. Appropriately, they were figurative works in my “Café” series, so people appreciated them and they “fit” the venue. During the show, I would sometimes sit in the café sipping coffee and listen to people’s feedback on the show, sometimes even finding the courage to introduce myself. Those were some lovely conversations! At that event, I further challenged myself by planning and hosting a public watercolor painting demonstration, giving guests exposure to me and my work, but also by providing adult and children attendees with hands-on experience creating. It was fun for everyone. And, as another benefit, it garnered nice press coverage in Border’s Newsletter and the local community paper.
To prepare and to gain even more experience with public interaction and that type of experience and exposure, I eventually felt ready for, applied to, and was juried into Columbia, Maryland’s then-only Cooperative (Co-op) Artist-owned gallery, The Artists Gallery, where I was a full Artist member for at least 10 years, and an Associate Artist for another 10. The Artists Gallery still exists today – reincarnated when it had to move to a new location in historic Ellicott City. It continues to exhibit a wonderful group of talent, some of whom remain art friends to this day. (Shout-out to Bonita Glaser.) All of this was an invaluable experience. At the time, I was heavily into watercolor painting, and sometime during that era, became a Signature Member of the Baltimore Watercolor Society – still today, a recognized mark of skill and achievement.
In 2007, I was in a 2-person show “Over the Edge” in Columbia’s Bernice Kish Gallery, at Slayton House. The show was successful and fun, with guests turning out in great numbers to celebrate our moment with us. But it got even better for me, a few weeks later. When we put ourselves “out there” and enter the public domain, untold doors could open to us. To illustrate, I would like to share one story of extraordinary and unexpected results. Through that Slayton House show, I was contacted by an art teacher at Howard County Community College (Bob Russell). He had seen my work on an invitation in the mail and went to see the show. He contacted the gallery for my contact information, and we promptly met. Then and there, he invited me to be one of three guest lecturers each semester in his Modern Art class. Although I have a teaching degree, I had never taken a teaching job, yet here I was, entering the teaching world and loving it. We partnered each semester for the next three years following that happy chance encounter. Prior to each 3-hour class, I invested weeks of preparation and work, planning the instructional methodology, updating my slide deck, and organizing my art “show-and-tell” bag of books and paintings.
Talk about career enrichment… I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with students and found the dialogue energizing, probably learning as much as I taught. We made each other THINK. There was no way for me to have anticipated that wonderful result of my having been part of that Two-Person show.
After that two-person, I began to focus on working towards having or being in Featured Artist exhibitions, in other words, in shows in which I would be called to exhibit anywhere from four to ten paintings. To do that, I had to ensure that I had pre-existing strong bodies of artwork on which to base my given theme. To show well together, artwork should be cohesive in theme and approach, and many tips, especially for first-time soloists, can be found online.
Good Planning | Solid Organization | Rigorous Commitment | Unfailing Professionalism
Research, explore, select and then apply to your venues carefully and gradually step up more rungs on the ladder, to bigger, more complex shows in more public and respected venues. One good idea is to list places in which your art organization or colleagues have exhibited. Ask questions. Check out the space. What is the size of the room? What are the hours of operation? What are the costs involved? What is the timeline and what are the deadlines and hanging requirements, etc.? What many people do not realize is that having a show equates to working several fulltime jobs at once (artist, publicist, writer, office manager, etc.). Seriously…
Be sure to have at least twice the amount of good-to-great work than you committed for the show, so that when the show is curated you do not lack for the pieces that fit the theme and work well together. They should transition in interesting ways from one to the next, flowing in a captivating way through the space. How many works fit physically and visually into the space? Be sure to leave space between paintings for breathing room… Know how much space you have and hang your works properly. More tips here.
Mountains of Paperwork - Paperwork before, during, and after… Pay attention to details.
Business and Marketing – Mountain ranges of paperwork and tasks (Hardcopy and Softcopy) – Make sure the venue is handling this… but do some of the work yourself!
Reception – Opening? Closing?
Take Photographs – Before and during the show. They serve as follow-up press and memories. Photos document your growth and progress.
Note: Some galleries might ask the artist to bring in a few extra pieces of artwork to hold in the back – just in case a collector wishes to see more of your work. That is another reason why having more good work at-the-ready is always in your best interest.
Aim high… once you have done the groundwork. Before I began to think about or aim for “prime” exhibition real estate, such as established Community Arts Centers and private or non-profit galleries, I competed for and had solo shows in area restaurants and office buildings. I learned a lot through each new activity because experience is priceless. It teaches us things to do and not to do again…, mostly, it teaches us about ourselves and our goals.
Featured Artist. What the expression “Featured Artist” generally means is that one or several artists in a show have been chosen to feature more pieces of their work than many other artists in the show. It is an honor and a responsibility. I have been in a fair amount of such exhibits where I am a Featured Artist, and I have found them to be great exposure and wonderful practice for the more involved two-person and solo shows. While the themes for group shows are likely chosen by a gallery owner or operator, by being selected to be featured, you and your work gains prominence by reason of your having several pieces versus only one. A Featured Artist generally gets “prime real estate” within a gallery, in other words, wall space that is more visible, perhaps at the front of the gallery. You might even have your name highlighted in some way or your work might even garner a press review of the show. That is a wonderful boon to the reputation! Make that exposure count by submitting only the best!
Issues: I Have Faced a Few. Remember when I said you should be ready for “issues” and the unexpected? In 2013, prior to my first show in New York City (obviously, a huge deal for me), I faced one of the worst situations that an artist could face before a show: Something made me call the shipper a couple days before the show to verify…but I was already in NYC. Bad news: One large shipping box containing four of my six paintings had apparently disappeared… There was no way for me to get other paintings sent up from Maryland in time. More bad news: There was no record of the box, which had been last scanned in New Jersey, days before. Did it drop off into a bog? The ocean? Twenty-four hours passed…still no box. Installation Day arrived, and I spent most of it on my phone, panicked, calling and working with the shipper, begging, praying…. Somehow, a miracle happened some four hours later. A large box (I knew the exact size) had arrived some blocks away in Chelsea, and they asked me to identify the contents. No problem: I had painting images and inventory notes on my cell. Identity verified, the show Curator’s husband volunteered to drive me to the shipper: I dashed in, grabbed the box, and we squealed back to the gallery, where they were in the final stages of hanging the show. Miracle two: Another artist, knowing I was to be a Featured Artist, and knowing how much space I was allotted, had almost literally tacked herself to the walls during my more than 5-hour ordeal, in order to save my space on the gallery wall. They had come very close to filling my space with another artist’s work. Installation day was almost over, but thankfully, we got my work hung in time. (That image is in Part Two of this article.) Nightmare averted. The show, “Up-Surd,” was a success, and I was carried away on a cloud of euphoria, when NY art critic Maurice Taplinger reviewed my work, likening it to a Pollock.
Regardless of whether we have our next show scheduled we need to be ready.
If not today, it could be tomorrow…
We need to be continually creating a good and cohesive body of work.
So… Are you ready?
Is your art where it should be for the show on which you are focusing?
Are you ready to put it all out there for others to judge?
Ready! Finally, after months or years of preparation and waiting: You receive word that you have been accepted for a solo exhibition. Congratulations! Bask in it for a minute, and then get back to work! Depending on how long into the future it is scheduled, you have mountains of work ahead of you…and it only begins with that great art of yours. This is an example of why I said to keep working and always have a good number of great pieces available and ready. Earmark your best pieces for your solo show. Remember to not send them off to other shows, at least not within six months of your Opening. Having a cohesive body of work available to show is the main determining factor of when to stage a solo exhibition. Keep in mind that when we do a solo show, we are not only artists but showmen. We are everything – from art “manufacturer” or “fabricator” to show “producer” to publicist, curator, master of ceremonies, public speaker, web designer, businessperson, and more.
Reputations are on the line. No show, solo show included, should be viewed as merely “box-checking” on the road to celebrity or wealth. Having a solo exhibition takes serious investments of time and energy. I always say that I am only as good as my last achievement. Realizing that keeps me grounded. That said, solo exhibitions, when properly executed, represent significant benchmarks in terms of an Artist’s career, professionalism and achievement. They demonstrate future potential and could open doors to opportunities. When accepted for a solo exhibition, the venue’s selection committee and directors are showing their faith in you and your art. Remember: Their reputation can be impacted by the quality of your show. They picked you, which means that other artists did not get the opportunity when you were awarded that time slot. Because so much is riding on the ultimate success of the show, it is wise to remember that when you accept and commit to do a solo show, everything you put into the show matters and will reflect on you in some way. Pay attention to the details, making tweaks along the way – before and throughout the show. More tips for staging your show can be found here.
Solo exhibitions are not for the faint of heart. From personal experience, I can attest that solo exhibitions are a lot of work. To put on or “stage” a solo show, we owe it to ourselves to be at a professional artistic skill level capable of creating a consistent body of work for the show. I always aim to have many more good pieces ready months in advance of show installation day, even twice as many as will be in the show – just in case. The goal is to be sure you have enough work in a series or theme that will show together well. Repeating what I have said before: A solo show, by nature, puts our reputation is on the line. The success of a show depends on us and the quality of our art and the resulting show we host. We are responsible and are obligated to put on a good and professional exhibition. If we commit to having a solo exhibition at the wrong time, and then have to back out, there can be a mark against us somewhere, with some group of people. When I decided to again ‘ramp up my game’ to apply for solo shows, I waited until my son had graduated from college. Pushing myself while still working at a fulltime job, I committed to doing a 2016 solo exhibition, my first in about 10 years. A time management technique I use all the time, called the Swiss cheese approach, might help you accomplish your own goals, as well. Remember: If we commit, we must deliver. Think about filling (NOT over-filling) the space with your top-quality art, never letting down those who gave you the opportunity to shine.
Three solo shows in three years. I have been fortunate to have been accepted for solo exhibition in three different respectable local area venues in as many years: May-June 2016, September 2017, and May-July 2018. For each solo show, I challenge myself in some new way, investing a greater level of effort, adding or doing something new – from curating to making videos. New goals and experiences help point my way to the next set of goals. I continue to ask myself: Where should I go from here? What do I want to do next? What am I not doing that I need to be doing? With every experience, I and my vision expand. My most recent exhibition “Masks and Mirrors – An Exploration of Identity” was my largest to date. In it, I featured twenty paintings and three sculptures. Additionally, I included interactive elements like the Identity Station and video elements, “Masks and Mirrors: Beyond Reality”. It was an exhilarating experience…, albeit exhausting.
Was it worth it to you? Did you achieve or surpass your goals? As I work during all the stages of hosting a solo exhibition, I ask myself: “If this were to be my only or my last Art legacy, what do I want it to say and to reveal about myself and my art? What message do I want to convey to my audience, my guests?” This time, I also left them with this question: If my paintings and sculptures were songs, how would they sound to you?”
As you reread through this three-part article and all the links you can find to explore related fields, consider your professional level, experience, and accomplishments as you decide whether we are ready to compete for and mount a solo show. Professionally, before you take huge leaps or make big commitments, consider all pros and cons within the context of your own life to be sure you are ready. And when you judge it the “right time,” then go for it: Apply, apply, apply!
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