Exhibiting – a step-by-step guide

Transformation open at RHS Hyde Hall Gardens, Essex (October 2021)

It is really only when an exhibition is up and running, that you realise the enormous amount of work involved before you get to open the doors. EAST’s latest exhibition Transformation is now up and running at RHS Hyde Hall Gardens in Essex (9-17 October 2021) and it seemed the perfect time to reflect on the run up to this special moment.

This step-by-step guide begins with the work itself – each artist usually has two years between one exhibition and the next. However, many of the group are thinking about the next work before finishing the last.

This is a very rough guide as to what each artist goes through just to get their own work ready for the display.

  1. Think of an idea – this in itself can take a while
  2. Research the idea – drawing, reading, visiting galleries
  3. Develop the idea – this can be done individually with each artist working on development ideas. It also involves talking to others within the group but sometimes outside. Another pair or eyes can often ‘solve’ a development problem or just suggest another way of tackling the project.
  4. Record your research and development – even ‘failures’ are worth recording as they may become useful for another piece of work.
  5. At any point between steps 1-4, if something is not working the artist may to make changes and even sometimes start again.
  6. Purchase materials – or check your individual stash. Sometimes someone else in the group may have just the item you need.
  7. Make samples – return to step five if things are still not working as you wish.
  8. Complete the work – which also involves deciding when you can do no more.
  9. Name the work – this may have already been decided on before completion and it is easier for some pieces than others.
  10. Photograph the work (or get a professional to do this for you). This is essential for publicity and marketing, and even ‘work in progress’ is useful at the beginning. For this particular exhibition the group decided to employ a professional photographer to take images of finished pieces. Thank you Charlie at Farleigh Photography. We still need other photographs though for blogs etc.
  11. Prepare a statement about your work – this is something particular to EAST, to give our visitors some context
  12. Think about display – this may vary from gallery to gallery
  13. Think about packaging
  14. Decide how you will transport your work to the venue, and collect it when the exhibition is over.
  15. Sales items – many exhibitions insist on sales and additional smaller items can often generate enough income to keep the gallery happy. Some venues even require a minimum amount of commission or the group has to pay extra. All venues take some commission – so this has to be factored in when deciding on pricing.
A selection of workbooks available for visitors to look at during our exhibition at Hyde Hall.

But making the work is just one part of creating an exhibition – obviously it is a very big part of what we do. For anyone exhibiting on their own they would have to tackle all the ‘exhibition tasks’ alone but with a group we are able to share these out.

  1. Find a venue – sometimes we return to a venue we have visited before but it is good to find somewhere new.
  2. Research the venue – what are its cost implications, is it easy to access, what is it’s footfall, is it well lit, how is the work hung, does it need stewarding? There are a number of questions that need to be asked before deciding a venue is right for the group.
  3. Book the venue – this means choosing a date that suits the group and the gallery. It invariably requires a considerable amount of paperwork to get to this point.
  4. Plan the exhibition – thankfully one of our members Libby, takes on the responsibility for this task. It’s a very valuable one because the exhibition has to flow and work as a whole even though it is made up of a huge variety of work. Choosing what goes where and which pieces work well side by side makes a big difference to how the exhibition works. It is also at this planning stage that members have to know how their individual pieces are going to be displayed. Do they hang on the wall or need a plinth – does the venue have a plinth of the appropriate size or do we need to buy/make something?
  5. Preparing for problems – this may include a formal risk assessment but the group also needs insurance.
  6. Plan the transport of work. Some pieces of work can be brought to the venue by individual artists – one member of the group might bring the work of others. But what, as happened with one of our members had to consider this year, you have to ship work from abroad – no easy task in itself. Venues that are the other end of the country might also require professional transport. It is simpler and cheaper for one ‘man (or woman) with a van’ to take all the work than for half a dozen members to drive across the country. Of course the other additional task when exhibitions are at a distant location is finding and booking accommodation for the ‘hanging group’.
  7. Labelling – for every piece of work we need a label. There are also labels for each artist with her ‘statement’ to produce. And there are plenty of other labels needed – ones that tell visitors how EAST can be found on social media (which also involved creating a QR code) and ‘do not touch’ signs. Every sign needs spell checking, printing and mounting on foam board. Every piece needs some method of attaching to the wall.
  8. Promotion and marketing – as already stated photographs are essential for social media. We use Instagram, Facebook but also blog. We also have our own EAST website which needs to be regularly updated. At one point, because of the global pandemic, we even had to consider the possibility of a virtual display. This led to even more research on how such a display might work if there was no physical exhibition at all. It ended up with the group adding ‘sketchbook videos’ to their blog posts. Such is the importance of this aspect of an exhibition that we have a separate committee to discuss ideas on different ways of promoting our display – after all what is the point of all that work if nobody sees it. Even when a venue says it will advertise an exhibition it is always worth the group doing some themselves.
  9. Hanging the exhibition – this always takes time and it can depend on the venue how much is available. Do we have just a day to hang all the work or can we return the day after? Does the venue provide help either in the form of equipment (ladders) or manpower? It is always best to take some tools and ladders, just in case – and EAST own two ‘tool boxes’. Some venues may insist they want to hang our work themselves – but we need to know if we can be involved in placement decisions and lighting.
  10. Sales table – this needs to be planned and every sale accounted for. For this exhibition we also had to think about how sales can be made by card.
  11. Stewarding. Not every exhibition needs stewarding but some galleries will not let you open without a minimum number of people in attendance. Organising a rota is a task in itself.
  12. Extra events – private views, workshops, talks. It depends on the venue but again these generate interest and provide another way of promoting the exhibition. However they are also valuable in allowing the EAST artists to talk about the work they have done and be available for questions when people want to know more.
Setting up the sales table at RHS Hyde Hall Gardens, Essex – the pieces for sale relate to the larger pieces on display.

So as you can see, even for a week’s exhibition there is plenty of work ‘behind the scenes’. Thankfully Transformation will be visiting other venues so when it goes on display again some of this does not need to be repeated – we can reuse labels for instance. However a new venue needs new display considerations – different hanging systems, different plinths, etc.

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RHS Hyde Hall Gardens means we have a stunning view of the Essex countryside from inside the gallery.

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