To Exhibit or Not to Exhibit, That is the Question

March 27, 2011 in Awards Competitions Prizes, Exhibition, Galleries Museums by Leo

I was recently asked by an online friend and fellow artist about shipping artwork overseas to an exhibition. In the course of our correspondence, I came to the conclusion that the exhibition was not a good deal for the artist. All costs, shipping and insurance, risks, damage, loss and theft lay solely with the artist. Then on top of that, there was an entry fee, supposedly to pay for the exhibition promotion, albeit a small one, and the final show stopper was, no selling opportunities.

Now, I’ve done my fair share of sending artwork away to likewise exhibitions. There was a point at which the stress of sending the artwork, getting the artwork back and all of the attendant costs, and no sales, just didn’t add up and made no financial sense. Oh, but you could say that it furthers my career. But how does this further my artistic career when I have to do other work to sustain its costs?

The reality is, working as an artist, you are working as a small business. As such, you should be making a profit. What happens to businesses that don’t make a profit? They go out of business. Its incredible the number of exhibition organisers that don’t even think of this perspective, but they are certainly thinking of their own profit or furthering their careers.

Both artists and the organisers often seem to lose sight of the fact that they are actually entering into what is usually a short term business partnership. The artist provides a product (yes, don’t choke, artwork is a product), and the organiser provides the means by which to sell. To ensure that we don’t have any nasty disagreements when something goes wrong, we put everything down in writing, commonly called a contract. That way everybody knows what the other expects of the other. Contracts are there to make sure things DON’T go wrong, not for after things have gone wrong, then it’s too late. Contracts aren’t scary things either. All contracts are open to negotiation, UNTIL you sign on the dotted line. If you don’t like particular points of the contract and the other party won’t negotiate, then, don’t sign. Simple, no dramas, no bad feelings.

Think of contracts as a written agreement detailing a list of questions and answers.  If not all of your questions are answered, then you need to ask for the answers to be added in writing to the contract.  Be thorough. If the organiser starts to squirm, or protest with phrases such as, “don’t you trust me?” and the like, then you know not to trust them and to walk away, because they are not taking your concerns seriously. And it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude how co-operative they will be when something does go wrong.

What questions and answers should you be considering? Following are my suggestions.

Exhibition Offer Checklist

  1. So you’ve been invited to exhibit. Do you know the gallery or curator? How did they find you? Did they just google you?
  2. If you don’t know the gallery or curator, have they made any comment or appraisal of your artwork? More importantly have they seen your originals? There can be a great difference between an Jpeg image and original. If they are willing to take your work sight unseen, then they aren’t going to be too fussy about the standards of others that they show you with.
  3. Have you researched them? The easiest way is to do some online searches. If you are half way considering accepting their invitation, then at least put some effort into finding out more about them.
  4. Is there an entry fee? For myself, I pay NO ONE to exhibit my artwork any more, especially if I have to cover all of the shipping costs. Even if it is only $30. If the organisers have failed on the first two points and want a fee from you, then you can be certain they’ve contacted you to pay their rent!
  5. What is it going to cost to ship the artwork to AND from the exhibition if the location is not easily accessible to you?
  6. Who pays for the shipping? This is up to you to decide what is fair. It is quite common for the cost to be split, with the artist paying for sending, and the organiser or the return. If the organiser pays for everything, dance for joy!
  7. If shipping to another country, have you researched the import and export taxes if any? Who pays for these?
  8. Insurance? Even if it is simple postage insurance, a higher postage rate which provides you with a tracking number and covers for loss or damage in transit, it is worth it for your piece of mind. Then there is also insurance for the artwork while on exhibit, again, who pays?
  9. Who takes responsibility for, damage, loss or theft? Who pays? Point four usually covers this. Now, it is extremely unlikely that a small exhibition organiser can afford to insure your artwork, because while you may have issues achieving payment for the prices that you would like on your artwork, the insurance companies don’t see that, and usually will charge an arm and a leg, unless you undervalue your artwork. This leads to another discussion altogether.
  10. What promotion do they do?
    1. Oh, they have a mailing list, uh-ha. Well so do I. What percentage of their mailing list attend their exhibitions? What percentage of their mailing list purchase artwork. Don’t judge a mailing list by its size, but by it’s value. Who pays for the mail out? That is if anybody uses physical mail any more.
    2. Have they given you a list of publications that they advertise or send media releases to. Can you find any publications yourself that mention them. Having trouble finding anything yourself? Ask them to send you copies of some of their media coverage. Any good exhibition organiser will be proud to do so.
    3. Flyers and invitations, oh you have to pay for those, see point 4. If they are not willing to invest even a small amount of money in you, even then just for flyers, then, well they’re not going to invest any time into promoting you are they?
    4. Who pays for the opening night drinks and nibbles? See the previous point.
  11. What other artists have exhibited with them? Have they provided you with a list? Is it on their website? If you see no names regularly appearing, but just a long list, then they’re always on the search for fresh blood to pay the rent.
  12. What is the opinion and experience of other artists that have exhibited with them?
  13. Are there any sales opportunities? If not why would you pay to participate? If the exhibitors however cover your costs, dance for joy again.
  14. What are the terms of sales?
    1. What commission do they take?
    2. Is their commission added on top of your selling price, or is it taken from your selling price?
    3. How and when do they pay for sales?
    4. What taxes are applicable to the sale?
  15. What happens with unsold artwork? See point five and six.
    1. Oh, they offer to store your artwork, how and where? How accessible will it be to you? How long will it take to get it back to you if there is another exhibition you want to sell the work in? If it is a gallery you are dealing with, then they should not be charging you storage fees. If it is a one off event, with no permanent location, then storage fees are fair and normal.
    2. If your work is stored for future exhibitions, how often will it be put on display again?
    3. Do they have buyers who visit the gallery to see what is in the storeroom?
  16. What is the exhibition space like? Is it located in a district popular for art?

Other Points for Consideration

An exhibition is far more worthwhile if you are in attendance with your artwork, for sales and networking. You can then also see first hand how your artwork has been hung and signed.

If there are no sales opportunities from the exhibition, making it purely a vanity exhibition, what are you really getting out of this exhibition other than stress and costs? Something to write on you C.V. and website? You can do that without sending or spending. Remember, your art has to be sustainable, you need to earn from it, otherwise it remains an expensive hobby.

Do not be pressured to send either. Even if you’ve been “chosen” to participate, re-read all of the above points and make a calm boring practical decision. Who does the exhibition really benefit, you or the organisers?

Whatever packaging you use for shipping must be durable and reusable for return if your artwork does not sell. The packaging dimensions and weight will also contribute to your shipping costs. There are also often limits to the size and weight. Make sure you check for these restrictions with your chosen postal service or shipping company.

Final Thoughts

By all means do as you see fit. Some of the above points I had to learn myself the hard way. Now with experience and hindsight, I’m more selective about the exhibitions I choose to exhibit in.

Exhibitions are a dime a dozen. Exhibitions that are of real worth are rare (depending on where you are in your career) and only these deserve your energy and attention.

Remember, YOU are the artists, YOU are the star of any of these shows, and you should be treated accordingly in a professional manner that furthers your career.