Landing your first solo exhibition is a big deal for any emerging artist. Not only is it a great way to mark the completion of a body of work, but it’s one of the best ways to get your art in front of a large, art-loving audience.
No doubt, a solo exhibition is a huge milestone, but it can be tricky to achieve. There are lots of factors to consider, many of which are out of your control. And often, galleries are booked out months, even years, in advance.
But if you feel like you’re truly ready to exhibit your work, then creating a strong proposal and approaching gallery owners and decision-makers in the right way can make you stand out from the competition.
To give you the very best chances of landing your own solo or small group exhibition, I’ve broken the whole process down in 5 steps, from start to finish.
So take a look, get to work, and let me know if you have any questions!
1. Research exhibitions spaces in your community
Before you start working on your proposal, you’ll want to find out which galleries actually accept submissions. Many formal galleries tend to rely on curators and gallerists to find artists to exhibit, and some still work off of a representation model (meaning that they only represent a certain number of artists, and work to promote and exhibit their work; because they rely entirely on sales for revenue, they’re much more selective and tend to lean towards more experienced/well-known artists).
But today, the gallery world has drastically changed, and there are lots of alternative exhibition spaces that you might want to consider, especially if you haven’t exhibited before. These are typically hybrid spaces, like coffee shops, music venues, or office space. They don’t entirely depend on art sales to keep their doors open, so they’re more likely to exhibit early-career, emerging, or student artists.
Whether you’d like to exhibit in a formal gallery or you’re open to showing somewhere less traditional, you should identify a few options to increase your likelihood of acquiring exhibition space.
One of the best places to begin looking is in nearby arts districts. What galleries do you frequent? Which ones exhibit artists that are a similar point in their art career as you, or produce similar work? It helps to be a familiar face — if you regularly visit local galleries, it shows that you’re active in your arts community.
You can also check your local city, arts, and culture councils to see if they have any open calls for proposals. And if you’re willing to exhibit your work nationally, you can check websites like https://www.callforentry.org/ to see if there are any opportunities in other states.
2. Ask if the gallery is accepting proposals
If any of the galleries you’re interested haven’t publicly posted information about accepting proposals, you’ll want to reach out to them.
Hands down, the best way to contact the gallery is through email. Galleries, both traditional and alternative, can be tricky to get ahold of by phone. Sometimes the person in charge of curating isn’t there full-time, or the gallery might have odd business hours.
And I’ve been to enough gallery openings to know that going to a gallery in-person and asking about their exhibition selection process is a big no-no. It puts the owner or gallerist on the spot, and implies that you’re there in your own self-interest, not to enjoy their current exhibition.
By all means, introduce yourself and strike up a conversation about the current exhibiting artists, but hold off on your inquiry until you get to a computer.
So when you’re ready to contact the gallery, you’ll want to hit a few key points in the email:
- Share your name, medium, art background, and portfolio website
- Mention a recent exhibition you saw to show you’re familiar with their gallery
- Ask if they’re accepting proposals and if they have any guidelines to follow
- Briefly describe the body of work you’d like to exhibit
Keep this email brief, friendly, and to-the-point. Make sure it’s free of typos and is objective-oriented.
The goal of this email is to start the conversation, not land a spot in their gallery. Since you’re only asking if they’re accepting proposals, they’ll be more willing to provide a yes or no answer (and have less of an incentive to ignore your email completely).
If you don’t hear from them after a week or two, don’t be afraid to follow up via email or in-person. If you do decide to visit the gallery in person, be sure to mention the email you sent, and ask if they’d like you to send an email reminder.
3. Create a thoughtful, polished proposal
Now, let’s imagine you got a response from at least one of the galleries you reached out to, and they’re currently accepting proposals. If they have guidelines, then closely follow their instructions. Often, applications get denied because people don’t follow instructions.
Don’t be one of those people.
If they don’t have clear proposal guidelines, then you’ll want to give them some key information that will help them make a decision (in your favor).
First of all, you need to reframe your thinking. Before you begin a lengthy letter about how much heart and soul you’ve invested in your art, consider what’s most important to the gallery you’re submitting your proposal to, and what value your artwork could potentially bring to them.
Look at the gallery’s past work, and consider what they seem to care about. What exhibitions have they hosted in the past? What are the trends or similar themes in the work that they typically exhibit? Where does your art fall in line with their mission/vision?
Some galleries are trying to make money, other want to do social good. Figure out what’s important to them, and how your work aligns with their goals.
- Do you have an active audience that would attend?
- Does your work sell well?
- Does it offer a unique perspective or deliver some kind of social value?
- Are you exploring concepts that need to be examined more carefully?
- Would it provoke thought and conversation in the community?
Once you’ve examined your artwork from their perspective, you can begin drafting a proposal. And here’s what you’re gonna need:
A Proposal Summary – Briefly describe your work, why this exhibition is important (not just to you, but to the gallery or your community), what medium you’re working in, the number of pieces, and the size of the work. If applicable, mention the time frame you’d like to exhibit, but if at all possible, try to show that you’re flexible.
An Artist Statement/Statement of Work – ideally, you’ll already have this written long before you submit a proposal, but if you need help writing one, you can download this guide and check out pages 6 and 7, or take a look at this blog post.
10 – 15 High-Quality Photos of Your Work – If you’re hoping to exhibit more than 10 – 15 photos, mention that in your proposal summary. Make sure the images you include show your work off in the very best light. If at all possible, use a good camera and edit the photos get the color and contrast to look true-to-life.
Image List – An image list is a document that includes thumbnail images of each art piece, the respective filename, the title of the piece, artistic medium, dimension, and date created. Here’s an example:
You’ll want to do this for each image file you plan on including in your proposal and try to fit this all on a single page.
An Artist Bio – Include a brief bio, written in 3rd person, that explains your background, interests, and experiences. Try to keep it interesting and highlight your biggest artistic accomplishments. Want to learn more about writing an artist bio? Click here and scroll to pages 12 – 15.
A CV (Artist Resume) – essentially, this is to show off your experience as an artist, and demonstrate that you’re an active participant in the arts community. Check out page 16 and 17 of How To Art to see what kind of information you should include.
Once you’ve gathered all of the proposal material, you’ll want to make it easy for those reviewing it to understand. I recommend saving each document as a PDF and title the files using a convention like this: FirstName-LastName_Document-Type_Month-Year.PDF
You’ll want to resize each image so that they’re still full-resolution but aren’t too large (so that they can be sent via email). I’d recommend resizing each image to 2000 px on the longest edge at 72ppi, and saving them as JPGs. If you have a sequence in mind, you’ll want to title them in a way that the reviewer can easily understand, like:
That way, if the reviewer sorts the files by name, they’ll easily be able to see your images in the sequence you intended.
Once you’ve gathered all of the documents and files, put them in a zipped folder that is titled something like “FirstName-LastName_Exhibition-Proposal.zip”. Alternatively, you can combine all of the materials into a single PDF, so that it’s more manageable for whoever is reviewing your proposal.
Depending on their request, you may need to print out these material and mail them, send them via email, or put it all on a flash drive and deliver it to the gallery. But remember, if the gallery has their own guidelines, forget all of this and follow their instructions instead!
4. Follow-up with the galleries you submitted a proposal to
Hopefully, by this stage, you’ve sent your proposal off to a few galleries and heard some good news! But if you haven’t, now it’s time to follow up. After all that work, you at deserve to hear a yes or no, at the very least.
It may take some time for them to consider, but there’s absolutely no harm in inquiring about the status of your proposal. Drop in to see new work in their gallery and say hello. Send an email to check in and see where they’re at in the reviewing process. Ask if they need any additional material to make a decision. Don’t be too aggressive, but don’t let them forget you either!
5. Ask questions prior to the installation
Let’s say that you’ve finally gotten a response from your dream venue, and it was a yes!
Well, now that you’re on board, you can ask about the details. Here are a few questions you might want to know long before the big day:
- What is the process if a work is purchased during the exhibition?
- What kind of commission do they receive off of each sale?
- Can they give you a layout of the gallery so you can mock up your installation?
- Will you be installing yourself, or will someone else install your work?
- How long will the exhibition be on display?
- What nights do they typically hold opening and/or closing receptions?
- What nights are you expected to attend?
- Will they provide wall vinyl, marketing material, and hardware, or will you?
- Are there any promotional restrictions or guidelines that you need to abide by?
- What are the gallery hours, and who should guests contact to schedule a walk-through?
- What is the turnaround time between exhibitions?
- How many days do you have to install and deinstall your show?
Throughout the whole process, always be professional, courteous and meet their deadlines.
I know planning an exhibition can be stressful for the artist, but for gallery owners, attendants, and curators, this is business as usual. When they have suggestions and advice, listen. If they need any more information from you, deliver it promptly. They want a successful show just as much as you do, so be open, flexible, dependable, and I’m sure everything will work out perfectly!
Best of luck with pursuing your first solo exhibition, and if you have any questions, feel free to send me an email!
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