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A Guide to Preparing Your First Gallery Exhibition

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If you come to this website, you probably have a stockpile of photos that you've made. But let me ask you a question, have any of them seen the light of day? Of course, you have a Flickr account, and you always upload your photos to Facebook. But have you thought about taking it to the next level?

I recently had a photography exhibition with a small group of photographers. I'd like to take you through the process I went through to prepare and execute this exhibition - it's not as tough as you might think! The photos you'll see throughout this tutorial were either photos of mine that were in the exhibition, or photos taken during the opening.

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The words "gallery" and "exhibition" might seem pretty serious and can be intimidating, but they don't have to be. An exhibition is just a public display of our work, and a gallery is just a place to have it. Your exhibition could be in restaurant or a library, which become galleries for the night of show. It might not be a swanky white-walled cube in London, but displaying your work for public review in any setting has serious benefits to you as a photographer.

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Cost/Benefit Analysis

There are many benefits to having an exhibition. Displaying your work to the public is great way to get your name out in the community. It's also the best way to improve your confidence as an artist. I'm under the strict opinion that art is meant to be consumed. Photography is art, therefore it doesn't do any good to keep it locked up on a hard drive.

But enough with these inspirational ramblings, time for the costs. The things you'll need to pay for will include printing, frames, potentially the cost of the space, and any food or drinks you want to provide. Take all of these things into consideration before beginning. As uncreative and unromantic as it may sound, you need to make a budget!

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Old or New

You basically have two options when deciding upon what to display. You can create something completely new and tailor it to the type of show you're participating in. Or you can pull work from your archive. Shooting something new has it's advantages, but also takes a lot more planning. If you're on a deadline, then it can be very difficult.

If you have a large body of work filed away, and you plan on pulling images from that to make a collection, then consider how they were made. Your new digital camera might make great 11x14 inch prints, but that 1.3 megapixel thing you were working with in college might not enlarge so nicely.

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Choosing A Theme

Quality being equal, a random collection of images won't have as much impact as a group of images that tie together or can be viewed in the context of a theme. A picture of a bowl of fruit might be well executed, but put it in the the context of a show about food (or eating, or even something broad and abstract like "bounty") and it will carry more weight.

My theme was a little complex. It attempts to compare and contrast the four seasons of the year with the seasons of life. Because I pulled images out of my archive, I decided on my theme first and then searched for images that matched it. This image was from the "Summer" section.

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Finding A Space

Each and every city and town all over the world will be completely different. My city is a mid-sized American town with about 300,000 people inside the city limits and another two million people surrounding it. The arts are pretty well supported and there are dozens of galleries and "art spaces" in the downtown area. But local coffee shops, our public library, eclectic retail shops, community centers, schools and universities are all great places to have an exhibition. Get creative.

Non-Traditional Spaces

Don't be afraid to approach places that have never done exhibitions before. All you need are a few walls. For non-traditional spaces, think of it as a trade. You're bringing all your friends and your local community art supporters to their business for the night of the reception. That gives the space exposure. And if the space happens to sell things, especially food and drinks, they can sell those and make money.

In return, you want to decorate their walls, maybe for just one night, maybe for three or four weeks. It's a fair trade. We used a multi-purpose space to stage our show that used to be a brewery, but now hosts all sorts of events.

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Find A Flock or Fly Solo

In the early stages of planning, you need to determine if you want to have a solo exhibition or display your work alongside other artists. If it's your first time, it's usually much easier to display your work with other people. Are you part of a camera club? Are there other people from your city that visit and post to your favorite photo websites like Flickr?

Do you know other artists in your town that aren't photographers? Painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists can participate as well! For our show, which we call "max" because it sounded interesting and was dedicated to a friend, we had six photographers. That made it much easier to fill the large space we were using.

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Printing your photos can be very expensive. You can save money by using an online printing service, especially if they are having a sale. You can also print them yourself if you have a printer.

Before you starting spending a lot of money of prints, consider how much space you have to work with and how much money you can spend on prints. In my experience printing several smaller images costs less than printing one huge one, but you may want to have different sized prints in your show to add some variety.

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Framing can easily be the most expensive part of your show. Really cheap 8x10 inch frames can cost $5 USD, but they look like they cost that much! Unless you're going with a non-traditional presentation, look to spend at least $15 USD on a frame with a mat to hold an 8x10 inch photo.

Many artists I know shop at a certain Swedish home furnishing store for their frames. I went with an alternative option by creating something different for my photos to hang on (in cheap frames, of course). Don't be afraid to think outside of the box. I displayed 20 photos, and my frames cost around $5 USD, so I still spent $100 on frames. This was significantly more than the cost of printing my relatively small photos.

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The Final Presentation

I may have gone a little overboard in my presentation, but I knew the crowd that I was serving. Make sure your presentation suits your crowd. Your choice of photos is your personal artistic statement, so don't let your potential audience have too much sway over that. If it's good, they will like it.

But in terms of presentation, keep in mind that outlandish presentations like mine might not look to great on a wall in a restaurant. Also, make sure everything is extremely secure and that all of the glass in your frames in as clean as possible. This was my presentation of "Spring."

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Get The Word Out

So, you've got your best work all polished up and ready to go. Now you've got to get an audience. Start with your friends and family, then go hi-tech. Between Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, online communities, message boards and your personal website or blog, you should have no problem letting people in on your plan.

Also consider doing a little traditional public relations. Contact your local newspaper. Let some photography teachers know what you're doing, and invite their classes to attend. Some posters at your local camera shop might not hurt either. Don't neglect this part of the process, it will make your show a lot more fun. The following image was my "Summer" colllection.

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The Show

You need to think of your show in two parts. The reception or opening is the first night, or at least a night close to when your installation is done. Then ideally, your exhibition will stay on display for a certain period of time for people to view it when your location is open to the public. This next image is the "Fall" board I displayed.

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The Opening

Go all out for your opening. At our opening, we were fortunate enough to have a cash bar provided by the venue. They kept the profits in order to pay for the electricity and the bartender. We also made sure there was good music, and due to the casual, "underground" nature of our show, we had a ping pong table set up.

Think about inviting a local musician to play. And more importantly than anything make sure there are places to sit. People don't want to stand around for hours, and most gallery settings are rudely lacking in the seating department. The following image is my "Winter" piece.

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The Viewing Period

The viewing period is for people who couldn't make it to your show. Viewing period at traditional galleries or museums can last a month or longer. This is probably a bit too long for most people. Obviously, if your venue has other commitments or shows planned, they will tell you how long your viewing period will be.

If you have a choice, the length of your viewing period depends largely upon what type of venue you chose. For a restaurant that is open most days during the week, you won't want as much time. For an art space that's only open on the weekends, you may want to try to keep your show up a little longer. This will also give you more opportunity to sell your work.

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First, I'd like to preface this section by saying that you should not expect to make money at your first showing - or your second - or most of the ones after that. If you go into it as a money-making endeavor, you'll probably be disappointed. But you may be able to offset your costs a little.

My first suggestion is to price your pieces reasonably, but don't undersell yourself. Price mainly by size. All your 8x10 inch photos should be the same price if they are all presented in the same frame. If you used a special process or paper or frame for a few, those can be more expensive. Don't price things based on what you think is best or worst.

Also, I would print smaller versions of your bigger pieces, and sell them without a frame for at much lower price. This will give people an opportunity to take home something without it killing their pocket book. Museums do this with posters and postcards of famous works. It's basically the same principle.

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Following Up

Have a guestbook at your opening and your viewing period if possible. Collect the names, email addresses, and possibly even the comments of the people who came to see your work. Stay in touch with them through an email now and then. You can send them an email directing them to your blog or website, or let them know about your next show.

If you do take photos for money, like portraits or weddings, take a big stack of business cards to the opening as well. There's really no better atmosphere to network!

Now you're ready for an exhibition and, if this helped you out, I expect to be invited!

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