Ten (plus) lessons I gleamed producing my debut solo exhibition (Children of Nature: Find Your Wonderland held at the Owatonna Arts Center in Owatonna, Minnesota, June 2022). This project was more than a year in the making, starting with an invitation, influenced by a business partner, a milestone birthday, the pandemic, and a large slab of butcher block.
Things I Learned Launching A Solo Exhibit
IT’S A LOT OF WORK. Think of it like a project, a year-long project. I had planned out what I would be showing as well as the new work I would be producing for the exhibit. Intuitively, I knew I had to set an end date when all the work would be finished and framed. There is nothing worse than scrabbling at the last minute. I’m sure that would have turned me into an awful person.
PLANNING. After being offered the opportunity to show at the Owatonna Arts Center back in June 2021, I spent time thinking about a name/theme for the exhibit. Naming would help in promoting the show and give it cohesiveness. I knew I wanted there to be music. People mingle and linger when there is music playing. Holding a raffle was something I had not heard an artist do before at an exhibit so there was planning involved with what I would be giving away. I wanted adult food and drink and above all a certain look and feel for the exhibit. That meant curating artwork I already produced and preparing to create a new body of work.
BUDGETING. I would be framing 18 of the 24 pieces I would be showing in my solo exhibit. Realistically, I couldn’t frame that many pieces retail, so I found a reliable online art frame source. Because so much of me is about storytelling, I wrote stories for most of the pieces and produced them as part of the labeling for the artwork.
Other Things I Budgeted For
Materials to Create Story Art Labels: Foam core backing for the labels because I wanted a professional-looking presentation; high-quality matte print paper (I used my Epson printer for printing out the story labels).
Music: I purchased a JBL speaker so I could play music via the Pandora app on my iPhone. Sounded wonderful!
Raffle Stuff: I planned to raffle off three native plants. Native plants are connected to some of the stories and pieces in the exhibit. I wanted people to think about how they use their yards, think about how they can create more bio-diversity in their spaces, and the benefits native plants provide. I also raffled off two original framed prints. Artists normally don’t do this sort of thing. I wanted something different to draw people to the opening reception.
Printing Artist Postcards + Postage: Call me old-school but sending out colorful postcards showcasing your art still works. Comes in handy that I am also a professional graphic designer.
Exhibit Sign and Quote Posters: I wanted an entry poster for the exhibit and I wanted to display quotes that inspired me and that tied in with the theme of the exhibit. I used this printer for postcards, signs, and quote posters. They are local and are experienced in working with artists.
Food and Drink: Like any good hostess, provide your guests with refreshments.
Guest Book: I asked visitors to the exhibit to sign and leave their e-mail addresses. A big ask though it’s vital to collect this information. One to personally thank them for coming and two, to grow my list.
Want the Grand Total for all of this? $2726.39. Yep, that’s right. The bulk of it went to framing the work. It would be worth considering going after a small grant to finance a solo show in the future.
More of What I Learned and More Tips…
TIP: Always save the boxes frames are shipped in. I know that seems like an obvious duh, but we are so quick to dispose of the packaging. Frame ship boxes can be repurposed for transporting artwork from shows to buyers, to galleries, etc.)
TIP: Place a name label on the back of each piece before boxing and delivering them to the gallery. This is a courtesy to those hanging the show. You don’t want them to have to guess which art label goes with which art piece.
TIP: Show up early to your own show. You want to make sure the work is hung where it should go, that it’s hanging straight on the walls and the labeling is correct. (Remember, I had written short stories to go with each work. It would have been really odd to have those mixed up).
Ask for Help. I am stubbornly independent. I tend to do everything on my own. I l found I had to give this up if I was to have any chance of saving my sanity. I’m so fortunate that my partner is an artist (though not currently practicing) as he was incredibly insightful in helping me with the placement and flow of the exhibit. I was too close to the work to do this. He could envision what piece showed well next to another piece and spacing between pieces, which piece commanded a full wall, and where others grouped nicely.
This quote, wanting community and asking for help, really speaks to me so I thought I would throw it in.
“Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities.”— K-Hole
I was also fortunate that the Owatonna Arts Center had people come in to help set up tables and refreshments. The artistic director even brought in a bouquet of wild praise phlox. Given the exhibit’s theme, it was a perfect flower to have at the opening.
Things Can (and Will) Go Sideways. If technology glitches are going to happen, they will happen right before your artist talk. The Owatonna Arts Center had a projector and laptop to show the PowerPoint presentation I created for my artist talk but the laptop refused to cooperate. Turns out the power to the laptop needed to be plugged in. Simple as that. 15 minutes later and a little rattled, I was on. The audience was patient. Such gracious people. My talk was well-received. Such gracious people.
Promotion. This part feels icky awkward and self-centered to artists. It certainly did for me. However, repeat the mantra: “Promote your show everywhere possible.” Get into that mindset. “Get creative,” I told myself. For example, I did Instagram stories of my packing up the work, and unpacking it at the gallery, as a teaser. I was lucky the People’s Press of Owatonna interviewed me about the exhibit. I posted the exhibit and opening date via the Minnesota Monthly online calendar. You just need to create an account to do this for an event. I wasn’t sure if the magazine would let it go live, but it did!
Keep Promoting After the Opening. You never know what will happen. Besides social media posts and video snippets, I figured out how to have my solo exhibit mentioned on MPR’s Art Hounds. With a little research, a thoughtful email to one of the contributing editors of Art Hounds, and asking a good artist friend to give an audio review of the exhibit, Children Of Nature: Find Your Wonderland was on the airwaves. People who would otherwise not know about the exhibit ended up coming to see the exhibit.
Your Ego May Intersect. Let it go. Things will not go perfectly. There were so many things I wanted to say and say differently to connect with the message behind the art. I had to remember people won’t remember what I said or didn’t say. They remember what they experienced.
Post Opening Blues. After all that work, you might feel down after the opening. I know I did. I had to remind myself that was my ego complaining. Let it go.
Have Work in Progress. Have work ready and waiting for you back in your studio, and have planning underway for your next project to jump into. Otherwise, you could lose weeks languishing in post-opening blues.
Set Realistic Expectations. I wanted more people to show up. However, with the gallery space and the timing (June being a very busy month for folks), having 30 people show up made the opening enjoyable. Not too crowded so people could take in the art, read the stories I had written up, and visit.
Sales. Again, I had to set realistic expectations. Still, I wanted most of the work would sell. Not for my own bottom line though the sale of at least three pieces would recoup the costs involved in producing the exhibit. I want everything to sell so that 20% of the proceeds can go to support the Owatonna Arts Center (a rural cultural jewel) and another 10% I want to have to donate to three favorite Minnesota environmental non-profits of mine.
Have a Guest Book Available. A guest book I hope most people would be willing to sign and leave an email address. I plan to reach out to everyone who came to see the show and offer my sincere thanks and gratitude. By showing up, coming to see the exhibit, and experiencing the art firsthand, they have made the art complete. That’s huge for me.
(I know I mention this in the budget section but it bears repeating.)
Be Open to People’s Opinions. They will have them. While most people openly tell me they see my artwork as beautiful, so fine and detailed, to downright amazing, there will be people who don’t get it, who are not moved or don’t even like the work. That’s OK. Not everyone is going to be my audience. One woman at the opening expressed that she thought a piece of mine was “gross, really gross.” To my face.
Startled at first, I remembered that was the whole point of the exhibit, to ask the question of what is aesthetically perceived as beautiful in nature and what is not. Later someone else told me that same piece was her favorite of all the pieces in the exhibit. Art is so subjective.
This Is Just One Chapter in My Career as An Artist. Will it open doors? What will come next? I don’t expect phone calls or emails to be handed to the next opportunity. In the current “The Art World,” I sense that I will have to create opportunities for myself, have a plan, and go after it. Above all, I want to evolve artistically, improve how I show up in the world and ways I can contribute to the greater good. That’s the biggest focus of all.
Was any of this helpful? Have questions you’d like to ask about the process of producing a solo exhibit? Are you an artist who recently created your own solo exhibit? How did it go? Would you suggest I did something differently or did more to promote the show? Please share, comments are welcomed!