Useful Tips For Your First Solo Exhibition

In the last blog I posted I shared the details about my recent exhibition in Cefn Mawr. Despite being a professional artist for over a decade it was actually my first ever solo exhibition! It was an exciting opportunity and we’re thankful it went really well. As with any ‘first’ though, there was a learning curve!!! Now the exhibition has closed and we’re able to reflect on the experience, my wife Liz and I thought we’d share some of the lessons we learned. Keep reading for some of our useful tips for your first solo exhibition.

Poster for Simon O'Rourke's first solo exhibition.

KNOW THE BUILDING

Our first useful tip for your first solo exhibition is to get to know your building and the surrounding area. A lot of information for visitors is on Google, but people still often prefer to just ask you.

Our key things for you to consider are:

  • Who is physically responsible for keeping the building clean and tidy during the exhibition?
    Is there a caretaker or will you need to allow time for cleaning and tidying? In which case, ask about cleaning materials, and budget time/volunteers.
  • Will you be able to leave everything out each day, or will you need to tidy things away?
    This may especially be the case if the building is used for multiple activities. If you need to tidy away, find out about storage options.
  • Consider accessibility and basic needs.
    Where is the pushchair/wheelchair access? Can people with mobility difficulties move easily around the exhibition or do you need to rearrange exhibits? Where will you and your visitors park? And where is the nearest bathroom and place to get water, drinks or snacks? Don’t take for granted that these are all available in your building, and make sure you find out before opening.
  • Can you access the WiFi?
    Or will you need to toggle any devices to a phone and use data? With many people not carrying cash, this is important for being able to use a card terminal. And I’m sure visitors will ask too!
photo of the ebenezer in cefn mawr - venue for simon o'rourke's first solo exbibition. knowing the building and surrounding area well is one of his useful tips for your first solo exhibition

DISPLAYING YOUR WORK

Liz and I found there were several things to consider when it came to displaying and selling my work. It wasn’t just a case of picking my favourite things! Here are some of the things we learned:

  • Choose a balanced mix of your work to display.
    We found people liked the variety. Particularly if your goal is gaining commissions and selling work, then having a wider variety will mean it’s more likely someone will see something they like or feel inspired by.
  • How will you display your work?
    Make sure you ask if you can use things like screws, or if the building requires you to use things that won’t leave lasting holes! Will you need special art walls? What about pieces that are free-standing? Are there tables/crates available or will you need to bring them?
  • Light your work!
    Make sure you check the lighting in your building at a few different times of day. Is your work looking its best or do you need to bring additional lighting? In which case, check with the building manager that the circuits can take any extra lights, and think about things like power outlets, extension cables etc.
  • Clearly label your work with title, price and material.
    And if you have a catalogue, have some available for people to browse and/or take away.

SELLING YOUR WORK

  • Think about the practicalities of making a sale.
    Make sure you have somewhere to document sales and plan how you will take payment. We recommend having a way of doing card payments (terminal or app on phone) and a lockable cash box. Make sure there are instructions for charging the payment terminal (and that people know it’s their responsibility to do so), and make sure there’s somewhere safe to lock the cash box away if you’re not there at the end of the day to take it.
    You’ll also need to make some ‘sold’ labels so you can mark anything that sells during the exhibition.
  • Have a plan for people to collect their purchases.
    Or are you willing to ship things? Whatever you do, have a clear plan in place, research prices if necessary, and communicate the plan to everyone staffing the exhibition. Which brings me to…

STAFFING YOUR EXHIBITION

The next of our useful tips for your first solo exhibition are all about staffing. If you’re displaying somewhere with full time curators and guides, this may not be relevant. There may still be some useful information, but if you want to skip to the next section, just click HERE.

  • Recruit enough volunteers for the duration of the exhibition.
    We recommend at least two per shift. That way, if someone is engaged in coversation or a sale with a visitor, there’s still somebody else available to greet people. Reach out to your circle, but don’t be afraid to ask others too. You never know who may be willing to help! Which leads to…
  • Allow time for recruitment.
    Finding volunteers isn’t always easy as you’d think! People may take a while to get back to you or be unsure, you may have to send reminders and you may end up with a lot of people saying no and then needing to reach out to another group of people. Start the process as early as you can to make sure you’re fully covered.

    Make sure you get names, phone numbers and email addresses – especially if you usually communicate via apps like Messenger or Instagram. This way, you can send out any communication in one batch and know everyone has received it. If you ask permission to share that information with the other volunteers (data protection and all that) you can provide a contact directory or consider setting up a WhatsApp group. This empowers volunteers to make their own swaps or communicate anything like where they put something or even just that they’re running late.

WORKING WITH YOUR VOLUNTEERS

Our next set of useful tips for your first solo exhibition continues the theme of volunteers…

  • Give clear, detailed instructions for everything they will need to do.
    Our social media manager runs a large event each year and she even includes photos in the instructions showing where everything is and how to set it up! These instructions should include things like operating the payment terminal, how to complete a sale, It can be a good idea to email them but also have copies at the site too.
  • Make sure you communicate your expectations and any practicalities for them too.
    For example, can they eat and drink or will they need to make sure they’ve eaten beforehand? Are you providing hot drinks or snacks? Are they supposed to mingle or remain in one place? What happens if they’re running late?
  • Thank your volunteers!
    This should probably go without saying, but don’t let it be an afterthought. Plan for when you will thank them too. If you’re sending cards will you write them beforehand and have them there when they do their shift? Or mail them out later? Whatever you decide to do, be intentional.

    As much as possible training and communicating expectations is best done in-person, so if you are able, schedule yourself to be there the first time someone will be volunteering.

KNOW YOUR VISITORS!

We thinks it’s useful if you, as the artist, are at the exhibition youself as much as possible. People are there to see your work and will often enjoy chatting with you about the pieces and processes. Or simply enjoy the opportunity to meet you!

It’s also good to have a record of people who have visited. A guest book is an ideal way to do this. Have it by the entrance/exit and encourage people to sign. This ensures you have an idea of how many people came. It also gives an opportunity for people to comment which can be useful as feedback.

table at an art exhibition showing a pioece of art, flyers and a guest book. having a guest book is one of simon o'rourkes useful tips for your first solo exhibition
The guest books and entrance display at the exhibition

PUBLICISING YOUR FIRST EXHIBITION

Obviously, interacting with guests is important. But you won’t have any if you don’t have a plan for publicity!

  • Plan how you are going to advertise the exhibition and where.
    Online advertising and physical posters, magazine articles, newspaper articles and maybe even local radio are all valuable.
  • Even though the exhibition is running, try to put out a balanced mix of posts throughout the exhibition including your usual material. Don’t flood your social media with just about your exhibition – you’ll annoy people! It doesn’t mean you can’t reference the exhibition – but don’t make it the sole focus of everything.
  • And don’t spam on other people’s sites either – for example, in Facebook groups.
    It will annoy people and you could get banned from posting on that group’s page. We’ve found apost once a week in local groups that are busy seems to keep it in circulation. We also notice where others have shared, and don’t share it to the same group. When it came to the life demo I did at the end of the exhibiton, four people shared my post in a local group within three days which was plenty. It’s great when others do the work for you!!!
screenshot of a social media post from the fed of Simon O'Rourke
This post references the exhibition whilst still giving people new material to enjoy and invites some engagement.

FINAL USEFUL TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST SOLO EXHIBITION

If you made it this far, well done!!! It’s a lot, but in all honesty, there’s a lot to think about! And that’s why our next tip is not to plan too many other things while the exhibition is running.

Volunteers get sick, things break, questions need answering – life happens! Not planning too much else will give you some margin for fighting any exhibition-related fires that need extinguishing, and will allow you a bit more room to enjoy the experience.

It’s also important to take care of yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself through food, hydration, rest and exercise, you won’t be at your best for chatting to visitors or dealing with the practicialities. The first time we do anything, it’s more tiring than once we’ve done it a few times, so although you may find after a few exhibitions you can fit in more other activities, it’s important to give yourself some grace and psace for your first.

Also plan some debrief and post-exhibition admin days. You’ll need to have a breather and then make a note about what went well and where to improve. You’ll need to do some thank-you posts on social media as well as sending any thank you letters and emails. There will hopefully be sales/invoices for you to deal with, and hopefully some commissions arose that you’ll need to quote – or ate least send an email to say you’ll be working on it.

We hope you found this helpful, and if you’re holding your first solo exhibition soon, very best of luck to you.

And for the more experienced in this, what other tips would you include? Leave a comment below…


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