This is the first installment of a four-part series on how to exhibit, prepare and promote your work, plus how to think about curators judging it. I have drawn on lectures, workshops, research, gallery owners and nearly thirty years of twenty-four solo exhibits and over 100 group/juried shows in Carolina, Maine, and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Caveat: Exhibiting and sales are almost entirely separate from the creative process and may sometimes conflict with it, but quality work is important to both. Creative artists like to experiment and explore, for example, but galleries often see inconsistency of style or genre as lacking direction or maturity, and they know their audiences want to be sure they can expect certain results.

Opportunities to exhibit depend largely on your level of art making—experience, style, genre, competency, sophistication, subject matter, etc. If you are just starting out or a student, look around to see what others at your level are doing and how. Join or start a group with similar interests and work at exhibiting together in a co-op group. The relationships forged there can last a lifetime. Visit to join or start a UMVA chapter in your area. Consider hanging work in schools, libraries, restaurants, bars, cafes, fairgrounds, banks, churches, art centers, community centers, storefronts, even hospitals and other public gathering places that have bare walls. Show your work however and wherever you get a chance, not so much for sales but for recognition. In openly-public spaces, make sure your work is family-appropriate. Consider the potential risk of damage or theft, which is considerably less in a purposeful art venue. The placement and lighting may not always be great because it is probably there for other purposes like dining, for example. Later on, you might want to be more selective, as you will be judged by the company you keep and the quality of their work, but always be sure that the venues you choose support arts and artists in a respectful way. Show where your peers hang out and your community will gather to support you, starting with your family and friends. Always present your work well. More on that in the next installments. Above all, follow your passion, not fads. Experiment and be creative.

If you look around and think your work is as good as what is being shown regularly in exhibition venues, you may be ready to exhibit more purposefully. Invite a friendly and respected artist/critic to review your work and offer an opinion and exhibit suggestions. Begin exhibiting where a wide audience will see your work—juried shows, art fairs, etc. Enter juried competitions of work at about your level. Often all you need to do is enter up to three images by email and pay a small fee, say $25. Make sure you adhere to any exhibit criteria or theme and check out the juror to see that your work fits the circumstances. Realize also that a lot of good work may not be accepted. Don’t be discouraged if yours is not. Learn from it. What was accepted and why?

Analyze your successful competitors/peers and do what they do. Study the prices of comparable work by your peers and price your work accordingly, considering your expenses, venue commissions, etc. Determine what makes your work unique and type key words about it into a computer search engine to see who your competitors are. What are their locations, backgrounds, education, resumes, bios, artist statements, promotions, presentations, websites and exhibit venues? Work to develop those things, if you don’t have them. Meanwhile, take workshops from accomplished artists you admire. Study and learn from the great artists and become conversant in art. Join or start a support group of your peers, if you haven’t already.

Once you begin to produce, hold a studio visit and sale. Invite your friends and family, contact the news media and perhaps issue a press release. Start developing a mail and email list. Price your work so people will be enticed to buy it, then build on your success as you sell additional work. Don’t forget to charge and report the 5.5 percent state sales tax. Studio sales can prove to a prospective gallery that you can bring an audience with you, one of the most important things you can do for it. Think of the matchup as a 50/50 working relationship—a business partnership.

As you begin to show regularly, experience some sales, and build a body of work, you may be ready to approach commercial galleries. The easiest way to get started in a commercial gallery is to have one or two pieces in one or more group shows or join a co-op gallery where artists share exhibition costs. Go to exhibits and openings to study the character of galleries and their clientele, especially galleries you aspire to be in. Get to meet people. Go with a friend, if you don’t want to go cold turkey. What type of work do you see there—abstraction, realism, landscapes, portraits, tourist genre, high-end, expensive? What seems to sell or create the most buzz? What is the gallery’s reputation? Does your work seem compatible in quality, subject matter, price and style?

Good commercial galleries will promote and market your work and collect the sales tax, but will probably want a 50 percent commission on all sales and may want exclusive rights to show and sell your work, at least within a radius of fifty miles or so. They will also frown on sales out of your home/studio, as it undercuts their efforts on your behalf. Most galleries have their own policies and procedures. Make sure you ask, if they are not spelled out clearly, including how long after an exhibit some kind of commission on sales is expected and under what circumstances. It’s best to have agreements/conditions in writing so they are clear to both parties.

Find out how galleries want to review new artists and their work. Most galleries also frown on artists just walking in unannounced with work or a portfolio. Often the decision makers are not there anyway. They may prefer to receive an email, thumb drive, CD/DVD or 8 x 10 in. portfolio, or a scheduled, in-person, tablet-computer presentation, backed up by a few actual pieces. In any case, you should learn to take or acquire high-quality images of a dozen of your best, most-recent pieces (smartphone pictures are fine, if well-cropped, straightened, hi-resolution and correct exposure). Ideally before that, you also would have a well-designed, professional website with your images, artist statement, biography, and resume. More on all that in the next installment.

Jason Horejs, owner of Xanadu Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona and leader of exhibition workshops around the country, endorses and teaches virtually all the advice above. I have relied heavily on notes from one of his workshops and consolidated advice from others you can find online. Jason’s overarching emphasis is on quality. In his experience, the most successful artists are those devoted to high-quality work and presentation, as serious collectors are very discerning about what they buy. He reminds that galleries are busy and often inundated with appeals from aspiring artists, most of whom cannot be accommodated. He suggests learning galleries’ preferences, following them, making your presentation memorable, and respecting their limited time. If you are not successful, try elsewhere. You can always ask for feedback but it may not be forthcoming.

Kelley Lehr, co-owner/operator of the legendary Greenhut Galleries and the relatively new, expansive Cove Street Arts in Portland, reinforces the importance of quality:

At both Cove and Greenhut, the most fundamental consideration when reviewing artist submissions or perusing an artist’s web presence during our show-planning process is the quality of the artwork. In terms not only of skill level, but with regard also to the uniqueness and authenticity of an artist’s “voice.” Because, even if expertly rendered, we don’t find work compelling if it feels generic (in the sense of being indistinguishable from the work of many other artists) or if it lacks the imprint of an artist’s personal energy. Since our galleries are commercial, salability is frequently a concern, and we’ve found the work that sells best tends to occupy a ‘sweet spot’ where accessibility, skill, and the distinctive qualities of the artist’s style converge.

Kelley goes on to say that the quality of photos representing the work is also very important. Given the high volume of programming presented per year in their galleries, they simply do not have the luxury of conducting studio visits with all the artists they are potentially interested in showing. And thus, their first encounter with the work of a new-to-them artist typically occurs online. She feels that poor-quality images can make even high-quality work appear shabby, so it’s really important for artists’ websites and social media to include hi-resolution images that accurately portray the artwork’s palette, texture, and other surface qualities.

UMVA board member Cynthia Hyde, who is co-owner/operator of the well-established Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland and another significant contributor to this article, makes an important point about transparency:

If you are invited to be in a show in a gallery other than the one you are presently working with, discuss first with your current gallery before accepting. Fearing that your gallery will say “no” is not a good reason to go ahead and commit to another gallery. You are developing a relationship with your gallery—it may want to know what other places have your work. I say this from years of experience, don’t two-time your gallery! Everyone should be able to share and share alike, but it’s important to have a friendly discussion.

This is not to say you shouldn’t show in more than one gallery for wider exposure, but be up-front about it, especially if your gallery is working hard to promote and sell your work. At some point, you may want to explore exhibit opportunities beyond Maine, especially competitive shows, but that can take considerable research, promotion efforts, and a certain amount of luck.

As in most things, the name of the game is relationships, and the best are in-person. If you do land a gallery, be thankful, trust it, and take its advice on exhibiting, promotion, and sales. If your work is well-received and sells, don’t be afraid to suggest a feature/solo show in the future, but realize that galleries usually plan their exhibit seasons well in advance. Good luck.

Online, virtual shows, and sales, including non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and payment by cryptocurrency like bitcoin are a whole new realm apart from brick and mortar exhibits. I will touch on them in the third installment on “How to Promote Your Work.” The next installment will be on “How to Prepare Your Work for a Show.”


Image at top: Morris David Dorenfield at Rockland’s Caldbeck Gallery.