How to Create an Exhibition with Little or No Money

Sunday 20 June – Beach Hut 139, Tankerton Slopes, 3-4pm

Guest Curators:
Ann Gritz, Assistant Curator Hayward Gallery
Courtenay Finn, Independent Curator New York

My guests for this seminar happen to be close friends of mine, with whom I completed my MA in Curatorial Practice at the California College of Arts. Having finished the course in 2008 we are very much at early stages in our careers where we are not only trying to survive and support ourselves, but also make our marks doing projects that we are passionate about; the two things do not always go hand in hand.

One thing we can all agree on is that when you do have money to work with it’s never enough! For each of us working on our independent projects the main costs vary. Anna worked on a show in San Francisco called ‘Unfamiliar Spaces’ at Playspace Gallery. The show consisted of works by German artists, therefore the main costs involved shipping the work. She managed to get a grant from the Goethe Institute to cover the costs; foreign cultural institutes are always good place to start looking for funding because they like to see their artists represented in other countries. For Courtenay one of the projects she worked on at a place called the Front Room in Cleveland was a show of video works which meant that shipping costs were quite low, but her main costs involved equipment such as monitors and projectors which cost a lot. For myself doing a show in London, finding a space was the main challenge. I ended up finding a gallery space within an artist studio collective called WorkingRooms, however renting the space for a month took up most of my budget.

Space – Empty shop fronts are one place to start. Sometimes you can persuade estate agents to let you take over a shopfront temporarily because it helps bring attention to the space and markets it as an attractive property. There are movements in London and New York to get artists to open ‘pop-ups’ in empty shopfronts as a way to support artists as well as promote property development. HOWEVER sometimes it’s better to wait until you have a bit more money and find an appropriate space for the work rather than just working with what is given to you. For example, Courtenay worked at the Lower East Side Printshop with is an artsts’ studio, not an exhibition space. They had a small gallery where they presented small shows, but in some cases it did a disservice to the work because it had the lighting and the structure of a studio rather than a gallery. It also wasn’t known as a gallery, therefore bringing in an audience was a real challenge, which leads us to our next cost challenge…marketing.

Marketing – With tools like e-flux and great national/international mailouts and e-flyers good marketing seems to have become as important as the show itself. One might argue that it almost doesn’t matter if people come to see the show, as long as they can read about it, see pictures and discuss the concept and ideas. For example Courtenay is currently working on a show at apexart in New York, and she was told that most people with find out about and see the show within the context of the brochure. To have an ad in e-flux means that thousands of international curators, artists, arts audiences will find out about your show – however those ads cost about $600 which is a huge cost out of an exhibition budget. Ultimately though the goal is still to get people in a physical space. There’s a lot of competition and the key time to get people in is for openings. If you have artists from out of town it can be an extra cost to get them to come, which is always a draw for visitors and collectors if they have a chance to meet the artist. It is worth thinking about planning events during the run of the exhibition or having a vernissage to get people to attend. If the space you are in doesn’t already have the reputation of being an interesting art space it is useful to plan performances or talks that will draw more attention to the space and the work. The more visitors you get also helps with raising money, as funders really want to know that people will be engaging with the project that they are putting money into.

The Art of Negotiation – Bartering is a key skill as a curator. The three of us did a show together called ‘Self-Storage’ which took place in a self storage building. We couldn’t offer the manager a work of art in exchange for the space because that didn’t interest him, but we could offer our exhibition being there as a great marketing opportunity for his business. It is about finding a language of exchange no matter who you are dealing with. Being honest about your budget is very important. You can get things for free or discounted if you can plead your case. We are all in the same position and everyone knows that artists and curators are struggling. We still want to put on and to see strong and thoughtful exhibitions – despite budget cuts people willing to work with you. With the Front Room show that Courtenay curated, she needed 2 projectors and 3-4 monitors. In order to get them she made different arrangements with the local art school and artist friends – letting them use the gallery space for free for loan of equipment.

Shipping is one of the few things you can’t barter on, and it is one of the key costs to consider. If you can’t afford proper art shipping you can use Fedex or the postal service, but know you are taking a big risk, and be prepared if the work is broken or goes missing. The work in this case should be able to be made again or you can cover the insurance costs, otherwise you should reconsider shipping it. You should also always include a proforma that says the work will be exiting the country and that it is for educational purposes only, otherwise the customs costs will be high, or customs will hold onto the work and it will not arrive in time for your exhibition (this has happened to me – a curator’s worst nightmare!). Never forget that in the cost of shipping the work, you will have to ship it back!

The key thing that an independent curator has to have is time. It is your most valuable asset, as you will have to put in so much more time and work to figure out how to get things cheaper. This is obviously challenge for young artists and curators as the first sacrifice tends to be payment for ourselves in effort to pay for space, marketing and equipment. Most of us have to have additional jobs as well as finding the time to put in all of this work for free. This certainly is nothing new, and not even a complaint as we are all aware that what we do is a labour of love and a desire to share ideas and support artists. It would be great if there were more opportunities like the apexart Unsolicited Proposal Programme which encourages curators, artists, writers no matter what your experience to submit proposals and the winners are given $5,000 to do a show. In the meantime here are some tips that the guests and visitors came up with on how to organise an exhibition with little or no money:

Some Key Tips:

– Be honest about your budget – be honest with yourself and others about what you can afford

– Don’t give up and never accept first offer! Stand your ground and make your case

– If you do have money be reasonable in your negotiations. Remember that the person or organisation you are borrowing from probably needs the money too.

– Use your own community in terms of exchange, it is a good way to build relationship with your arts community

– Aim for a high standard – it is worth aiming for something might be above your budget and try to negotiate to get it. Set yourself a date to reassess – it might be better to drop one work if it means you can have a better space/equipment for the other works.

– If you help out and volunteer your time to people, they will do the same for you and they will come to your show.

– Documentation – make sure you have strong evidence of the show. Funders want to see that you are invested in your practice/artists/ideas, and it is a good way to repay your artists – they can use images to apply for their own funding applications and portfolios

– Research Funding – An important part of being a curator is finding money; there is money but sometimes it’s hard to find, look at the logos on the PR for other shows and ask around

– Decide if it’s possible. Maybe it is best to wait a year or two when you have better resources to do the show how you would like to instead of compromising too much.

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One Response to How to Create an Exhibition with Little or No Money

  1. Pingback: First Seminar Blog Up! | The Whitstable Satellite 2010

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