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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

How Can I Get into Art Exhibitions?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I spend a lot of time looking at ‘calls for art.’ Most of them require a good chunk of money in terms of application fees. Sometimes I feel like there are opportunities that I would have gotten to hear about had I been in art school. I feel restricted and lost. I yearn for an art community. The only thing that I can think of as a solution is going back to school for my master’s degree.

I just don’t know where to start, to make a mark as an artist until that happens. I wish I could create a daily plan, and set aside a scheduled amount of time to just look at artist opportunities online, but then again I’m not sure about which doors to knock on. How can I get into art exhibitions?”

At this point, the galleries will not come to you, so you have to start taking the initiative to knock on doors. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. After all, the worst case scenario is that they will say no. Local college and university art galleries are great to target because they are not commercially driven and therefore are usually more open to different kinds of work.

You will be pleasantly surprised to see how many college galleries are willing to consider you for an exhibition if you approach them in a professional manner. Write a brief email to the gallery director asking if they are accepting artist submissions. If they respond and say yes, write a courteous cover letter to the gallery director introducing yourself and your work to the director of the gallery and enclose your artist statement with high quality printouts or a CD. The last three solo exhibitions I booked were because I approached the venue in this way. If you approach 30 galleries and get one or two responses, those are good results.

Another option that works well for many artists is to apply for membership in a local artist’s co-op. Once you’re accepted as a member, most co-ops will give you a solo exhibition every 2-3 years, as well as member’s shows, so you are guaranteed to be exhibiting on a regular basis. Being a member comes with other responsibilities like a member’s monthly fee, gallery sitting, attending meetings, etc. so be prepared for that.

Danforth Museum of Art, Clara Lieu

Now that I am a mid-career artist, I can be much more discriminating about where I exhibit my work. I always heavily research the venue first to see what kind of place it is. I look for red flags: if the gallery doesn’t have a website or if the gallery charges a fee to exhibit. I am established enough that I am in a position to be able to turn down opportunities if I feel they will not advance my career. Instead, I now focus my energy on building relationships with art dealers and specific curators at local, regional and national museums.

Your ultimate goal with exhibitions is to be well known enough by curators and other artists that the exhibition opportunities come to you. Invitational exhibitions are the best ones to be a part of, and are usually in high caliber venues with more established artists.

When I was at the very beginning of my career I had no exhibition history to speak of, so I had to start somewhere. Beginning locally seemed to be the most accessible way into exhibitions, so I looked online for local juried exhibitions that I could enter, and spent a lot of money on entry fees. I was not selective about where I showed my work. Anywhere anyone would exhibit my work, I jumped at the opportunity.

This strategy was effective in terms of raising my local visibility and building my resume, which is essential when you’re just getting started. I exhibited my work at all sorts of contrasting venues: an office building, local art centers, a gallery that was in a subway station, open studios and many others. Don’t be shy and be sure to attend the opening reception of every exhibition you’re in to meet the other artists, the gallery director and the juror in person. This is a great way to network with other artists and get your name out there on the local art scene.

Crayon Drawings, Clara Lieu

However, after some time, doing all of these juried exhibitions seemed to be only going so far for me. Many times it felt like a total crap shoot in terms of whether I was accepted or not into the exhibition, and paying the costly entry fees was becoming a burden. The other issue is that juried exhibitions are always group exhibitions, where you only get to exhibit one piece of your art at a time. In a large group exhibition, it’s easy to be overlooked. I was starting to feel like I was a needle in a haystack.

I needed to bring myself to the next level, so I abandoned group exhibitions temporarily and began approaching venues to do solo exhibitions. One strategy that I still use is to look at other artists’ resumes online. I search for local artists, peers and colleagues who are at about the same stage at their careers, or at the next stage where I want my career to be. I analyze what venues these artists have shown at, and make a list of venues to approach from their resumes. I ask my local artist friends where they have shown their work, how they got that show, and get them to make recommendations. Eventually, I got myself into enough solo exhibitions that I stopped entering juried group exhibitions altogether.

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4 responses on "Getting into Art Exhibitions"

  1. As much as the word “networking” runs a cold chill down my spine, it’s so important as an artist. But don’t think of it as work, it’s really just making friends with local artist in your community! Reach out, especially today with instagram it’s so easy to find artist around you and tell them how much you love their work! Asking someone to coffee to talk about their work is an easy first step, and I think you’ll find it to be a lot more enjoyable than “networking” is portrayed. 🙂

  2. Prof Lieu makes some great suggestions; I think you really need to just start getting your work out there, even if it’s at seemingly un-glamorous spaces like your local library, university gallery, or coffee shop. You really never know who is going to be exposed to your work in these spaces or who you will meet at openings for these shows. – And anyway, any kind of showing is always great motivation to finish some new work! You might be surprised. The best opportunities I’ve had as an artist thus far have come almost exclusively from the people I know, or at the very least pursuing leads they’ve given me. If someone tells you about something that sounds even remotely promising, follow through! I never imagined that there was a real art community in my little hometown, so I never looked for anything when I moved back there after college… It took tabling at a half-dozen independent publishing and zine shows up and down the east coast before someone finally told me about an amazing space just 20 minutes from my parent’s house!

    • This is so true that you really NEVER KNOW who might see your work in any context. My first solo exhibition after I received my MFA happened this way. I was at an informal gathering at an artist’s association where everyone brought their prints to show the other members, super casual and mellow situation, nothing fancy at all. Just plop your prints on a table and chat with other artists. We happened to be having the meeting at a regional museum. Afterwards, this woman I had never met before came up to me and out of the blue said “Hello, I’m the director of the museum and I’d like to offer you a solo exhibition.”

  3. I think the community bit is the biggest influence over who and what is going to be featured in a show. An MFA is certainly a great place to get that community lifeblood, but there are less drastic and expensive ways of finding an art community. Prof Lieu mentions a lot of great ways to network and be seen here, but I also want to add that you could also consider applying for a residency. An art residency is a place you go to to focus on making your artwork. They are all over the world in all types of locations, and can be anywhere from a few days to a few years in duration. Right now I am at a residency that hosts fifty artists and writers every month. I have made a lot of new art friends who live all over the globe. Who knows if one of them will invite me to exhibit with them, but I personally have found some artists I would ask my boss if we could curate into a show.

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