Lessons from an exhibition
I feel so fortunate to have been able to host a four day exhibition by 13 different artists, all members of Living from Art at Parabola Arts Centre 21- 24 October, almost a year since our first exhibition at this wonderful venue. I am truly grateful for support from the Hannah Dwyer of Cheltenham Ladies College Events and Venues team, for making this possible, and to Eve Jardine Young, the Ladies College Principal, Patricia Stead, and other college staff who visited the exhibition.
I am so sorry for all the artists I know who have been working incredibly hard preparing for exhibitions in November, which have all now been cancelled. It must be so disappointing, as well as coping with yet more financial loss from marketing and other costs that can’t be recovered. We should all be very grateful for the resilience of artists and other creatives, who are working so hard to preserve the arts in this country. We really need them to still be around when this virus is finally under control. In this blog I want to share some of my observations and lessons I learned from this experience and will take forward to the next exhibition I am able to put on, whenever that may be. I am also very keen to hear others’ experiences of exhibitions in the time of Covid.
I am delighted that all the’ Track and Trace’ information we collected has not been needed and can be destroyed in another week. We were fortunate to be able to use a ‘state of the art’ temperature scanning machine and to have the space for an effective one way system. The opportunity to purchase tickets for timed entry was appreciated by some customers and may have encouraged a commitment to attend. I had positive comments people who said they appreciated the careful arrangements to make them feel as safe as possible. I felt it was an ongoing challenge to make sure we and our visitors followed all the rules whilst also being as welcoming and hospitable as possible. I really missed the opportunity to offer refreshments, and the time to stop and stare or go back to look again was made more difficult by the one-way system. Working extra hard to project a smile through masks all day can be exhausting!
We wondered about the impact of the virus on people’s behaviour and how many would be ‘up for visiting’ an exhibition. We were pleased with the number of visitors who came, significantly more than our previous exhibition last year. I think it’s impossible to know if this is attributable to improved marketing from myself and 13 other artists and how much to people yearning for something interesting, exciting and life-affirming to visit after all these months. What I do know is that for this exhibition we needed to reach out and tell everyone who came about this event, in a whole variety of ways, There are so many variables that might impact on attendance, that I find it almost impossible to move beyond my own ‘gut feelings’. I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks they have found a way to do this more scientifically.
It was a real boost for me to spend 4 days in the company of such a positive group of varied artists, all willing to work together and support each other, both before and during the event. Of course, solo exhibitions, and themed exhibitions by two or three carefully chosen complementary artists have much to recommend them. They may well be easier to organise, to market, or to present as a coherent whole. But there were very real advantages to our ‘bakers dozen’ exhibiting together – both for the artists and for visitors.
After months of living with the virus, this was a rare opportunity for these artists to get to know each other. Building a community of artists who can support each other has always been one of the most important roles for the Living from Art network, and the exhibition was a great opportunity to take this forward. I know the artists felt the benefit of the relationships they built with their fellow exhibitors, despite social distancing and mask-wearing. There were many practical benefits too: sharing information and experience on pricing, framing, hanging, marketing, suppliers, exhibition venues and much more; observing how others talked to customers and described their work and listening to visitors talking about other artists’ work. I hope the sense of community between the artists will be a continuing benefit to them all.
For our visitors, I think the variety of work was a real bonus. This was welcomed by many visitors who enjoyed the diversity of work and the opportunity to find the thing that really ‘spoke to them’
The space that the galleries offered, the natural divisions created by alcoves and chimney breasts as well as the content, hanging arrangement and framing style of different artists gave each space an identity. Tables, counter tops and print frames allowed different products to be displayed in a way that added to, rather than distracted from the hung work. I was delighted by the attractive, professional appearance of the exhibition. For me, a clear, well labelled, understandable pricing system for different items and some consistency in pricing and framing is helpful – visually, administratively, and for the customer. I also respect that some artists have different views on this.
We offered a wide range of price points from cards at £2.50 to large originals up to £500, with the opportunity to buy prints, coasters, mugs, and tiny originals for less than £20. Sales of these smaller items made up almost half of our revenue. Having a variety of work for sale at a range of price points is something that benefits both artists and visitors. I don’t believe that having cards, merchandise and prints available dissuaded anyone from purchasing an original. I do think it meant that people who either couldn’t afford or just weren’t yet ‘ready ‘ to consider spending £300 on an original, went away with something meaningful, a real sense of connection with a local artist (and their contact details). I hope they also had a sense of satisfaction at having become a supporter of artists.
One of my personal highlights was seeing two people, who it would have been very easy to stereotype as ‘people who wouldn’t enjoy art’ or even worse ‘people we don’t want to welcome and encourage to our exhibition’ going round twice and choosing a small purchase each. They may never have the financial means to purchase an original, but. to me, they are very welcome supporters of the arts. The organisation Just a card.org is named after a comment from an independent gallery owner who was closing – ‘if only everyone who visited and enjoyed what we offered had bought just a card we would have managed to keep going’. We are very grateful to everyone who did indeed buy a card, or maybe more, to help support the artists who made the work we were exhibiting. Now more than ever, I hope everyone is thinking about the need to support what we love in our country and what we hope will still be there in the future
I’m not alone in finding it almost impossible to predict who will actually buy a painting – at the exhibition or afterwards when they have researched the artist more. I’ve heard this from many experienced artists too. Someone who appears to take a cursory glance and move on, goes straight up to the sales desk to buy it. Someone who has spent ages looking at a work, talking about it, expressing how much they like it, leaves without making any purchase. I try not to be excitedly getting my ‘red dots’ prepared (mentally at least) and just enjoy the moment when it happens.
Knowing our ‘ideal customers’ and finding the best way to reach out to them is, of course important, and something that I and all the artists I work with need to keep working at, very hard! This exhibition certainly confirmed for me the importance of a personal invitation to people who know and like you and your work and the benefit of reaching out to the people who know you in other contexts and previous lives. I will certainly look to improve both my mailing lists/newsletters and my use of Linked in following this exhibition. This exhibition confirmed that artists do indeed buy from other artists, that the people you teach are very keen to see your work and that people who came to see a particular artist, never the less were happy to enjoy and sometimes purchase very different work from another artist.
It is possible to organise an exhibition you can be proud of in just a month if you work with the right group of positive artists – although a little more time is ideal
It is possible to bring on board 3 new artists in less than a week, when others drop out due to ill health – although definitely something to avoid if possible!
My life is enriched by working with artists and other creative people and I love the ‘buzz’ of event management. I am so pleased to have taken on the challenges of both in my 50s and 60s and hope to have the energy, fitness and opportunity to continue with both for some years to come.
Art is important to all our well being. We need to value and support art and artists of all kinds through these very difficult times.
Please do respond and share your own experiences from recent exhibitions.
Thank you to all the artists who have chosen to become members of Living from Art. I look forward to continuing to support you all in the coming months.
To any artists who would like to know more about Living from Art or would like a 1:1 discussion about your business needs, to please get in touch.
All the very best
Anna Poulton | 07747032912 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.livingfromart.co.uk