How To Curate an Art Exhibition

Tips from a Curatorial Insider on how to Organize a Great Art Show

Photo of art exhibition

Curating can be a rewarding profession in the arts, and one that is very versatile: by keeping in mind my tips for curatorial success, you'll be better equipped to curate in museums, galleries, independent spaces--anywhere!

Good luck.

Step 1

HAVE A STRONG THESIS: When I describe curating to people who are unfamiliar with the profession, I tell them that an exhibition is like an essay on a wall: you must have a strong thesis, and the art work in the exhibition is the support and substance of that thesis. You also want your idea to be straightforward: if you can't put it into a "topic sentence" of sorts, then go back to the drawing board.

Step 2

SELECT YOUR WORK CAREFULLY: like an essay, you wouldn't want to pick poor examples that don't buttress your thesis; there must be a clear relationship between your curatorial idea and the art work that the public sees. Sometimes the thesis will develop from the art work you select--as the objects accumulate, you may start to see certain similarities and trends in the art; this could be the case, for instance, if you're curating at an independent art space and must use their register of artists, or must do a collection exhibition at a museum. Other times you will start with the thesis and then select the art work that fits the mold. If you need help finding artists and art works that fit your thesis, try have a useful search engine to research art, artists and art articles. You can search by venue too, so you can find the perfect space that might want to exhibit your macaroni art show.

Step 3

SEE THE ART WORK IN PERSON: Whether it's in a museum collection, private collection or artist's studio, if you have the chance to see the art object in person, do it (and take your camera). There are a few very important reasons for this: you can look for any blemishes that may not have shown up in reproductions (I know from first-hand experience, it is embarrassing to have a painting in your show that has clear signs of water damage...); you can avoid general surprises (Oh, I didn't realize it wouldn't fit through the door of my gallery!); you are creating a personal relationship with the collector/artist/curator that will be helpful down the road when those inevitable hiccups happen; and if you are publishing a catalog, you'll know firsthand what the reproduction should look like (this is where the camera is handy!).

Step 4

KEEP A DETAILED CHECKLIST: The checklist is the keystone to a well-organized exhibition. I usually use an excel document, and keep tabs of the following:

  • title
  • dimensions
  • media and collection of the art object, with a thumbnail of the art work for a visual
  • when the loan forms were sent to the lender
  • when you received the signed loan forms
  • when you countersigned and returned a copy of the loan form to the lender
  • if you have photography of the art work (i.e., if you have a transparency or digital image to make a reproduction)
  • and lastly, a "notes" section, to jot down any other details--visits you made to a studio, conversations you had with a lender on the phone, etc. When you have 100 objects and have met fifty collectors, you'll be glad you took notes.

Step 5

COMMUNICATE WITH OTHER DEPARTMENTS: If you're working in a museum or larger art institution, check in with everyone once in a while to make sure everyone is on the same proverbial page--make sure your colleagues keep you apprised of developments, and vice versa. A particularly important example: check with your Membership and Individual Giving Departments for the records of all prospective lenders before you meet them to see if they have any prior relationship to the institution. If the lender gave thousands of dollars to patronize a previous exhibition, you should know about it.

Step 6

CREATE A STRONG EXHIBITION DESIGN: If you'll be hiring an exhibition designer, choose wisely: if the exhibition designer is mostly experienced in designing Old Masters exhibitions, don't hire him for your contemporary art show. If you have the budget, try to keep the design visually interesting: mix it up with different colored walls, vary the lighting (if the media of the objects allow it), etc. But be mindful of the flow of your show: to continue the essay analogy, you wouldn't put your concluding paragraph before your introductory paragraph. The structure and layout of the show are vital to conveying the thesis, and you must collaborate with your designer to make sure it all comes together.

Step 7

WRITE CLEAR EXHIBITION TEXT: Not all shows will warrant text panels, but if it does, here's a few tips: don't be too wordy! People came here to see art, not read a book--save the long analysis for the exhibition catalog. Keep your audience in mind--if you will likely have many elderly people seeing your show, especially make sure the font is large enough for them to read the text. As with any writing, have as many people proofread and edit it for clarity as you can. Put the exhibition texts in spacious parts of the gallery: if you put a panel in a narrow hallway, you'll get clogging of space that will disrupt the flow of human traffic and be a potential hazard in case of emergency.

Step 8

STAY ON THEIR GOOD SIDE: At the end of an exhibition, it is always a nice gesture to write a thank you note to all those involved. As you can see, an exhibition is not a one-man show, but a large collaboration of many people. Send an email to your colleagues thanking them; send formal letters to your lenders, artists, curators and museum directors. If you haven't already done so, send a complimentary exhibition catalog if your budget allows it. Save them in your contacts list and invite them to future events and openings. You never know when you might work with them again!

Online art classes can help you learn more about the atmospheric and lighting requirements of different media, and can also teach you the organizational skills needed to put together a truly inspiring exhibition.


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