Recently, I had the pleasure of showing my solo exhibition “Embracing Imperfection” at the Overcash Gallery of the Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC.
Among the many questions I received in conjunction with this exhibition was “How do you choose artwork for a solo exhibition?”
Of course, making the selection did not just happen the day before the installation.
So let me walk you through the various steps which I considered leading up to this solo show.
1. Selecting artwork for your proposal: When submitting a proposal for a solo exhibition, the artist needs to include images of their existing work. Often 10-20 images are requested by the venue. But you should not submit any kind of art you have made in the past because solo exhibitions are not meant to show your talent and the breadth of work you can create. Instead, the work needs to be cohesive, which means the techniques, mediums, style, and subject matter should be consistent across your work.
In addition, the submitted images need to be representative of what you are planning to exhibit. Therefore, selecting the artwork for your proposal already indicates the visual trajectory for your art on exhibition several months or one or more years later.
For me, it was helpful that I had enough abstract line art created from fabric and thread available so I could submit a visually pleasing selection.
2. Many galleries ask for an artist statement and an exhibition narrative as part of the proposal. The artist statement refers to your current work while the narrative lays out your intent for the exhibition, the theme you want to address, and the story behind the work you want to develop for the proposed show.
Be very clear for yourself that the topic and the style will hold your own interest as you produce new work. After all, you want to be continuously excited about the creative process. These descriptions verbally define the art you will select when it is time for the installation. As you can read in my proposal for “Embracing Imperfection”, the theme for this exhibition was a continuation of the topics around resilience, personal growth, and mental health, which I had been focusing on already.
3. Once you are accepted, get into the studio! While you might not have enough pieces of art to fill an entire gallery at the time of your application (or acceptance) you will need to create sufficient work until the date of installation. Typically, galleries expect for you to deliver work that is congruent with your art in the proposal but are open to work which follows an evolution or development in your practice. Nevertheless, check with the venue EARLY about their expectations to avoid frustration or disagreements.
Bottom line: create new work and stay on course unless you have the approval of the gallery to explore completely new directions.
For many years I have been interested in the subject matter revolving around emotional well-being and therefore, I felt confident that I had enough to share about my personal experience and the lessons I wanted to pass on to others in a visual form.
4. Check the amount of art you create: Depending how much art you had available at the time of your acceptance and how much time you have available until the installation date, you might need or want to create new pieces to add to your pool to choose from.
When I received the acceptance letter, I had enough art to fill more than half the gallery. But I had an entire year available to create more work, that was even stronger as I became bolder in addressing the topic of mental health. Hence, as I was about half-way through the preparation time, I sat down with the layout of the gallery to create a mock exhibition. Using the measurements of the gallery and true-to-scale thumbnails of my artwork, I “installed” my art in the sketch. This approach helped me to visualize how the existing pieces played off of each other and how many more pieces I still needed to create.
5. Audit your art: If time allows, create more art even if you have enough to fill the gallery. Having a “surplus” of art will give you the chance to select the best work. I’m not saying that any of your/my work earmarked for exhibition is mediocre or even bad, but with every piece we create we develop our skills, our ideas, and our message.
Months before the installation date I had sufficient art pieces which looked harmonious together. But because I still had time to refine the narrative and explore new aspects of the topics, I continued to create more art, adding the pieces to my mock-up gallery, but also moving other pieces into the “maybe or maybe-not” section.
It feels great to have options!
6. Making the final selection: As you are making the final choice about the work that you will share with your audience, select from the work you have available to align with the narrative of your exhibition’s story but also to create a visual cohesiveness and harmony between the individual pieces. The following three criteria might be helpful:
You want to have a flow of colors from one art piece to the next. That does not mean you have to go around the color wheel or place colors along the spectrum of a rainbow. Some artists like to work with a limited color palette within one piece, but also limit their color choices for an entire exhibition. If you used a variety of colors, they should not clash when pieces hang next to each other. In addition, be mindful of the placement of your artwork to balance bright colors without overwhelming softly colored art.
Keep your audience in mind when selecting the size and therefore, the price of artwork. Some galleries cater to affluent clients who can afford large art pieces for their spacious homes. Other venues appreciate emerging collectors with a smaller budget.
Another way to create cohesiveness in an exhibition is through the format of the artwork. Having pieces in a predominantly landscape orientation can tie the work together, and the same is true for portrait orientation, or a square format. If you stick to one specific format even different sizes of art look unified together.
7. Changes on the Spot: Occasionally, even the best laid plans might not work out perfectly. While I had created a mock-up layout of my work in the gallery, when we were installing the artwork a couple of details required flexibility.
A public gallery has – of course – a fire alarm button installed. But I had failed to include said button in the gallery sketch. As it turned out the theoretical placement of my art would have covered the fire alarm button, which is absolutely not allowed.
Moreover, an “architectural feature”, which was left over from a time before the space was turned into a gallery, got in the way. Oh well, after a little bit of brainstorming, we adjusted the installation and nobody ever knew my original plans.
In other galleries, the position of light switches and permanently installed plaques might require you to change your plans. In addition, fire extinguishers or even the way a door swings open can affect your layout.
Of course, every gallery has its own uniqueness and might require adaptations. While I like to plan, you might be more spontaneous. Ultimately, the point is to show your art in its best light and share the (visual) narrative with the viewer. Once your art is hung on the gallery walls, take a moment and enjoy the product of many hours of creativity and work. You, the artist, have reason to be proud. Although the viewers might never know how much time you spent choosing the art for your exhibition, a well-selected show will always be a delight.