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The Devil’s in The Details
Congratulations! You have an opportunity to exhibit your work and you want to be sure you’re ready. Over my artistic career, I’ve exhibited in a wide range of settings from small local venues to museums and galleries across the country and abroad. And, as the commercial goes, “I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.”
Here’s a checklist to keep handy when preparing to show your work. Note that this advice is focused on two-dimensional art, but much of it applies regardless of what medium you use.
1. Your Artist’s Resume/Vita
Like it or not, you have to have a resume listing your artistic achievements available to the public when you have an exhibit of your work. This is also a necessary component of your website, blog or even your Facebook profile.
If you are relatively new to this, an artist’s resume is not at all like a typical job resume where you list your address, date of birth, education, places you’ve worked and what you did there.
Instead, you are listing the dates of your previous shows including solo and group exhibits, any articles written about your work, honors, awards and grants you received, residencies you participated in and any other honors you’ve received as an artist.
Given there are people out there who think art teachers and students are not serious artists — and some of them run art galleries — you may want to leave those details out of your resume. Even though it has nothing to do with the quality of your work, listing your day job, whatever that may be, is not likely all that important to include on a resume for exhibitions.
Moreover, listing things like, “First place at the state fair” or “I had a show at Jacob’s Water Bar and Spa” can also work against you. What works better is to use a general statement, such as “(Your name here) has exhibited his/her work regionally (nationally, if that’s the case) and received many awards and accolades for (his or her) art.”
Keeping your resume simple isn’t a cop-out for your lack of experience, but rather it’s a way of letting your artwork speak for itself.
Keep Up with Experience
Your exhibition resume can take different forms depending on your experience. If you’ve had a lot of experience showing your work, but you haven’t been keeping track of the names, dates and places, you have to start making the time to sort those things out.
Then, get your experience on paper and on the web. Remember, having an artist’s resume is valuable PR for showing and selling your work.
Believe it or not, however, listing too much experience is also a pitfall because no one is going to read multiple pages detailing your lengthy career. The fact is, people have a very short attention span in our fast-paced world.
Even if you have an extensive background, think of your resume as a summary or capsule of your accomplishments that fit on a single page rather than compiling a complete list of your shows over the past decade or so.
You can always include, “A complete list of my exhibitions is available upon request.”
2. Artist’s Statement
Facing the dreaded artist statement is no easy task. And, in my opinion, it’s probably one of the most hated professional obligation artists have to grapple with!
But no matter how hard it is to try to say what your art represents in a public statement, you can’t squirm your way out of this one. In a sense, you just have to grin and bare it.
Clearly, it’s not all that reasonable to think you can be completely objective about the meaning and substance of your own art without making unending drafts which wind up in a wastebasket. I’m in total agreement with anyone who says, “If you want to know what my work is about, just look at it! “
I’ve written two books on art, and you would think writing a statement on my own work would be a piece of cake. But no, it’s just the opposite. I have written approximately 40 versions of my own statements from the time I was a grad student to the one I use now for gallery shows. And, I still hate them all.
You just have to accept the fact it isn’t really possible to summarize who you are as an artist but just do the best you can.
Ask a Third Party
Many times it’s better to have someone write about your work from their perspective than it is to go it alone. And this method to an artist’s statement is completely fine. You’ll see this approach in catalogs produced for gallery shows where an art critic, historian or fellow artist writes about the work of the artist displayed.
This tactic gets an “A” for getting you off the hook and making the writer of the statement somewhat accountable for how it goes over. Regardless, there’s no way to control what people think about your art or what’s written about it.
At least you’ll know there are artists just like yourself who are frustrated trying to express what they want to say about their work. That’s not to say writing an informative and meaningful statement about your work is not feasible. Just remember to keep it short, honest and as clear as you can. Lengthy, flowery and poetic proclamations are doomed at the starting gate and will drive readers away.
Lead by Example
It can be helpful to read other artist’s statements that may inspire an approach you haven’t thought of. I recommend doing a web search for “artist statements” and “famous artist statements” which yield a lot of samples. Here are two sources, I recommend: “8 Artist Statements We Love” and “Art and Art Statements — Quotes by Famous Artists.”
I had 50 artists from across the spectrum write short statements about their abstract work in my book, Creating Abstract Art. The results show the diversity of thinking among artists practicing the same genre of work. And, not any two of the artists say the same thing. I recommend reading the ones in my book and those on the web that ring true for you, then put that into your own words.
3. Framing Your Work
In my opinion, one of the worse reactions someone can have when viewing your art is to say, “I really like the frame you put on this piece.” Thank you, but did you happen to notice the painting in the middle of the frame? If that’s ever happened to you, don’t blame the viewer, but start reconsidering your framing choices.
The frame you choose should present your work without drawing attention. In my opinion, you shouldn’t waste your money or time choosing a frame or mat just because you think it looks impressive.
Frame shops like to push unnecessary and pricey frills like ornate gold leaf details, museum glass and densely colored mats that likely do more harm than good. Framers have a bottom line business to support. And, I respect that.
But don’t let them talk you into buying superfluous trimmings or anything overly decorative that takes attention away from your art. Frames can be simple and elegant without hogging the stage.
Ornate by Nature
The idea of keeping the frame simple is not necessarily consistent with the job of gallery and museum directors who must respect the origins of the art itself. For example, most artworks depicting religious iconography in the Renaissance and Baroque periods were specifically made to impress the viewer much as did the spectacularly ornate cathedrals that presented these artworks to their parishioners.
In addition, many legendary artists actually made their own frames — that were works of art in their own right — and were married to the paintings inside their borders.
In fairness, I have to mention the controversial example of the “simple is better” dictum played out by the Museum of Modern Art directors in the 1980s, who decided to reframe the entire contemporary art collection with one simple frame design that was supposed to keep the viewer’s attention on the artworks and not the frames. I have to admit, I personally don’t agree with that decision even if it makes me look like a hypocrite.
Like the art itself, the choice of a frame is a subjective decision. I don’t think one prototype fits every situation, and it certainly doesn’t match everyone’s tastes. Indeed, the choice of the right frame is up to you and you alone, and I hope to give you a perspective from both sides of the coin.