Off the Beaten Path

I’ve attended a lot of art shows recently but, surprisingly, they haven’t been in galleries. Instead, I’ve seen art hung in airport terminals, ice cream parlors, clothing stores, automobile showrooms and even fitness centers.

“There are opportunities galore in alternative spaces,” says New York sculptor Leah Poller. “And you can exploit these opportunities simply by looking around your community and remembering that your motivation is exposure.

And what’s great about showing your work in an alternative space is that you can mine the opportunity as far as you want and on your own terms.”

Last spring, for example, Poller exhibited her work in the Park Avenue Atrium, a luxury office building in New York City. More than 4,000 people walked past her sculpture exhibit every day. This type of space in the city would typically rent for $15,000–$25,000 a month; Poller obtained it for free. Plus, she was able to keep 100 percent of everything sold.

What convinced management to let Poller do this was that she assured them that she would handle all the details: set up the exhibit, publicize it and arrange the show opening. The building management didn’t have to do anything but enjoy the beauty and ambience of the art exhibit, as well as the publicity.

Many non-traditional art shows work this way, but it’s a good idea to go over each and every detail before following the road less traveled:

Details, Details
The best way to determine whether a non-gallery show is worth the effort is to ask a lot of questions up front. Here are just some of the issues you’ll want to go over with your host:

1. What’s the goal of this exhibit?
To be a win-win situation, it’s important that you understand why your host is interested in showing your art. What, if anything, does he hope to gain from this event? While a restaurant owner may be satisfied in simply adding ambience, through art, to his dining room, a hotel director may be looking for an event with which his guests can become involved. Thus, you may be asked to make appearances, teach classes, host tea parties and give lectures, too.

2. Who’s handling what, and who’s paying for what?
Know from the start whether you or your host will be paying for invitations, ads, postage, catering, signs and staffing. If your host says that someone on staff will handle a specific task, write down the name and number and tell your host you’ll follow up.

3. What hours and days will the exhibit be open?
This is such an obvious question, right? But you’d be surprised at how often it’s overlooked. Make sure the show will be open when potential buyers can see it. One artist, who displayed her work in a Mercedes-Benz showroom, discovered that her work was on display only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Her target clients, mainly Wall Street professionals, couldn’t be there before 6 p.m.

4. Where will the art be displayed?
Before you commit to an exhibit, look over the space to be sure your art will be seen from a good angle and with adequate lighting. One artist I know discovered that her miniature paintings were to be displayed along a library’s 10-foot-high frieze, making them unviewable. As you inspect the site, measure the area. Figure out how many paintings you’ll need. Check the lighting. Is it sufficient? Ask whether the lights can be adjusted and who normally performs that task. If your art isn’t in the lobby or in an obvious spot, ask what kind of signs can be used and where you can place them.

5. Who will be doing the publicity?
At a minimum, a news release and photograph of your work should be sent to all the local newspapers. Also, you should contact your local cable station and the arts editors of all the regional newspapers and magazines. If your host isn’t going to do this, you should. There’s no point in exhibiting your work if you’re not going to encourage people to come.

6. Who will staff the exhibit?
Who’s going to answer customers’ questions and sell the art? Many non-traditional art hosts have no interest in selling the art themselves. Ask whether you can set out your business cards or brochures. Be sure that the staff knows your address and telephone number, so that all questions and inquiries can be directed to you.

7. Who will hang the art?
Will you be doing all the physical labor yourself? Can your host provide an assistant? If so, obtain that person’s name and telephone number. Will the host provide any hanging materials, such as a hammer, nails and a ladder?

8. Will you or your host insure the art?
By all means, don’t take any unnecessary risks with insurance. I’ve been involved in two hotel shows in which artwork was vandalized. Art dealer Janet Howell of Amesbury, Massachusetts, suggests that if you don’t have business insurance, make sure your host takes out a rider on his or her insurance policy. She says an additional $150,000 of insurance can typically be obtained for about $30. If the host agrees to insure your work, ask to see a copy of the policy before leaving your art.

While the alternative venue show definitely means more work for you, the investment is usually worthwhile, says Poller.

Exposure is what you need to sell your work, and a non-gallery show gives you the chance to create and even design your own opportunities. Look all around you, she suggests. You’ll find walls, lights and traffic everywhere.

Alternatives Everywhere
Think creatively, and you’ll see many non-traditional exhibition opportunities all around you. To get you started, here are a few alternative site ideas:

  • Libraries: Nearly all have some type of exhibition space. Go to the front desk and ask about how you can be put on the calendar.
  • Restaurants/coffee shops: Where else can potential buyers sit and gaze at your paintings for an hour or two?
  • Lobbies of major offices, corporations and banks: These big spaces often have natural light and volumes of well-heeled traffic, which makes them ideal for displaying art. Many companies like the idea of giving back to the art community, especially when it doesn’t require spending any time or money.
  • Oriental rug stores: Fine art and fine rugs are perfect, non-competitive companions. As well, store owners may welcome the additional traffic your exhibit will bring.
  • Decorator and builders’ display homes: Model homes attract individuals who are looking for creative ways to add beauty to their own homes—thus, they’re prime art buyers.
  • Performing art centers/theaters: Theater goers also tend to be visual art lovers. Entertain them before a performance or during intermission with an art exhibit.
  • Friend’s home: Offer to decorate a friend’s home for the holidays, and then stage an art party. Send mailings to his or her friends. Give a short talk about your art philosophy and the way you work. You can also give a brief demonstration.
  • Automobile waiting areas/showrooms: Large spans of walls in these spaces are just begging for art. And the more upscale the car dealership, the better your potential for making sales.
  • Airports: Think of the volume of people that linger around an airport each day. It’s a staggering number. Try the executive waiting lounges, too.
  • Any place with walls, lights and traffic: Interior design shops, hotels, bookstores, sports arenas, fitness clubs, churches, the town hall, the convention and visitor’s bureau, and designer clothing stores all have great potential. Be the first to ask about exhibit possibilities. Then go for it.

Debbie Hagan is a visual arts writer and public relations consultant for artists and art gallery owners. She lives in Andover, Massachusetts.

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