I seldom have a good time at an art show. Maybe it’s my fault. I am an introvert. I usually go on opening night. I psych myself up an hour before and still end up intimidated, anxious and bored when I get there. Thing is, I love art, and I love people. So, why the hell?
The thought of people feeling the same way at MY shows… just makes me sad. WEEDS/RUMPAI was the first solo show I did after moving to Port Dickson. It was time to rethink it all. I had to make a show I would 1) enjoying doing, 2) want to go to and 3) have fun at.
This is how I hacked everything I thought an exhibition had to be:
1. Treat it as an experiment
Artists take all kinds of risks making their work – chasing ideas, finding ways to say what we want to say. Ironically, the risk-taking stops when it comes to showing art. We rely on existing structures: the established gallery, press release, VIP previews for collectors, cocktail reception. Why do we give up the driver’s seat so suddenly and so completely at this stage of the process?
Thinking about exhibitions as process, not outcome, forced me to extend the spirit of enquiry all the way to the end. For example, why are we seeing so few new faces at art shows, year after year? Sigh and accept ‘that’s how it is’, OR try something freaky to shake it up? For the first time in years, I found myself thinking ‘IT MAY NOT WORK’ again and again. It scared me. I also knew that this feeling is what makes art risky, vital and necessary.
2. It doesn’t have to be 3 weeks long
Long exhibitions give more people the chance to see it. But it also means: more time (can’t move on to the next project), more resources (space rental, gallery minder), and importantly, a longer wait until you get paid for art you’ve sold (debt, opportunity costs). I weighed this against my observation that most small-medium scale exhibitions in KL see 90% of their audience on opening night.
For WEEDS, we discussed a two-day exhibition. Then we narrowed it down to one. The limited timeframe forced an urgent, flexible way of thinking and doing. We worked our asses off on pre-show promotion - displaying the works online, blogging everyday and just giving people a window into the making process. Within a month, I had wrapped up almost all affairs related to the show, and moved on to making new art.
3. Set the terms of sale
Nothing yanks my chain more than waiting months on payment for art I’ve sold and delivered. I have horror stories of friends getting cheques years after their show closed. Some gave up and were never compensated.
I set a clear condition: payment within 2 weeks, or no sale, and an incentive: 10% discount for immediate payment. Within 20 days, I was paid in full – something I have never experienced in more than 7 years of exhibiting with galleries.
4. Sell the work before the show
For WEEDS, we experimented by selling the works online a week before. They sold out within two days, which surprised and delighted me, but it also led to an unexpected outcome: a complete change in atmosphere on the day of the show.
When art is for sale, the gallery turns into a marketplace. In the marketplace, when we can’t buy something, we shut off from its message. Whatever its value, we can’t attain it, so why bother. Hey, which way to the open bar?
Also, the need to entertain and service potential wealthy patrons creates two ‘tiers’ of audiences at a show. My theory is that this is what makes exhibitions so intimidating, especially to newcomers, but even to sorta old hats like myself.
When nothing is for sale, people relax. They talk more naturally. The art fades into the background, which strangely, makes it more powerful and alive. Released from being commodities on the wall, art activates the room and whoever’s in it. It becomes an excuse for people getting together.
5. Ban art-speak
Read press releases from a few galleries. Peek at their invitation graphics. They sound and look the same. They’re often incomprehensible and never warm or inviting. People assume that describing something with clarity means dumbing it down. This is as misguided as it is arrogant.
From the press statements to the invitation, we pored over every word we wrote for WEEDS, purging the unnecessary, vague or jargonistic. ‘Major body of works’, ‘conceptual artist’, ‘site-specific’ didn’t make it. Not even ‘repurposed’. Instead, we used ‘up-cycled’.
6. Host it like you’d host a party at your house
My philosophy for throwing parties is that people should feel comfortable enough to do or be whatever they want. My best friend once came to a New Years’ party at my house and spent the entire night playing scrabble on her iphone, while people danced next to her in the living room. She later told me it was the best party she’d ever been to.
Extroverts can get all the attention they desire (we organized an open mic), introverts can sit in a corner or have intense one-on-one conversations, (we assembled a craft table in the middle of the room with rubber stamps, crayons and paper), emos can mope or cry (I did – too much wine, too happy, too tired, too everything), the hungry can score a free meal (my brother, a talented chef, cooked up a spread of weeds inspired food), and so on. Jerome DJ-ed. And there was dancing.
There must always be the option of dancing.
7. Ask for help
I hate to tell you this, but you can’t do it alone.
I hired Commas & Industry to help with the event management and PR.
I hired OUR Art Projects to handle the sales transactions.
I hired Maryann and Roberto to build me a website in 2 weeks.
I hired Jerome to organize the open mic and play his magic music.
My brother, bless his heart, cooked for free.
Merdekarya, bless its generous, DIY, bad-ass heart, let me use the space for free. They ended up making record sales from drinks at the bar.
This is the math:
All in all, it cost me exactly 50% of what I made from artwork sales to produce the WEEDS/RUMPAI exhibition.
Today galleries require a 50% commission on all sales. None of them offer guarantees that they will bust their ass selling your art, expanding your audience or furthering your career. Honestly ask yourself if your relationship to the gallery is one of mutual respect and collaboration. If you’re in business with a gallery like that, congratulations and good luck. Demand contracts. Demand payment on time. Demand transparency. They need you more than you need them.
The point of this post is not to be a definitive guide on how art should be shown. It’s to prove that you can do it exactly the way you want. Work with people you trust and respect, people who will be REAL partners on an equal footing and help make your crazy ideas happen.
Don’t give up the driver’s seat.
PS. Perhaps you are wondering: what’s with the mudskipper? Because it’s the weirdest, craziest, coolest animal? EVERRR? I dunno. Ask my subconscious. It seems to think a mudskipper is the perfect mascot for hacking into anything you need to change.