I just came back from hanging my first solo show, opening this Friday at J. Bird Studios. Both I and Jori, the gallery owner, have put a lot of work into putting this together, and I wanted to share a few things I did that proved helpful. I installed 20+ pieces of art between 10 am and 3 pm, which I think is a pretty good track record. So read on for a few tips and tricks!

  1. Visit the gallery beforehand, if you can. Bring a tape measure and note the length of each hangable wall segment. This will help you either a) figure out the amount of work you’ll need to choose or b) figure out how much more work you need to create to fill the space. Also pay attention to the type of walls: are they brick? Cinderblock? Drywall? A mixture? Will you need special tools to install (i.e. masonry bits)? The space I installed in has both brick and drywall surfaces, so I factored that into my framing decisions. My gallery provided standard hardware and tools for hanging, but make sure yours does as well. If you have 3d objects that require pedestals, make sure the gallery has the number and size that you need. If you can’t visit, get someone at the gallery to send you this info.
  2. Publicity! Does your gallery provide postcards for your show? If so, make sure you’re mutually clear on both the number you’ll each receive and when they will be printed. Do you or the gallery design them? If you design them, what file format should you send to the gallery (if Photoshop, make sure your versions are compatible!)? What other steps will the gallery take to get the word out (mailing lists, press releases, etc)? How much responsibility are you, the artist, expected to shoulder for increasing turnout? Make sure these questions are answered early, and use the time before the gallery cards come back from the printer to create your mailing list. Friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers and teachers are all fair game. Want to get on other galleries’ radars? Send them cards, too. If you’re like me, you’ll wind up with far more cards than personal acquaintances–so you might as well use them on total strangers! Don’t forget about e-mail, either.
  3. Hanging height. Let’s assume your pieces are all framed/matted/whatever and ready to hang. Do yourself a favor and figure out the nail heights for each before you get to the gallery. Pick a center height for the entire show (I’ve seen anywhere from 57″ to 60+”; I picked 58″ for my show). For each piece: measure the height of the piece and divide it in half. Add that number to your center line measurement to find out where the top of the piece will go. Look at the back of the piece–does it hang on a wire, sawtooth hanger, stretcher bar? Figure out the distance from the top of the piece to your hanging hardware (obviously, stretch the wire taut if you’re using one) and subtract that number from your top-of-piece measurement. This is the height at which you’ll put in the picture hanger/nail/screw/whatever. Write this number on a sticky note and put it on the back of the piece. Trust me, this will save you so much time when you get to the gallery–all you have to do is figure out the layout and left-to-right spacing, and you’re ready to hang!
  4. Preparation = the right tools. Take some time before you leave for the gallery with all your work to make sure you have all the tools you need. You have to assume that, unless reassured otherwise, the gallery will have nothing. I guess you could call ahead with your checklist and make sure they have everything you need, but it’s just easier for me to come prepared. Here is a partial list of potentially helpful tools: level, tape measure, painter’s tape (you can make measurement marks on this instead of the wall), Sharpie (for marking on painter’s tape), pencil, calculator, hammer, drill with Philips driver bit, pliers, hammer, spackle knife (they should have spackle), sanding block, scratch paper (for figuring out measurements), glass/plexi cleaner, soft cloth, foam brushes (for touch-ups).
  5. Mark all your holes first. This is a personal preference thing, I just think it goes faster if you lay out your pieces, figure out where all the hangers go, and put them all in at the same time, before you hang the work. I think this is more important for surfaces that are harder to hang on, like brick or cinderblock. Also, if you’re drilling on one side of a temporary wall, make sure there’s nothing hanging on the other side that could get shaken off!
  6. Labels. I cannot take credit for this invention of genius (Monica Wojtyna can), but here is the way to make sure all your labels are level and the same height from the floor/distance from your piece. Take a small bullet level (they’re about 6 inches long), measure x” from the end (where x is the desired gap between the piece and the edge of the label), and make a mark on the top of the level. Get a piece of string and tie a washer/button to one end. Decide how high off the ground you want the labels to be, and tie the other end of the string to the level so that the length of the string between the washer and level equals that distance. To use: put the end of the level against the edge of the piece, with the bubble in the middle and the washer resting on the ground with the string taut. Carefully apply your label with the edge of the label aligned with the mark you made earlier and the bottom of the label lined up with the top of the level. Voila! Easily-applied labels that are level and consistent. If anyone actually reads this, is actually interested, and is confused by my instructions, I will put up pictures. A note on label formats: there’s no one right way to do it, but your gallery may have a standard layout. A typical label includes the artist’s name, piece title, date, medium, and possibly size and/or price. The main thing is to make sure the format stays consistent throughout the show. For a tight installation, you can label the pieces with numbers that correspond to a list of works that the viewer can refer to.
  7. Presentation. At any gallery opening, you will usually find a table with several things on it–extra show cards, business cards of the artist and/or gallery, possibly a comments book, and artist documentation which can include any or all of the following: biography, artist’s statement, resume, photographs of additional work, press clippings/reviews, and price list (if not included on the labels). Some artists just have one or two of these, some have huge binders. Do what feels right, and make sure it’s nicely arranged before the show opens.
  8. The reception. I think this deserves a whole separate post, and since I haven’t technically pulled mine off yet, I’ll wait until after this weekend to write about it.

Many artists put up shows every day who don’t do any of these things. They just helped me, and if you’re just starting out in the gallery world, they might help you, too. The most important things to remember are: be pleasant, be flexible, and be prepared!

If you, Dear Reader, have helped with a gallery show in any capacity and have your own insights to share, please leave a comment! Fortunately, this last experience went pretty smoothly, but I’d appreciate any tips for the future.


Was this helpful? Is there anything else you’d like to find out how to do? Future posts could include: Super-Secret Gallery Tricks, Vinyl Lettering Application, Printing Show Labels in MS Word, Getting Kinko’s to Do What You Want, or The Wonderful World of L-Hooks!