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9 things to know when showing for the first time

Billie Lime, Original Pearls
Billi Lime, Through the Fields
Hayn Allen, Keeping up with the Kardashians
Evan Loxton, At the Centre
Artists offer practical suggestions for pulling off this daunting but exciting challenge. By Sabine Brix


If you've never exhibited before, showing work to strangers and peers can be a nerve-wracking experience. How do you know what work to select, where to show it and how much time to leave for preparation?

We've collated a range of answers from gallery managers through to artists at different levels in their career to help guide you through the process.

1. Don’t show everything

Culling work can be difficult, especially when you’ve put so much effort into establishing that body of work. For his first exhibition, artist Evan Loxton said when it comes to exhibiting, less is more.

‘Be excited about one aspect of your practice rather than trying to fit in an unnecessary amount of content, and let that idea develop within the physical space itself,’ Loxton suggests.

2. Trust your ability and instinct

Listening to others’ opinions of your work is important, but stressing too much about outside validation can steer you away from developing work that is unique, says Daisy Atkin-Harrison, who is currently preparing for her first show at Seventh Gallery.

‘It can be pretty easy to get caught up in worrying about what other people will think of your work,’ she says. ‘For me, and I’m sure many others, I have found that stressing over what other people will think of my work clouds all my creative thoughts and motivation, and causes me to become less productive.

'I really like what a lecturer said to me once regarding this topic: “10% of people will say that they hate your work, which isn’t helpful; 10% will just say they love it, which isn’t really helpful either and the rest won’t care at all, so just do what you want to do."'

Evan Loxton, At the centre of her ironic faith, her blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg, KINGS Artist-Run, 2018.
Photo: Will Heathcote.

3. Choose a space to suit your style and ethics

For her first solo show, self-taught painter Billi Lime decided to bypass the traditional gallery space in favour of a friend’s plant shop, somewhere that made her feel at ease and didn't compromise her intentions.

‘I knew I was in good hands and I felt less pressure and judgement away from the art world,’ she says, adding, ‘I am not opposed to exhibiting in galleries in the future, as long as it’s the right fit for me.’

But for your first exhibition, Lime said, it's particularly important to choose a space that reflects your purpose.

‘Be true to your style and ethics. Don't put too much pressure or expectations on yourself in the process; you want to be excited about taking this first step,' she explained.

Diego Ramirez, the gallery manager at SEVENTH Gallery, agrees that it's important to choose a space that reflects your artistic purpose.

‘Show with a space that makes you feel a sense of belonging and identification, this will allow you to forge relationships that transcend the exhibition period and work in a context where your work is truly understood,’ Ramierez says. 

‘Your first exhibition should be a middle finger to the old farts that taught you in art school, so make sure to invite them.’

4. Research the cost

Depending on where you show, money will be a consideration most of the time so make sure you do your research, Loxton said.

‘Be financially mindful of the overall expense of a first-time exhibition. The contemporary art world expects you to initially pull a lot out of your own pocket before you receive anything in return,’ he notes.

But if you're thrifty, the experience doesn't need to burn too much of a hole in the pocket, especially when it comes to alcohol for the art-loving punters, Lime suggests.

‘Buy cheap booze for the bar, you don't need to act highbrow, save your cash where you can,' she says.

5. Allow plenty of preparation time

How much time should you spend getting your work together? The more time you can spare the better, especially when it’s your first show and impressions count, said Atkin-Harrison.

‘I have been preparing for this exhibition for the last five months,’ she says of her forthcoming exhibition.. ‘This may seem like more than enough time, but in reality, depending on the nature of your work, five months go by quickly, especially when there are lots of things to prepare for and consider.'

Through the Fields, by Billi Lime, supplied.

Lime agrees that planning ahead is important, but not at the expense of your livelihood. 'Give yourself a realistic time frame to produce and complete the work, without adding too much stress to your life,' she said.

'A little stress is great to break through your own roadblocks, to get you motivated and to push and create great works.' Lime adds.

6. Think about the installation process

Haydn Allen, an artist whose practice is focused on sculptures and assemblages, took on a particularly gargantuan technical feat for his first exhibition at George Paton Gallery, something that made him re-think the way he would install artworks in future.

‘My installation involved moving eight heavy televisions around Melbourne in my car (between where I sourced each of them from, to my house, to my studio, and to the gallery). It’s something I’ve told myself I will never do again – the capacity for technological difficulties with so many screens is also huge,’ he says.

Atkin-Harrison agrees. ‘Installation is not always as straight forward as one might expect, especially for those who hang their work,’ she admits.

‘You have to become familiar with the layout and electrical wiring behind the walls that you are hanging your work on. Also, working around gallery schedules during the exhibition period and the de-installation and clean-up of the space is something to keep in mind.’   

Haydn Allen, Keeping up with the Kardashians, single-channel video with ladder, fromTelemancer V, KINGS Artist-Run, 2019.
Photo: Chris Bowes.

7. Allow yourself to experiment

Loxton says it can become easy to have tunnel vision, especially when you’re studying and believe work needs to be presented in a particular way.

Be excited about un-learning institutionalised forms of practising and enjoy the inter-disciplinary freedom of receiving a space and opportunity to present work,’ Loxton says.

‘Through studying at an institution, I believe I didn’t leave space to let it [the work] naturally develop, it became very organised and every detail became closely analysed.'

The gallery coordinator at KINGS Artist-Run, Jeremy Eaton agrees.

'I think it is important for artists exhibiting for the first time to remember that a gallery can be a site to further test ideas and to experiment in a public setting,’ he says. At KINGS they are open to artists using an exhibition to continue an inquiry that might not be wholly resolved or that might include trying something, such as performance, for the first time.

'The conversations, dialogues and creative discoveries that can be gleaned from this can have a dramatic effect on someone’s practice further on down the line.'

8.   Be smart with promotion

Thinking about ways to promote your work is just as important as creating it. Whether it's the artist statement, a website or social media, it’s important to find a way to engage people before the show.

‘I find Instagram most useful,' Lime says. 'It was great for promotion leading up to my exhibition.'

But don’t be tempted to post too much, she advises. ‘Show snippets of the work in your show on social media, but hold back from revealing all your upcoming work before the opening night.'

Give people a taste of the work, she suggests. 'I also like to post sketches and works in progress, I love the process often more often than the finished result.’

The process of preparing for her first show made Atkin-Harrison aware of how much promotion is actually required.

‘There are certainly a lot of other things to consider when working with a gallery,' she says. 'For example, the promotional material which includes high-quality images of your work for promotional flyers, artist statements and descriptions of your show, which is where being a good writer comes in handy.'

Original Pearls by Billi Lime, supplied

9. Enjoy it

Despite all the work that comes with putting on an exhibition, it’s important to relish the process and overall experience, said Allen.

Have fun with your work and don’t be so serious about it. People recognise when you enjoy making your work and it brings them joy too.’

Atkin-Harrison agrees: ‘Enjoy it. It’s good to take your work and yourself as an artist seriously, regardless of how new you are to the industry. However, sometimes I find myself taking things too seriously and forgetting to enjoy myself. Art is something that brings me a lot of happiness and the experience of sharing your work with people should be relished and savoured, rather than detested and followed with angst.’

This very useful feature is republished with permission from our friends at Artshub.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

10 Jun 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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