An opportunity to exhibit?

April 5, 2023

I’ve recently received enough questions about exhibiting to warrant an article on the topic.

Most artists welcome an opportunity to exhibit, especially if there’s a possibility of selling a piece. And if someone is willing to open their wallet for your work, it’s probably the ultimate compliment. But even if you don’t sell, exhibiting is a good way to gain recognition.

But with that said, exhibitions are not all created equal. And not every exhibition will be appropriate for you, depending on a number of factors. Over the years and after many exhibitions, I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way and am happy to share them; hopefully I can save you some money and angst.

Let’s do this by framing some of the key considerations, one at a time, as questions. But before we do, let’s just be clear that I’m not talking about an exhibition arranged by, say, a closely-knit group of artists at a gallery known to the group. I’m talking about the type of exhibition where a general ‘call for entry’ is put out or one where you might be solicited by private invitation. Okay, now for the questions that cover both a brick-and-mortar as well as a virtual exhibition but with a focus mainly on brick-and-mortar exhibitions . . .

Is this a traditional brick-and-mortar exhibition or is it a virtual (online) exhibition? If it’s the former then you’ll want to know a few things about the location such as how reputable it is, who owns it, who manages it, whether it’s well attended, and how successful previous exhibitions have been at this location. If it’s the latter, many of the questions will be the same but, in addition, you’ll want to know that the website is going to be professionally designed for the purpose and will be properly maintained.  And regardless of whether it is a brick and mortar or virtual exhibition, you should consider whether it is going to give you the exposure you want, where you want it.

Who is the organizer? Someone with previous experience organizing exhibitions is absolutely essential. Experienced organizers know how to promote, arrange insurance, ensure security, produce a full-colour catalogue, select a qualified jury, maintain records, receive and ship, and liaise with the location owners.

Is this purely a botanical art exhibition? In my experience, botanical art pieces do not do well in mixed exhibitions and are easily overshadowed by vibrant impressionistic flower paintings, large landscapes, sculptures, and so forth. There’s little point in showing your botanical painting to someone looking for a four-feet-by-six-feet abstract or a bronze casting of a cowboy flying off the back of a bucking bronco.

Is the exhibition going to be juried? This question applies equally to brick-and-mortar and virtual exhibitions. Now, if you’re fairly new to the genre, an inexperienced botanical artist, and haven’t had much exposure, an un-juried exhibition could be okay. Just know that usually the quality of work in un-juried botanical art exhibitions is not the greatest. If this doesn’t bother you, then fine. But if you’re more experienced and the quality of your work is better than ‘average’, then you may not want to hang it with lower-quality work. For one thing, in such a situation the other work might be priced so low as to make yours appear ‘over-priced.’

Is the jury qualified? I learned a lesson about jurying standards from an acclaimed master woodworker back in the eighties when I was on a committee of the Alberta Crafts Council organizing a juried exhibition of high-end craft to coincide with the Calgary Winter Olympics. He said that he had to know who the jurors were to make sure that they were qualified to judge his work, or he wasn’t going to bother. In the years subsequent to that I’ve come to realize how right he was to inquire and what the consequences can be when a jury is not qualified. So, ask who the jurors are in order to make sure that they’re qualified to judge your work. Usually a botanical art exhibition jury will consist of an experienced botanical artist, a curator, and a botanist. And of course, it should go without saying that the jury should be as fair and objective as possible.

Is it worth incurring the cost for this exhibition? You’ll want to weigh up the cost in money, time, and stress against the potential benefit. The ultimate benefit would of course be selling your painting for whatever remains after the organizers or gallery have taken their cut—this is usually in the range of 30 to 40 percent of the listed price. Then you have to factor in the entrance fee, the scan, framing according to the organizer’s specifications, the special shipping container, and the courier charge (there and back if it doesn’t sell). If your painting is lost or stolen en route, as has happened to me, then the cost jumps exponentially. And then, if you have to battle with unexpected foreign red tape, as I once had to for six weeks while trying to retrieve a painting from an exhibition in another country, there’s added stress.

What if you don’t get into a juried exhibition, especially at your first attempt? You must keep in mind that no matter how good you and others might think your piece is, there are no guarantees that a jury will agree. To this day I’m regularly puzzled by how some pieces make it while others don’t. I was devastated when I wasn’t successful in my first attempt at entering a juried exhibition. So what I did was set about finding out what it would take to raise my standard and then I worked on it. Since then I’ve been in a number of juried exhibitions, but I’ve also been rejected a few times. It happens. And it’s always disappointing. Be selective about the exhibitions you choose to enter, but remember that rejection is no reason to give up. See it as an incentive to improve. And, always, enjoy the process.

Exhibiting can be an exciting and rewarding but we don’t do botanical art only to exhibit. However, if you are going to exhibit, just remember that you should be well informed and proceed with your eyes open.