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How do you know if your exhibition was a success?

Fresh from his solo exhibition, Andy Owen-Smith talks about his learning experience from the perspective of artist and gallery owner.

For two weeks in July, I put on a solo show of my own work in my own gallery – but how successful was it?

If you ask people, particularly artists, what constitutes a successful show, you get many different answers but there is one big consensus – it is not just about how many pieces of work you sold!

Yes – it is a measure and for some a high priority, it puts bread on the table and helps cover some of the costs of the show. But as I discovered, there are many ways, some just as important, that will help gauge how successful a show has been.

As an artist/exhibitor...

How much did I learn about my work and practice?

It was clear from day one that holding a solo show is different from sharing the space with others – visitors tend to like your style and your work, or they don’t. When you share the space with others there is usually enough variety to hold the attention of your visitors long enough to discuss what they like and dislike. With a solo show, you get only a few seconds before they decide if they have made the right choice entering the gallery.

Thankfully, more decided to stay than not, and those that did were very happy sharing their experiences and their views of the work. For me, this feedback was invaluable and as the days went by, I started to look at my paintings differently and through a fresh pair of eyes – something I would never have achieved if the work had remained hung in the studio.

How much had I learnt about me as an artist and person?

It was easy telling the visitors about the media used, the size, the subject matter and where I got my inspiration, but what was far more challenging was explaining to people what each painting meant to me, why I created it and its purpose. It did get easier and really helped me deal with some of the niggling doubts that you have as an artist about your work. I started to feel stronger, more assured about the content, my style as a communication tool and much more confident about what worked and importantly what didn’t. This is the true unmeasurable value of sharing your work with the outside world. You feel these small changes taking place and you know there is nothing you can do to stop them – nor want to.

How much have I learnt about putting on an exhibition and what I would change or do differently next time?

You learn a lot about how to curate a show. People buy art for different reasons but ensuring each picture has been given sufficient space to hold its own helps people visualise the work better. Showcasing a few pieces well can often be much more beneficial than just giving them volume. They can always seek you out in your studio or online if they like your work after the show.

Give yourself plenty of time for setting up. You will spend much longer than you think moving the work around the space searching for inspiration and the moment when you know it is right. It reminds me of the combination barrel locks you have for a push bike; they usually have 4-6 barrels but you are trying to manage 15-20! The only way to really understand how to best showcase your work is doing it and eventually the last piece will fit into place and the show will go on.

There is no such thing as too much promotion in the run up to your show! I was unable to hold a preview evening because of the Covid restrictions. This is usually your main opportunity to tempt people along with the promise of a free glass of wine and a chance to network. So, in hindsight I should have worked even harder on social media, done more promotion, and relied less on the window display to attract people in.

There are also some things you can’t change or predict e.g., the British weather. For most of my show the temperatures outside were in the very high twenties and I noticed that few people ventured out in the midday sun! So, be flexible around your opening hours to suit the season. I did discover however that by opening the rear window and front door together you could keep visitors engaged a few minutes longer as they enjoyed the gentle cooling benefits of the through draft.

How much did I enjoy it?

I loved every bit of it but particularly the wonderful conversations that the work invoked in people – they started to talk about their own experiences, events in their lives and some of their own stories triggered by ‘my work’! Making people think differently about themselves and the world around them is what art is all about.

As a gallery owner...

How much did I learn about the space?

Exhibiting and using the space for two weeks helped me understand how the space worked and didn’t work. How people circulated and travelled around the room. How the lighting worked with natural light through the window, the hanging system, the need for some comfortable seating and better storage. I was also able to use some of the time looking at how to increase the amount of quality space but still give people the room to appreciate the work. (Some changes are now in plan).

How much did I learn from the experience that I could pass on to future exhibitors?

Many future exhibitors are old hands and therefore ‘sucking eggs’ comes to mind but there will be some with less experience so I will be adding a few tips to the gallery handbook, from making sure you have the right fittings for the hanging system to rehearsing the process for dealing with your first sale and the mechanics of the payment process.

In conclusion...

Exhibiting has helped me better understand my work, developed me as an artist and changed me as a person. I now have a better appreciation of the gallery space and feel more able to advise others who plan to put on their own shows. I believe my show was a success for all the above reasons and yes, I did sell several paintings and gained two new commissions however the biggest measure of all - would I do it again? – absolutely!

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