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Comprehensive Guide to Planning a Solo Exhibition as an Independent Artist

This was published 5 years ago. The content below may be out of date.

Today’s art world is highly competitive and it can be hard to break through the noise in order to be heard. One way to carve out your own space is to host your own exhibition. When planning an exhibition, it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew and get in over your head. This guide will help you thoroughly work through all the aspects of an exhibition as an independent artist, whether large or small. I have hosted three solo exhibitions ranging in scale, and am pleased to share my process with other artists looking to do the same.

Why would you want to host your own exhibition? There are many reasons why an artist may choose this route, but for myself I opted for self-hosting because it allowed me to have more creative control over the curation of my exhibition, let me experiment with concepts, and enabled me to build a body of work (in my case, paintings). When I was unsure of how to frame my proposed exhibition to a gallery, hosting it myself allowed me to flesh out the ideas.

Let’s dive in, shall we? Buckle up, it’s a long one.

Note: This guide is directed towards individual artists who have their own art practices rather than arts collectives, group shows, or budding curators, however some information will cross over. This guide is written based on Vancouver standards and the legal way to produce events. It does not apply to all cities.

High-Level Initial Planning

During your initial stages of planning, consider what your purpose for the exhibition is. Consider what type of work you will be showing and what the work will be addressing. It’s worth answering the following questions:

  • Would you like to exhibit a body of work that you have already created?
  • Are you looking to create a new body of work?
  • Will it be a combination of the two?
  • What will your work be addressing?
  • What length of time will the exhibit run for?
  • How much time do you have to dedicate to the production of new work?
  • How much time do you have to dedicate to the administrative process of exhibition planning?

All of these answers will impact the rest of your planning, from curation and venue, to budgets and advertising. I found that answering these questions were most crucial to the timeline of production to opening. I prefer exhibiting for one-night only and always choose to create a new body of work, which dictates my timeline more than any other component.

Not always necessary depending on the type of work you create. If you are doing anything conceptual or that requires intricate installation, researching methods, theories, and skills can help inform your work as well as your timeline and budget. It may seem straightforward, but the more intricate your concept, the more time and/or money it will take to pull off. Researching, trial and error, and learning are sometimes overlooked when planning at a high level.

When I am in my research phase, I am typically reading theory to make my conceptual figurative work. I also research ways to push the envelope, such as implementing AR into my latest exhibition. I also use this time to thoroughly cost out different options for work-based production, decide on how I envision the show, and determine precisely what look and feel I want. I write a statement for the show based on my research and proceed to craft the work around that. This is an integral phase to producing a new body of work for me.

As an independent artist, you can opt to take on the cost of an exhibition yourself, seek sponsorship, apply for other funding, or a combination of all three. There is, of course, a larger expense involved with creating a new body of work versus showing a body of work you have already developed. When looking at your budget, consider the following categories as your basic ones. I have listed off examples of what would fall into those categories to frame them for you. If a category doesn’t apply, skip it!

  • Supplies for creation
    • Whatever you need to create a new body of work or partial body of work
  • Supplies for installation
    • Hanging tools (wire, hooks), plinths for sculptures, equipment rentals
  • Space rental*
  • Labelling
    • Vinyl, cards, or stickers
  • Printing
    • Posters, show cards, business cards, signage
  • De-installation costs
    • Putty, paint (if the venue does not supply this)

*If your rental falls into a light-industrial area not zoned for gallery use within Vancouver, you’ll need to apply for an Arts Event License through the city and include this in your budget.

This list will not only give you a picture of what expenses are involved, it will also help you categorize your expenses should you choose to apply for funding. Don’t want to rent a space? See if you can find somewhere to give it to you in-kind. There are plenty of ways to do things as low-budget as possible just as much as there are ways to increase costs. Whether you opt for high or low budget will depend on your overarching goal. For my budget, I also include the following categories:

  • Postering company
    • Distribution of pole posters around your city
  • Publicist
    • Event submissions, contacting media
  • Digital advertising
    • Instagram, Facebook
  • Bar
    • Licensing, serveware, liquor, wine, beer, mix, ice, float
  • Staffing
    • If they are not volunteers, bartender, sales table, head counter
  • Event photographer

You can generally get a good idea of costs simply by researching available options. Most fees for licenses are available online as are space rentals, printing, and ads. Most companies will also provide you a quote at no charge. Material costs can be priced out online. Not all exhibitions are the same and the cost will fluctuate depending on your goals and success markers.

For reference, my budget when hosting an exhibition with a new body of work in Vancouver, BC with an even split between outsourcing and DYI is $5,000. I seek sponsorship and funding for some line items to reduce my overall cost.

I take a page out of the gallery curator’s playbook for this one and generally plan my exhibitions with a year of lead time. This means that for an annual exhibit, I am already in the high-level planning and research phase the moment the current exhibit wraps – and sometimes, while it’s still being hung. My research and planning phase takes a third of the time, including preparation for the work.

I work backwards from the proposed exhibition date, ensuring that I leave ample time for unforeseen events. I set the drop dead date one week out from the exhibit. When creating my timeline for studio production, I block off the hours in my Google calendar for two reasons: to prevent overlap and to hold myself accountable.

If you are not creating a new body of work, or your work is fairly quick to produce, your timeline may be shorter. Remember to factor in lead time for event postings, advertising, and begin to work flexibility into your calendar if you are, hopefully, approached by the media to speak about your work.

It is always better to estimate that tasks will take you much longer than you initially envision. I give myself a full day for wiring and installing my work that is not on the same day as the opening. Allow yourself time to document your work as well as this is a great opportunity to get installation views of your work, especially if you work three-dimensionally or with new media.

There are plenty of options for leasing temporary space within the arts community in most cities, some of which are low-cost or even free for non-profit events. If you are located in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto, you can try This Open Space for short term rentals or reach out to community spaces to pitch your idea. I am fortunate to work in a studio building that has a gallery space that artists are able to use at a subsidized rate once per calendar year.

Think outside the box when it comes to a space to host an exhibit. Could you use a warehouse, a coffee shop, a space that hasn’t been leased yet? How long are you hosting the exhibit? The length of time will not only impact the cost of the space rental, but there will need to be someone to be within the space during operating hours – either yourself or someone you trust. For logistical reasons, this is why I choose to host for one night only because being open for more days comes with additional costs, constraints, and requirements.

On This Open Space in Vancouver, average costs for three days (set up, opening, take down) is $500, while a week (set up, five days open, take down) is $1000+. If you are able to set up and take down plus host an opening in one day, the cost can be as low as $150. Not all spaces allow for holes in the wall. Keep an eye on security deposits and cleaning fees.

Spacefinder BC also hosts a listing of space available in the province with the ability to sort by type of use, price, location, and more with similar rates. Some venues are happy to offer subsidized rates if you reach out.

Some venues will include liability insurance for your guests but the vast majority of them will not include insurance for your artwork.

When it comes to curating the placement of your work for the exhibition, you should already have a fairly solid idea of the experience, message, story, or theme you are presenting to your audience. At the point of curation, it will be partially dependent on the venue you have chosen. How many walls do you have to work with? Are you showcasing two-dimensional, three-dimensional, or media work? How do you envision visitors walking through the space? I like to consult with other artists as well as non-artists when determining the layout of an exhibit to determine how effective it is.

If you’re feeling ambitious or you find it easier to visualize the space on paper, you can draw out the venue and virtually place your work on the page using titles, collage, or digital mock-ups. As I round the final days of completing the body of work, I like to take images of all of it and create a digital draft of the space.

When curating, I also take into account where other areas in the space will be located, such as benches, tables, bar service, washrooms, entrances, title wall and signage. For instance, if I think a number of people will congregate around the bar, I may put one of the more provocative pieces in the area to prompt conversation.

There are a couple of tiers for advertising. Let’s start with my favourite: free! Using sites like Eventbrite and Facebook to create an event page are crucial for people you don’t know discovering your exhibition. There are also free event listings, like Instant Coffee and many local publications in your city. Write a press release and send it to the contacts available for your local media outlets. Find out how to write a good press release here. You’ll also need to follow up with the people you send this to. PS: Don’t forget to send it to us, we’re happy to write up posts about your show!

What the free options will cost you is time. Low-hanging fruit like Eventbrite and Facebook takes less time than distributing a press release or filling out dozens of event listing requests.

I recommend that if you are not planning on printing posters or show cards, you consider doing the following: create a digital event page, send the event to your mailing list, send out a press release with follow up, share it on your social networks (personal and professional), and enlist in a few friends to help spread the word. The key to word of mouth through social is engagement on your content. Also, don’t be afraid of posting too much – the fact is, not everyone will see every post you make.

Next up: affordable. You can poster the city’s poster poles and most printers offer a cheap option for posters designed specifically for this purpose (hint: if you’re an ECU alum, our benefit partner Club Card actually offers these at a super affordable rate where you can get 500 posters for under $100). Postering the city is extremely time intensive, so I recommend outsourcing the actual postering or seeing how many friends you can round up.

Another affordable option are social ads. You can keep ads inexpensive if you target specific audiences. New to social ads? Don’t worry, you can take a crash course on how to set up a campaign here to maximize the money you’re willing to spend. I usually do a social push 3 weeks out from the event for 7 days and spend around $100. I place ads on both Facebook and Instagram through Facebook’s Ad Manager. Here’s a guide for best practices for Instagram and beginner’s guide for Facebook.

Lastly: pricey. You can always hire a marketing firm or freelancer to help with this process. This will increase your budget substantially. For my most recent exhibition, I wrote my own press release but hired a freelance publicist to distribute it, do the follow up, and submit the event to all the third party event listings. This saved me an immense amount of time that I was able to allocate to the studio instead.

I’ve touched on this a couple times in the above sections, but let’s talk about outsourcing. When I think of tasks I’d like to outsource, I consider a few things:

  • Can I do this myself?
  • Is it necessary to my success markers?
  • If I do this myself, how long will it take?
  • Is it worth the monetary savings to take this time?
  • Would I prioritize this over studio hours?

If I don’t have the skillset or tool to do something myself but think it is absolutely necessary, I outsource. An example of this would be printing. I do not own a printer, so outsourcing printing of promotional material is a necessity.

If I can do something myself, I decide if it’s worth outsourcing based on the other criteria. An example would be postering as I could put up my own posters around Vancouver – the city even offers a handy guide to where they are located. However, posters have an extremely high turnover, sometimes even within minutes or hours which requires going out daily or weekly to continue to have visibility. This can take far too much time away from producing work or working on other tasks for the exhibition, and therefore is worth outsourcing to a company that specializes in this.

Consider the above checklist when planning what you might like someone else to take the lead on to free up time for yourself.

This will ultimately depend on the length of your show and the dates you run it. Thursdays and Saturdays are the most popular days for receptions, so keep that in mind as it can work for you or against you in terms of attendance. There are pros and cons for both types of receptions, the main one being with coverage of your event. An opening reception followed by additional gallery dates allows for word of mouth post-opening to spread to people who can attend after the fact. A run of days leading into a closing reception allows for the potential to have media cover the show prior to the reception and increase traffic that way.

In either scenario, you will need to determine how you envision the reception going. Items to consider are:

  • Will you be serving finger food?
  • Will you be serving alcohol?
    • If so, is it a complementary or cash bar?
  • Will you be serving non-alcoholic beverages?
  • Will there be music?
  • Will you require a bartender?

Often galleries that host exhibits will offer complimentary wine at their events, but do not feel obligated to take on the cost of offering that. While galleries have set a precedent, the unconventional exhibition has not. Regularly at art parties, small exhibitions, and other shows there is a cash bar, just water, or no drinks at all. Serving beverages of any kind can increase your costs upfront but selling the beverages can help you recoup those costs.

For my receptions, I have a cash bar and a volunteer bartender who will generally work for tips. While there is an upfront cost to having a bar, the sale of drinks prolongs the time people spend at the exhibit. Music also sets a mood and the background noise allows people to socialize or talk about the work without feeling as though they are breaking the silent atmosphere. When it comes to the reception, is it just social? Will you plan on giving an artist talk? Will there be a performance aspect? Live music? Is it interactive or participatory? These are additions that can hook in an audience.

What does success look like to you? For many artists, it’s sales. While sales are a clear success marker, I suggest you also measure success in different ways as well as sales. Some ideas for different measurements are:

  • Your work resonating with your audience
  • Attendance turn out
  • Media coverage
  • Did you create something meaningful for yourself?
  • Are you proud of what you accomplished?

I like to measure my success by audience feedback. Did I set out what I accomplished to do? Did my audience engage with my work? Was I able to convey the meaning clearly? These markers are equally if not more important than sales.

Conclusion + List of Resources

We hope this helps you plan your own exhibition. A reminder that it can be as complex or as simple as you would like. Below is a one-stop shop for the resources that were mentioned in this article along with bonus options.

This Open Space
Press Release How-To
Facebook Ads How-To
Instagram Ads How-To
Postering in Vancouver
BCL Special Event Permits
City of Vancouver Arts Event License

Hanging Your Work (two-dimensional)
Tips on Curating Your Work
How to Price Your Work
Budget Templates
Timeline Templates
Writing an Exhibition Statement

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