How to Stage Your First Art Exhibition: 6 Essential Tips

Once I’d made a commitment to staging my first exhibition of paintings and prints I found that research was the key to getting it right. My only previous experience of hanging and curating was a joint collaboration with several student friends some years ago. As I live outside of London, practice without representation and work full time I had to go it alone. The following 6 steps have been designed to offer a helping hand to anyone in a similar situation who wishes to exhibit their creations for the first time on a limited budget (or in my case next to nothing), and come from a direct result of my own experience. Whether your aim is for potential representation, for fun or simply to prove that you can do it, you will find as I did that these guidelines will give you enough confidence and know-how for you to stage your second show.


Before you approach any public venue you need to purchase public liability insurance. If a painting, print or sculpture injures a member of the public then you’re liable. I purchased mine through, full details here:
You can even purchase one-off exhibition insurance if you don’t wish to be covered for a full year.


If like me, you practice on a limited budget, then approaching a gallery often isn’t the cheapest option for your first exhibition. Restaurants, bars, cafés and pubs can be just an effective means of getting your work seen and generally won’t charge you to exhibit. Be warned though; don’t target the local Slaughtered Lamb or Little Chef but chose a venue that’s sympathetic to your medium and where you know that the clientele will at the very least read the titles of your works. In my case I chose a restaurant in a small village whose décor, ambience and customer base fit very well with my paintings and prints.


Once you have your ideal venue in mind arrange to meet the proprietor during his/her least busy period of their working day. Look professional; take images of your work with details of medium and sizes in a smart portfolio. Discuss why you think exhibiting on their walls/spaces will benefit both of you and view the project as a potential collaboration or working relationship. In my case a phone call was all it took to arrange a meeting with the restaurant manager.


If a verbal agreement to exhibit has been established, confirm any commission rate at this point. I agreed that 20% of any piece sold would go the restaurant. I also gave the manager permission to discount no more than 10% off a piece(s) to ensure a sale. Also agree the following points:

Duration of exhibition including start date: if your dates run over public holidays such as Valentines or Mothers Day etc…then you are guaranteed greater public exposure.

Whether payment of any works purchased should be made to the establishment or direct to artist.

Whether you can drill holes to accommodate your hung pieces and that you should make good the walls after the end date.

The more trust you share with the proprietor then the less formal your agreements can be. Here’s a basic list of conditions that I made sure the manager checked over for final verbal agreement. In my case I felt that a contract for the informal nature of the show was unnecessary so nothing was signed:

The Restaurant agrees to sell the Works, as agent for the Artist, at the selling prices specified in Appendix A - list of works.

The Restaurant will be entitled to charge sales commission on the selling price at the following rate: 20%

The Restaurant may offer buyers a discount, but the discount shall be taken out of the Restaurant’s commission and shall not affect the net amount due to the artist: 10%

Any additional discount shall be taken out of the Restaurant’s sales commission and will not be shared with the Artist.

The Restaurant will remit the Selling Price, less the above commission, to the Artist by cheque/BACS within the following period from the date of sale of the Work: 30 Days

The Restaurant agrees not to sell Work by installment.

The Works are delivered on consignment only and the Artist retains ownership in the Works until sale.

For a more formal agreement which is designed to protect artists during gallery exhibits, this excellent link to an artist contracts toolkit is a guide for anyone new to contracts.


The proprietor may wish to have their say on the positioning of your pieces in their establishment. The best time to agree this is with your portfolio at stage 3. This level of forward planning will enable you to hang/position your artworks in the agreed locations the moment you physically transport them to the space in order to save time. Time will be of the essence while hanging; you will generally have until 11.30 am and between 3pm-6pm to get this right in a restaurant due to dining times and less time in a bar/pub space. I experienced an uncomfortable moment when I had to hastily pack all my tools away and strategically place un-hung prints behind the bar due to running late and being confronted by confused lunch guests and a disgruntled front-of-house manager.
Don’t assume any help from the owner when hanging or transporting artworks as they are busy enough running their own business. Expect to supply all tools yourself and state that you’ll clear any mess you create; drilling in walls has a habit of creating a fair amount of dust and small debris that customers won’t want to find on their dining tables.


Blowing your own trumpet by letting people know how your show can interest them takes many forms. The following are based on the promotions I went through to increase the profile of my exhibition:

Press release
Local publications like to publish articles on shows especially if the local community benefits in some way or there is an interesting story behind it. A press release should generally cover the 5 W’s: who, what, why, where and when. Here’s a link to my press release that was sent to 15 local publications:
The result of this was that it got published in 5 magazines and newspapers and 2 websites, albeit in an edited form but the main thing is that it’s free exposure to tens of thousands of people. If just 1% of 10,000 readers decide to see the show then that’s still 100 potential buyers.

Flyers, business cards and posters
One of the benefits of being a graphic designer by trade is that I created and printed all of the above saving a considerable cost. Old fashioned cold calling to related establishments that are happy to display a stack of flyers to promote your show is essential. Be careful not to approach establishments that are in direct competition with where you’re showing. See this as an opportunity to overcome shyness and improve on public relations skills; talking about the ideas and inspirations behind what you do is a necessary form of self promotion whether you have representation or not. In addition building these kinds of contacts is important and may benefit you further in your career. My flyers are displaying in Galleries, Theatres and local shops (even a very willing Butchers’!) and the best part is that this is also free publicity. Other printed material that you’ll need is a price guide (don’t put prices on the individual pieces) and mounted name tags against each artwork.

Engage with your public
Since I had no opening night or private view, creating face-to-face interest in my work required another approach. Diners don’t want to be asked for feedback on the artworks while they’re enjoying food with friends and family (would you?!). As there was a bar area I handed flyers to incoming diners, and to those who appeared interested I gave a brief outline of the inspirations behind my work and expressed a wish that they enjoy the paintings and prints alongside the food and ambience of the restaurant. One guest in 20 may be particularly keen to know more and it was with this empathetic minority that I was able to really engage.

Written feedback
A nice touch is to leave a comments book with an A4 laminated sign that encourages the public to respond to your artworks in writing. Make it clear that the feedback is for the art and not the restaurant/bar/café. I had to amend my sign and make it more specific after receiving the following:
‘Disappointing vegetarian selection’ and ‘Chloe aged 5 loves the toast’!

Other forms of promotion
Be creative with how you can push your name and practice. At my exhibition, when a bill is presented to a diner it comes attached with a flyer and business card. The restaurant manager also agreed to promote my show on their website. On the restaurant’s homepage there is a link to a digital version of my flyer with content about my background, practice and web link; more free publicity.

The experience of putting on my first show has been quite incredible. Producing your artwork is only the beginning of the process. Self promotion, social skills, organisation, DIY skills and an air of confidence have all been important learning curves during this project. The two ultimate goals for me were to receive constructive feedback and to generate sales, both of which I have achieved. The proceeds of what I have sold will now be re-invested in a local gallery exhibition where a traditional opening night can be financed. My ultimate goal would be to get artists’ representation in the future but working full time means that production of artwork is slow and so I have to remain realistic. I hope that sharing my account of staging my first art exhibition will encourage others to do so where lack of knowledge or confidence is an obstacle.

Have you done things differently to hang and promote your first show? It would be great to hear from artists of all levels on their exhibition experiences.

1 comment:

  1. brilliant post - with some great tips and links
    thank you for sharing this and good luck with future exhibition plans