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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Planning for a Solo Exhibit

I was delighted to learn my art was selected for a solo exhibition at the Columbia Art Center in Columbia Maryland for February 2013.  I applied 18 months prior and had pretty much decided I hadn't been selected, so the notice came as a surprise.  The timing is actually very good since I retired from system engineering 6 months before I received the notice and am now focusing full time on my art.  At the time of the notice I just started to realize that many of the planning skills I used nearly daily in engineering are going to be needed in my new art career. 

I am not alone when I thought as an artist I could leave behind all those business skills learned over many years as an engineer and just enjoy painting.  Painting has always been my respite allowing me to get grounded and leave behind the many stresses of my career and "become human again."  I want to just paint and have fun.  However, I also know that I want to sell more of my work than I previously have.  So six months after retiring and with several successes at getting my art accepted into National exhibitions, I realize that I am not going to be able to keep all the deadlines for shows (entry, shipping, receptions, pickup or return shipment) in my head and that my electronic calendar is not really the right answer for making sure I am ready for an exhibit when the time arrives.  Adding a solo exhibit on top of planning for other exhibits and meeting with gallery directors made me decide that I need to bring some of those old planning skills into my art business or I will go crazy.

Yes that means admitting art is a business and treating it as one. I can't just get up in the morning, have breakfast then paint for most of the day. I have always been someone who keeps lists of things to do, but having a few sheets of paper with things to do written on them is not going to cut it.  After all, paper is easy to misplace so then your plan is literally gone.  Not a good thing.  So I decided to use a spreadsheet to track what I need to do and when it is due.  It is easy to add new items to the plan as I think of them.  Actually I now have several spreadsheets.  Now all my friends from engineering are laughing because I've always LOVED making tables to present my thoughts.

One spreadsheet is my plan for the solo art exhibit.  So what did I put in the list?  The Columbia Art Center gave me a great list of what they need from me plus when and what they will do.  That was a great place to start, so I put all these items as rows in the chart. I shaded the items the art center is going to do so I could keep track of their tasks separate from mine. I added in other things I will have to do to get ready for the exhibit that the art center didn't have in their list.  There are columns for each month.  If a task is a simple item, like deliver an inventory of art to be in the exhibit, then I simply enter the date it is due to the gallery under the month.  If the task has many parts like (get all the art framed) I initially mark a start and end month for getting this done and later add in details on which paintings I need to get framed each month. 

Now here is the tricky part that really needs planning.  I proposed an exhibit titled "Travel the World in Transparent Media".  The exhibit includes both my paintings and my fused glass.  I noticed that the subjects, style, and colors of my paintings and glass often are similar.  I create something in glass that inspires a painting and vice versa.  The show plays off that theme and at the same time features my work that captures places I have visited internationally and in the United States.  This means I must select work telling an interesting story about my travels and those with a connection between my two art media. 

Developing an exhibit layout

Since I'm very visual I create an Exhibit Layout, shown above.  I use Photoshop and start by creating a document that shows the dimensions of the walls.  Each vertical line represents a separate wall.  One wall is taller than the others so I put the dark rectangle at the top of the shorter walls to block out the extra height.  I set this up so 2 feet equals 1" in the diagram then started to select art that fits the theme of the exhibit and sized those images to the same scale.  A 2 foot by 2 foot painting was shrunk to 1" by 1" and inserted into the document.  I then moved around the art to make an interesting flow.  Both the subject and the color of the art have to make sense so that as you look at the exhibit it is pleasing to the eye and the subject matter also transitions nicely.

Next my 3-dimensional glass art is placed on "pedestals" and situated so they are near their companion watercolor.  There are also several wall hung glass pieces interspersed on the wall.  I print this visual plan on several sheets of paper, tape them together and hang it in my studio so I can see whether the layout worked.  Initially I had concepts of paintings marked in spots because I needed to create a painting that would fit there.  Over the last few months I move around the pieces or add images of new work that I think might fit better and the plan changes.  The image above shows the current plan, but who knows, it may change again.  I have a little over a month before I have to deliver the inventory list to the art center at which point the plan freezes.

The spreadsheet with my "To do" list is on the refrigerator so I can check it each week and make sure I know what needs to be done in order to stay on plan.  Every now and then I edit my spreadsheet and shade the boxes for completed tasks green so I have a sense of accomplishment. Then I print it again. If I think of a task I missed in the original plan I just add it.  It really helps me stay relaxed and not fret over what I need to do.  I actually think I have more time to paint since I wrote down the plan and don't have to worry about it any more.

If you are an artist and struggle with keeping it all together, try making lists.  You don't have to use a spreadsheet, but find some way to list the tasks you need to do and post it somewhere accessible so you can check it once a week, mark off what you did, and identify what you should do next.  You'll be surprised how much stress it takes away to spend a couple hours focused on making a plan then just following it.


  1. April,
    this is a great blog with useful advice. I am going to try the planning part for my show at the Columbia Art Center. Thanks for writing and organizing. I was inspired by your article...

    1. With us both doing a plan of the show it will be the best display at CAC ever. :-)

  2. You could only stay away from Excel for 6 months?? Come on, now, April! You should have gone all out and used Microsoft Project! That would remind you of the good ol' days! ;-)

    1. OK so I had at least one spreadsheet to help with pricing right away, but now there are several more. I could not bring myself to use Microsoft Project. It was more than I needed anyway. After all, only one resource, ME.


I look forward to hearing from you. - April

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