Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tips for DIY Art Exhibitions

As has been recommended here frequently, but, not as far as I know, taken off in New York as much as it seems to have in London (see this New York Times article for more on that), one advantage to the closing of so many small businesses in the current economic downturn is that landlords are more likely to be willing to let enterprising artists and curators use a vacant space for exhibitions on a temporary basis. The advantages for landlords in doing so are that having someone--anyone--using the space helps deter crime and prevents dereliction. Furthermore, the type of people who attend art exhibitions are often exactly the audience landlords want to get the word about their available space out to.

Back in 1999 when I first decided I wanted to open a gallery (yes, you can read more about that in my book, which is still for sale and actually has some helpful tips for DIY artists and curators), the economy was a fair bit more stable than it is today, and so I had difficulty finding spaces for the series of 3-day, guerrilla exhibitions I organized back then (that's the logo for the 4th venture above, which took place on Pier 40).

Originally, I tromped all around Soho and the Lower East Side for weeks, calling all the numbers on vacant buildings, but rarely getting anything even approaching a considerate response.
Determined, though, I called the landlord of my apartment building (also in Soho), which happens to have two commercial storefronts on the ground floor, and asked him for advice. I couldn't use his two spaces, but I asked him to share with me what his concerns might be if approached by an artist or curator wanting to get a space for an exhibition so that I could be ready to counter any such resistance in my next round of calls.

My landlord offered some really great advice, which (along with other things I learned back then) I'm happy to pass along to anyone wanting to give it a go today:
  1. The number one objection landlords have to such a request is liability. You can, though, for a very reasonable price get "Event" insurance. The place I got mine from was these guys: http://www.insurevents.com/. So when you approach a landlord who objects because of liability concerns, tell them you're already in contact with an Events insurer. They will likely ask for a copy of your policy, though, and ask to be designated as also insured, so you can't just say this. If they don't raise this objection, you still might want to get the insurance for your own peace of mind.
  2. Offer to do what one of the temporary tenants quoted in the London article did: "In an agreement typical of many being struck, Mr. Tarrant said he would pay for all utilities and return the property in the same or better condition than when the collective moved in." This is actually very appealing to a landlord concerned about dereliction.
  3. You will most likely be asked to pay for electricity in an empty space and may need to call the electric company to have the service turned on and the bill for the duration of your occupancy sent to you.
  4. Ask for the terms of the occupancy in writing to protect yourself and to reassure a hesitant landlord that you're responsible. Here is what was drawn up by one of the landlords I paid a fee to get a space in the Lower East Side (yes, you might have to pay for some spaces, but that's entirely negotiable and clearly you should not be paying the full rent, or why bother):
    "{Landlord} will lend the south store in the building at {address} to Ed Winkleman the three days of March 26, 27, 28 1999, for the purchase of a three day art exhibit entitled "hit and run." The fee for the three days is {$$$} and will be paid in advance.

    Landlord is not responsible for any damage whatsoever of any kind. Landord will be held harmless for any damage or claims with respect to merchandise, equipment or persons. Tenant must be fully insured as of the days key are accepted for the Premises.

    {Landlord} has the right to enter the Premises at any time for any reason."

  5. Get someone interested in events planning and promotions to help you with logistics (for free). You'll have enough to do with organizing the exhibition. Having someone else worry about press releases and potential sponsors, etc. was the smarest thing I ever did the first few times out. Eventually I learned to do those things myself (I organized 4 "hit & run"s in New York and one in London), but the first time around it was overwhelming.
  6. Try to get a sponsor for refreshments (i.e., booze). We had great luck getting vendors with new products to promote to donate cases for our events.
  7. Make sure the (other) participating artists understand that you're not Gagosian and that they're expected to help in delivery and installation costs. Do what you can, obviously, by cashing in favors, but this is not a time or place for anyone to fly their inner diva flag.
  8. Begin advertising even before you're sure what space you have...get the word out, get people excited, commit yourself to doing this. Set up a blog with images and such (it's free!). By making it public, you'll find you're less willing to back down, less willing to take "no" as an answer, and more creative in solving problems. If you're like me, few things will motivate you like not wanting to disappoint people.
  9. Cash in favors!!! From whitewashing the space, to drink tickets for the after party, to help in building your blog or website, to installation or shipping...all your friends and family can pitch in. Ask them to help. They'll probably have a blast doing so.
  10. Have fun yourself. If you do, so will others attending and that can spread interest like wildfire.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would it be wise to search for a space next to an established gallery and have your opening coincide with theirs? Piggybacking like this seems to have obvious advantages but what could be the problems?

9/01/2009 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

availability is the only potential problem to that I can think of

9/01/2009 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Erker said...

Thanks, Ed, very useful info. I will take heed for my next hit and run!

9/01/2009 01:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I've been in NYC for over five years now. Before that, I've lived all over from U.S. rust belt towns to major metropolitan areas abroad. When I got here, I was surprised at how little initiative there was for DIY exhibitions. At the time, I assumed that the very early 2k's Williamsburg scene was a maturing mutation borne of an earlier wave of DIY spirit.

And surely, numerous NYC institutions speak to a legacy of DIY: Franklin Furnace, Rotunda Gallery, White Columns, the Knitting Factory, etc etc. as well as the twin legacies of downtown punk and Bronx hip-hop.

By the time I arrived though, a belief in bureaucratic formulas for success had taken root. An overwhelming majority of immigrating artists and matriculating NYC grad students seemed to have fully bought into the bakery shop "take a number and wait in line" mentality. I'll admit it, I too fell into this trap for a few years. I think it is this particular mentality that folks refer to when they say money stifles creativity. I know it stifled mine.

Anyways, I've been getting rather excited about reverting to my DIY past. It feels like a natural, normal and healthy direction for me. I feel at home with this approach and my motivations and values are much clearer when I'm in the thick of it. I regret now ever having looked at it pejoratively when I first moved here.

And sometimes, DIY is the only way to ensure your vision gets out there the right way... at least till you can convince a few other folks to get on board with you. And demonstration remains the best way for an artist to convince.

9/01/2009 05:24:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

We just had a big party at a gallery in NH that was a DIY affair and it went very well. It was great for all the artists who had work indoors and outdoors on the grounds and we had students helping people park [the gallery is a destination] and serving food (we had a potluck- bring what you want to) and we provided drinks (non-alcoholic) and some folks brought wine and beer. We had everyone fill out name tags and we promoted it as a private networking art party- I think it will become an annual affair. The president of the NH senate came and some art media folks and lots of artists and art world people plus friends and families! The event was the brainchild of myself and another artist- we had a smaller party at my friends house in april that was a big hit, but his house was overfilled quickly, so we were standing around talking about having another party in front of the gallery owner, and she said 'you can have it here.' [since it was also my friends birthday]

9/01/2009 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Vincent Romaniello said...

In Philadelphia there are 8 gallery spaces that were formerly vacant stores. It's a program called Arts on South. We have been at it for 6 months and have been able to show 77 artists so far. We do it based on a co-op model but have invited many from outside our group to exhibit. We also have music events, film festivals, and other things in the works. I have to say it is harder than it looks at first especially to sustain for a long period. But for us it's well worth it and I would recommend others give it a try using the tips you provided. Thanks. http://sageset.blogspot.com/

9/01/2009 09:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

I think too many people wait around thinking somebody will do it for them. Artists should initiate more on their own, as well as working with gallerists, curators, etc. And good advice Ed, remember to have fun yourself! I remember working too hard at times and watching everybody else have all the fun. My first exhibition was in 1984 in a condemned building in Vancouver. I had to drive my car into the space and light the show with its headlights because the city wouldn't turn the power on. The show was reviewed locally and lead to at least five more exhibitions.

My current D.I.Y. project - http://randallanderson.net/pdf/The%20Manhattan%20Prototype.pdf

This is one I did in Vancouver a long time ago:

9/01/2009 09:37:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

Didn't Elizabeth Peyton have a show in a room at the Chelsea Hotel at the start of her career?

Another friend of mine opened up her space in Chelsea last year for artists to have shows- and I was invited to participate in a solo and a 2 person show- it was a great location and a great experience to work with her (a diy'er)

I started an art salon in my studio 2 years ago and it's going strong- now it's moving around to meet in other artist's studios and galleries.

You are only limited by your imagination!

9/01/2009 10:32:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

are you people serious? Have your own show? DO you know how much it costs to insure all the work? What if someone falls and gets paralized? I am not joking. You need to understand that there are srious risks to these kinds of undertakings. People can die.

But beyond the physical problems, someone has to sacrifice their artistic output to putting up a show.

Whe I was going to art parties in w-burg there was a lot of crap. Open studios included. But it was possible. Then they evicted everybody. If you look at James Kalm's video there are parallels - though more dramatic and of co urse unique. Scenes die. If you are looking for a new scene borne out of the economic down turn, may I point you to the somewhat desperate situation of many artists who used to be able to rent their own apartments for 700 dollars or less. Weird huh? I mean 50 years ago it was like maybe 200 dollars adjusted for inflation.

I;m really kind of angry at these kinds of articles actually, they are misleading and create unrealistic expectations. Count me out of this provincial boosterism.

9/02/2009 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I mean I;ve gone the bake sale route and it just seems sarcastic and mean right now.

9/02/2009 12:21:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...


9/02/2009 12:22:00 AM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

I remember seeing a fantastic DIY show of Sarah Lucas in London back in the early nineties....
She was already quite famous (showed at Saatchi already) and I was amazed she was the one picking up the phone when I called to make sure the place was open.
What I think is good about this crisis is the fact that most people come back to earth. Where everybody else lives.

By the way, it's great to see that logo again, Ed! I do miss the fab times in New York, and I feel honored to have been part of that little piece of history.

9/02/2009 04:54:00 AM  
Blogger J.T. said...

Thanks Ed for the great advice. I've actually done this twice:

1. My day job as a consultant periodically requires me to travel. I was contracted to work in Manhattan for 6 weeks a few winters ago. I was put up in the Marriott down by the World Trade Center site. Given the abundance of hotel art fairs, I decided to mount a solo exhibition of my work in my room to be open at night once I got off work. I did three nights and invited friends, critics, dealers, etc, from NYC. It was freezing cold and the turnout was low, but the right people showed up. I got a few reviews out of it and word spread about the show. If someone else is paying for you to travel for work, this can be a good way of mounting a show in another city.

2. I put together a group show in D.C. and hit the pavement much like Ed to find a location. I finally found a space willing to give me 4 days that coincided with the ArtDC fair (just a block away). Well, the owners of that space turned out to be crazy and cancelled on me last minute. Fortunately another gallery stepped up to give me space for the show and it was a great success.

Ultimately DIY shows are incredibly challenging, but when you pull it off it can be greatly satisfying. I'm thinking about pulling together another one soon.

9/02/2009 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 5:24 notes a number of New York institutions had have sprung from a DIY ethos. But you'll notice that most of the DIYers who wrote in are not from New York. There are reasons for this:

1. The difficulty of subsisting in New York. All your time is spent working a non-art job and then trying to get in sufficient studio time to actually make art

2) The cost and paperwork of finding and securing the DIY space

3) The logistical near impossibility of moving art up and down spaces (in some studio buildings you can't count on the elevator), finding a parking space for your rented truck, feeling secure that your rented truck won't get ticketed

4) Counting on others. Call me cynical, but one or two people always end up doing all the work.

That said, I do think small, manageable projects can work: the apartment that's turned into a weekend gallery, for instance, or a little space on the LES. And we've all seen that little hotel fair at the Grammercy Hotel turn into the two-pier behemoth that today is The Armory Fair.

9/02/2009 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger youth--less said...

Remarkable people started the Gramecy-->Armory fair. Are you a remarkable person?

9/02/2009 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I would like to share with you a DIY project I held this past January following the inauguration. I parked my Jeep on the street in the LES where I allowed the engine to idle for two hours. It was intended as a temporary monument to the Bush admin. I invited people to come. It was a lot of fun, and well worth the effort. the project is documented here: http://parkingdoc.blogspot.com/

9/02/2009 05:13:00 PM  
Anonymous EventHandler said...

My dad said I could use the garage. I had to clean it out and use reading lamps for light but I put up most of my latest stuff and advertised on the web and everything. No one came. I sat there all day playing music. It was cold. I think the dates coincided with the local trunk sale down at the station carpark or something.

I never bothered with all the insurance and stuff. I don’t drink.

It was kind of guerilla now that I think about it.

9/02/2009 06:24:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I have seen shows close because of accidents or lack of permission on some level (permits, injury, fire codes). All part of the excitement I guess, unless you are left holding the bag.

It would be great if arts organizations could help artists and independent curators mount their own shows more often, with modest grants of space, insurance, administrative costs, printing and maybe a case of beer or two.

Apartments are a great idea - more people should do that despite the (evil) elitism of the salon system.

And for the drinkers, isn't 4 or 6 or 7 dollars a lot to pay for a beer in a bar? Why not bring a six pack or a thermos of mai tais to an art event? I miss pot luck.

9/02/2009 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

When I lived in the boondocks, I once wrote a grant, sublet a NY studio for a month, sent out press releases and mass emails, printed up postcards, and hauled all my stuff to the city, setting up a permanent gallery with all my work. I had an opening, and hired a few
former students to man the door & the bar. A few great opportunities came of it, but I would never have spent that kind of money ($4,000-$5,000) without the grant.

It is important to remember that these kind of endeavors are successful in proportion to your publicity skills and ability to get (the right) people to actually show up.

9/04/2009 08:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Deschanel said...

Zipthwung, with all your concerns about accidents, maimings and beheadings a small art show potentially risks, I wonder if you read the bit about Event Insurance that Ed mentioned prominently.

Granted, I don't know if all policies cover the bloodbaths and catastrophes you foresee. But golly, why does anyone ever have a show anywhere with such risk? You make it sound like Baghdad.

Ed, thank you for your thoughtful, practical-and inspirational- advice. DIY is a great idea.

9/06/2009 04:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Kathy Schaefer said...

What about a group of artists with 10 or 15 pictures each just setting up somewhere where there´s a lot of people - on the street, in the park, etc. Depends on reasonble weather of course. My experience is that it works and the planning and effort is really less - pictures go into vehicle till next day, half-hour set up again, no expenses, no red tape.

9/10/2009 02:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Brad the Builder said...

Interesting article, thanks

9/14/2009 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous broker Lorne said...

Great and very useful tips, thanks for them. Of course, since I kinda work with it, what caught my attention the most is events insurance. I just want to say it is nice and a little surprising for me to see it is getting trendy.


9/22/2009 07:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

I've known friends whom have exhibited in restaurants, cafe's and shops. A small percentage of the profit goes to the owner and then you keep the rest

10/03/2011 04:09:00 PM  

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