Behind the Scenes of Exhibit Curation, Design, and Marketing with Gabrielle Dunkley

Post by Gabrielle Dunkley, Stamp Gallery of Art

The Stamp Gallery staff was tasked with the tremendous opportunity of curating a special exhibit this May. The meetings are over, the drafts are finalized, and the announcement has been made. After starting something that has the deceptive impression of being simple, you consider all of the work put into curating a good show.

Here is a compilation of steps necessary to get from point A to B.

You’ve got to know what you want to say.

Curating an exhibit is an exercise of collaboration as much as it is a feat of innovation. You are working with many brilliant minds at the same time and it is hard to excise one message from an ocean of ideas. Though many concepts may sound wonderful, few may prove to be executable.

  • Have cycles of meetings featuring staff proposals; allow members to present their ideas and vote on the most feasible concepts.
  • Weigh your supervisor’s guidelines and budget while considering proposals.
  • Know your audience: select a concept that you can market to your patrons. This will involve plenty of research. An idea may sound interesting, but it must be developed enough to get people to walk through your doors. It doesn’t have to be a struggle between commercialization and avant garde. If a concept is developed, the exhibit space is thoughtfully designed, and the artists’ intent is properly represented, your audience won’t need Cliff’s Notes for the exhibit.

You’ve got to know how you want to say it.

Now comes the fun part: building an exhibit around your idea. After receiving budget approval and reserved exhibition space from your supervisor (or if you are curating on your own and you acquired your own grants and exhibit space), you’ll have to do some more research. Odds are, there are many people who said what you wanted to say. As much as you’d like to compete with them, it’s important to learn from them and their execution. You may have already researched your concept and the rhetoric you’d like to portray, but you must also research artists and spaces that have conveyed your concept in different mediums. Once your team has completed more research, you are ready for pre-production phase. This will involve much project management on your part. Every seemingly innocuous detail must be discussed, planned, and put into action.

  • Begin drafting a project charter and internal/external communications for your exhibit.
    • What is the title? What is your statement of purpose? Are you proceeding with a tag line? Who is the lead curation team? What will your press release say? Where are you broadcasting your open call for submissions? Which artist databases are you soliciting through? Will there be an honorarium offered to selected artists? Is there an age limit? Are there medium restrictions (photography, paintings, literatures, visual projections, etc)?
  • Solicit artists your team may have in mind for the exhibit. Some members may already have an artist in mind that they may feel fits the exhibit.
  • Give yourself a timeline for acquiring submissions, marketing, selecting artists, installing the exhibit, and deinstalling the exhibit.
  • Make preliminary designs for the exhibit space.
    • How do you want to present the concept? Are you making an environment welcoming or purposefully unnerving? Will the lighting ambiance be soft and airy or dark and ominous? Will you use spotlight treatments to create drama? Will there be visitor interaction with the exhibit pieces? How will the mediums compliment the lighting (i.e., creating darker spaces with moveable walls in conjunction with a video projection)? Will shadows from the wall conflict with the lighting? Are you generating visual pause with the spacing of your project? Will people want to stay in this space? How long? Do you want to generate an open space or an intricate space? How are the pieces going to speak with one another? Will the placement be mostly on the walls or on pedestals? Think about the visitor experience and how the design of the space will influence your visitor’s internalization of the art. Of course, these are only preliminary thoughts to consider — you cannot design until you secure the artist and the work.

Once you select an artist and work space, you’re prepared for cleaning up the administrative aspect to your project. Remember those seemingly innocuous details you have to plan?

  • You’ll need to staff a team to prep the exhibit space (spackle holes in the wall from previous exhibits, painting over imperfections, cleaning up the acrylic so that the display is sparkling)
  • Ensure the artists signed the contracts.
  • Make sure the artwork is insured.
  • Hire a printing press to publish the marketing materials.
  • Is your artist having their work mailed to the exhibit space? Schedule a pick up /drop off procedure for the incoming art.
  • Schedule a deadline for the artist to install/deinstall the exhibit.
  • Copyedit all wall text, marketing materials, internal, and external communications.
  • Double check to make sure all materials have been ordered in advance so that it will arrive in time for installation (vinyl, paint, labels, etc).

Be sure to dot every conceivable “i” and cross each and every “t” before you even think about opening the gallery doors on your grand opening.

You’ve got to say something worth listening to.

You know your audience, you have your title, you have your marketing communications, you have your project charter, and you have a team working on production behind the scenes. You might have a beautifully orchestrated exhibit, but you’ll need people to show up. Coordinating how to reach potential visitors and make them interested in your show is an art on its own. You’ll need to ensure that marketing for your show is reaching enough ears.

Remember all that time you spent looking up artists and previous work based around your concept? Who are their fans? Would they want to see your work? Create an avatar of your audience. How old is this visitor? Where do they hang out? How do they get their information? What are they interested in? How do they invest their time? What colors do they respond to? What register of language appeals to them? Are they old school or new school? Which typeface fits their aesthetic? Which newspapers are they reading? Which social media do they use? Which blogs are they scanning? Do they even read blogs? The bottom line is: how will your exhibit’s existence reach your prospective visitors? Are they going to learn from it from a flier by the coffee shop or an ad on a Facebook page?

  • Get some analytics from previous shows that are similar to your exhibit: learn about their patrons and fans.
  • Design marketing around a conceived avatar representing you prospective visitors. Make sure your marketing materials appeal to the audience you are trying to reach.
  • Does your gallery already have a mailing list/roster of galleries, patrons, art spaces, and centers that they send communications to? Acquire that list and send out your official announcement of the show. It’s also ideal to thank and invite your sponsors personally.
  • Keep communications on your social media sites and official marketing materials consistent.
  • Plan reception event activities.
  • Book caterers, assign staff members to attend the reception, set up the space, and clean up the space.
  • Advertise the reception and offer it up as an opportunity to meet artists featured in the exhibit.
  • Book radio air time, plan a route of public flier locations, forward digital copies of your exhibit announcement on listservs, make sure every press appearance that fits your budget has been accounted for before you rest.

You have to follow through.

There are roughly seven billion people on this earth. It is highly likely that they encounter at least one provocative, innovative, and remarkable idea worth executing in their lifetime. But it requires more than a great idea to put on a show. No matter how much you plan, things can happen that will require you to resort to contingencies to make the show go on. You may prepare for every fathomable outcome, but the law of averages is not interested in giving you the exact future you see for yourself or your work. Now that you have invested this much time in the exhibit, you have to show up beyond the grand opening.



  • You must prep your gallery attendant staff with artist biographies, artwork annotations, and exhibit narratives so that visitors have a meaningful experience. Train them on best practices throughout the exhibit. This includes training on protecting the artwork, cleaning the space, and policing potential vandals.
  • Make sure opening and closing procedures are clearly communicated to your staff so that your exhibit is safe in someone else’s hands.
  • Monitor and log your visitors.
  • Execute exhibit site maintenance; is the temperature of the exhibit space controlled? Are there any signs of wear on the material?
  • Be there for every function (artist acquisition, marketing meetings, installation, opening reception, and deinstallation).
  • See the project the whole way through. Your job doesn’t stop once you made it to the opening day. If there is a crisis twelve days into the exhibit, you have to show up.
  • Keep in touch with contacts made during the exhibition and thank each and every person that contributed to your project.

What separates an event from a gathering is dedication. You have to believe in the concept the moment you pitch it. You have to invest in the marketing of the exhibit the moment you agree to curate it. You have to dedicate yourself to preserving the mission of the artists’ work, your vision, and the representation through the designing of the space. And most importantly, you have to remember why you are making this statement and who you are making the statement for. What populates those gallery walls is a serious responsibility. Curation is an exhaustively exhilarating and remarkable experience. The results can be groundbreaking if you commit to conveying an idea in a way that has not been done before. I wish all of you luck on your future curations and I hope you get the opportunity to see it through from conception all the way to birth.

Stay curious,

Gabrielle A. Dunkley




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