How to Organize an Exhibition

Want to choose the art that makes your museum the hottest ticket in town? Start by looking, looking and then looking some more to develop your eye. Next, earn a master's degree, land a job at a museum and work your way up to a curator's position. At last you're in prime position to organize a blockbuster exhibition.

Determine the exhibition's theme. Whether you feature a single artist, illustrate an artistic trend or place familiar works in a new context, start with an idea. "Winslow Homer's Paintings" doesn't tell a story. "American Impressions, 1865 to 1925: Prints, Drawings and Watercolors" is an exhibition theme.

Choose a date. Factor in considerable lead time, typically two to four years.

Seek out supplemental funding--corporate and individual--for both the exhibition and its catalog. Big exhibits cost big bucks but provide impressive opportunities for prestige by association.

Plan the catalog and assign essays to experts. Approve designs for other tie-in material, such as banners, postcards, calendars and T-shirts.

Allow delivered work to remain in packing materials for 24 hours to adjust to the museum's climate. Do a careful condition report on each piece as it is unpacked. Arrange for additional security guards if needed.

Work with the museum's exhibits specialist to design the physical aspects of the installation, including layout and construction of any special display elements such as pedestals, room dividers and temporary alcoves. Arrange for any special lighting needed.

Create informational labels for all the works. Great labels go beyond providing basic facts; they answer common questions and help visitors view the artworks with deeper understanding.

Identify the most important pieces to illustrate the exhibit's theme. Develop a script about this theme for self-guided tours on cassette or CD, and get a famous person to read it. Interesting art deserves an interesting voice. Check out Antenna Audio at antenna-audio.com.

Plan the publicity program. Oversee press releases to send to the art press, both local and national, and to travel publications. Contact a local charity about making the opening party a benefit. See 372 Publicize an Event.

Supervise the hanging and placement of the work. Then, just before the preview party, walk quietly around the exhibit--all alone--and savor what you've spent so long creating.


Plan on earning your degree in fine arts, art history, museum studies or history. See 149 Decide Which College Is Right for You. Check that your insurance coverage is seamless. Visit the exhibit several times a week during the busiest hours to see how visitors are responding. Consider bringing in one or more guest curators to help with a large, complex exhibition. Additional expertise will enrich the final production. Make arrangements with other museums to send your exhibit on tour. A touring exhibit not only enables you to share some of the production costs, but also creates publicity for your institution and ensures that your ideas reach a far larger audience. A great catalog not only sells well during the exhibition, but also can become a museum-store evergreen.

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