Painting How To: Managing Group Exhibits

If you think it’s important to exhibit your work, you need to learn about what’s involved with managing a group exhibit. The sooner you yourself manage an exhibit, the better. You’ll develop a lot more respect for the people who do this sort of thing! Managing a group exhibit is quite different than managing your own exhibit, though there are certain similarities. One or the other helps you with both (See discussion: Setting up & Managing Solo Exhibits).

The exhibit chair for local art associations is usually appointed by the president. This person who is exhibit chair may or may not be a member of the board of directors.  For the more prestigious national exhibits, a nominating committee proposes the exhibit chair, who’s then elected by the membership to serve on the organization’s board of directors.

Artist organizations are always looking for people to help run exhibits. But if you try to introduce changes in the way exhibits have been run in the past, you’ll most likely meet resistance. To avoid this and get some recognition for your efforts, keep in step with precedents. Also, concentrate on making the opening reception and exhibit as attractive as possible.

Wickford Harbor, Harbor Watercolor Painting, Harbor Art

Click Picture to Purchase: “Wickford Harbor, RI (#2)”

The first thing you need to do is decide on a budget for the exhibit.  If the prior exhibit manager wrote a report, review the list of expenses, income and recommendations for changes. Then submit a budget to your organization for approval.  In some organizations you’ll have to submit a balanced budget; in others, you may not.  This depends on whether your group subsidizes a portion or all of the exhibit costs. In either case, it’s important to know how much leeway you have with expenses.

Your next job is to secure a venue, usually, as soon after the previous exhibit as possible. (This of course is unnecessary if your organization has their own gallery.) Pick a local venue with plenty of free parking, one that’s easy to find. Get a signed agreement from the exhibit venue stating the first and last days of the exhibit. Make sure you can serve wine at the opening reception. If the venue won’t provide insurance, publicize this in the prospectus.

Make sure there’s good lighting available for the exhibit.  Hang up several artworks and check out the quality of the lighting. If you need better lighting, arrange for it.

You’ll most often need to select a juror.  For member-only exhibits of local artist associations, the juror is generally selected by the exhibit chair.  But for more prestigious open exhibitions, jurors are often proposed by a nominating committee that’s appointed by the president and subsequently selected by the organization’s signature members.

Most jurors expect to be paid for their work. So when you talk with prospective jurors, ask them what they charge, once you’ve explained what you want them to do. Make sure the juror agrees to come to the opening reception.  Draw up a letter of agreement and get the juror to sign and return a copy to you. Have the juror email you a bio and digital image of one of their paintings.  And get them to agree to provide one of their paintings so it can be displayed for the duration of the exhibit.

marina art, marina painting, bay painting

Click Picture to Purchase: “Pt Lookout Marina, St Mary’s Co, MD”

As the exhibit manager, you have an opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with the juror. So pick someone you respect and would like to get to know better.  Make sure your organization reimburses you for that meal the two of you have together the evening you’ve labored over the selection of paintings to be exhibited…  and the awards.

Rely on workers for the exhibit that know how to hang an exhibit, make labels, and handle entries.  Assign someone the responsibility for getting participating artists to sign up on a calendar as sitters for the event, and get someone to agree to remind sitters of their obligation. If there’s anything from the previous year’s exhibit that was not done very well… or that was overlooked, make sure you take care of it. Get some decent signage for the exhibit, and make sure you hang the juror’s painting and bio in a prominent place.

The actual selection of paintings for an exhibit at a venue (where the paintings also often have to be dropped off) can be done by placing them around the base of the exhibit room walls. Where slides or digital images are submitted for review; however, this work can be done offsite.  Once the selection list is finalized, artists must ship or hand-deliver their paintings to the exhibit venue or some other predetermined spot.

For most artist association organizations and on-site jurying of entries, the juror and exhibit manager are the only individuals that need to be involved in the selection process. The juror generally begins this process by removing the weakest paintings ’til some predetermined number remains, usually the max number of paintings which the venue can accommodate. The remaining paintings are then evaluated by the juror for awards. Those artists whose paintings have been rejected must be handled with special care. Someone who’s very diplomatic needs to call or write them, thank them for submitting their artworks, and politely advise them when and where to pick up their painting.  If slides or digital images are submitted in lieu of paintings, the same sort of attention should be given to these items.

painting of abandoned boats, sunk boat, submerged boat painting

Click Picture to Purchase: “Vivier-sur-la-Mer, FR”

Most often there is some precedent for the number and type of awards.  If so, these should be listed in the prospectus and other announcements about the exhibit.  Awards usually include best of show, first place, second place, third place and honorable mentions (the number of these is usually determined by the juror’s reaction to the overall quality of the entries). In addition to ribbons, there may be monetary and/or merchandize awards. The amount of each award depends on how much the organization has budgeted. Award labels should not be posted on the paintings until just prior to the opening reception.

If artists are permitted to submit more than one entry, there’s a potential for an artist to receive more than one award. The purpose of juried member-only exhibits is generally to recognize as many artists as possible. It therefore makes sense for such exhibits to adopt a policy excluding multiple awards to individual artists.

The most important thing about any exhibit is to make sure everyone knows about it so they’ll submit a painting and/or come to the opening reception.  Don’t simply rely on an organization’s membership newsletter or email announcement. If your organization has a telephone tree, use this the week before paintings must be delivered. Talk up the exhibit at membership meetings beforehand. Drum up interest at every opportunity. It’s good also to personally contact the best artists in the organization to make sure they submit entries. Encourage members to send invitations to their family and friends.

The opening reception is perhaps the most important part of any exhibit. It should be well attended, and everyone should have a good time. This is also when the awards should be announced and presented. This is usually done by the exhibit manager or juror. Acknowledgement is also given to the juror and committee members who did all the work.

The exhibit manager must contact all award winners beforehand to make sure they attend. Everyone on the exhibit committee should help drum up as much interest as they can among the membership for the opening reception. It may also make sense to arrange for some musical entertainment, refreshments, and special lighting.

Painting of San Pedro Harbor, Harbor at San Pedro art, harbor picture

Click Picture to Purchase: “San Pedro Harbor (#1)”

For the duration of the exhibit, you’ll generally need volunteers to oversee the exhibit, since most venues don’t supply these sitters. It makes sense to have two sitters so they can help each other greet and give visitors a list of the participating artists and their paintings, and make sure visitors sign the guest book. If a visitor shows interest in a particular artist’s work, sitters should be able to tell them how to reach the artist. Sitters should also make it a point to notify artists of any such interest in their work.  Sitters should encourage visitors to buy exhibited artwork. This is particularly true if a portion of the sales is retained by the art association to help pay for the costs of the exhibit. It makes sense to have a special training session with sitters to help them sell an artist’s work and make the exhibit more successful for everyone involved.

After it’s over, the exhibit manager should submit a report to the artist association, one that includes comments about each aspect of the exhibit and recommendations for improvements. Make sure someone good is selected to replace you when the exhibit is over, so the momentum you’ve built up can be carried forward next year.

(See also discussion on Different Types of Group Art Exhibits“.)


Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.

Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors