Making the most of your degree show

Your degree show is your first opportunity to make a start in the art world – if, with a little effort, you make the most of it.

Your degree show – whether at BA (degree) or MA (postgraduate) level – is a valuable opportunity to showcase your work to a wide range of people working in the art world. Curators, writers, other artists, gallery directors and many others visit degree shows as part of their research into artists they they might want to work with in the future. It’s important that your show looks its best at all times, and that you are available and contactable in the months following your show.

The following advice has been compiled from research into what makes a successful degree show, by Paul Glinkowski, and general tips from Medeia Cohan-Petrolino.

You should bear in mind that there can be no single blueprint for how to stage the ideal degree show. Wherever you study will have its own ways of working and facilities, and each discipline has its own conventions and requirements of display.

Prepare

Preparation for your degree show properly starts about a year before. Learn from others – visit other degree shows (even if just the one where you study) and decide for yourself what works and what doesn’t. Talk with former graduates to find out about their experiences, and ask your tutors for their advice. Volunteer to work with a graduate on their show so as to experience first hand the successes and mistakes they make before your own show.

At, or near, the start of your final year, meet with your fellow students in a ‘working group’: compile and divide a list of tasks you need to complete to make your show a success. Remember that your show will only work well if all of you pull together to make the most of it, and take responsibility for your individual actions. Possible activities, depending on your course, might be to:

  • compile an email or postal mailing list from all your contacts
  • create a specific social network presence to help in marketing
  • research the gallery directors or curators you want to invite
  • create a WordPress site to showcase all your work and provide contact details

Closer to your show, you might also:

  • create a catalogue or standard business cards
  • select someone to curate the whole show
  • produce publicity material, such as biographies, artist statements, a map of the exhibition or list of works
  • decide who will invigilate the show at what times

Early and consistent meeting about these tasks will ensure things run smoothly amid the busy period you’re all about to encounter, and leave you enough time to make your work.

It’s also useful to find an independent, objective person to monitor details of the presentation before the shows open.

When it comes to setting up the show, try to keep a critical eye for what looks good for your work and the show as a whole. Make sure your hang is level and professional, and edit the work down to a tight and concise show rather than putting in everything. You can keep some other work nearby if people begin asking to see more.

Be sure the work is labeled (in whatever format you and your classmates agree).

The show

Try to find a well-designed space to hang your work, avoiding ‘makeshift’ spaces, such as corridors – this may not always be possible depending on where you study. Even a poor space can be enhanced by good lighting, keeping it clean and tidy, and ensuring the walls are well prepared.

Create a reception point for your visitors where they can find information about the show and the artists exhibiting. If you are relying on college reception staff for this, make sure they are supplied with all of the information you have produced. Wherever this is, the reception should be easy to locate, friendly, and welcoming in its approach to visitors.

The information you provide should be clear and free of jargon – use accessible language and remember that not all of your visitors will have studied art. Some people visit degree shows to buy work and they need to be reassured that it has a clear purpose. Where possible, provide a catalogue, or other forms of ‘take away’ publicity, so that people can decide later if they want to complete a purchase – it’s very unlikely that someone would immediately purchase a work on first seeing it, and providing contact information on an image of your work will help them remember their interests, even if they don’t remember your name.

Most importantly, make arrangements to ensure that all equipment is switched on and working at all times whilst the show is open – especially the day after the opening night. With the high competition between new graduates, the brief period degree shows are open, and the volume of degree shows to visit, time is pressured for visitors who will often be unable to return to see a work that isn’t looking its best. Keep your business cards and any information sheets well stocked, and encourage your fellow graduates to be approachable, helpful and willing to talk about the show, including their and their fellows’ work.

You and your peers can use your degree show as a way to keep in touch with your first, new audience. Keep a sign-up sheet handy for your email mailing lists, and decide in advance if subscribers will be added to all your lists, or individually – and make this clear to those signing up. You might also consider a visitors or comments book to capture feedback on their experiences and your work.

Business cards and networks

Making your contact information available is essential. Often people love your work, but decide to go away and think about it before committing to a purchase or exhibition offer. You must have a business card with long term, up to date, professional contact information on them. Don’t use a university email address that will expire once you graduate and don’t use a cutesy email address like fuzzywuzzy@gmail.com: be professional. If possible add a memorable image to the other side; this will help people to remember you from the pile of cards they have been collecting all week.

This whole experience is helping you to build a network, so keep track of all interested parties, keep cards safe and follow leads. These are the people who you will invite to your next show.

Sales

Selling work at degree shows can seem a daunting prospect, but can provide a useful boost in your finances at this critical time. Setting a price for your first sale is crucial – if you don’t have a price, it’s impossible to sell – and negotiation is key. When pricing your work, remember:

  • Prices for new graduates work is often low since you have been untested in the commercial market – the price of a work is set by previous market activity, and for a first sale this reference does not exist
  • Although it’s good to have a price list, it’s best not to publish this. If someone wants to buy a work, they can be put off if the price is too high (or too low). Don’t be afraid to talk about money and negotiate what feels like a good price for you and the buyer.
  • Many people come to degree shows specifically to purchase the work of new graduates at a lower price point than more established artists. Someone who buys a piece of your work now may be interested in purchasing work in the future – if they have had a good experience of buying your work the first time around. Balance what you feel would be a fair price for your work against the possibility of building a relationship with a potential collector for the longer term.
  • Some of your work may be suitable to edition – make it very clear to any buyer if they are purchasing something from an edition, how big it is (which will impact on the price you can charge – the higher the edition, the lower the price), and reassure them that you won’t add to the edition in future.

Wherever possible, try to find a quiet place to conduct your negotiations so that you and your buyer will be relaxed and comfortable in talking about money.

If you do sell a work, make selling as easy as possible: find out how they would prefer the process to run and accommodate them as much as you reasonably can. The buyer may want you to invoice them for the sale, and in any case you must provide a certificate of authenticity or bill of sale to prove that the work they have purchased is really yours. Be sure to add the title of your work, the year and the edition number (if applicable) as well as your bank details so that you can get paid directly. This is proof of the sale agreement and is important to keep for your records. Include as much information with the work as possible, i.e. an artist statement and card for the collector’s records. They may want to pay in instalments, and you can negotiate at what point in the instalments they will receive the work. Depending on the work, agree a timescale in which you will perform any repairs that are required, and negotiate the transport of the work, and the insurance cover while it is in transit. You may need to install your work yourself – if possible it’s always a good thing to do to offer to deliver the work in person, as it’s another chance for you to endear yourself to the collector and maybe even see where the work will be hung.

Stay in touch with everyone who buys your work – you may need to borrow the work for subsequent exhibitions, and they may be interested in buying something else in future, or even telling their friends about it, who could be influential in the art world. Ask if you can add them to your own mailing list to keep them up to date about future exhibitions and projects, and follow up the sale a few weeks afterwards to make sure they are happy with their purchase and in their dealings with you.

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