Exhibition Development

How an Idea Becomes an Exhibition

Many people wonder how an exhibition is developed. The answer to that question varies with the type of exhibition involved: whether it is curated (organized) by the museum or on loan from another museum, whether it is made up of pieces the museum owns or is culled from a private collection, and whether it is a one-person show or a group show.

All exhibitions start with an idea. Maybe the Curator has seen the work of a particular artist that he or she likes, and decides to show that artist’s work. Perhaps the Curator has seen a trend in art they would like to see explored. Or, the Curator could have an idea for a central theme for an exhibition (like landscape painting or abstract sculpture). After the Curator decides what the show is about, he or she decides when the exhibition will be on display and begins selecting artworks to be included.

In the case of an exhibition organized by the museum, the Curator contacts art museums, galleries, collectors and artists to determine what artworks are available. At that point, the museum and the lender sign loan agreements to ensure the selected pieces will be committed for the exhibition. After the loan agreements are returned, the Curator or the Collections Manager (the person in charge of keeping track of all artwork coming into or leaving the museum, including pieces owned by the museum) will begin to arrange the delivery of the artwork. In most cases, the artwork is shipped to the museum using a fine art shipping service; however, if the lender is located close to the museum, members of the Curatorial Department will pack and ship the artworks personally. Once the work is in the building, it must remain in its packing materials for 24 hours. This allows the artwork to adjust to the climate of the museum so that it is not damaged by a quick change in temperature or humidity. Once the artworks are unpacked, the Curator and the Assistant Curator for Exhibitions and Design move the artwork into the gallery and begin to arrange and install the exhibition.

In the case of an exhibition of artworks that are owned by the museum, the Curator decides the exhibition's theme and schedule, then explores all of the artworks in the Permanent Collection. Once the checklist (or list of exhibited works) is complete, the Curator and Collections Manager examine each piece to ensure they are ready for exhibition. If any of the pieces need to be framed or require special attention prior to being displayed, the Curator coordinates those activities with the Collections Manager and the Assistant Curator for Exhibitions and Design. Then, when the time comes to install the exhibition, they arrange and install the artwork, adjust the lighting, and mount the exhibition panels and artwork labels.

Sometimes the museum will organize a more complex or comprehensive exhibition that may be attractive to other museums. These are called touring exhibitions, and they are common in the museum world. Touring exhibitions are so common, in fact, that a number of companies exist that specialize in organizing these types of shows exclusively for the purpose of traveling them to other museums for a fee. Renting a touring exhibition saves the museum the time and effort required to organize their own show. Another attractive benefit of hosting a touring exhibition is the ability to display important and popular artworks the museum would not otherwise have access to. 

Submitting Your Portfolio for Consideration

Sometimes artists send information about their work to museums as a proposal for a future exhibition. Whether or not the museum chooses to show their work depends on many factors, the most important being whether or not the work fits the style and standards of the museum.

If you are an artist and you are interested in being considered for an exhibition opportunity at Polk Museum of Art, here are a few suggestions:

  • Create a website. This is the best way to show off your work to any museum or gallery. Sending curators a link to your website is easier than emailing photos or mailing a CD. Displaying your work on the internet also demonstrates that you are serious about your career.
  • Demonstrate that you are a professional. Curators need to know that you can meet deadlines and that you have enough work to fill a gallery. On your website, include a resumé or Curriculum Vitae along with a concise artist statement.
  • Keep in mind that most museums work years in advance. If you are offered to exhibit your work at a museum, it may be two or three years before there is space in the exhibition schedule.
  • Present your work in art galleries before contacting the museum. Galleries exhibit emerging artists’ artwork, while museums typically will only exhibit the artwork of established artists.
  • Do not send original artwork. The museum cannot be held responsible for original works of art sent without the request of the Curator and the Executive Director.

To submit an exhibition proposal, please send your Curriculum Vitae, artist statement and digital images of your work as a website, online portfolio or on a CD in JPG format to KPope@PolkMuseumofArt.org.