There is nothing more gratifying than showing the work you’ve spent so much of your time, sweat, and super powers on. For many of us it feels like the end game — the goal. Walking into a gallery with clean white walls and seeing your work well hung and well considered can be a moment when you actually see what you’ve done for the very first time. After all the effort you put into your practice, having those well-lit, white wall moments can make it all worthwhile. However, they don’t come free…
Showing art is an expensive business.
It’s expensive for the venue, and it’s expensive for the artists. And for me it took about two years of active showing to finally understand and anticipate the costs involved.
Because I do drawings, I started off under the illusion that my art only cost me the price of paper, pencils, kneaded erasers, fixative, and time. But that is, in fact, just the beginning.
When I first started showing my work in galleries, I was given small opportunities to send one or two pieces to juried exhibitions here and there. Getting that email saying my work had been chosen to be shown at the Nowheresville Upstate Bumblefarm Biennial would be so exciting my eyes would start spinning. I’d immediately run out and get my work framed, buy a double walled mirror box with custom bubble wrapped corners and head to Fedex where I would pay for 3-day air shipping and insurance, slipping in a ready-to-go label to pay for the return trip. I would do this in a fog of triumph, and the cost would be immediately overlooked as I gazed past my credit card statement, and into the bright future.
Each opportunity felt like a huge break, and I was willing to do whatever it took to participate. I applied to everything, and signed countless checks that were mailed off to cover juried fees. Then I framed, boxed, and insured my work in top notch professional manner no matter what. I was building a reputation, and I wanted to do it right. Luckily, I kept careful records of each piece in a spreadsheet, which included what it was, where it was going, where it had been, and also how much I had paid for framing, photography, packaging and shipping.
As my participation in shows became more significant, my upfront cost rose to the point where I finally had to start paying attention to the numbers I was collecting. I realized that in my finest hour — when my show was finally up — I stood looking at my work from the bottom of a financial hole. And that was the point when I realized I needed to step back and look at how much I was investing in showing.
I put a really high value on good framing and good photography, and those costs can be substantial. They are investments that I feel good about making, because quality frames show the work is cared for and is worthy of investment, and good photography allows you hold on to the work even after it’s left your hands. As far as I’m concerned, without good framing and photography it’s as if the work doesn’t matter, and never happened… for me there’s no way around these expenses, so a few years ago I started a Show Fund.
Let’s do the numbers
Here’s how I got to the important multiplier that I use to estimate my show costs. Because shipping, framing, and photography can fluctuate in prices with different vendors, timeframes, and locations, I’ve taken different examples and averaged them.
Here are the numbers associated with photographing and sending a single 24 x 24 inch drawing from San Francisco to Miami:
Packing materials: $32.00
2-Day Air Shipping with Insurance: $194.84
Which is $0.97 per square inch of paper
And here are the numbers associated with sending 18 framed and photographed pieces of various sizes, with a total paper area of 3,470 square inches from San Francisco to Denver:
Which is $1.31 per square inch of paper
With this cost data in hand, I know that I am going to need to have between $0.97 and $1.31 (average is $1.14) per square inch at the ready just to get the work from my drawing table to the show wall. If shipping isn’t a factor because the venue is either local or paying for it, then the cost per square inch goes down to between $0.58 and $1.18 (average is $0.88).
Before I get started with a show, I’ll roughly map out what size pieces I plan to create in a sketched mock-up of the space. Below is an example that has all the work sized on the walls, not only so I can get an idea of how it will look, but also figure out an estimate of what it will cost for me to produce. With a ballpark number of square inches, I can multiply my estimated area by either $1.14 (with shipping) or $0.88 (without shipping). Once I’ve done that painful piece of math, I can start working on producing the show, as well as accumulating my Show Fund, with the goal of having all of it on hand when the work is complete.
I keep this money in it’s own high-interest online savings account, so in between shows I can capture a little extra interest with it, while still keeping it at arms length so I can’t accidentally spend it on something else.
Right now you’re thinking I’m a half-cracked obsessive compulsive— perhaps I am — but I’ll argue that what you’re building with a Show Fund is actually a valuable business asset.
Show Fund = Business Asset = Protection from losing your shirt
So many of us throw everything we have into the production of an exhibition with the hope that great things will come of it. And I totally support that kind of ambition, but if you don’t come up with the funds for production ahead of time, or have a clear idea of how you’re going to pay it off from a separate stream of income, then you may be in for hard times afterwards.
If you look at the example in the graphic above, you can see how it can take only one expensive show that doesn’t sell to wipe you out, and drop you into debt.
The accumulated funds to produce your work is a tool just like any other tool of business. Think of a someone who has a lawn mowing service. To open up and start mowing, they had to buy a lawn mower. That lawn mower, once acquired, is now an asset of the business. It’s used and maintained, and if the owner decides to stop mowing they can sell it, and get some of their investment back. For many of us artists, the proper funds for production are just as essential to exhibiting, as a hammer is when hanging the work. If there’s no stipend, grant, or assistance from the gallery, then it’s up to us to accumulate those funds to make it happen. Your Show Fund, if replenished and maintained after each exhibition, is as essential to the functioning of your art practice as the lawn mower is to a mower of lawns. If you don’t have a mower, you can’t work. Or worse yet, if you have buy a new mower with high interest credit each time you want to go out and work… well, you’d lose your shirt!
If the cost of producing the show isn’t built into your prices, or if the work isn’t for sale, then you’ll need to have outside funding, or an alternative source of income to support your practice. Either way, your best move is to have as much of your production cost available up front, so you don’t have to tap more expensive sources of cash — like credit cards. When you use credit cards to produce your exhibition, and the work isn’t sold quickly enough, you’ll be adding high-priced finance charges on top of everything else.
What does your Show Fund look like?
Your work may not involve framing and photography they way mine does, and you may not have years of persnickety records to pour over, but hopefully with a little imagination you can estimate what your work costs to produce and handle. If not, create your own mock-up to see what your next exhibition might look like, and create estimates for everything you need to do to get the work up on the walls. That way you can start saving early, and be ready before the bills need to be paid. And always make sure to keep careful records of all your expenses going forward. Not only will it help you estimate costs in the future — but heck, it’s all a tax write off!
If you vigilantly maintain your Show Fund by making sure you replenish it after each time you dip in, you’ll have smartly created an important asset for your business, which will help prevent you from falling into a financial hole right at the moment you should be happily basking in the triumph of your work.
So, what does your Show Fund look like? I’d love to hear how you finance, and get ready for an exhibition. Please leave a comment below, or send me an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org