by A. Richard Langley
Many artists would walk miles, under any conditions, to show their work in a venue on Museum Mile. If that isn’t realistic, showing your work in any museum—major or small, big city or suburban—can be the ultimate validation of your talent and persistence.
Museums are the premier venue to exhibit and receive feedback on your creations.
Countless millions in the public and art world visit museums to view works—recognized and new—and discover (or rediscover) artists across many mediums and periods.
Landing a museum show is a challenging endeavor. The proposal process is highly competitive and complex, and museums have limited space. Even being an established, commercially successful artist is no guarantee that any museum will show your creations.
Here, we discuss how to navigate this demanding process, the elements it includes, and its effect on your career.
The Proposal Process
Before preparing and submitting a proposal, you need to know the pros and cons of the process. Understanding these items can help you determine if a museum show is a good option for you.
The proposal process can be daunting—and it’s hard work. You will immerse yourself in researching the history and missions of museums, building connections in the community, and creating impassioned works. Everything you learn and do will help you master the process, and with each one you do, the process becomes easier.
If you land a museum show, know that it’s a major commitment that can take away from your studio time and pursuit of other projects. There are many rewards, however. The recognition of you and your work typically increases after the event. Accordingly, the price and demand for your pieces should rise—especially if you proactively market the event online, on social media, and in the community.
Be aware of creative, commercial, and time concerns. Your creations will compete against countless works, unsolicited like yours and those from gallery representatives and dealers. To help your chances, you may be tempted to produce work in the museum’s core areas of interest—even if they go against your artistic vision. This can stifle your creativity, and may even turn off your followers.
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Find a Suitable Museum
You must be honest with yourself about your career and achievements—and your CV and bio should reflect it. Research multiple museums and be realistic about which museums are right for your work.
First, learn the history and mission of each museum you’re considering. When you submit a proposal, the reviewers will note your passion about the museum’s focus
You should also know the museum’s current and future schedules, the types of shows and exhibitions (solo or group), and their focus and themes. Most of this content should be on the museum’s website. Again, your submission must reflect your creative passion and strength.
Next, research the contacts in the museum’s Curatorial department. This group controls shows and exhibits. Contact and bio information about them should be on the museum’s website or on social media (e.g., Facebook or LinkedIn). s content should be on the museum’s website. Again, your submission must reflect your creative passion and stren
Naturally, you want your work to connect with an audience who appreciates and understands it. Below are common questions you should ask yourself about the museum’s audience.
- How many people visit the museum annually?
- What are the demographics of visitors?
- What are their artistic tastes?
- How many people visit each show/exhibit?
- What are the peak periods of attendance?
If a museum’s website has informative and fresh content, most of this information should be on it.
Your final concern is location. Ideally, choose a museum within driving distance from your residence. You want to be nearby so you can consult with museum staff should they have any questions about your proposal or work.
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Make Personal Contact
For a more personal connection, you should consider connecting directly—by phone, email, on social media, or in person—with the appropriate curator at the museum. Based on your research, you can identify a museum and pick a mid-level curator, or someone similar, who handles your specialty and isn’t overly busy.
Ideally, you should have three proposals for projects of different sizes and themes.
This will engage them with multiple options, and show them that you’re proactive and confident in yourself and your work. If your proposals and creations align with the museum’s needs, the curator will usually listen and react.
Be prepared when you initiate contact. Have brief talking points, in writing and conversation, ready and rehearsed. Key topics include your art background, your
area of specialty, and a high-level view of your proposals. You want to get a
face-to-face meeting—it’s your best chance to present your creations and show them your personality.
If you secure an in-person meeting with the curator, keep it simple and respect their time and knowledge. Ask for a brief meeting (15 minutes is ideal) in the museum cafeteria. Bring three to five images (hardcopy or on a device) of the work you want
Keep your presentation brief—and lead the conversation, but always allow the curator time to consider your information and comment on it. To gauge their true feelings about you and your ideas, ask them a targeted question (e.g., Does the museum have a special room for one-off exhibits like yours?). Their response and body language are informative. If their actions are positive, tell them you’ll submit your proposal through a formal channel (U.S. Mail or online). If they’re unclear, ask them for contact information of individuals who can help get your work shown at other venues.
No matter how the interview goes, send the curator a thoughtful thank-you email within one day. They may ultimately not accept your proposals for a myriad of reasons (e.g., timing, schedule changes, or funding), so don’t take rejection personally. You want them to have a positive impression of you, and to tell their peers the same.
Manage the Proposal Process
The proposal process is demanding and exacting. Along with your art, the proposal is your calling card for a museum. Always follow submission instructions exactly, and know the deadlines and materials required.
Direct your questions to the museum’s website or contact the Curatorial department.
No matter your status—emerging or established artist—you will typically include the following items in your package. Ensure they’re detailed, error-free, and easy-to-read.
- High-quality digital photos of your work
- CV (art-related achievements only)
- Short biography
- Image list
You must also customize the items above with each submission. The documentation should be as distinct as your work and answer the questions below.
- Your art education and professional background
- What is the meaning, theme, or purpose of your submission?
- How did you make them?
- Why do you want to exhibit them?
- When will they be available for exhibit?
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If you do your due diligence researching and collecting information, the submission process should go smoothly. Be aware of deadlines, include all requested materials, and follow instructions exactly.
Direct contact—by phone, email, social media, or in person—with the museum’s Curatorial department is best. This will show them your initiative and your interest in the museum. Again, after a positive personal interaction, submit your proposal through a formal channel (U.S. Mail or online).
For submissions by U.S. Mail, assemble your proposal in a professional folder according to the museum’s guidelines.
Online is fast becoming the preferred method for many museums to receive proposal submissions. They can manage submissions more efficiently, and you have a quick, convenient way to submit them. Pay close attention to make sure you’re entering information in the correct fields and answering questions completely.
Be patient for a response. It may take four months (or longer) before they contact you.
If you don’t receive word after one month, send a follow-up letter (email or print) to inquire on the status of your submission. Understand that you may not hear back if your proposal isn’t accepted.
Other Submission Options
If you want to avoid a formal submission process, you can submit your work for posting to a dedicated page on the museum’s website or on social media channels (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr, or Instagram).
The popularity of this option is increasing. The approval process is less stringent, and you receive quicker approval to post. As always, follow instructions exactly.
While this immediacy can help attract new followers from inside and outside the community, it also draws many submissions. Treat this option as if you’re hanging your work in a museum, and only post your best work to help you stand out.
As a promotional gallery, we take pride in the diverse group of artists from across the globe represented by us. Want to give your art more time, and leave the marketing and promotional hassles to someone else? Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.
Managing the proposal process is highly competitive and time-consuming. You must have the drive to complete it—especially knowing that you may not land a show—and the passion to work with a museum. Take inspiration from Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, in which he notes, “Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.” Likewise, the time and energy you invest in the process may result in your work having space on a museum’s walls.
Richard Langley is a freelance writer in Marietta, Ga. His byline has appeared in diverse consumer art and culture publications. Among them: Art & Antiques, Atlanta Citymag, Film Threat, and BlackBook. He also has experience in art sales. For three years, he co-managed and stocked a booth of European art, antiques, and furniture at Scott Antique Markets in Atlanta.
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