All About Pop-up Exhibitions

Pop-up exhibitions – how they came to be, what they’re used for, and how they’re forging new opportunities in the art world today.

West Chelsea Pop Up
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With rents increasing in the two most popular art capitals in the US — New York and L.A. — a pop-up exhibition offers a temporary solution to the recurring problem of where to find space. Pop-ups don’t have to showcase just art, of course; and the ephemerality of pop-ups readily lends itself to dynamic, performative works of all kinds. Here, we’ll look at how pop-up exhibitions came to be, what they’re used for, and how they’re forging new opportunities in the art world today.

The History of Pop-ups

Pop-up exhibitions as we know them today originated in New York City. In 2007, Gallery 151 was essentially created around the exhibition of a wall covered over with rare graffiti art which was unearthed during the renovation of a building. Aware of the extreme importance of this kind of work (which was said to have included contributions by Fab 5 Freddy and Basquiat, among others), Gallery 151 was instituted to create a temporary haven where the wall could be viewed. As contemporary critic Katy Diamond Hammer said of the exhibition: “The importance and relevance of this act of ‘rediscovery’ and the acclaim that the work is receiving allows us to hope for a revitalization not only of downtown New York but also of a reactionary movement that was all at once pertinent and symbolic in its honest representation of a particular time in our history.”

Made in Chelsea group exhibition
The start of the opening reception for “Made in Chelsea: A Group of 10” at Agora Gallery

Since then, pop-ups have sprouted internationally, in towns and cities alike. Authors Hilary Du Cros and Lee Jolliffe have noted that “while [pop-ups] are not a well-researched phenomenon, they do seem to be becoming increasingly popular in cities with high rents or not enough venues to showcase emerging artists.” Yet, pop-up exhibitions aren’t exclusively found in cities with ultra-high rents. A pop-up exhibition could also occur in a public place, or in someone’s apartment. What’s essential is that the show exhibits works for a short time, and in a non-traditional manner.

The Place of Pop-ups in the Art World

A pop-up exhibition could potentially be utilized by an established, commercial gallery to undermine the sullen seriousness of the competitive gallery-collector system. A gallery that chooses to run a series of pop-ups can potentially not only have a variety of works to sell but can foster a sense of kinship and community around the artists they exhibit; using the casual precedent of the pop-up to create an inviting atmosphere.

Guests in attendance of a photography exhibition at White Space Chelsea

A pop-up exhibition can also be used to feel out whether a particular artist or group of artists will generate an audience or sales. On a more institutional level, like a museum, a pop-up exhibition can be used to emphasize an aspect of works on display, which will also possibly generate a new audience. For example, a pop-up fashion show relating to the garments worn by 17th-century men and women in classical portraits would be an invaluable way of bringing people closer to the images framed.

Pop-ups give artists, curators, and collectors the opportunity to enter into and utilize a space that is perhaps underused, or branded in a way that might ordinarily preclude the sort of themes that a pop-up designedly speaks to. Today, pop-ups are a vital way of showcasing emerging artists to collectors, critics, and other artists. And while it’s less likely to see works by artists who sell high at auctions being included in the casual atmosphere of a pop-up show, when they do, it generally throws new light on their work.

The Impact of Pop-up Exhibitions

Given the level of focus a well-organized pop-up event lends to the works exhibited, these short-term shows tend to signal an ethos of doing more with less. For all their seeming scrappiness — implied by the image of “popping up,” as though out of nowhere — most pop-up exhibitions have a decidedly commercial intent. Art fairs, for example, in the way they utilize space already predesignated for a different purpose, might be considered pop-ups in their own right. In relation to this, Casey Lesser, writing for Artsy, has pointed out: “Pop-up spaces, or temporary exhibition spaces in new cities, are emerging as a welcome alternative to the high-stakes, high-stress experience of an art fair. They offer smaller galleries the chance to expand and strengthen their reach, while exercising greater curatorial freedom with less financial strain, and in a more inviting environment than an art fair.”

In an art world more and more dominated by art fairs, the pop-up has become less a novelty and more of a necessity. Whether it be setting up one’s booth for three days during the New Art Dealers Alliance, or renting out a retail space for a 2-week long exhibition, the process remains essentially the same. What historically motivates this is the increasing encroachment of international galleries into local neighborhoods. By way of a process often referred to as “gentrification,” these mega-galleries make the rent of the real estate around them go up. Thus, smaller galleries will sometimes find it difficult to hold on to their space; and new galleries might not be able to find stable space at all. In either case, nomadic, pop-up programming can help keep a gallery’s mission, interests, and artists in the public eye.

How a Pop-up Can Benefit an Artist’s Career

Especially at a time when the distinction between artist and curator is becoming more ideal than real, the trend of realizing pop-up exhibitions can help an artist contextualize their own brand. Securing a temporary space, and showing the artists one wants to show, can be a liberating new development in the art world today.  On the other hand, the more one engages in curation, the less time one has to spend in one’s studio. Thus, the organization of pop-up exhibitions has to be balanced with one’s creative goals.

All these can be achieved by:

• Create a community around your pop-up exhibition
• Promote your event and target the right audience
• Hire a PR professional to reach out to the press

Looking for a space to show your art in New York? Visit the website of White Space Chelsea for more details and information regarding an elegant venue in the heart of Chelsea, New York City’s art district.

For dealers, a pop-up can be used to feel out the extent of an artist’s allure. If a gallery has enough cultural capital behind it, then a pop-up exhibition can do almost as much as for an artist as a more conventional 4-week exhibition (especially if work gets sold). Exposure and sales are always good things. So in a climate where pop-ups are becoming more and more common, even necessary, participation in pop-up exhibitions is likely to be of some benefit to an artist’s career.


Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer and curator based in New York. Articles, reviews, poems, and essays have most recently appeared via Drag City Books, BOMB, American Art Catalogues, Folder, and Hyperallergic. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.

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