Effective Art Display

While I try not to let it go to my head, we frequently receive compliments about the display of artwork in the gallery. Positive comments about the display are gratifying because I put a lot of effort into making sure the gallery looks its best at all times. Having spent over twenty years in the gallery business, I have come to believe that the careful display of artwork is a critical to generating sales.

This is only logical – we are all in the business of helping people see art in it’s best light (both literally and figuratively). A viewer’s ability to experience new art in an inviting setting will have a huge impact on that viewer’s interest in purchasing the piece. It is also important to remember that we are asking a high price for the artwork we are selling. The venue where the work is shown should be commensurate with the suggested value of the work.

Let’s explore some of the considerations I make when displaying artwork. While I am approaching this from the perspective of a gallery owner, many of the principles will apply to an artist showing at an art festival or hosting an open studio tour.

Space

One of the most important factors to displaying art well is space. When displaying artwork I have found that it is important to give artwork room to breathe. It is also important to give the viewer room to step back.

Allowing paintings room to breathe
Allowing paintings room to breathe

Often, I encounter a tension between the desire to give art space, and the desire to show as much work as possible. This tension is understandable, after all, one of the most valuable commodities I have in the gallery is space. Retail gallery space is expensive, and every square inch of wall and floor space is valuable. It is natural to feel that the wider the range of work we show, the more likely you are to be showing something that will catch an art buyer’s fancy. It’s not hard, therefore, to understand why some galleries and artists will fill walls from floor to ceiling with art.

The problem with the “pack it in” approach is that it becomes difficult for the viewer to focus on any one particular piece. A packed wall becomes a patchwork quilt of color and texture, and it can be very difficult for the potential buyer to distinguish individual details and see a work for it’s own merits.

I would rather display less art and sell more, than display more art and sell less.

The density of art in my gallery waxes and wanes a bit, depending on our current show or focus, but I always strive to give art the space it deserves. I would rather display less art and sell more, than display more art and sell less.

To give the work space, I typically hang artwork so that the center of the artwork is at 60″ from the floor – close to the average eye level. Whenever possible I separate artwork by at least 6-8″, and a minimum of 4″, though I may go a little less for a grouping of smaller pieces.

I also try and allow a minimum of 5 feet of space in front of a piece of artwork where a viewer can step up to examine the detail, and then step back to see the work from some distance. I give even more space for large or important works.

White space behind a sculpture helps it stand out
White space behind a sculpture helps it stand out
if you want to emphasize a piece and add to it’s perceived importance (and value), give the piece space

Which brings me to an important rule: if you want to emphasize a piece and add to it’s perceived importance (and value), give the piece space.

These same rules apply to three-dimensional art in the gallery. Sculpture shouldn’t be crowded into a corner or packed in front of other work. With sculpture, it’s important to keep the background in mind. Try not to place sculpture in front of a wall of busy art. Often, We will place a sculpture in front of a wall with no art on it so that the viewer can focus on the sculpture.

 

Flow

A grouping by Guilloume - work of a similar subject, theme and palette can help create narrative
A grouping by Guilloume – work of a similar subject, theme and palette can help create narrative

Another important consideration through the gallery is traffic flow. I work to create groupings of art that work well together and invite visitors to move naturally through the gallery. Our gallery isn’t huge, the display space is just over 2000 square feet, but the space is L shaped, and I want to have the visitor pulled through the whole gallery. Groupings of work are a good way to accomplish this. A grouping of similar artwork can serve as a kind of narrative, drawing the viewer from one piece to the next. I try to group all of an artist’s work together whenever possible, and, further, if the artist has several different subjects, I create groupings of that work.

If you are participating in a show, you should consider the narrative flow of your display space. By grouping works of similar subjects or colors, you can create a narrative flow. I know several artists who begin thinking about the flow of a show before they even begin creating the artwork.

Lighting

The final critical element in display is lighting. Seeing a piece of art with the right lighting can make the difference between making a sale and not.  One of the gravest errors in the art business is lighting  a piece inadequately. Too little light and the piece will fall flat – too much and it will become washed out.

Some galleries attempt to block out all natural light by building display walls in front of windows so that they may have complete control over the manner in which work is lit. I can see the advantage of this approach, but I also see disadvantages to blocking out exterior light. The biggest problem with blocking out natural light is that you also end up blocking the view into your gallery or display space. I like the idea of a late-night window-shopper being able to see back into the gallery, or a collector out and about on our artwalk being able to see how packed the gallery is with patrons. I also want viewers to see artwork in a similar light to the light in her own home. Most homes rely primarily on sunlight during the day for illumination.

Our lighting is a combination of natural and artificial light. When I was working to design our gallery space in late 2006 (as we were moving into our current location after having been in a previous location for 5 years) I wanted a flexible display space. We left the gallery open and built moveable walls that allow us to modify the space when needed. This meant that we needed to have a flexible lighting system as well. We ended up deploying a low-voltage, MR-16 halogen cable track system, supplemented by clip cans with IR lights that can be easily moved. This system worked well for us because the art we carry and the gallery space are toward the contemporary end of the spectrum.

Several years ago, we remodeled the interior of the gallery and I eliminated the moveable walls. This allowed me to replace the 10 year-old halogen system and finally make the switch over to LED lighting. LED technology has advanced a lot, and you now get better light with less heat and lower energy usage with LEDs. I use Philips par 30L, 25,000 hour dimmable bulbs. They rate 3000 K for color temperature, and give a warm, crisp light.

When lighting a piece of art, the goal is to create an even light across the surface. Avoid creating hot spots which occur when you have too much light concentrated in one area. Keep as much of the light as possible on the artwork and off the surrounding area. The contrast of the well-lit art and less-lit wall creates drama.

It’s also important to avoid creating glare. Glare is created when the angle of the light causes the reflection of the bulb to bounce back directly at the viewer. You control this by deciding on the optimal viewing distance for a piece of art, and then situating the light so that it is at an angle where the direct reflection will be directed outside the optimal viewing area.

What do You Think?

How important do you feel the display of artwork is? What do you feel are the most important factors when displaying artwork? What have you seen galleries or artists do that has worked well? What have you seen them do that has not worked well? Please share your thoughts, ideas and experiences in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

7 Comments

  1. These observations are so basic but so important. I have been guilty of overlooking some of these especially in my own studio display. Time to put some older or less successful pieces away.
    Thanks.

  2. Since my work is not yet at a point wherein I can show in high end galleries, I am limited to smaller, less professional galleries or community type galleries. However, I don’t like to participate in these types of shows for the exact reason you discuss. They tend to look like high school talent shows or county fairs, when they cram everything together in to tight spaces. I suppose in most instances, it is politics, wherein they are trying to make everyone happy. I don’t even like to observe these types of shows. My father had a small gallery and picture frame shop in suburban Chicago. He was a designer and interior decorator at heart. I learned from him early on that displays need space to be appreciated fully.

  3. Thank you Jason. With my Studio – I try to have things breath. When weather cooperates – I installed a way to hang things outdoors in my courtyard. (admittedly, not as attractive; but again. allows space) The exterior therefore has indirect sunlight under the porch roof. Have sold from both inside and out. Functional! Thank you for all you do.

  4. I am a director of a co-op gallery and our space a rectangle, because of building codes in our area, all of our walls are moveable we have a lot of flexibility for each member pair show. At first I worried it was too many walls but it has made for some interesting configurations accommodating each members unique work. Lighting was kind of a crap shoot since another member and I had to lay it out before we had any walls. It’s all worked out good except for one spot which we will fix when we get more money put aside. It’s hard to keep members from wanting to put every piece of art they have ever produced in one show. We also use the low voltage LED the warmer variety our track system came from our old space when we moved last year.

  5. Thank you so much for this timely article! I needed to set up a gallery in the downstairs area of my new house. I had about 1,200 sq ft. After reading your advice, I stored a lot of paintings away. I put 8-10”
    between works, and grouped them so their colors coordinated with each other. It really looks great! Now I need to plan some sort of an open studio video event!!

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