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 Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

17 Comments

  1. What a great discussion of the importance of display! I really dislike it when artwork is on the floor, leaned against the wall. Not only can it be kicked and scuffed, but the subliminal message is that the work is of little importance.

  2. There is a very small gallery in a nearby city (to me). There is not much wall space or sculpture space. It has been in business at least 30 years. How so much work gets on the walls and into people’s homes is beyond me. Every show is hung very carefully but also very tightly, like a salon. It’s almost always a group show, and rarely a one-person show.
    She seems to me to be “watcher” with a trusted network. She knows her space, her collectors know her “eye” and her network of people know what will work in that space. It is strange but it works. When I approached her about showing my work to her, she responded that she had slotted me in for a one person show on 2022. Aghast, I asked, ” How?” Her response was, “I’ve been following your development.” This would be minimal social media and very few shows (up to now).
    It’s just a reminder that every gallery and every gallerist is different with different circumstances.

  3. Doing shows for more than ten years now, the importance of spacing and light is critical. My current work, “Monumental: Great Lands,” is much larger than any previous exhibit, and I gave the biggest pieces plenty of breathing room. June through August, I show in the Southern Utah Art Guild’s coop Gallery, Arrowhead, 68 Tabernacle in St. George, Utah. Come December, an expanded exhibit will go in Arte Art Gallery, where I have a studio on Dixie Drive.

    The previous comments encourage me to keep growing work and possibilities for exhibiting.

  4. My question is how to exhibit at Art Fairs.
    Sometimes you are given a 2m or (if lucky) 3m wide space for just 3 days.
    Most artists display a lot of pieces, specially for the opening. Would it be better to show only 2 or 3 pieces instead ? It’s hard to do when the space’s cost is a consideration

  5. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I was accepted into the Laguna Beach Art-A-Fair, and I have a “booth” of 20 linear feet of hanging space. With close to 40 pieces in my series, mostly large paintings, I really need to keep in mind not overcrowding and instead rotating the work over the 9 week run of the show. I now also know what bulbs to get for the provided lightbar! Thank you, Jason!

  6. I’m from a family of creative people. My dad always said, “ when you put a picture on a wall the average height persons eye level, which is about 5.6 should be looking in the middle of the picture. Now I’m not saying he was correct by gallery standards, but I really notice when people don’t have a clue!

  7. Thank you, Jason for writing this blog. I have found it invaluable and informative in my endeavor to open up a gallery of my own. I am as much of a novice as one can be in this and frankly the business sense as well as relating the interaction between clients, artists and the gallery are spot on. At least, in my perception. You can be assured that I await every new topic as if it were my birthday present. I also subscribe to your online art academy and I have purchased your book. All very enlightening. Thank you again and keep up the wonderful work.
    Linda Marie

  8. The Art of Display

    Installing exhibitions is an art and a carefully crafted one. And yes I do believe that you either have the touch or not. Many are good, some are great and fewer yet are brilliant in the art if display.

    Jason, although I have not had the privilege of being in your gallery, I can venture to say that your art media is your gallery. I imagine that your artistic eye has been handed down to you and then very well cultivated.

    Back in undergraduate school I studied the art of display in Eleanor Dickinson’s Gallery Management courses at CCAC in Oakland. I was fascinated with how a well designed installation could allow the works to open up and shine.

    Since then my attentive eye goes with me everywhere and is especially engaged when I enter a gallery or museum exhibition. It is a pleasure to be surrounded by amazing art that is presented though knowledgeable and artistic hands.

    Thank you to all who do this so well!

  9. You are so right about space and I would love to share my mistake I made. I listened to a man that convinced my to paint my gallery gun boat grey. It was already small and it got smaller. He wanted me to use the same on the ceiling. Luckily I didn’t. But I did have matching grey carpet. Many of my art friends told me to brighten it up. I thought they meant lightning. That’s the only thing I got right. Lol. But was very discouraged! Never understood why my sales we not better.
    Also I noticed no prices on cards next to paintings. Personally I do not like to see prices. If I am interested I ask! What do you think?

  10. Beautiful gallery display of your artwork. It looks stunning, rich and glowing. I love the idea of suspending artwork from the ceiling, rather than using movable walls. You can walk around it, and still see other art. Finding the right suspension items to hang it may be a little challenging. Will be trying this out in my new home when I move. Seeing your “climbers” sculptures walking up an invisible wall in the center of your gallery would be fun!

  11. I feel well lit pieces are critical for the success in marketing work. That is why art looks so much better in a good gallery than at outdoor art shows.
    In response to one of the comments I also feel prices should be listed on the wall beside the works. Use of transparent labels that stick to the wall, is not intrusive, but allows potential buyers to know if they can afford the piece. The labels are designed not to remove paint when peeled off.

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