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.

Last year, 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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19 Comments

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Jason, about giving displayed art room to breathe! I haven’t yet had a solo exhibition but have been in numerous juried shows run by a local community arts organization, and work is typically hung very close together. Especially with the two non-juried shows which are held each year, there are hundreds of artworks which are hung exceptionally close together. I have often thought that none of the art is really at its best in a salon-style display, even though the organizers do a pretty good job of grouping works that are in harmony with each other, either in color or subject matter. But since the space available is not adequate for the number of artworks, one can’t really “see” the individual pieces properly. Thanks for this article…..your artists must be so happy to have their work in your gallery!!

  2. Good article1 Sure, no brainer, make your art look the best it can unless you are after the ‘fire sale’ look.
    .
    The photo galleries are really slick nowadays. Here is how they did it back in the 1940s! Albeit, this was the NYC Photo League club exhibit and not a commercial gallery.
    .
    https://danieldteolijrarchivalcollection.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/weegee-at-the-ny-photo-league/
    .
    But as a curator for a photo and film archive I don’t have the luxury of shopping in slick galleries for acquisitions. Most of my budget acquisitions are a mess. My job is to look beyond all that and see how I can improve on the mess while keeping in mind its original intention and historical importance.
    .
    Here is an example of a before and after vintage ballerina…
    .
    https://danieldteolijrarchivalcollection.wordpress.com/2018/01/13/selection-from-ballerina/

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this article. I have experienced producing a one-person show, curating an invitational show wit multiple venues, and having my work used as a backdrop for a concert. All had a modicum of success but I would say the results were mediocre. Each setting had its difficulties as any exhibition might. That’s where your article is valuable as kind of checklist.
    Space (never enough or right),
    Lighting (never flexible or strong enough),
    Flow (what’s first- what’s last- what’s in between, and why),
    Narrative (akin to flow but with a certain sequence).
    To this list one could add a degree of subtlety I’m guessing.

    Also- understanding what is flexible and what is not is maybe a foregone conclusion but is certainly a consideration that can avoid an engineering problem in the midst of hanging the show.

    Last- if an artist is submitting work to a gallery (hopefully one day soon), I’m thinking that some attention to what you as the gallerist will be facing would be in everyone’s best interest with the proviso, “This is what I am married to”, or better yet, “None of this is a deal-breaker, but accommodation where you can would be great.”
    At the end of the day, artist and gallerist are after the same thing- the art work needs a home.

  4. Spacing and placement is very important. It can be daunting to place paintings in a small space but I have seen it done well at a recent show of florals at http://www.silkgallery.ca where strong large pieces hang together of similar size and boldness and others were grouped with their colours in mind; some having their own small wall space while others working well in a group. Proper lighting is very important too…as viewers should be able to “see” the individual work and feel comfortable and welcomed into the gallery space. Sometimes you just cannot include it all and I suppose its best to rotate as needed. This also helps repeat viewers see the work at different angles. Thank-you for this good article. Jane

  5. My home is used as a gallery and I hang from floor to ceiling spaced tightly. The only thing really considered is narrative flow as without it I would be bothered. I do see that people cannot focus when they try to take it all in but I need the floor space and have to get paintings out of the way. In my barn, another small gallery, most of the artwork is organized in racks with only a few pieces hanging and this works so much better for patrons. All the considerations mentioned in your article are very important to simply help people concentrate on the work so they may find a piece they love. Were I to walk into a small museum such as the Frick in NYC charged with trying to select a piece for my home I would find it daunting let alone if the lighting or spacing detracted almost impossible.

  6. What a timely article! I have a one person show scheduled in Jan. 2019 and it’s a nice venue in a park, Agua Caliente Park, Tucson.
    Most of the Lighting in their Ranch House Gallery building is natural, from windows on both sides of a long, rectangular room with display panels down the center.

    My concerns about what and how to hang my work have been answered in your advice on Flow and Space.
    I’ll save this article and use it to plan what I will show. I have a lot of small/medium pieces, but understand less is more in the Space section.

    Do you have an article on artist liability insurance? This gallery does not insure the artist’s work for exhibits. Maybe I can attach the smaller pieces to a board so they can’t be removed easily.

  7. Such good advice. With a background in interior design, I have been so frustrated by the way paintings are hung in shows. I volunteer to help, but am often over-ruled on hanging decisions in order to fit more paintings in the show. Big mistake if you want to sell paintings. From the other comments I can see it is a common problem. Hopefully your advice will be widely read and put into practice.

  8. It was pointed out to me at one gallery that the color of the walls are important. They should be a neutral color, perhaps mid-tone or even dark, This was to display fine-art photographs. Even with the lighting, the background affects how the viewer sees the photo. I do not know if this applies to paintings or other types of art.

  9. I agree with all you said, but on lighting, I would add that painting the walls neutral grey not only puts emphasis on the work, but more importantly, keeps light off the viewers to reduce their showing up as distracting reflections in the work. This is especially true for work framed with glass in front of it. I’ve seen 2 museums done this way. The International Photography Hall of Fame and the St. Louis University Museum of Art, both in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s very effective.

  10. Exactly this, I am working in a studio with an amazing gallery space. However we do not have access to good lighting, and the display is dependent on whoever volunteers to hang the gallery when we have open studios etc. It is extremely frustrating because I don’t feel that it will be constructive to give my input when I am not in charge of hanging the gallery. I feel that space is number one on the list. Each work needs to be viewed on it’s own without clutter and that is where flow comes in, you just cannot have two contrasting busy pieces next to each other. It doesn’t work. I also find that people completely ignore pieces that are in shadow, they walk straight past. It is very frustrating. I keep saying frustrating lol but we just had open studios so it is fresh in my mind. The person who hung my pieces thought it wise to hang it next to very busy artwork, mine is delicate with many different aspects so both of us did not benefit. None of the work was appropriately lit and people just passed by without looking. I honestly think this is where design principals should be adhered to. I studied design and it is a matter of layout and hierarchy, basic things that draws attention and make things easy to ‘read’.

  11. Excellent article, Jason.
    The biggest issue with displaying in temporary venues is crowding. Bringing our best rather than too many is always preferable. Artwork must have space to give it emphasis. We can’t control lighting but we can that one.
    White walls give me pause because of the contrasting glare. The finest art space I’ve ever seen is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX … neutral walls. https://www.kimbellart.org/about/directors-message.
    Museums have a different viewpoint in displaying their collections; grays, charcoal, red, teal, beige. I have been using charcoal but am going to a neutral when I redo my panels for a fall show. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3058592/how-a-color-designer-creates-the-perfect-backdrop-for-famous-art.
    One other observation … the demographic that buys art is often older and may not have perfect vision. Note cards and prices must be in a large enough font to be read from several feet away.

  12. I agree with everything in this article and its points are very important. It brings to mind however, one of my pet peeves and that is the practise of galleries hanging small works in corners and other small spaces, where the artwork does not demand any attention. It is too easy for a gallery to place small items there because obviously large pieces won’t fit and therefore because of their large size, they get the larger and more important spots.

  13. I have seen shows that end up being boring and safe because the works were too similar. The narrative is fun and interesting but a show also needs contrasting pieces to spark more interest and focus. Very much appreciate this article, thank you.

  14. Same goes for “art in the park” type venues…not too much all at once, change it up every couple of hours if possible, leave some out, put others in, keep rotating, Use some higher up on pedestals or stack and cover boxes you’ve brought your work in… I don’t ever have much space but with a flow: in one side out the other, I can keep it “unstressed”. I hate trying to move into someone’s art tent and then not being able to get out comfortably. KISS Keep It Simple, Sister!
    Thanks Jason! another thoughtful piece. Off to Montana!
    Carla

  15. I recently had a solo exhibition in my town’s Institute. There were a few designated display areas around a large function room, generally between windows. Three of my paintings, at 3ft by 2ft, fitted three of the areas perfectly, so I grouped them together for maximum impact. The other paintings varied between 20×16 inches, 16×14 inches, and a beach scene which came out at about 3ft by 18 inches. I chose to hang each painting on their own, apart from the two smallest, which fitted nicely one above the other in a single space. I think that the result worked out okay. There were only nine paintings in all, but the each had enough space for visitors to view them without distraction.

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