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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35 Comments

  1. great suggestions, i agree with ‘giving art space’. do you think the display should be different in a large ‘art market’ setting?

    1. It will be different just because the space you have available is going to be different. I would say that even if you can’t give your art as much space as you would be able to in a gallery, if you can show less and give more space than your competitors at the show it will give you an edge. Think about how you can make your booth look clean, orderly, simple and elegant. Give each piece of art importance.

      1. I’ll have to consider this the next time I participate in an event. I largely thought the more you have out, the more inviting your space to buyers. I thought too much space in displaying your pieces made your space look too empty. I’ll try “the less is more” approach next time.

  2. Thanks Jason. I tend to struggle with editing work out of a show in order to create more space around each piece, yet I know it is important. I have visited cluttered galleries, and the visual overload has me heading for the door.

  3. I agree with you Jason… Good display & lighting make a huge difference! We are in the art business & just like show business, people want drama & a good & memorable experience… Who wants to go to see a top Broadway show in a shabby badly lit derelict old building! I always choose great venues to show & exhibit my Artwork…

  4. Thank you for this article, Jason. The specific hanging recommendations are especially useful. It is the same advice as I was taught in a museum curation class at Mt. San Antonio College. It’s nice to know that it works in a commercial context as well.

  5. The artists’ organization in which I was a member emphasized the art of hanging work, and that work was done by three experienced members. Much thought needs to go into properly hanging art work for all the reasons you’ve stated. Recently, I stopped into an “art space” — not a gallery — to view a show. It was floor to ceiling work crammed together with no plan. It was as if the work was hung wherever there was any space. No theme united pieces, no artists’ work was necessarily shown together. It was really overwhelming and not conducive to viewing. Really one wanted to scan work and leave. Just my experience and observations that may reflect how important properly displaying work is for generating sales.

  6. Jason this article is timed perfectly for me. I am heading to an art fair this weekend and I always put out too much. I have so many sculptures of different subjects and sizes I am afraid that the one I didn’t display is the ONE the customer will fall in love with and buy. I have a terrible time deciding what to display, but I think you are so right. I find that customers can’t focus on my work, as they are overwhelmed with my quantity and variety. I know that my high-end work is less likely to be purchased but I want to show it, just in case. I will really try to limit my display and tell myself that as one sells I can then display a new piece in that spot. When I do this, do you have any suggestion on what I say to a customer who asks “do you have any more like this in the back?”. I usually say yes, dig around in my storage and try to find it. If I say “no” and they come back later and see a new piece, what do I tell them?

    1. Perhaps you could have a folder with images of your current portfolio available, like a catalog, for the genuinely interested buyer to peruse. I have done this with my art dolls at fairs, because I also take commissions.

    2. Hi Bonnie,
      Is it possible for you to put out one or two in a specific style/subject matter and then if a customer shows interest, show more? I do this sometimes and it has worked well. It tends to solve both problems.
      I usually say something to the effect of, if you favor that piece, I do have another one I can show you. They Always say yes, and it gives me the chance to engage with them longer. In these scenarios, I end up selling them something about 70% of the time.
      Maybe others do it differently.
      Good luck at your show!!

  7. From experience I have learned not to place my work in galleries that crowd in ad much work as they can fit. In addition to low sales, that kind of display looks tacky.

  8. ~ Great article! Love the thoughts on “Flow” not only for the trafic but for the consistency of the subject of the art because every artist has a story to tell and as you wrote and showed in these photo images of Artist – Guilloume and Kimberly Ferrell it looks great and for sure ‘FLOWS’

  9. Jason, I could not agree with you more. The correct placing and display of a piece is vital to it’s perceived success as a work of art as well as for the prospect of a sale. Far too often, in art fairs as well as in some galleries one sees art work, sculpture as well as paintings and prints, crowded onto the walls or display screens. A viewer needs room to breathe, to be able to stand still, undisturbed and allow the art’s subtleties to emerge and be perceived. Crowding pictures onto a wall starting at a level just above the floor to high up above door height level is laughable and is in fact a display of greed on the part of the curator. Displays situated close to corners or in narrow passage-like spaces also guarantee failure.
    Correct lighting is equally important. A bright glare from powerful lamps is just as bad as a poorly lit display. The angle and blinding reflections from bright lights trained onto a piece can kill any chance of a sale. Crowding art together and the accompanying concentration of lights also effects the build-up of heat in the summer time over-powering the air conditioning of the room and negatively affecting comfort levels.
    So you may see from these comments that I feel strongly about these issues having experienced them too often. Many curators and gallerist do not seem to be sufficiently aware of these pitfalls.

  10. Jason, you have touched on a subject that I could rant on and on about. I have seen so many galleries with great work but really bad presentation. And they wonder why they don’t sell much.

    First is the clutter. Or as you say, space. I visited one gallery that was so cluttered that I felt I had to hug my purse to my body and look carefully before turning around to avoid knocking something over.

    I know of one gallery that has built shelves with vertical spaces to slide in paintings in order have more available than can fit on the walls. Guaranteed scratched frames here.

    Then there is the one that has painted their movable walls dark charcoal grey. They are in a great location in an old building with exposed old brick side walls which can be a beautiful backdrop for art. But when you walk in off the street those dark walls close in on you and it feels like you are entering a dark cave. Its very uncomfortable.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share this. I hope it helps artists.

  11. I started my Tasmanian gallery, Huon Art just over 12 months ago and daily get compliments on the display. Like you I choose less rather than more and my sales have been wonderful. I feel very blessed but my sense of it is that is is more an innate skill rather than learned. Everything you speak about I have done by instinct and never a day goes by without the compliments around my choice of art and the display.

  12. It seems to me these principals also can apply to holding open studio’s. My wife and I have an open studio almost every month as part of our local Art Trail and usually get several visitors. But it does mean we have to do some organizing to help give everyone a good experience. At times though we have works in progress, materials, paints, etc. lying around in a haphazard fashion. However it can give us a chance to discuss our art processes and techniques which visitors seem to like. For us this is also fun, and occasionally we may get useful suggestions.

  13. I have a small gallery space just off my studio. It measures 9’x26′ with track lighting down the centre. The ceiling is the usual eight feet high. My major problem is glare, especially with my larger pieces. I think I am stuck with it as there is little room for manoeuvring. Perhaps it is just as well that I do not have a lot of traffic..:).

    I just want to thank you again Jason for your mentoring program. I am presently applying to galleries within my local area. I have had delightful visits with gallery owners in Kelowna, BC as well. You certainly helped to solidify my confidence. Thank you so much.

  14. Those two quotes on space and displaying less work bear remembering. Great article, Jason. I once backed up to view a painting in a gallery and bumped into a pedestal and nearly knocked down a sculpture. I was horrified.
    I haunt museums and galleries regularly and have seen colored walls of red, gray, beige, charcoal, green, and even a soft blue green. White seems to be the default color because it reflects light but I don’t think it displays work at its best. Much prefer a neutral but with a dark floor and dark ceiling it is probably the best option. Lighting in a retail setting is critical without natural light.
    The lighting in the Kimball in Fort Worth, TX is near perfection. https://www.kimbellart.org/architecture/kahn-building/light. That arc you see at the end of the hall is daylight. Only a museum has the luxury of so much space but note how each painting is displayed – in solo.
    I use charcoal colored felt covered panels at shows. It is a bit darker than I like but my paintings stand out well against it.

  15. Great article Jason,
    I had to leave a co-op gallery last year because the poor state of the building embarrassed me. The ceiling was actually falling in places and filthy. Mind you, the location is very desirable. The landlord had been promising to do a remodel for years but I was not willing to wait after my first year there. The longer I spent there the more disarray I noticed. I voluntarily repainted the entire gallery and added lighting but in the end it just depressed me to have my work there. Lesson Learned!!!!

  16. Hi Jason,

    Coming from the perspective of luxury timepiece sales, the similarities between the art world and the business of jewelry and watch retailing have always fascinated me. Working in outside sales for various Swiss watch brands- we referred to it as ‘the war in the store’. Each brand wanted more real estate, and the best location in each store.

    In my staff trainings, I often referenced that we were all selling ‘art’ (our products were works of art- and not a necessity). And when it came to display, I noticed how important this was to sales.

    In other words. If the store had the product poorly displayed- sales would be $x. If we properly displayed the product (used better display elements, more air around each piece, coordinated the relationship between each piece)- and did not do any more training, or brought in anymore product- sales would increase by a noticeable percentage.

    Combining staff training, proper display and product selection- sales would be reflected in the best possible way.

    We also considered the 4 ‘P’s’ :
    Product- make sure to have the right product for the market.
    Presentation- make sure that the presentation is best for the product.
    Promotion- this includes the right marketing, promotional pieces, story telling, and training.
    Price- the price had to match the market’s and customer’s perception of what it should be.

    Best,
    Mike

  17. Thanks for this timely post. I’m preparing/curating work for my first show in a shared gallery space. I don’t know who else will be showing, but I’ll have my 12′ of wall space for display. I drew up a plan for the work keeping in mind the need for breathing space. And I’ve also edited things to focus on one aspect of my work instead of showing “samples” of everything I’ve done. I realize there are trade-offs, but I’m opting for a cohesive display that will, I think and hope, be stronger than a mishmash of pieces. My work is abstract and all about color, so I’ll be working to create a pleasing display of sizes 20 x 24, 18 x 24 and 11 x 14. Your words will be a helpful guide. Again, thanks.

  18. I find the worst offenders are community art galleries. I am seriously thinking about pulling my art. I have spoken to the gallery director about crowding art. She insists on doing it her way. Need I say that sales there are few & far between. I have mentioned more that once about your posts. The last time I asked, she still hasn’t looked up your posts. I have sold art there under a different director & I had input on how my work was displayed, all in one room.

  19. In the past three months, I visited over 80 galleries. Out of all of them, there was one that was exceptional. The Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville, NC https://www.facebook.com/BlueSpiral1 was so wonderfully displayed that I could have stayed there all day. I looked at it with a critical eye and could not see any painting or sculpture that was not presented in it’s best light. The man who does the display was present and was continually looking to see if any artwork was just a tad off and making adjustments. What a pleasure it was to vist!

  20. I used to be a member of an art society years ago in Boston. The membership fee was very high and you might get into a juried show or not. One show I got into was very disappointing as most. My large watercolor was displayed knee high… at least on the wall. So many paintings were crammed in that the wall space was filled four high and the rest were stacked leaning against the wall on the floor…no sale for me. I’m not a member anymore. This is one of the busiest streets in Boston. I did sell a few paintings there, I think it was better back in the seventies. They are a non profit and I don’t think it works very well.

  21. Temperature of the light is important. I read a study that demonstrated that viewers preferred light around 3700k. 3000k is a bit warmer and also looks good. I would avoid anything above 3700k – I think they are to white. Also the degree of the light spread is important and depends on the size of the artwork.

  22. Thanks for this very useful guide. I use part of our garages as a pop up studio/gallery during the Summer months and as I create lots of different art (oils, acrylics, drypoint, ink drawings) I’ll definitely follow your advice on flow to make the best of a smallish display area.

  23. I am with a community art nonprofit. At the moment we do not have a gallery. We have an Art in Found Spaces program. There are two venues in municipal buildings. One has a wide walkway with plenty of space to stand back and view the art. The other venue uses the hallways in the building. There are a couple of spaces which have enough space to stand back. The venue with more viewing space sells at least one painting per exhibit while the one with less viewing space rarely sells a piece.
    I’ve often thought of staggering the pieces in the narrower hallways so each piece did not have anything across from it. Also limiting how many pieces go up. Would this help create negative space to allow the piece to breathe and make it more viewable.
    I’m also fighting against the current of the “more is better” stance.

  24. The small comments on flow are a huge addition to my knowledge bank.Well worth a ponder and consideration for any future opportunities that may arise.Thank you

  25. Interesting article and full of useful information! My question is about framing for display purposes. I have an artist friend who suggested all frames on my art be of the same color and if possible, style and material. She said that way the art can ‘sing in harmony’ and really stand out. I am curious; what you think about this approach as well?

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