Phil used to work for Klein Art Works. He is now in graduate school. In one year that he worked for us he had 4 shows (mostly that he generated), so I asked him to write about his thoughts on getting exposure. He said:
As a matter of showing artwork as an artist beginning his/her career, one of the most important things is to not wait for someone else to make it happen. If this means that we must become curators, publicists, installers, etc. in order to be artists, then so be it.
I think that it's important to have a goal in mind, to know what we want to accomplish by showing artwork in a particular time and place. Is it central to show the work to a maximum number of people, for the show to be a sort of notch in your belt, to attain another, maybe better exhibition, to sell a lot, etc.? Cafe's and bars are always available, but there are a lot of prejudices between them and credibility. After that, there are apartment shows, open commercial spaces, and rentable gallery spaces. Which is more ideal really depends on the goal.
There are a few apartments in Chicago that have actually become fairly reliable for seeing good exhibitions. The Coachhouse comes to mind. Shows in apartments can look somewhat professional, especially when in an apartment that hasn't been moved into yet. But, it's hard to know what apartment galleries might still be doing after any given show.
Commercial spaces are out there for artists to commandeer, however, affordable ones are hard to find. Storefronts can look good though.
Finally, there are exhibition spaces around that are available for rental, a few of which can offer consulting. It's best to plan several months ahead for rental spaces. I tend to like these spaces both because people will have some idea what and where the place is, and because they usually look better than the other options.
For a beginning artist, if the goal of the exhibition is to sell, good luck. My advice is, for self-curated exhibitions, to plan how much money you can afford to lose, spend it, and then hope for the best. I price my work as inexpensively as I can bear to – I'd rather have it spread out where people will look at it than profit.
Excluding pride, I think without a "full" gallery backing an artist, group shows are always best. They mean more people to split the cost, more people to bring in visitors, and more people to do the work. And, curating shows is a lot of work, most of which is worth doing. For the most part, any two or three artists can put together a show with integrity, no matter how different their work. Finding other artists that are reliable is sometimes difficult, but is absolutely essential. For showing art out of town, I don't think it's worth bothering unless it's grouped with local artists. For the most part, everyone at the openings stems from the people who already know the artists.
For finding a space, ask around. It's surprising how much people will help if they know what someone else needs. I found the space for the most recent show I curated by asking a bartender at a music venue totally unrelated to the space. The space ,Gallery 900, at 202 S State is still available, and can be inquired about through Kass Management at the same address. Contact Juanita Guerrero. While they may help spread flyers, everything else there is up to the artists. In the past, they have taken only percentages, which considerably cuts down the gambles of self-curating. There is also a group called Friends of the Arts, whose main focus is helping emerging artists. They can be contacted through fota.com, and are very helpful. Other than general help and consulting, they also have a space available for one night or one weekend shows. And, honestly if you don't actively create reasons for people to come to the show after the opening, one night is all that's really important. I do prefer longer shows, but even though I hold events and push attendance, things are pretty lonely after the opening.
As far as publicizing, I don't think anything considered tactful is too much. Mailings are important, but will at best bring in about a 10% return. Waiting until the last minute for printing will cost you though, and with any resourcefulness, 1,000 postcards can disappear without any problem. For full color, Modern Postcard is the most affordable, and produces quality work. Normal service there takes about a month -- look up modernpostcard.com. In Chicago, I've used Speedy Printing factory, which is faster, and well priced, but the way I had them print the cards is not that high quality, and they missed the deadline. I print flyers on my home computer in both black and white and color. The color flyers went to the nicer places, and the black and whites to the schools and such. Students will boost the turn out, and faculty will come, but it's questionable if this helps sell anything. Don't forget about posting at libraries and public institutions too. I always send cards to galleries and art institutions, and see it as something to build on, it's okay that most of them throw the cards away.
I've also had a lot of success carrying business cards with info. about the show. They can fit in a wallet, and even when done professionally are not that expensive. Word of mouth still carries a lot of power. My other recommendation is to find web space to post info. on, any organization's site, or event search engines can only do good. It also helps a lot to start a free email address for the show if you don't already have your own website. In addition to providing an easy way to contact you, it can be used for mass e-mailing announcements. Also, newspaper listings are essential and usually free.
Finally, whatever care is taken in present as well as making the artwork always shows. What people think of the art in an "alternative" space often has as much to do with its presentation as what the art actually looks like.