Burning Questions: How Can I Promote My Exhibition?

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The Freedom of Expression National Monument, a Creative Time project by Laurie Hawkinson, John Malpede, and Erika Rothenberg, was sited in Lower Manhattan in 2004.

I’ve got an exhibition coming up at a small artist-run gallery space. They don’t have any real budget for promotion or anything like that. So I’m wondering something: What are the best low-cost (preferably free) ways to promote my exhibition? I’m not great at self-promotion, but because there’s not really a “staff” at this gallery, I want to help put the word out myself. What kind of things do galleries do to promote an exhibition?
Marketing Noob

Dear Marketing Noob,
Thanks for writing in! I’m so happy to hear about your upcoming exhibition. Congratulations! I totally understand the need to step in and help promote. It’s great that you’re doing it.
There are a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to artist-run galleries and small art spaces. Usually the set-up goes a little something like this: one kind and dedicated human, we’ll call her Sally, loves art and wants to contribute to the community. So Sally devotes beaucoup hours after she gets off work at her exhausting day job to making each exhibition happen. Emails, press releases, coordinating times/dates. There’s little to no money being made from sales, so there’s no budget to ship artwork, print show cards, have set hours, buy wine, etc. Everything that is spent comes directly out of Sally’s pocket, which isn’t all that full in the first place. It’s an absolute labor of love and the fact that Sally’s gallery exists at all is a minor miracle.
And that’s about par for the course. That’s why supercool artist run spaces come and go so frequently. It’s hard to keep it going for very long. It’s a much different animal than a commercial gallery. So any help you can give, as the artist, is essential. So I’m glad you’re stepping up to the plate!
Now, let’s get to down a game plan.  
Numero uno: make sure you have at least one hi-res, crisp, well-lit, wonderful, eye-catching image to use as your press image. Everything you send or post to promote your show will need an image, so lock that down first.
Next, create a press release if the curator doesn’t have one. Don’t be intimidated by the term “press release.” It’s actually pretty simple, but you may want to take a look at a couple beforehand before you dive into yours. Here’s a good example and here’s another one. It doesn’t need any kind of fancy design elements. It’s meant to deliver information efficiently. So keep it simple. Generally, you want to make sure you’ve provided some key information: your name, the title, opening and closing dates, address, contact info, a short text about the show, info about the gallery/venue, and an image, preferably in the release itself, or at least as an attachment. A single page press release is perfect. Save it as a PDF so that it will appear correctly no matter where it’s read.
Now, once you’ve made your press release, send it out to art writers in your area, and the editors of art magazines or the arts and culture sections of mainstream publications. It’s mostly useless to send it to vague “[email protected]” email addresses, but if you want to, go for it. The most important line of contact is directly to the art writers, as they typically pitch the story to their editors, who approve it. Though editors do make assignments, that happens less often than you think. [Editor’s note to writers: We’re not omniscient, and we’re a tiny staff, so we love receiving pitches!]
Next, make a Facebook invite because it reminds people that you’re having a show. Even if no one RSVPs, they will still get a reminder on the day that it’s happening. I have to admit, sometimes that’s the only way I remember to go to things. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Submit the event to every local online event calendar you can find, like the one here at BURNAWAY! [E-mail: [email protected]] If your show is more than one night, try to make a separate entry for the opening reception and for the extended exhibition. That way the exhibition will stay on the calendar for the duration of the exhibition. The opening will be treated as a separate one-night event.
Consider reaching out to art bloggers. Email your friends. Don’t bother with making announcement cards, but if you do, just make a handful. Those things always end up sitting around and you have to order a billion before it’s cost sensible. Paper flyers are mostly useless, too.
Use your own Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., to promote the show. I know artists are typically terrible self promoters but suck it up. Your friends want to support you, bumblebee, but they can’t support what they don’t know about. Let them know! It doesn’t seem self-absorbed. It just makes it look like you care about what you do and you want to let people in on it.
Happy promoting! I wish you the best of luck with the show.
Got a question for Sara? Email us at [email protected] 
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.

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