Some Lessons I've Learned About Hosting A Gallery Show

I'm so thankful to my Show Committee of volunteers who are helping me to throw a professional art exhibition. Recognizing that I'm not naturally the best at marketing myself, they have stepped up to the plate to lend their expertise, and its making a huge difference.

Special Edition Mini Love Letter
Paintings are my gifts to Sponsors.
For example, they suggested I ask for Micro Sponsors to help boost my PR effort and raise funds to cover expenses. This has been a brilliant move! My already supportive collectors have enthusiastically signed up to sponsor the event. Normally, the hosting gallery will pay for costs, which can be substantial. The Community Creative Center (commonly referred to as the Carnegie) provides the gallery space for rental, but the artists self-host and self-fund the show. The thing is, artists host a show and hope that the sales of art will cover the costs. The concept of making a profit from a show is less considered, even if it should be the goal.

In the past several years I've hosted smaller shows or participated in group shows. I've learned a lot each time, from building mailing lists, to packing artwork for transportation, to delegating tasks and getting assistants, and most importantly -- keeping a task list. I like lists, but even for me, my 4-page task list is a bit daunting!

Here's a short list of tasks and/or costs I consider for a show:

Gallery Rental
Extended Hours Gallery Rental & Insurance
Wood Art Panel Construction
Art Supplies & Tools
Artwork Photography
Show Planning Committee Meetings
Sponsorship Sales
Graphic Design
Printing: Show Announcement, Poster, Banner, Brochure, & Thank You cards
Exhibition Design
Website & Social Media
Poster & Announcement Distribution
Press Release & Promotions
Office Supplies & Packing Materials
Postage and Mailing Expenses
Loaning artwork from collectors
Private Sponsor Reception Food & Drinks
Drinks Server
First Friday Reception Food & Drinks
Equipment Rental
Exhibition Hardware
Installation & Takedown Crew
Reception & Sales Assistants
Event Photography

With each show I host, I learn to peel off a few tasks and delegate them to others. And the best secret is this: people love to help. Those with professional skills can easily proof a design or edit an artist statement. Others have manual skills, or spare time, or simply want to learn from you. There are many reasons someone might want to volunteer, so be brave and ask.

Some tasks might require payment, like poster distribution and certified drinks servers. This is where the sponsorships will really make a difference, because I can finally hire people for the jobs. Artists commonly have a wide variety of skills, and you can usually find a local artist who has the skills you need, and that in turn helps support fellow artists.

Regardless of the task, I hold myself to a high standard. In my mind, its all part of the exhibit planning. I don't want to throw art on the wall without considering each detail, like what you see when you first walk in the door, how the art labels look, even where the chairs are placed. This is where show planning crosses over into installation art. You are providing an experience from the moment someone hears of the show to the thoughts and images that hang in their heads for days, or months, afterwards. Everything matters.

Here are a few things not to forget (from personal experience): get photos of the show and reception, make sure your credit card reader is working, assign a water-bearer for the reception (because you get dehydrated from all that talking), and keep detailed notes and contacts of people you meet and sales you make. They are the gems you have earned from all your hard work.

Community Creative Center, 200 Mathews Street
Library Park, Old Town, Fort Collins
Full Schedule of Events

Why I'm Hosting My Own Solo Show

I want to be clear about something. Fort Collins is not known to be the kind of place where you can easily make a successful art career. People love living here because it is a simple life, the communities are intimate, and here communities matter.

Here I can live a sustainable, mindful life, focus on making art, and enjoy my community. I've been able to delve deep into my creative work and expand my practice significantly. I was able to spend a year completely focused on creating the series of paintings called the Love Letters Series.

I've extended my interests into civic duties and worked with the Downtown Fort Collins Creative District Committee to become a Colorado Certified District. I started the Pop Up Art Carts in the Old Town Square.

Why, people ask, are you doing all this? Because it matters to me that I live in a place where art matters. I am not content believing that I have to launch myself into the Denver market to have any success at all. Plus, the trend in the gallery market is not sustainable, with commissions rising every year. How does that make sense to artists who barely make a profit from a sale?

With Fort Collins growing exponentially, this town is changing at crazy-fast speeds. Downtown has become almost too cool for its britches. Yet, this means opportunity too.

Root: Jazz, Acrylic on birch, 10 x 10in
Northern Colorado is expanding the boundaries of its cultural awareness far beyond the beer & bikes culture, and I want to join that trend.

Admittedly, when I completed the Love Letters Series, I expected to have the Premier Exhibition in a venue with a solid reputation and large audience... in other words, not in Fort Collins. With time clicking by, the challenge of personal hurdles, and the gift of a space large enough to host the show, I came to realize the time is nigh.

Besides, this is my community, where my friends and supporters are, and I'd hate to have them miss this milestone by having it miles away. I am thoroughly enjoying planning and designing for the show, too, especially with my fabulous, generous group of show committee volunteers. It takes a community to host a show this size, and I'm thankful for it. That's half the fun. Thanks Amy, Dawn, Mindy, & Laurie!

Community Creative Center, 200 Mathews Street
Library Park, Old Town, Fort Collins
Full Schedule of Events

Love Letters Premier

Please mark your calendars for the Premier Exhibition of the complete Love Letters Series by Bonnie Lebesch.

Community Creative Center, 200 Mathews Street
Library Park, Old Town, Fort Collins

Full schedule and information.

EXHIBIT: Poudre Valley Community Farms Fundraiser

In February 2016 the Poudre Valley Community Farmland Coop held a fundraiser at a private residence in Fort Collins, and I was thrilled to be asked to hang my work for sale during the event. 

It was a blazing success, both in attendance and in sales. I donated 10% sales to the fundraiser, and many people were introduced to the farmland coop and to my artwork at the same time.

This was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the organizers, for they knew that having an artist host a large solo show would be more impressive than having artists donate work for a silent auction, making it a successful event for everyone.

The hosts held the event in their "garage" -- which looks much more like an event center with it's vaulted ceilings and beetle kill tongue and groove panelling. I was able to hang eight large paintings in this space alone.

I showed work from the Love Letter Series of paintings, beetle-kill wood rounds, and a few earlier paintings. Whispers Riding on the Wind, below, previously hung at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center for three years.

The building construction was not quite complete, which made for some artful art placements and a refreshingly relaxed atmosphere. It all worked well with the farmer-style decor, complete with hay bales and pitchforks. They even offered wagon rides and had their own goats to entertain people. This is Fort Collins after all!

Exhibit: The Element of Wood

Installation views: Chines Medicinal Herb Prints, Herb Note Pages, Single Round, Single Round with Round Stumps, Rounds arranged on wall with Herb Formula Print in foreground.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
- Poet Dylan Thomas

Solo Exhibit December 16-19, 2015

Community Creative Center
200 Mathews Street, Fort Collins, CO 80524
Old Town Library Park

This show focuses on two bodies of work: prints made from herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and mixed media pieces done on wood rounds harvested from the Rawah Forest of Northern Colorado.

Artist Statement

This year I’m hosting a solo show and the Community Creative Center in Old Town Library Park, Fort Collins, CO. I’m showing a body of work I created in 2005-2007 while living in Bellingham, WA.

I was teaching at Western Washington University and living away from my home and community in Seattle. The Art & Design Department had a large-scale printer that I was chomping at the bit to try out… so I set a goal of creating a series of art prints based on Medicinal Herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

By then I’d been a student of tai chi at the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle for over 10 years, and had developed an understanding of internal chi and the relationship to health and medicine. There were a large number of fellow students who were acupuncturists, naturally, since tai chi is based on the same principles of yin and yang as utilized in TCM. They address areas of the body that are unbalanced by opening up the meridians - channels where chi flows through the body. Doing tai chi is like giving yourself an acupuncture treatment.

Tai Chi practice with Grand Master Feng in China, 2003; Traditional Chinese Medicine Apothecary sample

Plant and animal parts are used in conjunction with acupuncture for a complete treatment. Each has a specific property which helps to balance the body. There is a complicated map of properties, but for my project I was interested in the inherent physical properties - or beauty - of each plant specimen. I also wanted to play with the idea of whether the properties could be transferred through an image of the specimen onto paper, thus in effect giving the viewer a bit of a healing treatment. This is, of course, not a scientific experiment, but my interest in subconscious laws of attraction and “repulsion” (a TCM term) made this a compelling project nonetheless.

Using specimens of plants (no animal), I created a series of prints consisting of single herbs presented in a botanical layout, using some photo effects and printing them at up to 20 times their scale to magnify the plant structure. I printed them on heavy weight watercolor paper.

A while later some of the prints were hanging in the treatment rooms of the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine (SIOM) when I got a call from the receptionist. She explained that some of the students and teachers were having a problem with one of the pairs of herb prints and I needed to come take them away. This was thrilling - because I was able to interview a faculty member and get a hint of what was happening. Turns out the pair in question was an herb used to manage anger, and it could cause your chi to rise to your upper body and discombobulate you if you were not grounded enough.

Again, not scientific proof, but I was beginning to become aware of the energy my art would, or could, bring to a space. This might explain why people respond to art is such vastly different ways, why some people are attracted to work that others are “repulsed” by, often unconsciously. This inspired my next phase of the herb prints, the Formulas.

I first wrote a list of made-up titles that represented the healing principles I was wanted the work to embody. Then I asked two TCM practitioners to create the matching formulas from their herbal apothecary. I took these pouches of formulas and poured them onto my scanner bed, arranging them carefully into a balanced composition.

These prints show the complete formulas in raw form before they would be boiled into a tea to consume. The series consists of 30 (2 each of 15) single herbs and 14 Formulas.

Page from my notebook on herbs; Detail of Mu Tong/Clematis Vine print.

While envisioning this show, I considered including some recent work and opted to show pieces made from wood rather than the paintings I’ve exhibited in recent years. The herbal prints and the wood rounds share the element of wood - one of the five elements of TCM: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Thus, the show became about the wood element and its characteristics of germination, extension, softness, harmony, flexibility, etc.

The wood pieces are made of pine rounds cut from trees killed by the recent pine beetle infestation in the Rocky Mountains. The beetles leave a dark stain that enhances the grain and beauty of the wood and thus the wood is now commonly used in woodworking. I harvested trees from private property in Northern Colorado to use in making the series.

The natural pattern of the tree rings and wood grain make such a dynamic statement of their own that the series became a practice in meditative study and restraint. I found I could easily overwhelm the natural beauty and make the piece of wood into something less attractive. Instead, I followed the cues given by the wood, counting rings and tracing their patterns using a wood burning tool.

This naturally led to marking the rings by numbers, then to telling the story of the rings by cutting words from novels, making poetry, and describing the environment in which the trees grew. Some of the trees are 300 years old! Imagine the stories they could tell, the things they have witnessed and the wisdom they hold. This series imagines a bit of that story.

My workspace while working on the Wood project; Detail of a finished piece.

*a note on process ——

While I am working on a series, I like to immerse myself entirely into the work and do very little other creative work. The more invested I get into the process, the deeper I get into following the trail. At first I might be hesitant about materials or process, unsure of the intent, content or direction. But if I continue going forward I can find my footing and the work opens up to me. I like the discovery process. Every material or curiosity has something to reveal.  It does mean that each series I do might be very different than the others, and even that I am learning to relax into.

Creativity comes naturally for me. Repetition does not. Not surprisingly, It turns out that creativity and repetition have opposite energetic patterns! It seems society loves the repetition of things, yet I am just cut out of a very different cloth, and I can’t fake the other. And so be it.

In developing the Element of Wood show, I realize how much I love putting a show together when it is just me and my process. It reminds me of doing video installations because every element in the show helps to communicate the message. It is creating an experience, not just a wall full of artworks. How a person enters the space, how information is revealed, how the story is told — all of this is part of curating an exhibit, and every detail matters.

Unity From Piece To Piece

But it doesn't look like my other work.... Worrying about unity of your work from piece to piece is only a problem for the discovered artist. When you're still undiscovered, you can relish in the unexpected and explore everything. Why limit yourself to one single path when there are so many calling you?

Admittedly, I have an overabundance of paths calling me, and I regularly have to sit down and hold a conference with those temptations before I launch right in. Sometimes they have validity, but not always. I do want to set some limits in my life to keep me sane.

There are so many factors that go into choosing a path through an artist's life. Once you have been discovered, collected and represented, your clients have expectations, and that can be really limiting to your creativity. So while you still have the freedom to push your boundaries, go for it. Practice, explore,  improve your skills, discover the heart of your work and don't settle on something prematurely.

I go through runs where l find my true creative center, producing bodies of work that touch a new level consistently. These are greatly rewarding periods in the studio. There is nothing better than riding a creative wave, especially when it's extensive and deep. That is the sweet spot.

But that high doesn't last forever, and inevitably I find myself puttering around looking for something to tickle my fancy. I get distracted by shiny things (not literally) or listen to a well-meaning compliment on a piece I don't love. It makes me wonder if my critical eye is out of whack. Would it sell? (That question should be right up there with the dreaded "Is it good?")

You know the feeling when you have not had a compliment on your haircut in a long time? It's perhaps time for a new one. I think the same about art. If I've lost the spark, its time for me to get back into the studio and explore. Push it further, or sideways, or even backwards! I have to remember what unifies all of my work is that I made it.

For more insightful reading, check out Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

This article is from the September 2015 newsletter. Subscribe to newsletters to have articles like this delivered to your email.

In The Wood Shop

One weekend in August I escaped the heat of the city to bask in the quiet, pine-scented forests of the Rawahs. We cooked and relaxed, and most importantly, we harvested trees for making new tree round art.

It is sad to see the devastation the pine beetle has caused in the forests in northern Colorado, but there is new growth everywhere - amazing wild flowers and new pine trees that are already 4 feet tall in places.

The landowners know they have to keep the dead trees cut to minimize fire hazards, so harvesting dead wood is a regular activity. We mounted our ATV's, grabbed the chain saw, and took off in search of dead wood with beautiful pine beetle stains.

And we found plenty! I now have all new stock to play with in preparation for my show in December. Oh so much to do.

This article is from the September 2015 newsletter. Subscribe to newsletters to have articles like this delivered to your email.