Articles - 20th March 2020

Show time! How to curate an art exhibition for the first time

Words by Richard Unwin
Illustration by Jon McCormack

The role of the curator is often viewed from one of two extremes. For the casual exhibition visitor, the idea that someone has curated the artwork on display can seem a little illusive, especially for a solo-show where it might be assumed that the artist has decided what to present and how to hang it.

Within the art world, on the other hand, curating has developed into a very specific discipline with top curators acting as power players. A broad academic field now exists around curatorial theory and practice, and there are countless ways to study curation at different levels.

Between these extremes of a seemingly incidental role and one that commands prestige and influence, for someone curating an exhibition for the first time, it will quickly become clear that simply on a practical level there is a lot to do, to the extent that it could appear daunting to know where to start.

With a healthy combination of good planning and some trial and error, though, curating a show for the first time needn’t feel quite so nerve wracking. Whether you’re an artist self-curating your own work, or someone curating work by others, taking into account a few key considerations can help smooth the experience.

Concept & Content

This might seem obvious, but it’s important to take some time to think about what you want to show and why. Whether you intend to present a series of pieces by one or more artists, in order to showcase their practice, or you want to do something with a more thematic or conceptual framework, you need to consider how the selected art relates to that intention, and the narrative that will be established by the way you choose to position and display the work.

Thinking about the concept and content, and the type of style and feel you want the show to have, then leads through to more practical questions like whether you want to frame the art.


Another thing that’s impossible to avoid is the budget and working out a plan that sticks to it. The sky’s the limit in terms of what an exhibition can cost, but equally there are ways to do things in a more DIY format, to call in favours and to side-step options that will inflate your costs.


Finding the right space and getting to know it is central to the success of any exhibition. The way the selected artwork sits in the space, and how people perceive and experience that combination is what the exhibition, and the role of the curator, essentially boils down to.

Being creative in your choice of venue can have a big effect on both the visual impact and the cost. Whatever venue you do end up working with, it will define technical questions like how the work is displayed or hung (can you drill into or paint the walls) and what tools and materials you need to carry out the installation.


Once you know where the exhibition is taking place, getting the work there isn’t always as easy or as cheap as you might hope. If the budget is small, it might mean considering artwork that’s smaller or more easy to handle, so it’s something that’s good to consider early on.

If the artwork comes direct from the framer or an artist who’s packaged the work, it’s also important to remember that while it might arrive expertly wrapped, it won’t be that easy to re-wrap it on site at the end of the exhibition. The range of taxi and courier services available now mean it’s often easy to get a vehicle, but moving large pieces of loosely protected art across town in the back of a van can be a little stressful.


How you communicate with your audience is something that should be central to everything you do. It links back to understanding the concept and reason behind the show and how that message is then conveyed: through the selection and placement of work, the way you choose to identify and describe it, and the literature and promotional material you produce.

Thinking about how you present information inside the exhibition space is especially important. There is a trend in contemporary art to push the artwork to the fore, unencumbered by long descriptive texts, or even the artwork’s title.

Some people like the freedom this allows to interpret the work in their own way, but others often crave context and explanation. Being a curator entails understanding both the overall aesthetics of the exhibition and being a storyteller. Finding a balance that works for you, the artists whose work you’re presenting, and your audience will be one of the things that defines your curatorial approach. 


It’s not something you always have control of, but having a good idea of what needs to happen when, and how long it will take, can help avoid some major hiccups. This extends to ensuring the people you’re working with know the schedule and that, crucially, you’re confident artists will be ready to supply their artwork in time.

Something that often also takes longer than expected and can throw up last minute problems is the installation process: hanging a few pieces of artwork is never quite as simple as it sounds. If you can allow a little breathing space between the installation and opening, it will help minimise the last minute stress.


Artist, curator and educator Aida Wilde talks about her first experiences of curating and her advice for anyone thinking of taking up the challenge.

I am very much the part time/accidental curator who creates projects for the love of it.

I guess my first training, or anyone’s first training if they have experienced any form of art schooling/education, is where they’ve had to put up their own work for an end of year show or something along those lines.

I was a lecturer at the London College of Communication for almost fifteen years and we used to have an end of year final show for our graduating students. So I guess my real training and understanding about artists and how to put work together developed from there.

Curating at Uni was very much a collective effort, so this was a very good grounding in working collaboratively on a project, sharing and brainstorming ideas. It was also good to have a support network. I have never had professional training or anything along those lines. My ethos is very much about “just doing”.

My curatorial development has mostly been about my own experiences as an artist and how galleries and other curators have treated me whilst working with them, as well as talking to and getting to know different artists. After curating small group shows with friends, I guess my first big project that I curated was the 48 hour street art takeover of the iconic Lord Napier pub in Hackney Wick in 2016.

It was a curator’s nightmare… limited turnaround time, outdoor for two days battling all sorts of weather, no budget and dealing with a number of street artists who all want their piece in prime spots. So my first real experience was in the deep end. But it was worth all the blood, sweat & tears. The work we did on the pub has had a major lasting legacy – Google have now even listed the building as an outdoor modern museum.

Speaking from experience I would say, with any planned curatorial projects, you need to start with a concrete idea/concept and an area/subject that you actually know and feel passionate about.

Having an overall vision also helps. If your plan is confused, the show or event will be confused. Stay away from fads/hype/gimmicks; chances are, lots of other curators will be trying to do the same thing. Find a niche. Keep it simple and don’t over complicate things with too many ideas – though it’s always nice to add an element of surprise somewhere inside.

It’s always good to remember that your artists comes first – always – the show isn’t about you, you are there to facilitate. That is if you want longevity in the business and want people to repeat and work with you and recommend you to other artists or projects. Reputation is the key. There are too many shows these days where you see the curator’s name on top of the signs in the galleries etc…. even before the artists.

Really research and get to know whom you are showing and working with – find out what they want from working with you and where they want their work to end up. And if in doubt about curating alone, start by collaborating: it’s a good way to find your feet and your own identity.


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