How to Curate an Art Show

Art hung at art show

For the past several years I’ve been fortunate to help Debra Sokolow curate the Thousand Oaks Art Association’s annual juried art show. Debra is a very experienced curator on top of being an award-winning artist, beloved teacher and esteemed friend of mine. In 2010 she was personally given one of the highest honors for her teaching and student guidance from Milken Community High School.

I knew from the start that I would learn how to arrange an art show into an organized cohesive and pleasing exhibit from one of the best.

More art has come in art show

On my first day, Debra covered her techniques to build a successful art exhibit. I was amazed by the creativity needed to accomplish this goal. YI learned that you can’t just hang the art as it comes in. Debra explained first we need to survey all of the art; take it all in and get a feel for the types of subject matter and colors. She said there are essentially two goals. First, the artworks must harmonize next to each other. Second, each piece of art has a story, a spirit of its own, that must shine through.

I was surprised how easy it was to have the wrong pieces of art arranged next to each other. Of course the colors, subject matter, size and frames all contribute to how a group of art will look together but there was another element that seemed to frequently enter the picture. And it was one that you couldn’t easily describe. Some pieces just went well together and others did not.

Curate Art Show - Very Early Stage

Approximately 100 pieces are accepted into each year’s show. All the art arrives within a 2-hour window and are placed against the gallery’s walls. Both Debra and I watch the pieces come in and start to get an idea of what might go where. We might move some of the pieces around but the real decision has to wait until at least half of the art has arrived. Then starts the real work.

I’ll be honest, the first time I helped curate I thought, heck, two flower pictures can easily hang next to each other. I also thought artwork with similar colors would work well grouped together. But that is not the case. The art can get lost when paired with something similar. By the same reasoning, it can feel very disturbing when two vastly different pieces are paired together. It is a real trick to place all of the art so everything harmonizes, looks great together while each piece stands out as a separate entity. This last show, Debra and I spent four solid hours organizing, contemplating, arranging, and re-arranging the 100 pieces into a cohesive art show.

Very Early Stage where 3D will be - curating art show

Curating this show differed from other exhibits. Instead of wide open opportunities to place the art anywhere within the gallery, this show required that the art be displayed by category, meaning we couldn’t hang a piece from one category in with the artwork from another category. This also meant we had to make sure the transition from one category to another was smooth. To add to the complexity, the show had an unusually high number of very large artworks, testing our skills in symmetry as curators.

Art Show curating - Most of the art has come in

The first decision was to find those pieces that look best as a stand alone on one of the kiosks. Then we looked for pieces to anchor each end of the three gallery walls. This art show had an obvious choice for two locations. We also looked for art to place in the center of each wall. We had only one obvious piece for the back wall. Once done, we focused on filling in all the blanks.

When we decided on an artwork’s location we would move it there and lean it against the wall. We knew better than to assume it is really in its final home. It becomes a massive jigsaw puzzle, trying a piece here and there until suddenly it slips in perfectly into its meant-to-be home. Plus, there is always at least one piece that is difficult to find a home for. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, it isn’t that the pieces aren’t important. They are, but there is a shape, color, and/or texture that makes it stand out in ways that make it very particular for finding the perfect mate to hang out with. These pieces can be moved around in search of the best location for them to stand out while also balancing well with its neighbors. Sometimes you find their home early on in the process but usually it is near the end when you suddenly see where that one piece fits perfectly.

More art has come in art show curate

This show we had about a half dozen of these seemingly homeless artworks. One of them found a home very quickly though I had thought the piece might be the last one we would place. It was a beautiful thin upright acrylic that ended up pairing perfectly with a completely abstract piece five times its size. The two looked stunning together while both still stood out on their own. Another stunning photograph we originally thought would be difficult to find a home for fell into place and looked great half way through the placement process.

Started to hang art on one wall at art show

And so the night progressed. At one point we had three pictures before us, trying to determine their best arrangement within a long wall of art. We placed one of the three pieces on the left side of center and the other two just to the right of center separated by three pieces of art . It looked good but we weren’t satisfied. We switched the order of the two on the right of center. It didn’t look perfect, so we switched the one on the left with one of the ones on the right. We continued switching the three pieces around until it looked perfect. We stood back and laughed. We were back with the original arrangement.

laser to hang art straight on the walls to curate art show

With that wall completed we moved to another wall and then the third wall. At the very end of the process we found one piece that was hanging in the wrong category. Yikes! We had to scurry to find a new location for it on an adjoining wall and move one into its vacated place.

It’s not easy curating an art show. It feels a bit like arranging a very diverse group of 100 strangers in a confined area to take one picture where the photographer can clearly see each person, smiling and looking into the camera at the same time. It is all very challenging and a lot of fun.



Carol Roullard
Artist, Carol Roullard Art
Designer, Crystal Art Outfitters

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