Independent artists today exercise much more control over the exhibition, marketing and sales of their own work. In the past, an artist may not have been considered credible if they were not represented by a gallery who judged their art worthy to be put on a wall, but self-promotion is no longer a dirty word and the pop-up gallery is becoming an increasingly popular alternative.

The Pop-Up Gallery in History

One of the ways artists can find audiences and potential buyers is to rent a space at a reputable gallery or art fair and hold a pop-up exhibition. Another option is to organize a pop-up gallery in a non-traditional space, such as a storefront or an artist’s studio. In both these cases, the pop-up gallery functions as a temporary exhibition that runs anywhere from a day to a month, or longer. While many pop-up galleries are intended for the purpose of selling artwork, neither the precedents of the pop-up gallery nor many contemporary pop-ups look at all like traditional commercial gallery exhibitions.

Take for instance, La Cédille Qui Sourit, a “shop” established in the summer of 1965 by Fluxus artists George Brecht and Robert Filliou in a seaside town east of Nice, France. La Cédille was conceived by the artists as a space for collaboration and research into “everything which does or does not have a cedilla in its name,” la cedilla being a French phonetic symbol that changes a c to the sound of an s. The shop’s ever-changing displays presented the works and ideas of the international Fluxus network, often taking the form of correspondence, poems, ephemeral works of art and games.

A more activist approach to the pop-up gallery was the 1980’s Times Square Show in New York City initiated by Collaborative Projects, Inc., or Colab, an artists’ organization of approximately fifty artist-members. The exhibition of site-specific work by over 100 artists in an abandoned building drew attention to Times Square as a complex urban environment, crisscrossed by class, race, and gender identities, at a time when it was being targeted for gentrification.

One may even consider The Salon des Refusés, the 1863 exhibition set up by Gustave Courbet and his friends, who were rejected from the official Paris Salon and became a pop-up gallery of sorts. Today, both independent artists and artists with established galleries look to pop-ups as a way to generate buzz or to break free from the confines of the traditional white cube gallery space.

For an artist who is not represented by a gallery, organizing a pop-up gallery is an excellent way to get in front of people rather than waiting for a gallery owner or curator to find, select and promote his or her work. A group exhibition that includes the work of other artists is a community-building effort that comes with a ready-made audience of the participating artists’ family and friends and can serve as a springboard into other group exhibitions and solo shows.

Galleries Also Experiment with Pop-Ups

Artists who are represented by a gallery may explore the pop-up gallery option to experiment with non-traditional formats or to reach a different audience they may not encounter in the usual gallery location. Established galleries utilize pop-ups to experiment with non-traditional programming or to test out a new geographic area. In reaction to the market takeover by mega-galleries and the corporate environment of art fairs, smaller galleries like Bortolami are creating single-artist exhibits in temporary, out of the way places, including a Taco Bell in Cahokia, Illinois and the former office of a Tire Company in New Haven, Connecticut.

Putting art in an unexpected location is often seen as an excellent PR move. Some cities even have established programs, such as Art in Odd Places or Pop-Up Art Loop in Chicago, that help artists negotiate with property owners to create temporary projects and exhibitions. Box Park in East London is a retail mall made up entirely of pop-up shops, which has included art galleries in the past. Pop-ups for retail of all varieties are now seen as important incubators of economic development, with many municipalities lending a hand to help new entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

Organizing a Pop-Up Gallery: The Basics

Here are some things to take into consideration when establishing your pop-up gallery exhibition:

  1. Have a Concept. Do you want to reach a new audience or connect with your existing audience in a different way? Do you see an open niche in the commercial art market that you want to fill? With a pop-up gallery, you have a limited time to display your art, so it’s best to have a clear concept or intention.
  2. Timing is everything. Pay close attention to the timing of your pop-up gallery. Consider opening near cultural landmarks that already draw people in. Opening during an auction week or a big art fair may draw a larger audience. For example, a London-based gallery or artist might open a pop-up exhibition during the fall auction season in New York in close vicinity to an auction house. On the flip side, depending on location, a smaller exhibition could get lost in the shuffle. A pop-up in an unexpected venue may become a destination if it offers an unusual concept, but a group show of two-dimensional works in a far-away location might seem too out of the way. The best strategy is to know your program and potential audience and clients, where they go and what interests them.
  3. Know the Details. Establishing a clear outline of your project will help you stay on solid footing throughout the planning process. The basics of your plan should include the dates and duration of the exhibition, size of the space required, the utilities you will need, and the geographic location. Whether you will need liability insurance to cover your activities, what equipment and tools you will need to put up the show, how and where you will publicize, and how you will staff the exhibition are additional items to check off on your list. Your plan will also serve as the basis for your proposal to potential partners or venues. The Empty Spaces Project out of New South Wales, Australia, provides a useful guide that can help you understand all the steps involved.
  4. Explore and Negotiate. You can often rent a vacant commercial premise on very flexible terms directly from the owner. Second-floor spaces are typically more affordable, but also get less foot-traffic than ground-floor storefronts. Ask around. Tell family and friends what you are looking for in terms of space. Is there an organization in your community that helps artists organize pop-up galleries and shops? Contact them for information or for a helping hand. Artists are often in the know as are local business people or business incubators. Alternately, you can talk to a realtor or check out Storefront, a kind of Airbnb for retail locations.
  5. Promote yourself. There’s no use in having a great exhibition if nobody knows about it. Spread the word by sending out a media release about your opening to local newspapers and art publications. Local radio stations are often looking for people to interview. Put together a promotional free giveaway that adds incentive to show up. Pass out flyers or do some cooperative advertising with other businesses or events. Hire or invite a musician or band to perform at the opening event and draw a crowd. Create a website and, of course, do not overlook your social media presence, which can be established in advance of your exhibition to generate interest.

Most artists don’t merely arrive at success, they actively pursue it. “Artists are told that we’ll be discovered. That there is a meritocratic Yahweh on high, and if only we’re good enough, he’ll reward us with magazine spreads, collectors, and a white-cube gallery in Tribeca,” writes Molly Crabapple in her memoir Drawing Blood, a tell-all on what it really takes to make it as an artist.   As Crabapple’s own experience with her own DIY art shows testify the success of a pop-up gallery exhibition can vary widely. Taking time to learn from the successes and failures of others before setting out on your own will improve your chances greatly.

Have you had a pop-up gallery or shop? What was your experience on what worked and what didn’t? Tell us in the comments section below.

Erin Sickler
Erin Sickler

Erin Sickler is a mindfulness & creativity coach living in the Hudson Valley. A former NY art curator, she has worked with some of the world’s most successful living artists and now writes about expanded modes of being on the creative path.

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