Art is a visual medium, but making a strong aesthetic statement also requires nonvisual skills. A pivotal way that artists and curators can ensure that the public sees their work is by writing an exhibition proposal that elaborates on the visual process and explains how the artwork will lead to an engaging exhibition.
Looking for exhibition opportunities is a necessary step in becoming an established artist or curator. While every artist would love for their artwork to speak for itself, having strong writing skills is often just as important for getting noticed and receiving offers to participate in solo or group shows. Being able to write well is also key for curators to secure exhibitions and facilitate all stages of exhibition development.
Both artists and curators need to be adept at how to write an exhibition proposal. A great exhibition proposal entails concise and compelling descriptions that outline aesthetic ideas and pragmatic logistics. It also requires a strong statement articulating the mission and goals of the exhibition in a way that’s accessible for audiences to understand.
This post will guide you through some steps that will enable you to craft an exhibition proposal. Remember that no two exhibitions or venues are alike, so you will have to adjust your proposal to fit the conceptual and physical specifications as needed.
Where to Pitch Your Proposal
The first step is to identify where and how you will send your proposal. You can go about this process several ways.
I have pitched successful exhibitions to museums by following the guidelines via their website. Some museums (e.g., High Museum) or other arts organizations (e.g., American Federation of Arts) blatantly state that they accept unsolicited proposals, while others are not clear. If you’re unsure, you can do some due diligence and attempt to reach the institution’s main offices for guidelines.
Your first contact should be by email. The email should be cordial and well written (no typos!). The only thing you need to state at this point is that you’re interested in learning about whether they’re open to receiving a proposal from you. This is the conversation starter; if they reply “yes,” then you can follow up with any questions.
Don’t go into a spiel about the artwork or lay out the concept for a show until you get a definitive confirmation that the institution or gallery is indeed taking proposals. If they are interested, they will probably invite you to submit a formal proposal.
There are also popular open call listservs such as NYFA where curators and venues submit postings for exhibition opportunities, often with a specific theme in mind. These are particularly good options if you have a few works of art that you think might fit within someone else’s thematic concept. Oftentimes, these calls require filling out an application form, which is sort of a scaled-down version of an exhibition proposal.
What to Include in Your Proposal
If you have a body of work that you are excited about showing as a cohesive presentation, or you’d like to have more customization regarding what you show and who you show with, then writing a strong exhibition proposal is the best course of action.
An exhibition proposal is not an artist’s statement, but it does follow some of the basic tenets that comprise a good artist’s statement. The content of an exhibition proposal exists in a conceptual space between an artist statement and other types of proposals you’d write for grants and residencies.
If you follow the advice outlined below, you will have a solid basis for preparing exhibition proposals that stand the chance of getting attention from jurors, curators, and gallerists.
Use simple language
Your goal is to convince whoever reads your proposal that you have a strong sense of your work’s formal and conceptual value. You don’t have time to wax poetic, so cut out any metaphorical jargon and artspeak. Simple language will suffice.
Open with a strong idea
Open with a clear sentence that succinctly communicates your idea for an exhibition. Think about the overall objective behind the exhibition you are proposing and try to explain it in two to three short sentences.
Don’t get too hung up on explaining the inspiration or symbolism behind each piece. Think about the overall curatorial goals and provide pragmatic details that support them. Be sure to mention the theme, what type(s) of work you are including, and why you are proposing the exhibition for that particular venue.
You want the person or committee that evaluates your proposal to understand the artwork and how it will function when it’s on view. When you write about the art you intend to display, start with how it looks, its physical properties, and the logistics of how it fills a space.
Describe the technical details
Organizing a contemporary art exhibition is a pragmatic undertaking. Whoever you’ll be working with to make the show a reality needs to see that you’ve thought everything out—or at least have a very good understanding of how you will turn your proposal into a successful gallery presentation.
Sometimes a gallery or museum will have a checklist for what they want included in an exhibition proposal. If not, there are additional technical aspects you should mention after introducing the thematic concept and the artwork:
- How many works will you include?
- Do you have a layout of how you will utilize the space?
- Did you prepare an estimate of an itemized budget?
- Will there be any public programming, such as workshops, artist talks, or performances?
Make it relevant to the location
If you are submitting an exhibition proposal to a gallery or museum, you are likely already aware of the venue. If not, you should absolutely familiarize yourself with it so that you can make your proposal relevant to the space.
Hone in on its mission and demographics that are served so that you will be able to explain how your exhibition meets the needs and interests of both the institution and the community.
Include a cover letter
Include a cover letter with your proposal to provide some more personal and professional information that might not be apt for the actual proposal.
A cover letter is a short introduction to who you are, anything that qualifies your submission, and a brief sentence about what inspired you to craft a proposal for their specific museum or gallery. This shows you’ve either done your research or have a good grasp on who they are as an institution.
Get a second pair of eyes
The aforementioned guidelines should help kickstart your exhibition proposal writing, but even the most seasoned writers need feedback. If you don’t have a trusted colleague or curator-friend to give you critical feedback, consider hiring an editor who is familiar with exhibition-making.
Want help writing your exhibition proposal?
The editors and writers at Flatpage can help you with that. We've not only written exhibition proposals ourselves, but we've helped thousands of writers with various aspects of the proposal process. Learn more about our artist's proposal editing services by clicking below.Learn more
About the author
Adam is an art historian, curator, and arts educator. He has organized several national exhibitions in museums and galleries. At Flatpage, Adam works with artists, helping them express their literary voice through artist statements and proposal applications.