No Gallery Will Show Your Work? Try Curating Your Own Exhibition

"If an artist can't show his work to the public, then he doesn't exist. How long can you go without existing?" said Philip Sherrod, a New York painter, who has actually shown and sold his work quite a lot. Still, a lot is not quite enough for him, since he organizes--or curates--other shows, including an annual exhibition of what he calls "street painters" at the Cork Gallery at Avery Fisher Hall of Lincoln Center, viewed by the very un-street people coming to see the philharmonic, opera or ballet. The show includes his own artwork and that of a dozen or so other artists. "We're artists who went to the street and try to match the energy and sense of time in the city with technique."
And so, to present and promote his work in the context of a theme shared by a particular group of artists, Sherrod became a curator. He's not the first artist to come up with the concept of staging his own show, rather than waiting for a gallery or museum curator to put together a display--the French Impressionists, the Ashcan School, the Blue Rider group, the Surrealists, and even some Pop artists all staged their own exhibitions and events, bringing attention to otherwise ignored developments in the arts--but part of a growing trend. Instead of passively hoping for someone to discover them, leaving their careers in other people's hands, more and more artists are looking to take control of how, where and when their artwork is seen. They are contacting the managers of arts centers, as well as sites that are not nonprofit or arts-focused, such as hospitals, naval yards and office complexes, to offer a presentation of artwork for public display. "There are a lot of nonprofit art galleries in North Carolina," said Jim Moon, a painter and former president of the Lexington, North Carolina-based Asolare Foundation, whose whole purpose is to stage exhibitions of the work of emerging artists. "It's not difficult to get shows in them. They don't schedule very far in advance, and most don't have curators on staff."
Other artists might want to learn from this.
These nonprofit art centers also exist primarily to show the artwork of emerging artists. Since they do not need to sell art to pay their rent (like commercial galleries) or bring in large numbers of visitors to generate revenue (like museums), they offer an opportunity that is more concerned with exposure than commerce. "As an artist, you're always looking for new venues, you want to be seen," said Chicago sculptor Terry Karpowicz, who has curated more than 30 exhibitions in various nonprofit art spaces since 1982. "And, it's not just about showing your work but defining your aesthetic to the community. I do that by choosing other people's work that I respond to."
Karpowicz and Sherrod both identified the goal of these shows as being shown and getting seen rather than selling art, because, while sales do occur, they are not predictable. Nonprofit art centers are generally not competing with commercial art galleries, although they may serve as a substitute when no galleries are nearby. They are places to explore and experiment with things that aren't necessarily commercial. As a result, artists have not been overly disappointed if there aren't any or many sales.
Selling may not be the point for artists curating or participating in these shows. Artists in academia need periodic shows of their work in order to obtain a raise or a promotion, or perhaps an exhibition of current artwork is a stipulation of a grant-funded project. "Shows can bring you academic success, not necessarily commercial success," said Paul Hertz, a digital artist and faculty member of the art department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois who has organized and curated several shows that included his work and that of his peers. "The goal is to provide documentation of artwork and artists who are underrepresented."