How to prepare a theme or concept for an art exhibition

Unlike many professional artists, I didn’t go to art school. I always figured I could learn to paint just fine on my own, through practice – and I was probably right. However, I’m just finding out that there is a great deal of business methodology that I missed out on. You see, fine artists, galleries, dealers and other art-scene people speak the same language. They do things a certain way; doing things in this way automatically opens doors for artists – they are ‘in the club’ and galleries assume they know all the rules and will be easier to work with than someone who just paints.

This is largely true. I usually do things the ‘wrong’ (novice) way because I don’t have all that training.

A piece of this is preparing a ‘theme’ or concept for an art exhibition. The first few times I heard this, it threw me. I’d already done the paintings. Some of the paintings I’ve had for years. I can slap on a nifty title of the exhibition, but writing up a whole concept/theme of why I had painted those? It wouldn’t be honest. And I’ve had several exhibitions this year, with mostly the same paintings. How could I possibly have different themes?

Alas, I’m supposed to. I can’t do things differently from the accepted art world way and expect to be successful. I’m not speaking their language.

A friend of mine – who went to art school and learned the right way to do it – told me he spends several months researching his concept before he starts painting. Now to me (being very cynical and from the vantage point of an outsider) this sounds ridiculous. I guess it’s because very few artists nowadays are making anything distinctive or interesting on their own; there is no new movement or new style of painting – there is very little that hasn’t been done before. Hence, the only way to separate yourself and be unique is to explain in detail the why behind your work. So you research for several months until you can say a lot of smart things, then paint a series of whatever (probably some big, messy abstracts) and then tie it into that concept.

Yes, in a large number of cases, it’s probably bullshit.

That said – it’s the bullshit the greases the wheels of the art industry. If you have an exhibition of paintings with no concept, statement, interpretation of your pieces, etc, you will stick out as unprofessional. Don’t let this happen.

Art is usually about trivial stuff like mind, emotion, feeling, psychology, exploration, self-empowerment, communication, relationship, Truth, God, eternity, soul…. etc. Read some academic drivel about these things, throw it all together. Do this for every show – it can be similar (your artist statement need not change) but for each show you should be ‘striving to find/discover/accomplish’ something a little different.

Have this ready before you approach a gallery about an exhibition.

7 thoughts on “How to prepare a theme or concept for an art exhibition

  1. Update: As I was searching the web for “How to write an exhibition concept, theme and title” I came across the article I wrote awhile ago. It’s a little funny, but not very useful!

    Sorry about that. I have another exhibition in a couple weeks and am going through this process, here is how it goes:
    1) Where is the exhibit – what type of people will be there? What is the gallery owner like? What do they like about your work?

    2) What have you done at previously shows? What field/history do you have? What have you previously tried to explore?
    3) What personal issues have you been dealing with in your own life recently? What kinds of activities surrounded your creative periods?

    Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, and jotted down some notes, you can began to transform it into art language. This depends on your style; most art language is flowery and poetic and abstract, but it doesn’t HAVE to be. It usually is because abstract paintings don’t speak by themselves, and the artist has to say a great deal about the colors, lines, etc. But if you paint cottages and landscapes, you probably don’t need to reference Kierkegaard or anything. But you will want to talk about things like nature, home, hearth, belonging, idealism, warmth, community, isolation…

    My work is not abstract – so getting to metaphysical is meaningless. My paintings are very concrete, very real. I can’t talk about soul, emotion, the purpose of life and then paint rubber duckies (duck soup). I can talk about humor, absurdity, pointlessness…. but only broadly, because each painting can have a lot said about it.

    Mainly, as a foreign artist working in Taiwan, I would want to talk about my own experiences here, culture shock, international communication or language gaps, etc.

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  3. I would like to tell you that Insuuer the same problem. I only started painting for two years,but did a lot of practice so far.when I decided to participate in an exhibition but the gallery owner said he liked my paintings but they have no theme !! So I don’t know to select a theme ! I simply draw and paint what I like , so please help me by suggesting simple advices.
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    S. Al Yusuf

  4. hi heard you stayed in taiwan,
    im from taiwan, and running a gallery
    how i do see more of your work?

  5. A beautiful thing about – abstract art is open to interpretation, it doesn’t announce what It’s all about. On the contrary, it requires you to start your brain; you have to enter the painting and sense where it takes you. It enables you with the liberty in exploration. The viewer can assign his own significance to the piece. This very personal process accentuates the experience of art from the viewer. The newest relates to Abstract Expressionism as they couldn’t achieve a better comprehension.

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