A Beginner's Guide to Creating an Exhibition

Posted on 29 July 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Exhibition install at The Old Blind School in progress

Exhibition install at The Old Blind School in progress

Create, install and display. Does that sound too easy? Read this step-by-step guide to making an international art exhibition happen and find out how A Needle Walks into a Haystack came together from an insider's point of view.

#1 Find some art

First you’ll need to find some art to display. Not having any art in your art exhibition can lead to upset visitors wondering where the art is. If you’re in a tight spot, you could always borrow a bit of art from your friends or family, but luckily Liverpool Biennial’s curatorial team has a few connections. Our international curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Antony Huberman worked with artists, galleries and collectors all over the word to bring the works in A Needle Walks Into a Haystack to Liverpool. 

#2 Make new art happen

Next, invite some of your artists to make new art. These can range in size and scope from  Aaron Flint Jamison’s computer sculpture 2x Scrypt Huffer to Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Dazzle Ship. Liverpool Biennial has a rich history of producing exciting and innovative works with artists which often become part of the fabric of the city and its history - just think of Antony Gormley's iron men scattered along Crosby Beach

Some of these commissions will entail having the artists come to Liverpool to create these new works in the city. For best results, ensure your artists have somewhere to sleep, feed them at least once a day, and check that they know where the local DIY and art supplies shops are. This year Marc Bauer relocated his studio to a hotel room in Kensington to create beautiful new works on paper, and STRAUTCHEREPNIN worked spontaneously on site to create The Metaphysical Store.

#3 Prepare the venue

Assuming you’ve already secured the rights to use a beautiful historic building in the middle of one of the best cities in the world, now it’s time to get it ready. Hopefully you have a team of enthusiastic volunteers to help you in this process, because we would have struggled without ours.  The Old Blind School needed a scrub and a bit of tender loving care before we could open the doors to the public, but a bucket of warm, soapy water and a toolbox will do wonders for most unloved former schools.

#4 Get the art to the building

Work travelled from all over the world to be in Liverpool for the Biennial. Art is one of the many things you’re not supposed to break, so the art world relies on specialist companies like Jayhawk who transport art internationally all the time and are experts in not dropping or breaking priceless creative endeavours.

This is what an art shipment looks like. Like the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but a little less mysterious. The work is carefully unpacked and inspected by the curatorial team, who document its condition before it moves around the building to its future temporary home.

#5 Decide where it belongs

A Needle Walks Into a Haystack is a large exhibition with a lot of work, and a show like this needed to be laid out with a lot of care. The art isn’t chosen just because of how good it is; the curators think about how works relate to each other and how to bring those ideas out for visitors. Once you’ve done this, forget about your plan because most of it will end up somewhere else anyway - it always feels different when you’re standing in front of it, rather than looking at pictures and floor plans. Eagle-eyed readers might notice a few works that moved around between these photographs being taken and the exhibition opening.

If you are lucky enough to have your artists nearby, you should invite them in to offer their opinions. They are often the only people who can authoritatively tell you which way up to hang a piece. The Royal Academy of Art once mistook a sculpture and a plinth for two separate works, and accepted the plinth over the sculpture. Such mistakes will end up with your exhibition being in the national press, but for all the wrong reasons.  

#6 Get everything in place

You’re almost there. With the help of some experienced art handlers, carefully move the works into the individual rooms, find something soft to rest them on and repeat until you’re done. You will never have had so much fun carrying heavy things around. Art handlers also specialise in not breaking or dropping things, making them very useful if you’re preparing an exhibition. Concrete sheep have feelings too, and it’s important you don’t hurt them.

When carrying art, you’ll want to find yourself some fetching gloves. These will keep the natural oil from your skin (or the burger you had for lunch) from getting into the work. This is important, as you should do your best to look after every piece of work you have. Nicola L’s Atmosphere in White wouldn’t be so atmospheric if it was covered in grubby fingerprints. Paint on canvas can be especially delicate, so always be careful to lift canvases by their frames.

#7 Put it up

How exciting! You’ve made it this far and now it’s time to get the power tools out. To hang a painting you’ll need a pencil, a spirit level, a drill, some screws, the patience of a saint and the steady hands of a bomb disposal expert. Again, this is where handlers come in handy. They always know which side of the tape measure is in centimetres and they will hang the work any way you like - so long as it’s perfectly straight. The spirit level never lies. Ensure all works on the wall are at an okay height - if anybody needs to crouch or stand on tip-toes to see the work then you may want to move it while nobody is looking.

#8 Get some sleep

You need it. You’ve got a busy opening week ahead. 

This article has been written by Robert Larkin, Curatorial Intern, for the Liverpool Biennial blog. If you would like to see more step-by-step guides on a topic you're interested in, let us know in the comments section below. 

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