Please Fluff Up the Worms

note for displaying work
Giving all the display tips I can


Many exhibits I participate in involve largish groups of artists and a wide range of media.  My heart is with the curators, gallerists, display mavens and workerbees who handle and metaphorically rub the aesthetic tummies of often quite disparate pieces in order to create a cohesive, even inspired, presentation of them all.  There are challenges galore to that effort every single time and I aim to ease their task in any small way I can with pictorial love notes.

The creative output of an artist – the ideating, sampling, creating, finishing, photographing, pricing, labeling, packing, and delivering  – enters another realm altogether when it arrives at a group exhibit.  Until the show opens it’s essentially backstage and much hangs on its successful navigation of that limnal space between the artist’s hands and the art-lover’s view.  A lot can and does go wrong.  Not sure if I’ve had All the Problems yet – please share yours if you’re so moved – but here are the most common, along with my attempts to mitigate them.

Damage in Transit: While I’ve learned to pack supremely securely, UPS, USPS, FedEx,  or anyone handling my work in person – sometimes even me – risks damaging it. Ceramics might be especially vulnerable, but one would think that would command a tad more care. Read this crushing story of my lovely piece, broken in transit, awkwardly repaired and displayed in a crucially important Big Ass Exhibit – which I was then completely mortified to be a part of.  And then, like The Cat Came Back, it was shipped back to me instead of to UPS Claims, nearly negating the whole mess. It took three months to solve the multiple snafus and receive a check covering its claimed value. It is my only “sale-by-insurance-coverage” and I heartily dislike that kind of income.

Damage at Installation: Which, if one reads the exhibit agreement’s fine print, is usually and specifically not covered by insurance. Pieces are often insured in transit and while the exhibit is open, but are unprotected at their most vulnerable: while being stowed, unpacked, staged, and installed. Fortunately, the one time an installation worker accidentally broke my piece, it happened locally, so I just drove over and substituted another, only slightly non-plussed. 

Incorrectly Displayed: This has SO many subsections!

  • In nose-bleed or ankle-biting locations. (And yes, somebody’s pieces usually need to be there, but jus’ sayin’)
  • In odd nooks and side crannies, or in the case of retail, not even out on the floor.
  • Presented more like a cute story-telling diorama than artwork.  (Back in the day, my Rusty Beer Cans always seemed to inspire gallerists to strew them sideways in sand, like an archeological midden.)
  • Wallpieces laid flat. Pieces stacked up or with no room to breathe.
  • Abysmally lit, glaringly backlit, or not lit at all.
  • Smallish works or ones with moving parts left vulnerable to being pocketed (perhaps poorly lit in an odd nook?) 
  • Conversely, works secured behind reflective glass in a locked case. Ceramics often DO beg to be touched; it’s part of the display equation that needs to be managed.
  • Pieces teetering on tippy, too-small pedestals or on narrow shelving susceptible to swipes from backpacks, elbows, children or the terminally ham-handed.
  • Outright man-handling. It happens. Ya want a real sob story? Read about the guy who broke the sculptural handle, exclaimed over it and walked out.
  • Utterly lost in the crowd. Too many pieces crammed together. Hard to tell whose is whose, hard to see all sides, hard to be seen at all.
  • Overlooked in the fray? I encountered one of my pieces, halfway through a six-week show, just sitting there right in the spot I delivered it to. It was an unboxed fairly large mixed media work – bigger than a breadbox – composed of a vintage wooden case with inner tray which needed the lid to stand open and the contents to be arranged a certain way. All of which I described on an attached How To page of brightly colored, friendly large print instructions which was still taped to the outside! WTF? I was fifty shades of red with embarrassment and frustration and proceeded to install it correctly myself.
  • Incorrect labeling – perhaps “the cheapest sin” – and easily corrected. But still…


No Words

I think of exhibit installations as their own creative endeavor. A still life. A stage set. A playground. The best of them enhance the overall theme of the event, the juror’s vision, the group’s zeitgeist. Within each space the opportunity exists to transport the gathered art, piece by piece, into a whole, to tell a story in shape and form. To find a visual rhythm in color and content, leading the viewer to further engagement, enticing and enchanting whenever possible. It can come down to millimeters and typos and often the constraints of time, budgets, vision and willing hands bring that effort to a close sooner than ideal.

Yet it’s a worthy goal and I’ve seen it happen often enough to believe in it.  So I aim to amuse and engage the humans working towards that end to help them show my work to best effect.

In the love note for “Can O’Worms” seen above we have work so new to me I barely know what that “best effect” might be. I have scant experience showing and sharing my nascent clay and fiber pieces myself, so I’m uncertain how any particular piece wants to play or be seen and I only have faint ideas what a viewer might groove on or be puzzled by. So, the common sense bare minimum attention this piece needs in order to show well is to make sure those worms are casually sticking out the top of the can. Not too many, not too few.  If they get packed down or settle out between when I box it and when it gets displayed, all bets are off on how it’s seen and enjoyed. Short of installing it myself, I wanted to give those workerbees a chuckle and get them on my team. 

Additionally, while words are fun, that photo should pretty much cement the concept. No words needed, really, just have a giggle and make it look like the picture, à la Ikea instructions.  And, miracle of miracles, when I visited the exhibit on its second day, I saw fluffy worms in a stellar location.

–Liz Crain, who likes to drop by the places her work is displayed if at all possible, the better to preen, take a photo and a deep breath, or even to remove her love notes.


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4 thoughts on “Please Fluff Up the Worms

  1. Thank you! I enjoyed reading this. Along with being an artist and teaching three art classes full time I am also the Gallery Diredctor ( fancy name for “do everything” from nuts to bolts with only one part-time student worker) at my college. With sixteen years and multiple student and professional artist exhibits under my belt I sometimes feel bloated. I love artists like yourself with instructions, lots of pictures and who hit deadlines and know clearly their vision. My job is to help artists by being a problem solver to fulfill their vision. I can not read minds. I can not magically make more time in the universe for artists . Exhibits don’t magically get installed, labeled or lighted over night. Even tho It may look like I can make magical things happen in a blink of an eye please do not look too closely it may be just duct tape with great lighting that looks like gold.

    1. Bernadette! I bow down to you! Making magic happen in any gallery is an utterly wonderful and worthy thing. And, yep, it sure doesn’t happen by magic!!! Glad my pictures and arrows are helpful and not seen as pushy for the most part…It’s always an exquisite dance. Carry on in style, cha cha cha!

  2. I always look forward to your wise and whimsical words. What a grand way to greet a new day!

    1. Glad to be of good cheer, and I sense a wise and whimsical echo coming from your direction!

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