How to Throw a DIY art show that doesn’t suck

Here is an article that was submitted by Molly Crabapple, artist, writer, and creator of the very cool Dr.Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. If there is anyone with the knowledge to help make your art shows more of a success than they normally are, it’s Molly.

Like many artists, you may be tired of waiting for a gallery to sweep you off your feet. You’ve sent your slide packets, you’ve written artist your statements, and you’ve received only discouraging silence in return.

At this point, like many artists, you decide to grab fate by the balls. Why wait for a gallery to notice you when there’s wall space in the local cafe or club, practically begging to be filled. So, with courage and a portfolio, you approach the proprietor. And, unlike those galleries, he’s overjoyed. Of course you can have a show!

You go home, head buzzing with visions of selling your artwork, and telling that gallery to go jump in a lake. But why is it that for all their promise, shows in non-traditional venues so often end in failure?

Bad publicity, bad communication, and lack of confidence. And, using examples from my own life (some happy, some less so), I’m going to give you a roadmap for making sure your DIY exhibition ends in sweet victory, rather than my cheap-gin tears of defeat.

(The Pathetic)- Having just moved to bohemian Williamsburg, I decided to have an art show in a local bar. I chose the Rain Lounge, whose brothel decor matched my Victorian pen and inks. I showed my work to the owner. He loved it and suggested I have an opening. Overjoyed, I went home, drew like a jacked-up monkey, and came back to hang on the appointed date. But, when I showed up with crates of framed pictures, the owner was nowhere to be found. The bartender knew nothing about my show. Reluctantly he agreed to let my hang my work in the back. As for my poster in the window, he tore it down as soon as I looked away. Undiscouraged, I posted fliers every shop in my neighborhood, and put on my skimpiest dress for the “opening”. No one came. Well, one person. The bartender, who told me that he had to turn off the lights. What did I think this was? An art show? Now, you ask, how do you avoid sitting alone at your own opening, crying into your overpriced drink? Well, lets look at what I did wrong.

1. Bad communication. In stores, it’s very important that not only the owners know about your show, but all the employees. Discuss every detail of the show with the owner beforehand. How many pieces? Where will you hang them? Can you have an opening? How about a poster in the window? Be thorough to the point of aggravation. And make sure the owner tells his staff. Get the his cell number in case you show up with two duffel bags full of paintings and the barista doesn’t know who you are.

3. My fliers weren’t specific enough, and I didn’t make enough of them. I only made 100 fliers, not realizing most fliers just get thrown out. The time range was too broad (I wrote Tuesday evening, not Tuesday 6-8).

4.Most importantly, and most fatally, I didn’t believe in myself. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a show in a real gallery, so I didn’t tell my friends or try for sponsorships and listings. I didn’t stand up to that obnoxious bartender. Tacky as it sounds; confidence is the most crucial part of success. Remember, your art is important- in or out of a gallery.


It was not without some trepidation that I embarked on my second DIY show. This time, though, I was determined to do it right. This time, I had a plan. So, six months before my planned exhibition date, I trundled up to Jigsaw Gallery, portfolio in hand. Jigsaw is a comic books store that hangs affordable art on its walls. “Ben Jones,” I said to the owner “I want an art show. But I don’t want anything half-baked about it. I want free alcohol and a go-go girl in the window. I want reviews. I want press releases sent. And I want hundreds of people to show up.”
“Alright” said Ben, a bit startled at my vehemence. So, for the next six months, I worked my ass off. I believed that my show would be the hottest thing going. I hired a sultry burlesque babe to dance in the window. I wrote to a local liquor company, who gave me 400 bottles of hard cider for the opening. I pestered over 100
magazines, and snagged a review in one. On that freezing February night, 250 people came to my opening. Over half the work sold.
How did I do it, you ask? Let me tell you what I did right.

1. I had a concept. This wasn’t going to be just any art show. This was going got be my last show of pen and inks. Everyone involved wore black and white vintage clothes. Even the food was black and white. The go-go girl in the window dressed like a Victorian tart from one of my paintings. Whether you do silk-screened gig posters or Xeroxes of your genitals, a strong theme will keep people pique interest for your show.

2. I sent out listings to every event calendar in my city. Notice all the free rags that clutter your local coffee shop? Those rags can be listing your work! Ditto for websites. If you’re in a big city, you’ll find plenty of publications covering your scene, but even small towns have a few. A month before your show, send out listings to them. Listings should include time, place, date, contact info, and two or three sentences explaining the show’s painfully unique concept.

3.I made 1000 fliers. Make yourself some glossy fliers for your art opening. Google “flyers” and hunt around for the best deal. I like Image Media Print. Make sure your fliers tie in with your concept. If you don’t know graphic design, hire someone to help you. Lay those babies around- especially in well off neighborhoods or cool venues. Where would an art patron be likely to find them? If your city, like mine, is gutted by gentrification, use it to your advantage. Pile stacks of fliers around the haunts of investment-banker bohemians. Sure, they might be less fun then your friends, but they certainly have deeper pockets.

4. A liquor company sponsored me. Sponsorship is easier than you think. What companies around you need street cred? Which ones need cheap advertising? Whether your talking to a big company or the girl who knits dildo cozies, business can be persuaded to give you free stuff. Tell them that in exchange for cash or coolness, you’ll plaster their name over your fliers and tell everyone about them. It’s cheap advertising for them, and gives you free booze, food and booty for your opening.

5.Tell everyone. Even people you barely know. I know that you feel like a sorry misfit doing it, but so does everyone else who ever got a rock thrown at them in high school. You’ll be amazed at how many acquaintances you have- and at how generally decent people are.

Most importantly, believe in yourself and your ability to promote yourself. It’s great to have some powerful gallery behind you, but if your work is good, hanging it on a café wall doesn’t make it less so.

Good luck!

Gibson Girls Gone Bad

Dr Sketchy’s Official Rainy Day Colouring Book!

Cabaret Life Drawing

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  • Reply
    Apr 11, 2008 at 8:42 am

    nice. encouraging words. I feel less lame. thank you.

  • Reply
    Jul 12, 2008 at 4:19 am

    thank u for posting….. u kept it simple and to the point great tangible ideas,after my diy art show i will post results which i know will be successful!!!!!!!!!

  • Reply
    Jul 12, 2008 at 9:42 am


    Love the Dr Sketchy! wish we had one here in asheville NC..

    one of teh only things I miss about NY


    klim’s last blog post..Come Get Some

    • Reply
      Corky Bordeaux
      Feb 17, 2009 at 8:44 am

      Hi Kim,
      I saw your post, and I wanted to let you know that we do indeed have a Dr. Sketchy’s in Asheville NC. The first one was in November 09. Please join us! There is a new blog roll @

      xo: Corky Bordeaux

  • Reply
    Leo Plaw
    Aug 10, 2008 at 5:40 am

    Great article. But I’m really curious now. How did the second show go? The set up sounds fantastic.

    Leo Plaw’s last blog post..Visionary Art Culture Creators

  • Reply
    Sep 16, 2008 at 11:01 am

    I had an opening at the local library last night. 21 pieces. Bought food, etc. Designed my own invitation. Invited people from photo classeses, the people that work at the museum, people from my softball team, local galleries, family, left invitations at the museum, gave some to the people at my bank, everyone I could think of……no one came. Except my mom, but she didn’t have much choice. I was surprised all right, surprised that apparently I don’t have any friends & my acquaintances don’t care either! People aren’t generally decent, because I had a bunch of these idiots tell me to my face that they would come. I especially liked the ones who seemed really psyched about the whole thing, then ditched me. People are all evil self-centered liars that go through life letting others down.

    • Reply
      Feb 2, 2009 at 10:10 pm

      That’s really crappy Lee :(

      I’ve noticed that in the age of Facebook people ditch events sooner than you can say “You have 20 new event invitations.”

      I’m running a group show- it’s a good place to start, that way everyone brings friends and such and you get your name out there, When it’s time to have your own show there should be more than a few people who remember you from the group work.

    • Reply
      Apr 19, 2009 at 6:45 pm

      I really feel you, Lee & I’m sorry for your experiences with some awful, selfish flakes.

      As much as I’d like to be optimistic and believe in the decency of people, the only way I can think of keeping my sanity is to not get hyped up, which is really difficult for me, because I WANT to believe in people…but I hate disappointment, so I just try to be neutral on default. If you show, great and if you don’t, oh well. I’ll remember it though ;)

  • Reply
    mike alzaga
    Apr 30, 2009 at 9:18 am

    check out my art website at alzaga some cool stuff

  • Reply
    Jan 25, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Great article! Thank you Molly! :-D

  • Reply
    Sep 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I’m planning a group show. I do need more confidence. Until I started planning I hadn’t given much thought to how many starving artists I know. They are all amazing and they all admire my work as well. I like the advice of having a strong concept. I’m going to work on that next before it’s time to make all the ads.

  • Reply
    Jul 20, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    I’m pretty late, but I’m an armature artist and trying to figure out to have a successful “art career”. One thing, why are you just inviting people? I’d invite all friends and family on social networks of course, but you should leave it open to the public. You may get more traffic if you keep it open to the public, and not just limit it to some friends and family. Also, give out business card for people to pass on. The best kind of success comes from word of mouth. Don’t give up soon, and don’t get suckered into the “starving artist” myth. You CAN do this, but you need a good business mindset to do so. If you’re going to sell art, you have to realize that this is your business. You got to do what you can to promote your business.

  • Reply
    Aug 13, 2019 at 11:40 am

    Excellent! Thank you. I have a few failed shows under my belt.

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