Putting on an exhibition - is it a lottery?

In 2010, fellow landscape photographer Huw Alban (www.huwalban.com) and I exhibited a selection of our landscape work at the Riverhouse Barn in Walton-on-Thames with tremendous success. We recorded more than 2 dozen sales of prints and frames. Considering that this was our first outing, the result was nothing short of extraordinary, and totally unexpected.

"Feel the Land" exhibition at the Riverhouse Barn, Walton-on-Thames, 2010

I sat in the gallery every day for three weeks to gauge the reaction of the visitors, which was most interesting: Many people remarked that this photographic exhibition was "something nice, something we understand, something beautiful". Mind you, we did have a number of rather unusual images, made with intentional camera movement, or focussing on just colours and shapes.

Autumn Impressions

Nevertheless, visitors seemed to understand the messages we were trying to convey, the emotions we were trying to express. It also suggested that, quite frequently, visitors encounter work that they cannot connect with and don't understand.  I often ask myself what it is that makes people connect with art they look at. There is of course no single right answer to this question. Not only will it differ from visitor to visitor, but also from artist to artist. It may even depend on the time of day or the time of year. But with a million reasons why a viewer might or might not connect with what he sees on the gallery wall, can an artist figure out even to just a small degree whether his work might appeal?

Hot on the heels of my first Riverhouse show followed an exhibition abroad. The bulk of the images I showed were the same as in Walton, yet the experience was deeply disappointing, and that is putting it mildly. Despite having brooded over this for a long time, I am no closer to working out why these two shows had such a wildly different impact.

My latest exhibition just finished. It launched my first book "The Elmbridge Hundred - A Visual Journey" and was held at the Riverhouse Barn gallery again.

"The Elmbridge Hundred - A Visual Journey" exhibition at the Riverhouse Barn, Walton-on-Thames, 2014

This time though, the photographs were not grand landscapes or creative explorations of shapes and colours. They were local photographs, all taken in the Borough of Elmbridge. Some were record shots, with recognisable features or buildings, some were close-ups of meadow flowers or wildlife, others depicted colourful leaves, morning mist in the local park or trees. I would not call any of them spectacular, but the fact that the photographs were all taken in the local area seemed to strike a chord with visitors. Half of them knew the places that were shown, and exclamations of "I have sat on that bench" or "I walk past these trees every morning" rang through the gallery almost every day. The other half of visitors admitted that, although having lived locally for however many years, they "had not known that this Heath even exists" or "had not made it to that park". They seemed equally pleased though, being happy to have discovered something new about their local area they knew nothing about.

Sunrise in Hurst Park

Both the book and framed prints were popular with visitors, and it seems that this time the offering was just right again.

But does that mean our gut feeling is all we have to go on? Did a little bit of marketing make all the difference? What is it that makes people connect with art?

Feel free to share your thoughts or your own experience with an exhibition, either as the exhibitor or as a visitor!