An art show can be an awful lot of work. Here's how I handle it. When possible, my planning begins with a visit to the actual space, whether we're talking a gallery, coffee shop, museum or even just a little nook inside a store. I have to know the physical sizes of things, and their relationships to the movement of people within that space.
Often, I'll take measurements. Sometimes the folks in charge already have them, or even handy diagrams. None of this can substitute for the actual space, of course, but they give me something to reference when I'm back in my studio and pondering.
Next, I'll step away from the intended space and look at the work. What did I pitch or hope would be the subject matter or theme for the space (if anything)? Does this mean that I have to create any new work? What old pieces might need to be included, or repurposed? How many pieces are needed to fill the space appropriately?
Often, this means that I'll shuffle through unframed prints, revisit my digital catalog, or even rifle through spare frames I have lying around. I'll look at old work and new work and spend a lot of time moving things in and out of piles, even making mind-mapping lists of works that fit together in some way.
And then of course, there's the deadline to reckon with. How many weeks in which do I have to accomplish this, and what is do-able within that timeframe? I take the list of works that I believe fit together and play triage--works that are "ready to go" get slotted in first. Works that need it get cataloged, photographed, framed, and labeled. Sometimes I have to create marketing materials by a certain deadline, too!
And all this work has to happen with no guarantee that any pieces will sell in the end. After all the organizing and thoughtful process, it may yield little more than another line on the C.V. Even then, the cost of framing means that many times art shows are often produced at a loss for the artist.
(Unless you're super famous or have a dedicating following of collectors.)
And in spite of all this work, I believe it's worthwhile because having an art show forces me to take a step back and look at my work as a whole. I'm forced to see what types of work I'm creating, what genres that they seem to fit within, where the tangents are, and where the themes are strongest. In a way, an art show deadline helps me to determine a new direction of work, or even the completion or culmination of a particular theme or subject matter.
There are ways to achieve this within your own practice -- routinely pinning up your recent work so you can see them all together, or cataloging everything into a database you can explore, tag, and categorize and play. But this casual exploration is very different from the hard look you have to take when your criteria are sharpened -- a particular space, a particular region, a particular audience, and a deadline to boot.
By far the most useful thing about an art show is the feedback. I can work solidly and intentionally, only to discover that certain pieces that I adore don't strike the same feeling in the hearts of others. Most every time I've put my art on the wall for strangers, I've been surprised about what sells most, what gets the most comments, and what people say about the work.
And so, if the space suits my work, the audience fits, and the timing works out, I'll keep trying for art shows, because I believe it will make my work better, in the end.