The Step-by-Step Approach To Audience Engagement
Art fairs, open studios, arts walks, and other community art events provide many photographers with access to substantial new audiences – but to make the best possible connection with these audiences, it’s important to display your photos in an inviting way that makes it easy for people to appreciate and engage with your work.
This article will offer some ideas on a systematic approach, based on experience hanging art at galleries and personal events, which can draw people into your creative world one small step at a time.
The process can be visualized as a funnel – at the top there are lots of people, who are unaware that your work exists. The first order of business, whether you’re showing at a family-friendly event in a public park, or at an open studio evening with a hip, art-savvy crowd, is to attract viewers’ eyes and offer a comfortable, intriguing place to linger for a moment. Some people will be interested in what they see; they move to the next level of the funnel.
When that happens, the viewer is likely to come closer. And if they continue to enjoy what you’re putting in their field of view, they’re apt to come into your space, where your wall display can engage them and lead them through the images you’ve created. Result: they reach the bottom of the funnel, and settle in for an extended visit – and perhaps a purchase or two.
How can you apply these principles at your next art event? We’ll start with some strategic thinking, and move on to useful tactics.
Step 1: Consider the Context
No display exists in a vacuum. What surroundings will you be showing in? Who will be there? Will the atmosphere be sunny and sweaty or cool and stylish? Will there be families, couples or individuals? Old or young? How many exhibits? Imagine yourself as a visitor and make a mental walk-through of the event to get a sense of what their state of mind will be, and ideas for how you can stand out from the crowd.
For instance, a big outdoor art fair, as seen in this photo, can mean visual competition not just from other exhibitors but also from performers, food vendors, nature, and the attendees themselves. If you’re surrounded by a riot of bright colors and bustling crowds, maybe you should be contrarian and construct your exhibit as a visual oasis where the eye can rest and be soothed. Think simplicity, order, perhaps an emphasis on black-and-white images.
If you’re showing at your home as part of an art walk, or at an open studio in an arts building, things will likely be less chaotic. A single strong image that encapsulates your style can make an effective “billboard” if placed in a prominent spot against a neutral background. Try to distinguish your work from that of nearby exhibitors. Obviously, you want to show your best work no matter what others are showing, but some manner of differentiation (type of works, presentation, etc.) will help create that essential first contact.
Step 2: Make Space
One of the most powerful and most overlooked tools for attracting the eye is judicious use of open space. Next time you’re in a busy shopping area or mall, look at the carefully composed display windows. In general, the more unique and special the merchandise, the more empty space. Your photos are unique and special, so they should have room to breathe.
Moreover, if you cram every inch of wall space with images, as these art fair exhibitors have done, you’ll run into a problem: the human eye and brain tend to see such an arrangement as a unitary whole rather than as individual images, a forest and not trees.
So, winnow things down and leave room, as photographer Ananda Lima did for her in-home open studio exhibit. A good rule of thumb is that the total space on either side of a photo should be at least equal to the photo’s width (i.e., a 24-inch wide piece should have at least 12 inches of space on either side).
If you have one or two images that you’re especially proud of, consider giving them even more room. This sends a visual message – this is special, you need to see this. It’s also an effective technique for photos that have special significance for a particular audience or event, like seascapes in a summer resort town, or harvest-oriented images at a food-oriented festival. These featured images can attract people into your exhibit area, after which they can engage with the rest of your work.
Remember, not everything has to go on the wall. Use a select number of well-displayed representative works to make the initial connection, and make it easy for visitors to browse related pieces by placing them in nearby portfolios, bins or boxes, perhaps with a chair handy – this is the deep engagement at the base of the funnel.
3: Use The Power of Groups
There are several advantages to displaying photos in groups:
- Many photographers get interested in particular subjects (old trucks, people with hats, pond surfaces, etc.). Series like these can display very effectively in clusters, as in this open studio display of photos of oyster shells.
- It helps avoid the all-in-a-row display. An unbroken line of works has the same problem as an overcrowded wall – we tend to see the line and not the images.
- Art events don’t always provide long, unbroken walls. If your space has nooks and short walls, they can be ideal settings for groups of related images.
- Groups can give smaller prints bigger impact. Although the oyster shell images are only 8 x 10, when combined they provide the power of a bigger print.
Effective groupings require some trial and error, for selecting the images, and working out the best arrangement. Anything from a simple one-over-one or side-by-side pairing to a three-by-three grid or freeform cluster can work.
Combining very similar images can be intriguing; the viewer will instinctively start looking for differences. Or you can put together images that share a common trait or sensibility, as Ananda Lima did here, making excellent use of a small corner space. Remember to step back and look at your experimental groupings from a distance, to make sure they extend a strong visual invitation.
When you start to think about placement on the wall, try to envision a flow or sequence – use the first group to set up the second, and so on. Again, step by step.
4: Remember the Details
How high off the floor should your works be positioned? The usual advice is “at eye level,” but peoples’ eye levels can vary by a foot or more. If some viewers are sitting, there’s even more variation. Sightlines and ceiling height are also considerations.
Each situation has to be assessed on its own merits, but a good starting point for a standalone work is to have the horizontal centerline roughly 56 to 59 inches off the floor. If you’re hanging two rows, the upper centerline might be about 65 to 69 inches high. In a crowded space, hanging your works slightly higher can help them be seen better – that was the case at this open studio, where the small sitting area meant that people would be viewing these images from farther away than usual. Note the use of brown paper to provide more visual focus (and cover some unsightly holes in the wall).
Will there be lots of children on hand? If so, consider hanging some engaging images at a kid-friendly eye level – where the child goes, parents will often follow.
It’s worthwhile to sketch out a map of how you plan to arrange your images, but there’s no substitute for seeing how things look in place – this allows you to consider lighting, traffic flow, and the overall visual context, which are major factors in how your work will be seen.
Laying your pieces on the floor or leaning them against the wall are traditional techniques for assessing layouts, and can be effective; a better approach, especially for groups, is experimentation on the wall where you can see the images as they’ll appear in the show. An art hanging system can be a great convenience for this phase of work, as it allows easy repositioning and adjustment, as well as accurate alignment and grouping
There’s no magic formula to successful showings at community art events, but keeping the visitor’s perspective in mind and offering them an easy, comfortable path into your exhibition is a great framework to work from
Publishers Note . . . . I recently just updated the hanging system in my gallery at the The Stutz, in Indianapolis. Unbeknownst to me Peter’s company was who I purchased the hanging system from. I bought the Gallery Hanging System and it allows me to hang prints without banging nail holes into the wall. This is an amazingly easy system to use and it gives a very nice look to the images, easy to level and change out with ease. The frames that you see hanging are designed by myself. They allow me to hang raw prints on the wall without expensive framing, matting and glass. More on this frame in a future article.