Dream Big Then Scale Back
Everything I learned from producing my first art exhibition.
Hashtags Unplugged was an art exhibition paying tribute to 10 memorable hashtags including #LoveWins, #BlackLivesMatter and #TheDress. I collaborated with 25 artists and partnered with The Social Media Monthly and hashtag inventor Chris Messina to bring my idea to the Caelum Gallery in Chelsea, NY, from May 12th–14th, 2016.
This was my biggest project yet but I had no idea what I was getting into when I started the process 6 months prior. I went through a lot of different phases and faced many obstacles that I wanted to share in the form of tips. This is by no means a guide, only what I learned along the way after doing this for the first time.
The most memorable takeaway was a lesson in dreams. You can achieve anything you want but at what scale? My scale was unrealistic at the start but eventually I adopted the MVP approach to my exhibition.
This is a sensitive subject but will set the tone for every decision you make.
- If this is your first event and money is not an unlimited resource, don’t base your budget off what you want to raise but instead on what you can afford if you can’t raise a dime. This sounds pessimistic but if you start small and then achieve more it’s more satisfying than starting big but and having to scale down.
- Your budget should be based off the essentials of what you need to make this project happen. Some research will be necessary to account for things like space or equipment but be honest with yourself. What do you absolutely need to consider it successful and what are things that elevate the experience? You should note both lists but in 2 different spreadsheets, the trimmed down and padded version.
- Write down all the different ways you can raise money. How much are you personally willing to put in? How much can you borrow from friends and family? Does a Kickstarter make sense? Can you apply for grants? Can you get sponsors? Will you be selling tickets? Is it too early for presales? Can you make a commission? The list goes on. Spend some time thinking about this.
- If you do happen to do a Kickstarter, don’t get too crazy with your goal. If your budget is over $5k, pay careful attention to the goal you set. Is it realistic in the category? Have others achieved the same? Do you have a social following to support it? Spend some time researching and planning for this resource before launching. There are so many articles out there that cover this, just google “Launching a Kickstarter campaign”.
This is another decision that can impact your budget in the worst way.
- More than likely you’ll find the venue of your dreams but if your first thought is “how can I afford this?”, you should probably keep looking. The first venue I found was incredible and distracting. It immediately gave me an unrealistic budget and affected my frame of mind. I was stuck in an ridiculous dream for far too long until a failed Kickstarter knocked me back to my senses.
- You’d be surprised on what you can find on any budget as long as you’re in that frame of mind. If you’re living from paycheck to paycheck, you’re typically going to try and spend as little as possible. Whereas if money isn’t an issue, you probably wont look at the price tag unless you’re a miser.
- Shop around and don’t get too distracted by what you want, focus on what you need and try to determine if you have “realistic needs”. I found a lot of leads on Eventup, Peerspace, Splacer, Storefront (just closed) and good old fashioned Google.
This is a game I’m still learning how to play.
- The first thing you need to do is identify your target market and overarching theme. Once you have that, you can start researching brands that serve the same audience, cover the same topic or align with your mission.
- Before you jump to use the contact form on their website, I recommned finding the email address (I personally don’t do cold calls) of anyone in the marketing department, preferably the head/VP/CMO. You need to target the decision makers especially in a big company.
- In your email, it’s important to note why their company would be a great partner and why they should care about your event. What’s in it for them?
- Be flexible in your ask but be direct. Some guides recommend brevity in the initial email to get them on the phone first while others recommend listing out what they need to know immediately. I would say test both.
- Don’t forget to follow up. And follow up creatively, whether that’s adding bits more information, maybe a recent press article and so on. Give them a reason to open your email and feel the need to respond.
- The 7 day email sponsorship course from Jason & Matt at getsponsors.co was very helpful.
- At the beginning of this journey I also wrote an article about this. Check it out here.
- In my spreadsheet I had a column for the brand name, contact name and email, response status and success (if I got sponsorship or a partnership).
It’s an art in getting people to care about what you’re doing.
- It’s never too early to start marketing for any big event, you can always just leave out the nitty gritty details. If you don’t already have a big following this will be crucial to the success of your event. I like to think of it this way: “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Yes, but was anyone there to hear it?” (cheesy I know…)
- Get creative with your marketing, play to your strengths and/or if possible get a dedicated person to focus on that. You’d be surprised how much of your time will need to be spent on spreading the word.
- If you’re not already active on socia media, nows the time to start. Choose your prefereed social platforms and start interacting with your audience and potential visitors months before your event. Get the same person who’s doing your marketing to manage this as well. If possible, get another dedicated person. I was lucky to have Andy Fidel lend a hand.
- If you plan on selling tickets, don’t limit yourself to one place where they can be purchased. Your customers could be anywhere. I used Eventbrite, Pulsd and DoNYC.
It’s also an art in getting journalists to care too.
- Unless you are well connected you will have the learn the art of getting journalists to cover your project. Break out those spreadsheets, open up Google and start making lists.
- Similar to sponsorship lists, you need to make a list of any publication that covers the overall theme of your project. To get even more creative, try and find an interesting angle that falls under other themes too and write those down too.
- Once you have that, you need to start finding journalists and their email addresses (I personally don’t do cold calls). You need to target journalists who not only write for the publication you want to be in but they also need to care about the subject too (since most have multiple sections).
- Personalize your email to every single journalist. I’ve definitely slipped up on this but I’ve seen the difference in response from a personalized email to a generic one.
- Don’t forget to follow up. Follow up until they say no or until your event is over. Don’t follow up every day though, space them out so you’re not really seen as a nuisance but more so as determined.
- In my spreadsheet I had a column for the publication/blog name, journalist name and email, response status and success (if I got an article).
During The Event
S*** will hit the fan, but that’s okay.
- Catalog every moment through pictures and videos. If possible get a photographer/videographer for the most important day, night or part of your event and make sure they have support. For the best results, I think this is at least a 2 person job.
- Do a speech. This was my worst nightmare but it’s something that had to be done. Let people know who you are, thank your sponsors and partners and make any important announcements (including the official hashtag).
- If it is a ticketed event, you will definitely need someone at the door to manage this. One should fine. Two will keep traffic flowing smoothly. If you even think for a second you can do this yourself, you’re wrong.
- An assistant would do wonders for your productivity. There are so many things you’ll need to handle during the event that you wont always be able to predict. Ordering more wine or food. Answering emails as it relates to potential guests. Putting out fires. The list goes on. If not an assistant, hopefully you have a strong support system of friends and family who show up and help you on the spot. Shout out to everyone that had my back on opening night!
After The Event
Don’t be fooled, it’s not over on the last day of your event.
- It’s so easy to feel done once the event is over but it’s not fully over until you’ve thanked your guests, reviewed the night, shared any photos or videos, followed up with any connections and issued any final payments. And that’s only the half of it. Make a list of everything you should be doing post-event.
- Sharing the result of your event in any form provides sharable memorabilia for your attendees and gives anyone who couldn’t make it a look into what they missed.
- Everything you do post event can also help promote any future events.
To make it to the end, you have to keep organized.
- When there are so many moving parts, you have to have a system in place to stay on top of your progress. I used Trello to keep track of everything that needed to be done, Evernote to work out ideas and write notes, Google Docs and Spreadsheets to keep track of the budget and any outreach (sponsors/partners/press) and Cloudpeeps to get a freelance writer.
- Organize your priorities into “must haves”, “wants” and “nice to haves”.
- Take support whenever you can and don’t be afraid to ask for it if you’re a solo show.
- Don’t leave anything for “the day of”, it will never go as smoothly as you think.
Don’t be discouraged by everything that will go wrong the first time around, you’ll learn to think quickly on your feet as long as you keep focused and stay positive.
That’s it! I hope this few points help you in your next big project, whether that’s an exhibition, event or any other type of endeavor.
Keep being you,
For the full list of hashtags, artists and artwork from the exhibition check out hashtagsunplugged.com.