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A Creative’s Guide to Planning a Pop-Up Gallery or Shop

Pop-up experiences are becoming more popular than ever, from food trucks to shopping mall greeting card kiosks. Artists, galleries, businesses, and designers are in on the action, too.  As brands and creatives seek new ways to engage customers and take advantage of the power of social media, a pop-up space or store is an inexpensive solution. With a pop-up gallery or shop, you can go to any geographic location without the high cost of a permanent storefront, lasting for a few days to a few weeks or longer. Pop-ups are also great for experimenting with new ideas and work. You can create a short run of new products to see what customers respond to before fully launching them, providing you with valuable market research about what customers want. 

Even though it’s easy to put your work up for sale online, the physical experience of touching and trying a product, or speaking with the seller can’t be fully replaced on the internet. Pop-ups fill the gap for customers looking for fun, unique experiences that provide entertainment and are “Instagrammable”. Pop-up galleries and shops appear in and around art fairs, cultural events, marketplaces, and festivals.  

pop-up museum of ice cream
The Museum of Ice Cream “popped up” across the country and now has permanent international locations. CC photo by Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

A mouth-watering example of a successful pop-up is The Museum of Ice Cream. The pop-up museum started with several locations across the country in 2016. Audiences loved it. It was fun, experiential and social media candy. Three years later, the Museum now has permanent locations around the world and has spawned an “experience first” parent company, Figure8, with a $200 million valuation and initial $40 million dollar investment.

Another attractive feature of the pop-up gallery or shop is its democratic nature; anyone can create one and this means so can you. Here’s what to think about as you plan your pop-up.

Benefits of Pop-Up Shows and Shops

Professionalization and the Power of Physical Space

While being represented by a gallery or having a major gallery show is no longer a prerequisite to commercial success for an artist, having a trusted third party recognize your work is still important to an artist’s career. Seeing an artist’s works on the wall or being displayed professionally in a room with lots of white space still means something to the viewer and often shows that the artist is successful and professional. If you don’t have gallery representation or opportunities to show in art spaces, organizing your own pop-up is the perfect way to convey your commitment as an artist, build your resume with an exhibition experience, and get professional images of your artwork being displayed in a physical space.  

Target Locals and Neighbors

While social media has been a successful way for artists to reach out to a global audience, pop-up shows are a great way to target your local neighbors or a demographic that frequents a neighborhood. For example, you can have a pop-up show in a financial district to market your work to professionals who have money to spend on the artwork but no time or expertise to look for it on their own.

When you do a pop-up show in your local neighborhood where you live or work, you’re promoting yourself as a local artist. With the “buy local” movement from where you buy food to which “Mom and Pop” businesses you frequent, customers seek out and appreciate that their money is going to support an artist right in their area, helping develop their local arts and culture scene flourish. Either way, a pop-up shop or show is a great way to network with neighbors and local businesses, talk about your work, and generate sales or freelance gigs. There is incredible value in connecting and interacting with your audience in-person.

Control Your Vision

When working with or for others who are providing a show or space, you often have to compromise and even forego some control on how your work is presented or marketed. By organizing your own pop-up show, you maintain control of your vision for how its seen and organized. By designing your own displays, signage and customer experience, you’re showing your audience your vision of how you want your work to be seen and consumed. Very much like a prototype, pop-up shows help decision-makers like businesses, galleries, and grantmakers see your vision and potential for future shows. 

Collaborate with Others

Organizing a pop-up is great motivation to partner with other artists, designers, businesses, or brands. Many visual artists and designers work alone and the work can be isolating, making it difficult to collaborate and gain inspiration from other ways of working.  Pop-ups give you an opportunity to collaborate with other creatives who you admire or share your vision by displaying in the same space. And with the joint power of multiple creatives, you can leverage each other’s networks and platforms to promote each other and expand your reach.

Generate Additional Income and Sales

Pop-up shows, at farmer’s markets, fairs and festivals, are a great way to earn extra income by selling your work. It’s also an opportunity to test out a new design or feature of your work that considering. Given all the reasons why a pop-up may be the right next step to take in your career, it’s time to start figuring out the details to make it happen.

While pop-ups appear spontaneously to the public, they require careful strategic planning to execute successfully. Conducting market research about other pop-ups that have been successful, or ones that have already taken place in your location of choice is critical to understand what you’re getting into and what you need to be prepared for. Whether that’s the finding the right time of year to hold a pop-up shop or show, the best neighborhood to hold it in, or the right market or fair to participate, go where the potential buyers are.

A good example of going where the buyers are to set up a pop-up is the Artstream Nomadic Gallery which sells handmade ceramics across the country. the traveling pop-up makes stops at conferences and other events, where thousands of attendees interested in the art form will be.

artist pop up gallery
The Artstream Nomadic Gallery at the NCECA Conference takes the pop-up store concept on the road where buyers are.

Pop-Up Planning

While pop-up shows and shops are short-term, planning them is a long-term project. You need to organize a successful pop-up with a clear goal, budget, and ways to make your goals happen. 

  1. Define the purpose of your pop-up.  Is it to promote your art and yourself, share a special vision, make extra income, try out a new art form or product line, or make connections? Don’t just do it because everyone else is doing one. 
  2. Create a budget. How much money are you willing to invest? How much do you plan to spend?  How much money do you hope to gain?  Asking these questions will help you determine how much you’ll need to raise to fill the gap. 
  3. Create a fundraising plan. How will you raise money from sources other than your own to fund your pop-up? This could mean determining the ticket price (if any), raising cash donations from friends and fans you can gather through Kickstarter or Patreon, or in-kind donations from caterers and venue owners. Pricing your work for sale is also important to bring in revenue.

Finding a Pop-Up Venue or Sponsor

Organizing a pop-up is all about partnership development. While you’re trying to get an affordable venue to promote your work, always remember to start with what’s in it from a partner’s point of view. How will they benefit from partnering with you? Providing cheaper service and space for you?  There are a lot of mixed-used spaces today, both indoor and outdoor. Look around and see what’s possible from existing events and venues to craft fairs. 

In many big cities like New York and Los Angeles, there are businesses dedicated to organizing pop-up shows for artists and galleries. These often happen in empty, white-cube gallery spaces and mixed-use spaces that are ready to be used for creatives. All you need to do is to pay their fees, and they will recommend staff, caterers, and handle operations. 

However, there are other spaces artists can consider that may have a lower price-tag and a more imaginative space. 

Finding Empty Spaces for Your Pop-Up

Landlords of empty property spaces are often open to pop-up proposals. Since they’re not making any income from the space, any event that may reflect their space in a positive way and attract interest will be good for them. All you need to do is to call up these property owners and make a strong case of why and how your pop-up will benefit them. This could include attracting a particular crowd to their space, beautiful photography showing off the potential of their property space, or simply positioning them as a property owner that cares about local artists and social responsibility. However, keep in mind that unoccupied spaces may not be fully ready for a show, and there may be liability involved, like safety measures, insurance, etc. 

Retail Stores or Small Businesses

Storefront businesses like fashion boutiques and restaurants are great places to organize pop-ups at a low price. These businesses are already operating, and having artworks displayed there will not only attract foot traffic but decorate the space beautifully. You can either propose to the business owner that you’d like to display your art there for a certain amount of time for free, for a small commission they may receive in return, or you can propose to hold a pop-up gallery opening and show after business hours. Fashion boutiques are often closed at night. And since they are paying the rent anyway, may as well make some extra income from hosting your show. 

Homes/Apartments/Artist Studios

Having a pop-up show at an apartment or artist studio may not look as professional as a gallery space, or be able to host as many people, but with the experience-hungry climate we’re in currently, many are seeking unconventional ways to experience art and yours might be it. You can host it at your home or studio if you have space and vision, or you ask a friend or even ask a property manager or developer if they could rent you a show-apartment for one night in return for either a small payment or positive branding. There is always room for partnership and as long as you make a strong case of what’s in it for them.

University and Institutions

Finally, universities and institutions like nonprofits, foundations, churches have plenty of space to spare for the right reasons. Besides lecture halls or art galleries within the institutions, there is always room to have a pop-up show in a classroom, hallway, or even stairway. The only thing is you will need connections to the institution to make your case. Approach a local institution in your area and pitch yourself as a local artist throwing a community event. Many institutions need opportunities for community outreach, and your pop-up event can do just that. You can also bring in new audiences that the institution might not have access to. Either way, your art will benefit others and provide enjoyment too. 

Themes and Curation

Whether you’re doing a solo show or group store, you need to think ahead to determine the theme or curating direction. A well-thought-out show or pop-up shop is what will differentiate you from others and show your audience that you’re a professional creative. 

Marketing Material

Once you’ve decided on a venue and theme, it’s important to market your pop-up show both online and offline. With a low budget, it’s always best to maximize social media as your way to promote. However, don’t underestimate the value of traditional marketing like flyers. In smaller cities and neighborhoods, giving out flyers of your show to customers who frequently walk by the space or leave them at a popular cafe may surprise you by how well they work.  

Events

While a pop-up gallery show does not necessarily need a pop-up opening, having a physical event is a great way to gather momentum. A gallery opening is always a fun way to encourage visitors to engage with you and your art, create a buzz, and encourage sales. For some pop-up shows that have a particular theme may decide to have a talk or panel on the topic. And try to think creatively about how you can collaborate with your space that’s mutually beneficial to you. For example, if you’re having your show at a wine store, the owner of the store can offer samples of their wine during the reception and provide a discount to visitors who sign up for their email list. 

Timing Your Pop-Up

Finally, the timing of your pop-up is very important. Depending on where you are having the pop-up and who you want to target, you may want to have your pop-up during a busy art season to coincide with art events and crowds in your area, but you may end up being overshadowed by them. You may want to have your show during holiday shopping time where your customers are looking for special gifts. You may want to have your panel event about your environmental-themed art during climate week to get buzz. There’s no right or wrong way have a pop-up gallery or shop, it just has to be strategic. 

Have you had a pop-up gallery, store or space before? How did it work out?  What tips do you have or lessons learned that you can share with others? Tell us in the comments section!

About the author

Alexis Yuen

Alexis Yuen is an art advisor, business and branding strategist, art tour docent, activist and former artist. Prior to founding The Art Diplomat, an advisory for good, she worked for the premier art show, Art Basel and the auction house, Christie's.

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