How to survive your exhibition

Last updated Sunday, 24 February, 2019
Mountain study, 2018, 13 x 21 cm, graphite on paper

There is an experience common to many, and, I strongly suspect, to most artists. This experience, despite its apparent near-ubiquity, is almost never discussed. Whenever I have raised the topic with fellow artists, they will usually acknowledge its reality, but it seems that no one wants to discuss it. The experience I’m referring to, of course, is that of post-exhibition blues. With another solo exhibition coming up it’s a topic that’s very much on my mind. This is an unavoidably personal account; I hope it encourages a more open dialogue on the subject. I also offer some strategies that I have found helpful: if you have others, please contact me and I will add them as addenda to this story.

If you’re not an artist, or you’re amongst the lucky few who have never felt down after an exhibition (do these people even exist?) all I can say is: consider yourself fortunate that doing your work doesn’t bring on profound self-doubt, a sense of isolation, and fear.

The disease

Imagine this: you’ve worked hard on a body of work over months or even years. At any rate, it’s the culmination of a long and often solitary process. As the deadline for your exhibition has drawn closer, you’ve increased the pace of work. If you’re like me, you may even have literally stayed up all night completing works — repeatedly. There are many sources of anxiety in this process. Will the work be completed in time? Is it any good? Does the body of work cohere sufficiently, or have you explored too many disparate ideas? (This last is a particular source of anxiety for me.) But let’s assume it does all come together as you’d hoped. Let’s further assume that the opening is well attended and well received, and if works are for sale, that they sell well. Yet the following week, perhaps even as soon as the following day, you start to feel a profound sadness. If you’re prone to depression, doubtless this can be a dangerous time.

At this stage I tend to feel a little hopeless, that the effort has achieved very little. I find this feeling arises, even if the exhibition has in fact gone very well. I’ve been fortunate to date in that almost all of my exhibitions have in fact gone well — but that seems to have no bearing on how I feel at this stage. There is of course no guarantee that your show will go well; there’s also the question of how you assess what “going well” means. The slump tends to last around two weeks for me, before gradually lifting. Or it did, until I developed some strategies for preventing it.

Doubtless part of the cause of the post-exhibition blues is simply the anti-climax. You’ve worked yourself to the bone, the task is done, and the result is a body of work in an exhibition space. You’re tired, probably sleep deprived, and however well the opening went, I can confidently predict the next day you’ll be met with — silence. Perhaps not if you’re Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin, but I’m very sorry to report that as you’re statistically unlikely to actually be Koons or Emin, this will probably be your lot.

I have occasionally made the terrible mistake of going to see the exhibition during the week, when there are perhaps few, if any, people in attendance. It’s exactly like performing to an empty theatre.

The cure

There is no cure, other than belatedly heeding your parents and getting a sensible job.

Prevention and treatment

There may not be a cure, but it is a manageable condition. Firstly, it’s a very good idea to have a quiet celebration with friends after the opening. Don’t just go home to bed: the idea is to avoid the feeling that you’ve struggled up a mountain only to fall off a cliff.

More importantly — and this is deeply counterintuitive — you must keep working. Certainly not at the same pace or and probably not with the same focus, but you must continue, Post-exhibition is not the time for a holiday: in fact it’s probably the worst possible time. Turning up to the studio, just as you would to any other job, will keep the engine of your enthusiasm ticking over. I find it’s the perfect time to do all that productive tinkering that I long for when preoccupied with completing works with the deadline looming. Because, let’s face it. You know what you’re like. Without exhibition deadlines, the sexiness of the hot new idea means you might never really finish anything.