Setting up an event
A guide by Paul Stone on how to successfully plan, develop, manage and promote an artist-led event.
Setting up your own event should be an exciting and rewarding venture but it takes careful planning.
Based on practical experience, this guide offers advice on how to successfully develop, manage and promote an artist-led event.
Aims & objectives
There are many reasons for setting up your own event:
- To take control of the presentational context of your own work.
- To create a 'shop window' for your work leading potentially to further sales and exhibition opportunities.
- To collaborate with others chosen by yourself, rather than an unknown organiser or curator.
- To gain valuable organisational skills to use in your future career in advancement of your own practice or in gaining arts-related employment.
Solo or collaborative?
There are many examples of successful self-managed solo projects but, especially if you are inexperienced in managing events yourself, there are good reasons for working with other people. The sooner you choose which route to take, the better.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this a personal mission with fixed goals or am I open to collaboration and unexpected outcomes?
- Am I suited to an organisational role?
- Am I suited to working with others?
- Do I already know the people with whom I would like to work?
- If so, would friendships be jeopardised if things don't go smoothly?
- Am I confident enough to approach and work with people I don't already know?
Before making any decision, learn to be a good judge of personalities your own and other people's.
Working with others
- Creating a support structure for your own practice and overcoming the isolation of working on your own. This may be achieved by working with colleagues, friends or like-minded people solicited through advertising.
- Someone else is there to maintain the momentum during 'down times' when you're busy on other projects or feel swamped by setbacks.
- Other people may be able to offer specialist skills or useful contacts you don't have.
- You may have to compromise your personal vision for the greater good of realising the event. This applies whether you are working with friends or strangers. Negotiate the ground rules before you enter into an agreement a written record may be useful if problems arise later.
- Another person's commitment to the project can change. This can be due to a change of personal circumstances (such as work or family commitments) or a lack of understanding of the amount of work involved in turning a good idea into a physical reality.
- Other people may not have a realistic perception of what they are actually capable of one person should have overall responsibility to see that set tasks are completed.
Development & planning
Once you've decided with whom you are working, the first task is to define the event itself and compile the information about it into a written proposal:
- What is the artistic rationale of the event?
- What are the greater ambitions for the event in terms of profile building, creation of further selling or exhibiting opportunities and personal skills gained?
- Who are the people involved as organisers, exhibitors or participants?
- How will you be constituted? As a general rule, the more financial support that you seek, the more formal the status you will require but this can entail a lot of unwelcome administration.
In drawing up a budget it's important to include every possible expense. Shop around for the best quotes and include things you're getting for free as 'in-kind' sponsorship. Don't undervalue your own time spent organising the project though this is often the hardest aspect for which to raise funding.
Your budget should cover:
- Administration: your time, phone, stationery, photocopying, postage, research (including travel).
- Artists' work and expenses: materials, presentation, transport and packaging, insurance, travel and accommodation, exhibitor's fee.
- Venue: rent, rates, light & heat, service charges (eg cleaning), building and public liability insurance, invigilation.
- Publicity: press releases, invitations, postage, poster, catalogue, press listings, and advertising, website, photography material (allow for several copies).
- Exhibition: installation (labour and materials), equipment hire, interpretation materials (signage, audience information sheets), photocopying.
- Private view: drinks, glass hire, snacks, staffing the bar.
- Evaluation: photographic documentation, audience questionnaires (useful for future fundraising).
- Contingency: to cover unforeseen expenditure (should be around 10% of the overall budget).
Your budget should also include your expected income the money you plan to raise to pay for your project. Remember to include in-kind and sponsorship support. This figure should match your expenditure.
As you're unlikely to raise the whole of your 'dream' budget, have a contingency plan. Constantly re-evaluate your finances and be prepared to scale down your project if necessary. You may find you're giving your time and energy for free, but you need to avoid ending up with bills you cannot pay.
Once you have a written proposal and budget you can approach potential supporters for your project, but remember:
- You're unlikely to raise all the money from one source.
- Each funder will have its own criteria for assessing applications and regulations about what aspects of a project it will fund.
- Your proposal will need adapting for each potential funder to meet their particular priorities.
No funding comes without conditions attached and some may be more trouble than they are worth. Don't let your project become funding-led. When making any approach, evaluate if the relationship is one that you are comfortable to enter in to.
If this is the first project you have ever organised it can be difficult to convince people to give you money. But gaining support from one funder usually persuades others to give as well.
There are four main funding categories:
- Public grants: from the arts funding bodies, regional arts, local authorities or other government associated bodies. Each will have a different focus for projects it will support eg creation of new work, making links with education or working with the community.
- Charities, trusts and foundations: often have larger amounts of money to give but have the most limited areas of interest, longer turnaround times for applications and often require applicants to be a charity or limited company.
- Commercial sponsorship: may be in the form of cash, but is more likely to be in-kind eg drinks for a private view from a brewery, discount on publicity material or materials donated by a supplier, etc.
- Sales: of work, catalogues, drinks, etc. Be careful not to overestimate this income as its real value will not be known until the project is started.
You'll need a bank account in the name of your project or group.
Such accounts are usually available free from banks if you are constituted as a voluntary organisation. However, you will not normally be granted an overdraft facility or chequecard. This means cash withdrawals for instant purchases and ultimately can cause cash-flow problems when a project is finished. Payment of a final installment of a grant is usually conditional on submission of proof of total expenditure.
Alternatively, you may be able to persuade a recognised arts organisation, with the necessary legal constitution, to act as banker for you, and receive grants and make payments on your behalf.
Once you've raised sufficient financial and practical support to be confident your event can take place:
- Check everyone involved is clear about any changes to the original proposal.
- Set deadlines for completing tasks allowing time for unforseen delays.
- Maintain regular communication with all partners in your project, at all stages.
- Start to promote your event to others.
If you don't have a mailing list, or doubt that your existing list will reach your target audience, you may be able to include your material with another organisation's possibly at no charge or in return for time spent stuffing envelopes. Expect to take your publicity to the organisation under data protection rules it should not hand over mailing lists to you.
- Send press releases, with images if possible, to all interested parties such as press, radio and TV. Find out the name of the person to send it to first.
- Magazines will need several months notice of an event if they are to cover it while it's running, alternatively may review an event at a later date.
- Follow up with a phone call a few weeks after sending a press release to check that it was received and gauge if there is any interest. Be polite but assertive adopting a hard-sell approach can have a negative effect.
Send private view and launch invites out around two weeks in advance any earlier and people may forget, too late and they may have other commitments. Distribute promotional material to other venues where it may be seen by potential audiences.
Send invitations to:
- Everyone to whom you sent a press release (to jog their memory).
- Everyone supporting the event and those who may in the future (even if they said 'no' this time).
- Family, friends, other artists and colleagues (don't assume they will recall that you have already told them).
Although it may be productive to organise an additional special reception for key people such as a press launch, it might be better to offer one-to-one meetings to show these people around. If they don't attend, it's not necessarily a wasted exercise consider it as profile building for your future work.
Remember to document your project professionally. Don't leave this until the last moment you may be asked for documentation whilst the event is still on.
There is still work to do after your event has finished:
- Funders may require a report from you to release the final grant payment. Even if they don't, a brief report with images, press cuttings, audience figures, etc could help you gain support from the same funder or as the basis of an approach to someone new in the future.
- Even though you may not be required to submit a formal evaluation of your event, it's valuable to take time yourself to assess its strengths and weaknesses and how you might approach things differently in the future.
- Properly archive all image and text documentation of your event this is the stepping stone to the next one.
Paul Stone is an artist and director of the Newcastle upon Tyne based contemporary art agency Vane.
Paul Stone is a Director of Vane gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, and an artist.
First published: a-n.co.uk April 2003
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