Everything You Need to Know about Pop-Up Galleries

Everything You Need to Know about Pop-Up Galleries
Everything You Need to Know about Pop-Up Galleries

Exterior view: Eric Wesley / St. Louis, 1296 Camp Jackson Road, Cahokia, Illinois, 2016. Photo courtesy of Bortolami.

There’s a new gallery model taking the art world by storm. Pop-up galleries are rapidly becoming popular, and for good reason—they’re in new spaces, they showcase unique ideas and works, and above all, they feel urgent and exciting. Galleries like Bortolami have created whole programs around temporary gallery spaces (including a renovated Taco Bell, pictured below) and have seen favorable reactions from press, artists, and visitors alike.

Pop-ups allow galleries of all sizes to expand their programming, test out a new city or neighborhood, and explore non-traditional exhibitions. Pop-up galleries host temporary exhibitions that run for a day to a month or more, often held in a nontraditional space like a storefront or an artist’s studio. An inexpensive and easy way to temporarily increase the gallery’s footprint while avoiding the commitment of a long-term lease and staffing, this model offers flexibility, minimal overhead, and an additional revenue stream.

But before you drop everything and go hunting for a temporary gallery space, take the time to address potential road bumps. The pop-up model isn’t an automatic success, and if you don’t understand and plan for all the variables, the project may fail before you even open your doors. Below, we share some steps to follow before setting out to open a pop-up of your own.

Establish your goals

Want to reach a new audience or connect with your existing network in a unique way? Testing the waters for expansion into a new neighborhood or city? Perhaps you’d like to tap into the global art calendar and create a physical space in next month’s art epicenter? Pop-up galleries serve myriad purposes and it’s important to set clear expectations from the start to ensure that the investment is a success.

Your goals can also be specific to the artist(s) in question. Last May, we secured a pop-up space for an emerging artist who wanted to exhibit her work in close proximity to her art-world network. We focused on finding a well-trafficked Lower East Side location and ended up in a spot on Grand Street, allowing her to take advantage of the concentration of galleries in the area, including James Cohan, Lehmann Maupin, and bitforms. Other galleries like Pace have been known to use pop-ups to test new markets, such as their recent iteration in Menlo Park, CA.

The challenge

In 2015, Alan Cristea Gallery had been an Artsy partner for over two years. They offered a broad inventory of well-known artists at accessible price points, and they were receiving plenty of inquiries—but those inquiries were rarely converting to sales.

“There were many new online platforms competing for followers and a presence” recalled Alan, and he admitted that they “tried [Artsy] out like we tried many others out.” Gallery staff spent hours responding to inquiries and saw few results. Even though Artsy was growing and the Alan Cristea team was fielding more and more emails, sales remained sporadic.

Despite this, the gallery recognized that online sales were bound to change the nature of the art industry. They made it a top priority to keep up to date with changing technology and to identify new tools that could aid them in achieving their goals. Cristea told us that he knew selling art online would be a “gradual process of trial and error,” but the lack of sales persisted.

Pick the right location and time

Select an area that will appeal to your target audience, such as established art collectors or a younger community-driven art scene. Consider opening near other cultural landmarks that will draw people, and keep in mind that second-floor spaces are typically more affordable but get less foot-traffic. A pop-up in an unexpected location may get lost in a competitive city like New York, or it could become a destination—know your program and clients. Timing is also important; opening during an auction week or an art fair may draw a larger audience.

A successful example of the right place and right time approach came from London-based Ordovas Art, who opened a New York pop-up of Eduardo Chillida’s work in October of 2015. It was perfectly timed with the beginning of the fall auction season in New York, situated at a highly coveted Madison Avenue location—the ground-floor space was conveniently positioned between the Upper East Side galleries and Christie’s Rockefeller Center location to draw top collectors. Ordovas followed the success of their first pop-up in New York with another in the fall of 2016, a curated group exhibition entitled “Artists and Lovers” on the Upper East Side, as well as opening an office in Tribeca earlier in 2016. By using pop-ups, the gallery is able to maintain a nimble yet significant presence in New York during key times of the art world calendar, without committing to the costs of a permanent exhibition space.

Adam Payne: Full Steam Ahead installation view; Photo by Sam Monaco.

Think outside the “white box”

A white-walled exhibition space is always a great starting point, but consider non-traditional spaces as well. Ask people in your network if they have access to free or affordable locations that they may be looking to expose or market in a new way. One client of ours leveraged his relationship with an event space to host a one-night-only exhibition on a Monday, when the space is rarely used. In doing so, he was able to negotiate an affordable rate.

Another mutually beneficial example was when we connected the artist Adam Payne with the Lilac Preservation Project, which maintains the Lilac, a historic steamboat docked in Tribeca. The Lilac Preservation Project has been integrating arts programming into the boat’s summer season as a way to connect with new visitors and wanted to find artists whose work related to the unique space. Adam’s exhibition “Full Steam Ahead” highlighted a body of work that had maritime influences and provided him with a unique environment for his work, while introducing a new group of art-world visitors to the Lilac.

Pro tip: Real estate developers may be interested in “activating” an empty storefront in the hopes of exposing it to new clients. Hit the pavement in the neighborhood you are interested in and look for empty storefronts. We’ve had success calling the broker listed and starting a conversation; a room filled with art and people is much more attractive than a vacant property.

Create a budget

Although less expensive than a long-term space, don’t forget all of the details required to launch a new gallery. Create a budget and prepare in advance to ensure the best chances to make a profit and achieve your goals. Keep in mind costs like rent, security deposit, internet, installation and deinstallation, utilities (upgrades in heat and air conditioning may be required if the current setup is not adequate for art), staffing, insurance, furniture for the space, cleaning, signage, temporary smoke and alarm systems, and any prep work necessary to get the space ready.

Your biggest cost is almost always the space itself. Companies like New-York based Parasol Projects offer spaces with weekly rates of $2,500-$6,000 and provide a suite of additional services to assist in planning, such as staffing, operational needs, and promotion. Similarly, for a full-service company outside of New York, Storefront could be an option for a longer term pop-up (as their minimum time commitment is one month) and we’ve even found art-friendly spaces on Airbnb. However, make sure to calculate the cost-benefits; full-service options like Parasol or Storefront can make things easier, but from our experience, you can find comparable spaces for a smaller investment if you have the time to do the research and get creative in your outreach.


Ask questions about what is included in the space and negotiate your lease or handshake agreement. Consider everything you need to know including: access to the space, utilities, restrictions on painting the walls and hanging things from the walls, load restrictions, how many people can you host, in what state you need to deliver the space at the end of the lease, and if the owner will have access to the space while you are occupying the property. Even for short-term or free-of-charge spaces, get something in writing and consider having a real-estate lawyer review anything before you sign.

Courtesy of Arisohn + Murphy.

Check your insurance and permits

Your policy may have security or liability requirements that you need to meet in order to get insurance coverage at your temporary location. Check with your insurance broker as you may need to arrange a walkthrough before signing the short-term lease. For New York-based projects, check if your space has a Certificate of Occupancy—many locations downtown do not have a CofO (as it is known), which can cause legal and insurance issues.

Pro tip: Ask the landlord or broker if a CofO exists, but also always double check yourself.

Focus on what you do best

Consider hiring someone to manage the day-to-day operations of the pop-up so you can focus on selling art and building artist relationships, instead of waiting for the internet to be installed. Finding someone who has executed a pop-up before will make the process and execution smoother, will likely save you money, and can help keep the project on schedule. Having the time internally to complete one or two sales may cover the cost of an additional team member to manage the project.

Pop-ups can serve a variety of goals for galleries of all sizes in the increasingly competitive art market. It’s important to keep in mind the financial and time commitments you’re making, as well as any potential pitfalls that might cause issues down the road. Make a clear plan and have a realistic budget so that once you take the plunge you can focus on the art.

Arisohn + Murphy was co-founded by Jessica Arisohn and Rysia Murphy in 2015 with a vision to deliver exceptional strategy and project management for art-focused projects. Drawing upon more than 16 years of combined experience at Gagosian Gallery overseeing exhibitions, art fairs, public sculpture installations, pop-ups, and expansion projects, Arisohn + Murphy offers their unique expertise to organizations inside and outside the art world.