Using Invitations To Elevate The Cachet of Your Exhibition

Every contact you have with someone is an opportunity to wow them with your art and your professionalism, so you don’t want to miss the chance to wow from the beginning.

Robert Mapplethorpe knew this. For his first solo exhibition in 1973 at New York’s Light Gallery – a show of Polaroids – Mapplethorpe’s invitation was a hand-printed image from a Polaroid original.

Christine Sullivan painting of farmhouse

©Christine Sullivan, Passing Conversations. Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches. Used with permission.

Mapplethorpe embossed his name on the outer edge, included the protective Polaroid cover, and inserted everything into hand-addressed, cream-colored Tiffany envelopes.

His invitation was a work of art in itself because, he believed, an exhibition doesn’t begin when you go to the opening, but when you receive the invitation.

The moment people hear about the show, they start judging. Will it be any good? Who else will show up? Is it worth my time? Is there something better I could do that night?

What experience do people have when they get an invitation from you?

Here are 7 ways to use your invitation to elevate the cachet of your exhibition.

Real Mail

1. Send it regular postal mail.

The simple act of putting a stamp on an envelope and dropping it into a mailbox automatically increases the prestige of your exhibition.

In these days of email reliance, almost anything you send real mail will get more attention than if it were sent via email.

2. Make it one of a kind.

Your invitation will be extra special if you can make each invitation by hand: hand-printed, painted, or collaged.

However, recognizing that it’s not easy to make a large quantity of handmade invitations, it’s possible to begin with a mass-produced image and add embellishments:

  • Areas of paint
  • Embroidery
  • Collaged elements

If you aren’t able to produce handmade invitations, get a professional to design them and use high-quality paper for the printing.

Simonne Roy painting of archway in Alhambra

©Simonne Roy, Puerto Del Vino (Alhambra, Granada). Watercolor and ink on paper, 11.5 x 8 inches. Used with permission.

3. Focus on the art. Focus on the art. Focus on the art.

This should be obvious, but take a clue from Mapplethorpe and hyper-focus the invitation on the art. He embossed a reproduced image from his show and reinforced the Polaroid theme in the invitation.

Consider making an invitation that is a creative preview of the work people will see when they attend.

4. Don’t skimp on the envelopes.

If you use a printing company, ask them to save their envelopes because they’re usually too flimsy to impress.

You can catch someone’s eye without Tiffany envelopes, and you’ll pay significantly less than what Mapplethorpe shelled out for those back in 1973. Two of my favorite envelope resources are and Paper Source.

5. Embrace a gimmick.

Your invitation shouldn’t look anything like the bills and junk mail landing in mailboxes. Swanky envelopes and hand embellishments will eliminate all possibility of that, and you can expand on this desire to stand out.

Enclose your invitation in something with an odd shape.

You can mail in square or clear envelopes, mailing tubes, and almost anything else you can dream up.

6. Add handwriting.

Write a personal note by hand on the invitation and address the envelope by hand. Anything with your handwriting will get more attention.

Even if you’re only sending a postcard, write a personal note somewhere on it.

If the envelope or invitation is a dark color, I recommend the Uni-ball Signo broad white gel pen. I’ve tried my share of white pens and had almost given up on them before I came across this brand, which was a lifesaver for holiday cards.

Colin Joyce painting of Venice canal

©Colin Joyce, Light Effect, 5pm, Side Canal, Venice. Oil on canvas panel, 5 x 7.5 inches. Used with permission.


As I mentioned above, an email invitation will never have the gravitas as one delivered in real mail. However, because we use email so much it’s important to be aware of how you can enhance the value of your email.

In my opinion, the best (and perhaps only) way to do this is …

7. Send 1 email to 1 person.

It’s easy to send bulk emails, but there’s not a whole lot that is special about those. If you want people to act, send a personal message to a single person. They’ll notice the difference.

Here are some pointers for this process:

  • Address the person by name.
  • Add a line or two (or more) that acknowledges the relationship you have with them.
  • Tell them, with sincerity, how much it would mean to you if they would attend your show.
  • Use a personal subject line such as I’d love it if you could come to my show.

Your Turn

How do you use invitations to add cachet to your exhibition?

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26 comments to Using Invitations To Elevate The Cachet of Your Exhibition

  • Hello what a timely note from you. I will have my first booth at an art show this weekend in Golden Colorado. I’m super excited. I hand-painted business cards to give out – which I’m really excited about. I’m also thinking of making bookmarks or postcards as well. I’m only selling originals so I’m looking for little things to handle people if they don’t buy. I’m not sure if I should just hand them out to everybody though. At least not till they spent some time looking around. Love the content that you share – thank you so much.

  • Love these ideas. I am wanting to have an art garden party and invite my neighborhood. Even the ones that I do not know. Doing something special like this would be perfect to get their attention! Thanks Alyson!!

  • Kit Vincent

    An excellent take on this and great timing for me. I always appreciate your newsletter and quick tips. Thanks Alison!

  • Timely indeed! I have been invited to show almost all of my work from the last four years at what is – for where I live – a very prestigious gallery. It’s in a tourist town and in the summer so it will likely see a lot of traffic. I’m excited.
    But the gallery is creating the invitations and I am to use their invitations (they have a very specific contract)… it is a post card. They are always well done but still… what would you think of putting their post card in my envelope and adding a short handwritten note?

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. I have always done this for my open studios every other year, but it is always gratifying to realize that one is doing it right.

    This year I have included a sheet with particulars about pricing, and also letting everybody know about the new directions in my work and asking for their ideas. I’ll have work by my students up, too.

    I love having the open studios; it’s so much fun seeing all the work up at once. And it is such a pleasure to see the friends who come and enjoy the work.


  • Great post, Alyson, and very timely! My solo exhibit opens in 2 weeks. I have taken a lot of care in designing my invitation to make it eye-popping and compelling. Clarity of information is also crucial so people who aren’t familiar with exhibit protocol understand that the show runs for a period of weeks AND that, additionally, there is an artist reception on a given evening. Again, thanks Alyson for your always-pertinent posts.

  • Thanks Alyson, I had almost given up on snail mailing invitations, but you’ve convinced me that it is still valuable. I usually have written notes on those in the past but now I’m going to be thinking more about the hand-decorated touches that could be incorporated. For next time…

  • You’re so right Alyson. We’re artists so we’ve got no excuse to send out non-creative invitations.
    I like your idea of hand-made/embellished invitations. If we can’t send them to everyone we could send them to our most important people (collectors/mailing list) and use mass-printed ones to leave in venues etc.
    One technique I’ve used in the past when using mass-produced invitations is to use several different images – that way if I know someone personally, I can choose the one I think they’ll most like. Plus when people arrive clutching their invitations, they realise that they didn’t all get the same thing.

  • Hi Alyson,
    I’ve mentioned this on your blog before, but it’s important to include the words “you are invited…”. YOU know it’s an art show, but I once handed a show invitation to my hairdresser, who looked carefully at it and said, “Is this a business card?”

  • Thanks, Alyson! I’ll definitely be using these tips for invites!

  • What a useful and interesting ideas focused on invitations to shows…. when I think that I “have it” under control I read some of your articles with totally new and very useful advice. I will put in practice some of the points I have read here. I am having a big solo show in a prestigious art center, I want to do it well.
    Always thankful Alyson!

  • Forgot to mention…..
    Now that I think about it….I re married a couple of years ago and had a very lovely but small reception. I did all those invitations by hand. A simple but bright colored design they made an impact. For some reason never crossed my mind to use the idea for a show. So…. yes thanks again Alyson!

  • Hi Alyson,

    This is such a timely blog post. I recently took studio space with two other artists in an old high school that has been converted into artist studios. We are planning our first Open Studio/Grand Opening this month and I’m very excited to show my work. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. I am working on sending out my invitations by snail mail, adding a personal note and I love your idea to send a personal email. Thank you for your post. All the best.

  • You really make it seem really easy with your presentation
    however I find this topic to be really something that I believe I would never understand.
    It kind of feels too complicated and very huge for me.
    I am having a look ahead on your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  • I’m curious about how to approach this for out of town shows. I’m showing in a variety of places where I haven’t lived and I don’t know anyone who lives near by. Can you talk about how to market myself for those types of shows?

  • Abbey Laste

    Simply amazing article! Has anyone ever wondered how to fill out forms online? I have, and found a simple service. I mostly use to edit my PDFs. I think it also allows you to to create fillable pdfs and esign them.

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