Before artists can have their works hanging in galleries, they must submit a curatorial proposal. The artist creates the curatorial proposal to inform the gallery curator about the nature of their proposed exhibition. The proposal includes the theme of the exhibition, the images to be used in the display and the intended target audience for the works. The gallery owner or curator examines the proposal to determine if the planned exhibition fits the gallery's clientele.
A cover letter serves as a way for artists to introduce themselves to the gallery owner or curator. A proper cover letter addresses the decision-maker by name, rather than as "To Whom It May Concern." The cover letter contains a brief description of the artist's credentials, including education, training, awards and any previous exhibits of the artist's work. The cover letter also includes reasons the proposed exhibit is a fit for the gallery's audience. The letter can also mention previous exhibits the gallery has held that resemble the one the artist is proposing.
A curatorial proposal includes a one- or two-page synopsis. This synopsis explains the specifics of the proposed exhibition. The synopsis presents these specifics either in prose form or in bullet points for easier reading. The synopsis describes the theme of the proposed exhibition, as well as an explanation of how the works to be presented fit into that theme. For instance, a synopsis for the 2009 exhibit "Synthetic" at the Whitney Museum detailed how the use of acrylic paints by artists in the 1960s was instrumental in altering "the direction of postwar American art."
The proposal must include images of the pieces to be displayed. The images show the pieces in high resolution and as the artists intend to display them, including any special lighting, framing or support structures. Both the quality and the format of the images must allow the curator to view the works with little to no stress. If the images are of poor quality, or if the format is too difficult to view the images correctly, the curator may disregard the remainder of the proposal.
The curatorial proposal also includes the reasons the artists believe that their works appeal to a target audience. The target audience can be as specific as high-end art collectors or as broad as families with children. Since galleries make their revenues by selling works of art, the proposal must demonstrate to the gallery owner or curator how the artists' work attracts potential visitors. For example, the guidelines for an exhibit at Columbia College of Chicago's Department of Exhibition and Performance Spaces includes instructions to consider the college's students, faculty and staff, as well as the wider community, when submitting an exhibition proposal.