Operating a Union Art Gallery

Student union gallery managers often find success when collaborating, such as with campus organizations. At Kansas State University, an ongoing relationship between the K-State Student Union’s William T. Kemper Gallery and the university’s Center for Advocacy, Response, and Education has led to relevant and timely exhibits, like the “What Were You Wearing” survivor art installation March 26–April 6. The exhibit is described as “a tangible response to one of our culture’s most pervasive rape myths.” The fine arts department can also be a resource for exhibits—thesis and graduate shows, faculty exhibits—and potentially a recruiting area for employees with education and experience. Another option is local community galleries for networking, volunteer assistance, technical support, and fundraising.

Here are some other considerations for operation an art gallery.


Short of locking the doors to the gallery or building, many galleries have no additional security, and most are open during union hours. Video monitors are the preferred security tool, but some galleries use wall sensors that react when a piece is moved. At Mississippi State University, proximity allows reservations desk staff to provide security by observing gallery activity throughout the day.


Nothing may be more diverse with respect to union galleries than the way they show and collect artwork. Some have invested large amounts of money and collected works by renown artists, while others limit shows to students and faculty. Many use a combination, hosting shows for campus community artists and outside artists, as well as through interactions with other organizations. The Benson University Center at Wake Forest University houses the university’s premiere collection with more than 160 pieces by 100 different contemporary artists. Originally conceived by students with art selected by student committees, the collection includes works by notable artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Katz. While it doesn’t have a formal gallery, Benson Memorial Center at Santa Clara University houses a collection of more than 60 student-created pieces purchased over the last 22 years. Each year, the center buys four or five pieces with an annual budget of $1,200; the newest pieces are displayed for one year in the main lobby while the rest are scattered throughout the building.


The primary expense for any gallery is staffing, but other costs include signage or painting for new exhibits, allocations for traveling or special shows, and insurance. Many galleries get creative in generating new opportunities for revenue. One is by renting exhibit space for special events and receptions not directly related to an art show, as a gallery can provide a unique ambience for the right kind of event.

Staffing and Operations

In many cases, the professional staff managing the gallery is an assistant director for student activities or operations who also have other responsibilities. Graduate assistants—perhaps recruited from fine arts departments or schools—play a key role in day-to-day operations.

Union boards may also play a role by determining show content and schedules. An art advisory board can complement this work by offering technical and practical expertise. At Boise State University, such a group includes members of the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Boise Art Museum.

One recurring recommendation from gallery managers was to develop a manual that includes contact lists, to-do lists for reoccurring events and activities, instructions on how to hang or remove a piece of art, interview questions for prospective employees, and technical information like gallery dimensions, location of lighting and outlets, and other resources.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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