An artist friend of mine recently shared an article on Artists Information Company [A-N] website called “Open exhibitions and entry fees: price worth paying or licence to exploit artists?” which centred on the debate around the propensity of organisations small and large to charge artists a fee for submitting their work to exhibitions, prizes, and other competitions. This is Part 2 of the series sharing what I’ve learned from submitting my own work to open calls.
But first, an article on A-N by Jack Hutchinson: “https://www.a-n.co.uk/news/open-exhibitions-and-entry-fees-price-worth-paying-or-licence-to-exploit-artists” – 5 January 2015
The low-down: “cash cows” or a cost of being an arts professional?
With the high costs of being an creative professional in London (and elsewhere), some artists feel like they’re being treated like “cash cows” when they are required to pay a fee to submit their work to an open exhibition. Put another way, over-milking artists when they don’t even have hay to eat or a barn to sleep in is a big concern for artist and curator Sean Worrall of Cultivate Vyner Street, calling these submission fees “exploitative”, a method of “using artists to pay the rent” and “funding the lifestyles of those who run these shows”.
Prizes such as John Moores, BP Portrait, Jerwood Drawing, and the RA Summer Exhibition are quick to defend their submission costs ranging from £18 for Jerwood Drawing Prize up to £40 for BP Portrait Prize, with cash prizes ranging from £8000 for to £30,000, respectively. The potential benefits of even being shortlisted for one of these prizes seems significant enough to consider paying the entry fee – winning artists have not only enjoyed a bit of cash, but also benefits that include higher career visibility (even short-term) and/or more time and freedom to devote to their art practice. And even if they don’t win a prize, short-listed artists join a group exhibition which is at the very least, seen by scores of critics, other artists, collectors, and art lovers.
The organisations themselves insist that these fees go to support the arts more generally (in terms of, say, “cultural currency” for the locale) and more specifically, the money pays for admin/project costs to host these exhibitions (which can exceed many thousands of attendees after they take weeks to install). And organisations also say, when they charge fees, the juries will undoubtably see a much higher standard in the submission form – not to mention the artwork. It seems the idea of the fee is to encourage the artist to be diligent in completing the application form, submit relevant work with only the best quality images and to carefully consider their current artist statement. All to the good, right?
Two cents: Consider fees as a “cost of business” but with “due diligence”
From my experience of applying for open calls (I’ve done a handful, some fee-paid, others not but may still require contribution to the exhibition costs), I personally don’t have a problem with these fees – yet, as Hutchinson stresses, “the importance of transparency” is key. For those artists who feel they are treated like “cash cows” perhaps they would feel differently if all organisations are completely up front about the destined use of that cash contribution. (For example, I paid a “donation” to AWAH to submit to their recent “Identity” open call – and this was clear to me that this was a contribution to the charity, for the purposes of supporting the organisation and their programmes. Of course the fee is OK; even if not selected, the money goes to a charity I am happy to endorse.) If it’s not clear what the fee is to pay for, or you’ve not heard anything about the organisation, then perhaps hold off on applying until you know more.
So here’s the long and short: as submission fees are going to be unavoidable in many cases, it’s recommended that artists do a little research first before applying to any open calls. What’s the fee/donation going to support? What are the prizes? How do you apply? What are the rules? And so on!
But – don’t apply to everything and anything! Consider – does your work REALLY fit the proposed theme or prize rules/requirements? Maybe even get feedback from a friend, critic, or artist who has been there. Then try to select the most appropriate event for your work and the most appropriate piece for the event.
And if the fees are too steep, keep track of when the open call is going to come around again and save up a yearly application fund if you have to as “a cost of the business” of doing your business – art, of course!
Some artists even use these open calls as a strategy for building their art practice by:
- forcing themselves to work to a deadline
- using themes/proposals to focus their art practice
- gaining more experience in exhibiting, collaborating, and networking
- enlarging on transferable skills that can be used in other aspects of their practice or even other jobs e.g. accuracy, timeliness, professionalism, writing about their own artwork, making proposals, etc.
Lastly, you might consider an open call a feedback opportunity: if you win a prize, you’ve hit the spot for these three jurists so try and capitalise on the brief period of recognition – and keep working on your art. If you get short- or long-listed, thumbs up and keep doing what you’re doing. And if you didn’t get it this time, keep working at it, continue honing your skills, and try again next year.
More links and information
- Read the article by Jack Hutchinson “Open exhibitions and entry fees: price worth paying or licence to exploit artists?“ – 6 January 2015 on A-N online.
- Make your story – a list of some artist opportunities in London (and further afield) – kelise72.com
- Submit your artwork to New Contemporaries open call – closes 17 January 2016 – geared towards final year BA/MA/MFA students and recent graduates only.
- Call out for the RA summer show is now open – application deadline 12 February 2016.