Reflections on Exhibiting at the Ferens Art Gallery’s Open Exhibitions 2002 and 2022: Would I Submit Work Again to an Open Exhibition?

In late 2021 I submitted two of my abstract drawings (‘Movement through a Space’ and ‘Movement in a Space’) to be considered for the Ferens Open Exhibition 2022. I was so pleased when they were accepted and to see them displayed in a gallery setting, for my friends, myself and the general public to see, was a great experience. Thank you to everyone that made a special trip to Ferens Art Gallery to see my work and vote for my pieces in the People’s Vote Award. Alas, I didn’t win any awards but my drawings were some of the first finished pieces that marked a shift in my both my artwork and career and will always represent the emergence of a new happier and more focused me. I was, however, pleased to pick them up from the gallery a few weeks ago though – I weirdly missed them, and as I walked away with them under my arm I wondered if I would submit to an open exhibition again?

Ferens Gallery Open Exhibition 2022

This is only the second time in my life I have submitted any work to be considered for a judged open exhibition and both times I have been lucky to have my artwork accepted. The first time was about 20 years ago with ‘Blue Plant Composition’ and ‘Orange Plant Composition’ in Ferens Art Gallery’s open exhibition.

‘Orange Plant Composition’ by Gillian Hebblewhite
Close up of ‘Orange Plant Composition’ by Gillian Hebblewhite

This was one of the few places I could show some of my, what I called, ‘secret’ paintings to other people and at this time entering a local open exhibition was both an easy and cheap way of getting your work seen. At the time I was coming to the end of my Illustration degree at University of Lincoln (Hull School of Art and Design) and my ‘secret’ painting (painting I completed away from University work) did not fit into the style of my illustration and it wasn’t something I widely showed to other people. That wasn’t really the purpose of it. When I saw the call for work to be submitted to Ferens Open Exhibition 20 years ago I felt I should maybe have a go. Maybe some people may want to see it… so I grabbed two paintings that I liked and were pretty much almost dry (difficult sometimes when you paint in oils), stuck some labels on the back with their titles, my name, medium used, etc… and dropped them off (at that time you dropped work off in person for consideration), unvarnished and not in the best presented way, to see if they would get selected.

Close up of ‘Blue Plant Composition’ by Gillian Hebblewhite

I did not put in much consideration over what I was submitting 20 years ago, but I’m not suggesting this approach is necessarily a bad thing either (which I’ll explain in my later blog about dealing with rejection and self-validation for artists), but the online advice for successfully submitting to open exhibitions nowadays is a bit more considered, which is to:

  • Thoroughly check the submission information, including eligibility, details on framing requirements, etc… and make sure you adhere to it
  • Research who is on the independent selection panel for the exhibition
  • If you can, look at previous entries to see what type of work has been accepted and successful previously
  • Enter your best work (not what was to hand and touch dry like I did)
  • Give yourself enough time to create the work and let it dry! Allow time to varnish, wax or frame your piece if required.
  • Present your work in the best possible way. Think about whether your work is going to look better unframed or framed? Keep your materials for mounts and frames for neutral. example. If you have a canvas piece still on it’s stretcher, have you thought about how to treat the exposed sides? Some artists are not too bothered about this, but other artists will use masking tape to mask off the sides of their canvas before they paint. Others paint the sides of their canvas roughly with the background colour they are using while they are painting (this is something I often do and it does save time at the end) or after they have finished their painting with a neutral colour. Or would your canvas look better in a floating frame?
  • Take good photographs of your artwork to submit and ensure you are submitting it in the required format. For example, a JPEG file no more than 5MB (megabyte).

Of course, I was pleased when my paintings were accepted for the first time at an open exhibition and seeing them in an actual ‘real life’ public art exhibition was fantastic, I felt I was becoming a ‘real artist’, but what really mattered at the time was that I liked my paintings and felt they were a good representation of the art I enjoyed creating. I loved doing my degree in Illustration, but my secret painting allowed me to just paint for the sake of painting and it provided the freedom for me to just go with the flow. This did not always happen when working to an illustration or visual studies brief. It was refreshing and in turn helped to develop my illustration work. So back to the question… are open exhibitions worth submitting your work to? You’ll find an interesting debate on whether artists should consider entering their work to open exhibitions from those who think they are a good way to get your work seen and recognised, to others who feel they only exploit artists and are just a way for galleries and organisations to make money. Swarez.co.uk and Emily Damstra have both blogged about this, advising artists that they ‘do not need to be judged’ by anyone other than themselves and those willing to pay for their work. They make for an interesting read and I can certainly see it from both sides. I’ve created ‘The pros and cons of submitting to a judged open art exhibition’, that I’ll be posting next week, to help you decide if they are right for you. I personally have never spent more than £5 submitting a piece of work to an open exhibition because there are essentially a gamble (the chance of not getting your work accepted is high) and there are plenty of other ways of getting your art out there for people to see, especially online, and buy (if that is your aim). I think it is reasonable to pay a low submission / entry fee for your work to be considered for an open exhibition because galleries do need to cover the costs of holding an open exhibition (often over months), including hanging / displaying work, promoting the exhibition, staffing the gallery space, administration costs, etc… For me the cost of £10 to have two of my pieces exhibited in a city centre gallery for 3 months was definitely worth the gamble. However, I do not entertain some of the eye watering entry fees out there to enter some open exhibitions. I personally would not pay anymore than £10 entry fee per piece to any open exhibition, no matter what prizes / awards were on offer, because the chance of your work being accepted is very slim due to the large number of artists submitting their work. I also check the information to see if any of the rights I hold over my work change once I submit them to the gallery or organisation. What are they intending to do with my work during and after the exhibition? Do I lose all rights to my work once I have submitted? If this is the case stay away from this open exhibitions, calls and competitions. I look to see if there are any additional expenses I need to consider if my work is accepted, the reputation of the gallery / organisation and the commission the gallery is planning to take if I were able to sell my work. With the latter you can adjust the price of your work to take a commission rate into consideration.

Close up of ‘Blue Plant Composition’ by Gillian Hebblewhite

Going forwards I do plan to submit more work to open exhibitions in the future because you can’t beat seeing your art in a gallery as opposed to online. It’s one of many ways to get your artwork out there for other people to see, especially those who may not find you online. I’ve already started planning what to submit for the Ferens Open Exhibition 2023 and looking for other similar opportunities, so we will see what happens.

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