Should I submit my art to an open exhibition?
Submitting and getting your artwork accepted for an open exhibition can bring plenty of benefits and opportunities, from the experience of creating, preparing and submitting artwork in time to meet the call for entry deadline, to having your artwork seen by a wider audience in a public exhibition space. It could possibly bring you new connections and opportunities, perhaps even a sale, but not everyone agrees that judged open exhibitions are necessarily a good thing. Some argue that artists’ work should not be judged or pitted against each other in this way and that they are just a way for galleries and organisations to exploit and make money out of artists.
When submitting to a judged open exhibition your artwork is not guaranteed to be accepted and, in some cases, the chances of your work being accepted is very slim indeed, simply due to the incredibly high number of submissions that some exhibitions receive. Dealing with the rejection, after unsuccessfully submitting to judged open exhibition can be hard for many artists and while there are plenty of alternative ways to get your artwork seen, the popularity of judged open exhibitions is as strong as ever.
Submitting to a judged open exhibition is not the best option for every artist, but for the majority they are a great place to start or, if you are a more established artist, an additional option to getting your work seen and a way to build up connections with galleries, curators, other artists and potential buyers. After listening to and reading about other artists’ experiences and submitting successfully to judged open exhibitions myself, I decided to put together a pros and cons list for submitting to judged open exhibitions that, I hope, will help you to decide if they are the right option for you and what to consider if you do decide to submit to one.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.
The Pros and Cons of Judged Open Exhibitions
What is an open exhibition?
An ‘exhibition’ is an organised public display of works of art, such as paintings and sculpture, or other items of interest, often set within an art gallery or museum environment (Collins Dictionary, 2022; Cambridge Dictionary, 2022). Strictly speaking, an ‘open exhibition’ allows anyone to submit their work, which is accepted unconditionally and unjudged, to form part of the overall exhibition (Wikipedia, 2022). However, the most common use of the term ‘open exhibition’ refers to an exhibition that is, in most cases, open to everyone to submit their artwork to (by a specific deadline), which is then considered by a panel of judges, who will select which pieces of artwork will be shown in the exhibition and which are rejected. In some cases the judging or selection panel will also decide which artwork/s will receive prizes or awards, if this is applicable. Sometimes judged open exhibitions will have a ‘people’s choice’ prize or award, which is based on visitors to the exhibition voting for their favourite artwork. These open exhibitions often require the artist to pay (but some are free) an entry or submission fee to submit their artwork, either via an online application / form or when you take your artwork to the gallery / organisation’s premises. This type of ‘open exhibition’ is called a ‘judged open exhibition’, a ‘juried open exhibition’ or, in some cases, an ‘art competition’. They are the most common type of ‘open exhibition’ you will come across and it is what I’ll be focusing the pros and cons list on for this blog.
Should I Submit to an Open Exhibition?
You will find lots of interesting opinions and debates as to whether or not artists should submit their work to judged open exhibitions or art competitions, from those who believe they are a great way to get your work seen and forward your career as an artist, to others who view them as just a way for galleries and organisations to make money and/or exploit artists. There are many other arguments for and against judged open exhibitions, possibly because there are so many different open exhibitions out there with different approaches. It means that both sides of the argument have some good points to make.
Judged open exhibitions are not all bad, many are very established and reputable, and their aim is to support artists rather than exploit them. They can indeed be a great opportunity and experience for the majority of artists, but they are not always the best option for all artists. Thanks to the internet, there are plenty of others ways to get your work ‘out there’ and seen. Entering a judged open exhibition is also a gamble. There is no guarantee that your artwork will be accepted if you choose to submit to one. Art is so subjective that you may enter the most fantastic piece of artwork you have created but if it’s not to the taste of a specific judging panel on the selection day you may get it rejected. I thought it was about time to bring both sides of this debate together into a pros and cons list of submitting to a judged open exhibition which, I hope, will help you to work out if you should submit to one or not. Lets start with the positives, the pros…
The Pros of Submitting to an Judged Open Exhibition
The freedom to submit whatever art you want
Many judged open exhibitions allow artists the freedom to submit any artwork, regardless of subject matter, style, medium, size, etc… Personally, I love having this freedom, but for some artists this can be a bit too daunting! If this is you, then you can skip to the next pro: ‘It can give you a creative starting point, helping to focus and motivate you’.
A judged open exhibition with no theme or specifications on what media to use can mean that your new experimental work, that doesn’t appear to fit anywhere else, or a new series of artwork that has unexpectedly led you in a new direction, can be submitted. If accepted into the exhibition you could gain valuable constructive feedback to help you progress or you may make a sale. Being able to submit any art you want can be tricky though. If you want to increase the chances of your artwork being chosen for a particular judged open exhibition the general advice is to submit artwork ‘that show a consistency and relate to each other in terms of subject matter, format or colour,’ (Paintersonline, 2015), research the panel of judges (what art they are interested in, what they have created, curated or written / blogged about), see what artwork has been exhibited in previous judged open exhibitions and, if your artwork is very large, find out how big the actually exhibition space is. This may increase the chances of having your artwork accepted or help you to decide if that particular judged open exhibition is the right one for you to submit to. I’ll be honest with you, the artwork I’ve submitted to judged open exhibitions in the past have never been created with the purpose of being submitted to that particular judged open exhibition. I often see the call for entry, think about what artwork I have, either finished or almost finished, and then submit something that will give a taste of what I am currently working on or the latest direction I am taking in my work. Although it may be tempting to see what the prize winners have created from previous open exhibitions and think that replicating something similar will help get your work chosen (although in the short term it would probably increase your chances), I really would advise artists not to change your visual style for the sake of increasing the chances of getting your work accepted by a judging panel. Staying true to yourself as an artist and having confidence in your own unique visual style and creations is much better long term. The judging panel for that current judged open exhibition is likely to have changed and they may well be looking for something different, something new, something that your artwork could offer them. Of course, if it is clear that the judged open exhibition has a small exhibition space and favours realistic and/or traditional 2D art styles, then it may not be worth submitting your huge abstract sculpture… but then (if the space is big enough) the judging panel may surprise you! Sometimes it’s best not to over think it and submit artwork that you like and what you think best represents you as an artist.
It can give you a creative starting point, helping to focus and motivate you
If total freedom to create and submit artwork on any theme and in any medium brings you out into a cold sweat or to an unproductive halt, a judged open exhibition that asks for artwork to be submitted on a specific theme and/or medium, or gives you a very specific starting point, may be the best one for you. There are plenty to choose from too, especially current global concerns such as climate change and health, for example, Amplify Art Competition celebrates creative works inspired by mental health and wellbeing. Then there are others which give the artist a unique starting point, for example, Concord Art Prize asks for submissions of a proposal for a piece of artwork inspired by one of the ten songs listed on their website and the 2021 Whitegold Ceramics Prize asked for ‘projects that combine[d] clay and food in convivial ways’. These judged open exhibitions can be a fun challenge and learning experience for any artist, especially those looking to try out a new medium or tackle new subject matters. In the past I’ve been inspired by the themes or starting points from judged open exhibitions or competitions and gone onto create some really interesting art, without the intention of ever submitting it to that judged open exhibition (I think this is the illustrator part of me coming out).
Depending on how you work as an artist, an open exhibition’s deadline to submit your artwork can give you the motivation you need to increase your productivity and/or get your artwork finished.
I would never finish a painting if I didn’t have a deadline.Peter Doig (cited by Quote Master)
I personally do not like that last minute deadline pressure to produce artwork, but working towards reasonable deadlines does help me to plan my workload and provides me with a good focus. For those artists who have dozens of unfinished pieces hanging around, a set deadline for submission may give you the oomph you need to get that artwork finished. You may be surprised how much you can achieve when you have a deadline to work towards!
They are (ideally) open to everyone and try to put everyone on a level playing field with other artists
Although most judged open exhibitions are open to anyone over 18 to submit to, some do have an eligibility criteria which can include and exclude certain groups of artists. Galleries and organisations may have acquired specific funding to put on the open exhibition and that has dictated the eligibility criteria, or they have decided to support certain groups of artists independently. For example, some judged open exhibitions ask for submissions from only female artists (such as the Women United Art Prize), young artists (such as the Young Botanical Artist Competition), artists residing in a specific region (such as the Stone Lane Sculpture Exhibition), artists on the autistic spectrum (such as the The Spectrum Art Award), artists who have a disability or impairment (such as the Paralym Art World Cup) or those experiencing, or caring for someone with, a specific medical condition (such as the Parkinson’s Art Competition).
There are many legitimate reasons for judged open exhibitions setting eligibility criteria, the most important one is to make the art world more accessible to all. Although it can appear you are being excluded from some judged open exhibitions, it is something that aims to provide a more level playing field for all artists. There are hundreds of judged open exhibitions to choose from, there is definitely one out there for you. There may be other reasons why judged open exhibitions are viewed as not being entirely open to everyone, but I’ll pick this point up later in the cons list.
In a judged open exhibition your work is, ideally, accepted on it’s own merit and not because of who you are, your membership to an art group or organisation, or who you know. You will notice that in many judged open exhibition’s information on submitting, they ask you to not include your name in any of the photographs of the artwork you submit to ensure that judging can take place anonymously. However, even if an artist submits their work anonymously, the judging panel may still recognise the artist that has produced the work, especially if they have a very distinct style. This is something that is difficult to escape, especially when it comes to more local judged open exhibitions, where the pool of artists submitting is likely to be smaller and thus artists’ work may be more recognisable. It may or may not influence the judges’ decisions and, in many ways, having art that is instantly recognised as yours visually is one goal many artists strive for. So although it may put unknown artists at a slight disadvantage, it is something that is unfortunately unavoidable.
Many judged open exhibitions also allow artists to enter using a pseudonym, a fictitious name or alias used for a particular purpose. Using a pseudonym can bring freedom to individuals whose names may already be recognised for something else unrelated to art or visual artists that are already recognised or working in a specific genre. Artists may want to produce new artwork under a pseudonym as not to unbalance an established career or visual style, or in Bansky’s case, avoid possible prosecuted (Howie, 2010). Many artists prefer the anonymity of a pseudonym for many reasons and plenty of artists have used pseudonyms, Caravaggio, Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko to name but a few. If you are proposing to submit artwork to an judged open exhibition under a pseudonym, especially if you want to sell you artwork, you must check the gallery or organisation’s information around the use of pseudonyms. They may well need your real name to process any payment if your artwork sells.
Some are relatively cheap or free to submit your artwork to
Some judged open exhibitions have a submission or entry fee and this does become the major draw back for many artists when they are deciding whether or not to submit their artwork. Remember that galleries and organisations do need to cover some of the costs involved in holding an exhibition, often over a few months, if the exhibition is not fully funded. Costs could include hanging / displaying the artwork, marketing, administration, heating, lighting, insurance, staff costs, etc… I personally think it is acceptable to pay a reasonable submission fee for your work to be considered for a judged open exhibition, especially if the exhibition is not externally funded. But what is seen as a reasonable submission fee is an artist’s personal decision. There are some eye watering judged open exhibition submission fees out there that I personally would not pay and do think are unreasonable. The good news is that many judged open exhibitions are free to submit to or have a submission cost under £6 per artwork. For example, Ferens Open Exhibition charged £5 for each piece of artwork submitted to their 2022 Open Exhibition, the 23rd Annual Open Art Exhibition at Beverley Gallery in 2022 cost £3 for artists to submit one piece, the Theo Paphitis Art Prize and Bada Art prize are free to enter and in 2022 the Amplify Art Competition and Babylon ARTS Summer Open are on a pay what you can submission basis / free. Finding a good judged open exhibition with free or cheap submission fees, especially a local one to keep transport / travel costs down, is a great way place to start. You are certainly not guaranteed to get your artwork accepted, but if you do, having your work hanging in a gallery, possibly for sale, over a few months, may well be worth taking a gamble.
They can be quick to submit to and an easy way to exhibit your work.
Every so often, you will have to take your artwork into the gallery or organisation’s premises in person (or arrange for it to be delivered) to be considered by the judging panel. In a way, nothing beats seeing art in person and I can certainly see why some judged open exhibitions do not accept online submissions and ask artists to physically bring in their work for the selection process. The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition still asks artists to bring in their work in, for the latter stages of their selection process, to allow the judges to physically see it. A tradition depicted in Charles West Cope’s painting ‘The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875’.
You will then pick up your artwork if it is rejected or, if accepted, when the exhibition has finished if it is unsold. This process does incur additional costs, time and stress that need to be accounted for.
Most submissions to judged open exhibitions are now done online, especially as the use of technology continues to increase and we learn to live with and reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19. An online submission process can be much cheaper, quicker and accessible for the galleries / organisations as well artists who have the necessary digital skills to enable them to do this. The application form and paying your submission costs are often simple and easy, but it can take a bit more time and know-how to prepare your artwork to submit, especially getting good photographs of your work. After an online submission the only work you may be required to do, if your artwork is accepted, is take it or get it delivered to the gallery or a specified place and look forward to attending the exhibition launch. The hard work of curating, displaying your work and marketing the exhibition is generally out of your hands but you should still highlight the artwork you have in the exhibition via your social media channels, but this is not going to take too much time.
They can further your career as an artist
You receive an email, or have contact with the gallery or organisation, and find out your work has been accepted. Well done! This is a great achievement and there is nothing like seeing your artwork exhibited in a public gallery or space. Having successfully submitted to a judged open exhibition has given you invaluable experience too – you have prepared and submitted your chosen artwork on time and in line with the gallery’s guidelines and it has been judged to be good enough to be put into an exhibition. Austin Kleon stated ‘The Secret [to getting discovered / known as an artist is to] do good work and share it with people’ (2012:74-75). As long as your work is safe and you are not being exploited (for example, handing over the rights to your artwork without receiving sensible payment), any opportunity of getting your artwork out there for people to see is good and a public open exhibition will do just that. The preview of the exhibition may provide a good opportunity for you to network, find out about other opportunities, funding, etc… and gain valuable feedback from the general public, other artists and those who have a special interest in art. I remember some advice given to me years ago – to hang around the gallery space where your artwork is situated and listen to what people say about it, both the good and the bad. It was really interesting for about half an hour (I did learn a lot). Then I got a bit fed up and self conscious hanging around the gallery pretending not to listen to people and left. Remember it is only opinions and these should not be your main source of validation: proof that you as an artist or your artwork is valuable and worthwhile (Collins, 2022). Having your work accepted in a judged open exhibition can certainly boost your career as an artist, especially if you also succeed in winning a prize or award.
If you’re a prizewinner it will be a big boost to your CV and, dare I say it, ‘marketability’.Ian Sidaway (cited by Paintersonline, 2015)
But I think judged open exhibitions have to be viewed as a small part of a bigger plan if you are seriously trying to forward your career as an artist.
So we’ve arrived at ‘the cons of submitting to judged open exhibitions’. I, personally, have not had any bad experiences of judged open exhibitions. I am quite selective around which open exhibitions I submit to and they are not my main way of getting my artwork out there for people to see, so I may not have had the full experience of judged open exhibitions, but I am aware of other artists who have had less than positive experiences when it comes to judged open exhibitions. For the cons I’ve largely drawn on other artists’ experiences and opinions which should definitely be considered when deciding if submitting to a judged open exhibition is right for you.
The Cons of submitting to judged open exhibitions
Some judged open exhibitions are not open to everyone
We have already touched upon one legitimate reason why some judged open exhibitions are not necessarily open to everyone and that is to promote equality and/or because of funding circumstances, for example, The Gilchrist Fisher Award (n.d) is only open to artists aged 30 or under because it was established in memory of Alasdair Gilchrist-Fisher, a landscape painter who died of cancer at the age of 24. Although this can be frustrating at times, it makes art more accessible to everyone and there really are plenty of judged open exhibitions out there to choose from. Unfortunately sometimes a judged open exhibition’s eligibility criteria can be used to squeeze more money out of you, for example, although a judged open exhibition may be advertised as an ‘open’ exhibition, when you read the eligibility criteria you have to be a paid member of the organisation / group the open exhibition is affiliated with to be eligible to submit. You will then be presented with a link to pay to become a member. VAA Professional Artist Award is a good example of this, with only premium members of the VAA eligible to submit their artwork to this judged open exhibition. The premium membership does include useful extras for an artist, but if it is just a judged open exhibition you are looking to submit to, then the £110 a year (in 2022) for the VAA premium membership is a very expensive submission fee to pay.
Many judged open exhibitions can also be partly curated too, as highlighted by Swarez:
One major UK event boasts spaces for 1200 artists’ works from anyone resident in the UK. Sounds great right? All is not what it seems though. The actual number of slots for people like me is far less than those claimed, partly due to a network of favourites and artists that get to curate their own artists’ works instead. Those that are left get whisked past a panel of cobweb-ridden philistines who are out of touch with anything but the most shocking or most mundane of art forms and genres.Swarez
Artists who lack the necessary digital skills or do not have access to the internet to submit their work via an online submission also means that not all judged open exhibitions are open to all.
The chances of your work being selected can be very slim
The truth is that the more popular, reputable and established the judged open exhibition is, along with their large prizes, the more submissions they will receive and this will automatically reduce the chances of your work being accepted. So what are you up against if you choose to submit to some of these more popular judged open exhibitions? Well, The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition receives around 10,000 submissions and includes approximately 1000 pieces of artwork in it’s exhibition (Hutchinson, 2015). The Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize (formally the Jerwood Drawing Prize) receives up to 3,000 submissions and includes around 65 drawings for their exhibition (Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize, 2022). There are similar statistics for the BP Portrait Award (which was not staged in 2022 and will not be sponsored by BP in the future) and the biennial John Moores Painting Prize. You can see that the large of amount of submissions for these judged open exhibitions makes your chances of being accepted very slim – but not impossible. A good place to start are local judged open exhibition that have less submissions. Once you are regularly being accepted into these judged open exhibitions, if you want to, you could try then try submitting to the national or even international ones to see what happens.
It can be expensive to submit your artwork AND there can be extra costs if your work is accepted
Submission or entry fees are one of the top cons (or negatives) for submitting to a judged open exhibition for artists. When the submission fee is expensive and/or there is going to be further costs, time and stress involved, if your art is accepted, you really have to stop and impartially assess what the potential benefits of exhibiting in that particular judged open exhibition is going to be. I say ‘potential’ because there is no guarantee your artwork will be accepted, remember it is a gamble. Some of the factors you may want to consider are:
- How established / well regarded is the gallery / open exhibition?
- Is there is going to be a lot of competition that will reduce the chances of my art being accepted?
- Is the exhibition online or being held in an offline space that is free and open to the public?
- How much ‘exposure’ will your artwork actually get?
- Will your artwork be safe and free from avoidable damage within the exhibition space?
- What rights, if any, will the gallery / organisation hold over your artwork during and after the exhibition?
- Are you happy with the standard of work in the previous exhibitions and the way it was curated?
- Are you allowed to sell your artwork in the exhibition? If so, what commission will the gallery or organisation take?
- What have you personally decided to spend on open exhibition submissions and costs?
- Are there any additional costs you need to consider?
Some judged open exhibitions not only have a submission fee but, if your work is accepted, a further fee to pay to display your artwork in the exhibition. In some cases you are required to be on site on specific days to hang / display your work. I personally prefer an open exhibition that puts together it’s own exhibition with little or no assistance from me if my artwork is accepted. I’ve never curated before and, although I would love to try, I know this is best left to the experts while I get back into my art studio to paint.
This list of factors to consider is not exhaustive, but did you notice that I didn’t list ‘prizes’ as a factor to be considered? This is not because your artwork does not deserve to win a prize or an award, it’s just your chances of winning a prize or an award is very very slim, especially the big prizes – simply due to the large number of submissions. If you do win a prize or award, see it as a bonus, but not the reason for submitting your artwork to a judged open exhibition – this will only lead to disappointment.
There are stories of artists that have spent thousands of their money submitting to judged open exhibitions and, although they have achieved some success, it did not really result in the boost to their career or art sales they had expected…
“I have entered contests in hopes of being noticed and selling my art. In the last year and a half, I have been a finalist in The Artist Magazine Annual Competition twice, have been featured in Southwest Art Magazine (only after agreeing to buy advertising space of course), was selected for two international books which I had to pay to be in, and won four awards in Europe due to being seen in the books. One of the awards was being named Top 60 International Masters of Contemporary Art by Art Tour International Magazine. I have spent approximately $10,000 and nothing to show for it!”Artist Terry Sigler cited by MM
Being given small unpredictable rewards, like an artist entering lots of judged open exhibitions and among the many rejections some artwork is accepted and perhaps they win an occasional prize or award, can be very addictive (it’s called variable-ratio schedule). It’s why slot machines in casinos are so addictive. Maybe that is one of the reasons why judged open exhibitions become very appealing to some artists and, once you have submitted to one and you have all of your photographs and information ready, it is easy to submit to more and, before you realise, you’ve spent a fortune. If you don’t own a gold mine (have a lot of money), but are interested in submitting your work to some judged open exhibitions to see what happens, don’t be put off by paying a reasonable submission fee. Set yourself an annual budget or decide how many judged open exhibitions you will submit to each year, but remember there are plenty of judged open exhibitions that are free to enter too.
I submit to judged open exhibitions organised by galleries I already know, have visited previously and have an entry / submission fee within my personal budget. I presently don’t go above £6 to submit a piece of artwork. I also ensure I like the way they curate their art, that their exhibitions spaces are free and welcoming for all members of the public to visit and that, as much as they possibly can, will keep my artwork safe and free from any damage before, during and after the exhibition. In a way, I see my submission fee as a way to support galleries and other artists.
They can be a way for some galleries and organisations to make money and/or exploit artists
As highlighted earlier, there are hundreds of judged open exhibitions, art competitions and art awards out there and they range from the good, the bad and the downright ugly! There are some expensive submission fees, The BP Portrait award cost £40 to submit one piece of artwork, as an example, but the entry or submission fee is often clear in the exhibition’s information and the choice to submit or not is always yours. However, some judged open exhibitions and art competitions are quite clearly out to exploit artists and should be avoided. Emily Damstra, Swarez and Ann Rea have written about their experiences and views on judged open exhibitions and the organisations behind them. Including how they exploit artists and designers, from using the open exhibition / art competition format as a way to generate profits to obtaining art and design work without paying for them. Expecting artists and designers to work for free does not just happen through judged open exhibitions and art competitions, it is a widespread problem. I remember reading an article about a Sainsbury’s store in north London placing an advertisement looking for an ‘”ambitious artist to voluntarily refurbish our canteen…” The advertisement went on to add that the artist would gain experience in the creative industry while making “a comfortable area for our employees to escape to”.’ (The Guardian, 2016).
It caused outrage and many on Twitter had some great replies for this advertisement by Sainbury’s, including Connor Collins:
I was not in the slightest bit surprised by Sainsbury’s advertisement or Connor Collin and others artists’ reply to Sainbury’s. Artists are endlessly bombarded with people and organisations asking for free work and/or offering ‘exposure’ in exchange for the artist working for free. I either ignore these requests, politely decline, or occasionally raise the issue of asking for unpaid art work. The lesson here is to read the information provided by the judged open exhibition or art competition carefully. All judged open exhibitions should provide full details on eligibility, what they will and won’t accept, how to prepare and submit your artwork, what (if any) your role will be in the exhibition if your artwork is chosen, the details of who will own the copyrights over your work (including what the gallery or organisation will use your artwork for) and, if you can and want to sell your work at the exhibition, what the commission rate will be and what the arrangements for payment are. If there is important information lacking or completely missing it is perhaps better to steer clear from that particular judged open exhibition or art competition. Copyright is something I automatically go to when I am considering submitting to a judged open exhibition. Here is what I found under ‘photography and copyright’ in The Derwent Art Prize (2022):
‘Artists will allow the work to be photographed and reproduced by the Derwent Art Competition for the purposes of promoting the exhibition including; catalogue, press and publicity and websites in all territories. Copyright of all works remains the property of the artist. Any enquiries for copyright will be referred to the artist’The Derwent Art Prize, 2022
This is what I generally expect to see when submitting work to a judged open exhibition. Any open exhibition or art competition that takes away the intellectual property rights of your work as soon as you submit it needs to be very carefully considered. Here is Emily Damstra’s experience:
The[re] was a t-shirt design contest held by a not-for-profit scientific organization. The guidelines were thorough; the design needed to be very specific to a location and event, and the organizers even went so far as to say “[We] shall have the right to edit, duplicate, or alter the entry design for any purpose which it deems necessary or desirable, without the need for any further compensation, and/or permission.” So what compensation could one expect for one’s creative efforts? In this case, a free t-shirt. Seriously.Emily Damstra, 2015
There are many more examples on Emily Damstra’s blog: How Art/Design Competitions Exploit Artists and it’s an interesting read.
Your work is going to be judged
Ann Rea, Swarez and Emily Damstra are just a few examples of many who advise other artists that they ‘do not need to be judged’ by anyone other than themselves and those willing to pay for their work:
Art contests only serve to pit artists against one another. It’s not like a sports contest where you win or lose according to the explicit rules of the game. Art is entirely subjective. Who wins and who loses an art contest hinges upon personal tastes and hidden agendas, so they are biased.Rea, 2018
I do not believe anyone has the right to tell me I am not good enough to be put into a public show.
Art should not be a about the number of votes you can win.Swarez
So, do you want your artwork to be judged? It is an important question to ask yourself before you decide whether or not you should submit your artwork to a judged open exhibition, because having your work judged alongside other artists’ work is part and parcel of the whole process. If the answer to the question: do you want your artwork to be judged? Is ‘no’ because you agree that artwork should not be judged and placed into, what some call, popularity contests, then judged open exhibitions may not be right for you. If you answered ‘no’ because you fear your art, or you as an artist, will be judged negatively then you may want to start thinking about where your fear comes from and if you want to overcome this?
You will experience rejection and it doesn’t feel good
Following on from the question: Do you want your art to be judged? I think a better question to ask yourself before you enter into the world of judged open exhibitions is: Can you cope if your artwork is rejected? Can you maintain your confidence in yourself and your art and keep this rejection into perspective? I think the root of the argument against having artwork judged is partly a fear of rejection, which hinges on where your validation as an artist comes from. Is it from being accepted into judged open exhibitions? Is it from people buying your artwork? Is it from your family, friends or community? Is it from yourself? If your validation for your artwork and yourself as an artist comes primarily from external sources, such as having your work accepted into judged open exhibitions, then unsuccessful submissions / rejection is going to be incredibly tough on you and wreak havoc with your confidence as an artist. As an artist you have to accept that not everyone is going to like your artwork and that is ok. Art is subjective and so are the decisions made by the panel of judged. Below is the ‘Behind the scenes at the Summer Exhibition: Judging’ video to give you an insight over how the selection process works and what the judges art looking for… essentially something in a piece of art that is hard to put into words…
Rejection does not mean your art is good or bad, some would argue that if your work is rejected by an open exhibition you are doing something right! For me I do see a judged open exhibitions as competitions to enter, nothing more and nothing less. If I get accepted I’m really pleased, of course, if I don’t get accepted I know it does not mean I’m a bad artist. I move on and I do not lose sleep wondering why my work was rejected.
There is no escaping the fact that as soon as you start to show your art to other people, beyond your friends and family, your work will be judged without bias and it’s whether you choose to hear others’ feedback or not.
“You’re being judged no matter what, so be who you want to be”Picture.Quotes.
You may receive feedback about your work that you don’t like, but you will also hear positive things as well. If you can listen you may well learn things that will improve your work, but remember that your opinion is perhaps the most important.
Your work is accepted and it feels really good (maybe too good)
I imagine you didn’t think that this would be in the cons list. Most artists will agree that it is a great feeling to have your artwork accepted in an open exhibition, but there is an argument that:
‘…art contests offer false validation… [and that] real validation comes from people who value your art enough to pay for it’… Art organizers know that artists seek validation, so they’re playing the prestige card. If you want a blue ribbon buy yourself one.Ann Rea, 2018
In her blog called ‘Call for Entry: Open Art Exhibitions’, Sophie Ploeg (2019) talks about a ‘trap’ that artists, including herself, fall into: letting success or rejection in judged open exhibitions dictate whether or not they are a good artist or not….
In my first year of trying, I think it was 2011, my work got selected into various open exhibitions at the prestigious Mall Galleries in London. You can imagine how amazing that felt. Over the years I kept at it and had a few sales, but more importantly, what these open exhibitions delivered was a step up the ladder; I got my name out, my work out and it felt good. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad artist after all….
[the next year] my work did not get selected anywhere. And that felt bad. It is all too easy to get really angry, disappointed and depressed about it.Sophie Ploeg (2019)
Artists that can openly share their successes and failures should be praised. Life as an artist is not all plane sailing (as those artists on social media would have us believe!). It’s tough, difficult and hard work.
You just have to believe that what you are doing is right. You don’t need art competitions to do that.Swarez
If your work is accepted, you may have little control over where or how your work is displayed
The other consideration of being accepted in a judged open exhibition is that as soon as your art is in the hands of the gallery, you generally have little say where or how it will be displayed. The curator/s will do their best to ensure your work is displayed in the best way possible, but sometimes artists are disappointed when they see where their art has been placed and/or how it has been displayed (especially sculptures, ceramics and 3D art pieces). When a judged open exhibition has an open brief on the art that can be submitted, the resulting exhibition is often a huge mixture of different art styles and themes placed side by side. This in itself can put some artists off submitting their artwork to judged open exhibitions. Being able to view previous exhibitions will give you an idea of what they have accepted and how it has been displayed. For some artists, how their art is displayed is incredibly important and having very little control over this can be a gamble too far.
There are ‘better’ ways to showcase your artwork
As mentioned before, open exhibitions often end up displaying artwork with a wide range of different styles, themes and methods and the result can feel a little jumbled to some, but a chance to see lots of different types of art in one place. They generally aim to cater to a wide audience with different likes. You may need to consider if your target market is likely to see your work in that exhibition space? Another criticism of judged open exhibitions are that they attract submissions from artists who do not yet know what their niche is or who will buy their work. I’m not sure I entirely agree with this, because every artist has a different motivation for creating their art and submitting it to a judged open exhibition. For many artists these exhibitions are fun, a chance to show off their artwork in a public arena and perhaps raise money for charity or their community. They may not want or need their artwork to be their main income and creating artwork that is consistent, within a niche or finding a target market to sell their artwork is not high on their priorities. If you are serious about becoming a full time artist then submitting your artwork to judged open exhibitions should not be your only career plan and it is true an open exhibition may not be the ideal place for you to try and exhibit your style of art.
The world is changing and we are changing the way we view and buy art.Swarez
But the good news is there are many other alternative ways of getting your artwork out there to be seen, especially online. Social media platforms, online galleries and selling platforms, such as Etsy, creating your own website, are some of the ways to get your artwork seen and sold.
Conclusion on Submitting to a Judged Open Exhibition
Judged open exhibitions are not the right choice for every artist, for many reasons, but they do offer a unique chance for you to get your art exhibited in a public exhibition setting and seen by different audiences. It can be a great boost to your career as an artist and help develop new opportunities for you. It is common sense to read all the information provided by the gallery or organisation on the open exhibition to ensure that you keep within the guidelines, know the costs involved, know exactly what is expected from you once you have submitted your work and ultimately decide if it’s the right one for you to submit your work to. If there isn’t enough information for you to make a decision or important details appear to be missing, maybe leave this judged open exhibition alone and look for another. Artists should also be wary of calls for entry from judged open exhibitions and art competitions that, as soon as you submit your art, take away some or all of your rights over that artwork without properly financially compensating the artist.
When it comes to submitting to open exhibitions I have never spent over £5 to submit each piece of my artwork. I try and keep my costs down so that I can continue to work part time and spend the rest of my time creating art and doing other things I enjoy. I am lucky to live without the constant pressure to sell my work that full time artists often experience. Other artists may be in a better financial position to afford the more expensive submission fees but, if you are not in this position, working out an annual budget to allow you to submit to a few each year, especially local ones to you, or finding free judged open exhibitions, may be a good place to start. See it as a gamble and don’t take any rejections to heart.
If you liked this blog you might be interested in reading Reflections on Exhibiting at the Ferens Art Gallery’s Open Exhibitions 2002 and 2022: Would I Submit Work Again to an Open Exhibition?
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