Art Competition Odds

What I Wouldn’t Wish for Any Artist

Five reservations about calls for art, starting with a competition judged by collectors.

#1: This call from Sylvia White Gallery in Ventura, CA.

This call set off all sorts of red flags for me. On a small scale, it instantiates what’s wrong with a market-driven art world.

For this exhibition, Sylvia White has invited 15 of the gallery’s best collectors to review the artist submissions and select their favorite work.

The gallery will exhibit works selected by the gallery’s collectors (read: customers). There’s no guiding curatorial vision beyond that.

With works selected by 15 people with different tastes, the resulting group show will probably be haphazard.


Collectors names will be kept anonymous until the opening reception.

Why? I don’t believe it’s to dissuade undue influence, because jurors are named in open calls regularly. I think it’s because collectors love a discrete gallery, because their interactions are about money, dibs, and discounts.

It’s certainly not for artists’ benefits—art competitions create unfavorable odds for applicants; the chance to introduce our work to jurors is a secondary consolation. But with anonymous jurors, we can only surmise. Experienced artists will steer clear of this mystification (and a gallery whose website features exhibition images sans artist credits). Less experienced artists hungry for a chance to show or sell their work, however, may not know better.

Let’s break it down. These costs are certain:

  • All applicants will spend at least $35 in entry fees each.
  • All applicants will spend time preparing their submissions.
  • Fifteen successful applicants will spend more money and time on framing, and outbound and return shipping. (Even artists whose works are already framed, but with glass, will have to swap out the glass for plex.)

There is only one guaranteed benefit:

  • Fifteen successful applicants’ work will be exhibited.

…and this possible benefit (with a certain cost):

  • Sale(s) (minus a 40% gallery commission).

In the past, I may have participated in juried calls with terms like these. The exposure seemed worth it to me then, but strikes me as a raw deal now.

I encourage young artists to apply widely to calls, especially when your work is developing. But as your work matures, it’s OK to be more discriminating, and to seek out more advantageous opportunities, and especially ones that cohere to your values and goals of why you’re showing and to whom. (Proceed with caution.)

#2: CAFÉ (Call for Entry)

CAFÉ is a call for entry service loaded with regional, fee-based calls for exhibitions. When I realized that their shows and venues generally weren’t interesting or advantageous for me, I stopped reading it—a decision the above call further validates. (Proceed with caution.)

#3: SlowArt Productions/Limner Gallery, Hudson, NY.

In checking NYFA, I come across calls from SlowArt regularly…. Almost too regularly.

Years ago, back when the gallery was on Sixth Ave in NYC, my work was accepted into one of their calls. I spent what seemed like a small fortune on framing and shipping, and I was disappointed that the show didn’t lead to more opportunities.

In retrospect, given how many open calls SlowArt posts per year, I realize the over-reach of my expectations. By nature, open call shows are mixed bags, and galleries won’t have well-respected programs if they’re always showing mixed bags. Though I am grateful for the exhibition opportunity, it would be nice to spare young artists misconceptions about what these calls can do for them. A huge reach, much less critical attention, is highly unlikely, especially in Hudson (population 6,713). (Proceed with caution.)

#4: Entry fees based on quantity of images. 

The calls from Sylvia White Gallery and Slow Art use a variable entry fee: $35 for 3-4 images, and $5 per additional image.

<Huge generalization> I think this fee structure can be an indicator for low- or middle-brow exhibition calls. It seems suited for finding iconic images or salable works, rather than understanding artist’s overall practices. It also rewards convention—it’s easier to convey your practice in three images if you work in one media (as opposed to say, post-media or post-studio artists).

In the past two years, I’ve applied to 29 residencies, exhibitions, grants and other opportunities. I don’t think any of them used this fee structure. (For most, I submitted 8 to 10 images—sometimes as few as 6 and as many as 20—for a flat fee or no fee at all. The flat fees always work out to a better deal per each image.) More importantly, these calls are often for better opportunities, offering visibility as well as resources or stipends.

(Proceed with caution.)

#5: Calls requiring  “framed, ready-to-hang” art.

Similar to Reservation #4—this is also not a great sign of a killer exhibition—but more persnickety.

[A caveat: This requirement makes sense for annual juried shows with dozens of artists, or one-night installs at benefit auctions. I’m less sympathetic when it’s for a call for exhibition that’s part of the gallery’s regular programming.]

A gallery exists to exhibit art. Asking for ready-to-hang art implies that the gallery has only the bare-minimum capacity to install artworks. Instead of finding the budget and hiring the necessary labor, they ask artists to facilitate installation and/or compromise what they exhibit (as not every work calls for framing). Limiting a show to framed art minimizes labor while also restricting risk, creativity and innovative exhibition-making.

(Depending on the situation, proceed with caution.)