As an emerging artist, one thing I routinely do to look for opportunities is scour the Internet on art forums and blogs, and pour through the listings on various “call for entry” websites. These types of sites announce galleries that are looking for artists for group shows, cities that are looking to install public art, publishers looking for artists to feature in books and catalogues, artist in residency opportunities, grants, scholarships, contests, and more. Often the opportunities have no real connection to the sort of career path I’m trying to build, or I might really have to stretch to make my work/style applicable to the call, but when you’re not yet well established you can’t really afford to be too picky.
Every now and again I come across something that is right up my alley though. Art projects featuring pets, contests with the theme of nature conservation, hell even one time, a juried exhibition of paintings that communicate what it’s like to live with a spinal fluid disorder. Long story short, that incredibly recondite last one could not have been more perfect for me to apply to. Unfortunately, the next thing that tends to happen is I scroll through the briefing/rules until I see the dreaded words. “Entry Fee”.
Now I understand the point of entry fees in theory. They serve as a means to control the number of people applying because you’re not likely to whip out your credit card if you’re not confident and serious about your work. Additionally places use the funds to pay their jurors for their time, pay for a venue if necessary, and pool for prize money in the instance of a contest. I get it – I do. However, being a visual artist is just about the only creative field where this is commonplace. Actors don’t have to pay to audition. Writers don’t have to pay to show off their manuscript. Yet for someone like an illustrator or fine artist it is totally okay to expect them to pay just to get their work in front of someone’s eyes with absolutely no guarantee of being accepted or included. So surely an artist must get something out of it right? Like feedback from the jury? A portfolio review explaining why they didn’t get in? Absolutely not. Let’s call this what it is – exploitation.
If you do pay an entry fee and happen to get accepted into a juried show, the expenses don’t end there. The artist is responsible for buying a box, packing materials, and the cost of shipping if the show is out of the region (or simply doesn’t accept hand delivered work). The artist is responsible for the cost of framing the work. Sometimes there is a “hanging fee” involved. Don’t want your art to get damaged? Better get insurance on that – that costs falls to the artist as well. If you don’t wind up selling the piece you’ll be responsible for return shipping, and if you do sell it don’t forget about the gallery’s commission, which is often as high as 30-40%. In some cases you could actually stand to LOSE money by participating in these pay-to-play shows. Why should we consider it normal to put the financial burden of an entry fee on someone who’s in all likelihood already struggling to generate an income from their work?
I wouldn’t be opposed to entry fees if they were refunded upon not being accepted. At least the artists who are accepted are supposedly benefitting from exposure if nothing else. It would seem though that the majority of these galleries and publications are being funded by the hopeful artists who didn’t get in. Additionally I respect when places need to have them for one reason or another but aim to keep them low. I see plenty of calls where it only costs $5 to submit. However the unfortunate truth is the majority of the entry fees are $40-$90, and I’ve even seen some as high as $250-$400. How? How even are people affording this? Just for the CHANCE to be accepted into a show or catalogue?
The norm that is the world of exhibiting for a visual artist is just criminal and I urge artists everywhere to boycott any sort of pay-to-play opportunity as your compliance with this broken system just furthers the idea that it’s okay to take advantage of us and furthers the inequity of artists everywhere.