ArtBusiness.com logo

Art Business The Web

  • << Back to Articles for Artists
  • Art Contests, Competitions, Offers & Shows
    Where You Pay Up Front:

    Will They Get You Anywhere?
    Or Are They Dead Ends, Time Wastes or Scams?




    All artists wanna sell lots of art and get lots of press and have lots of shows and be lots of famous, right? Well, any artist who's made it will tell you that achieving these goals is a long, arduous and step-by-step process. That said, there's no shortage of artists out there who not only want it fast but who also believe they can get it fast. For those of you who fall into that category, there's no shortage of promises and propositions floating around-- offers to streamline the process and advance you to the endgame, some of which sound immensely compelling and all which can be yours for varying amounts of outlay-- either cash or art or both. Yes, in exchange for your hard earned dollars you can have endless opportunities to be in artist contests, competitions, exhibitions, annual juried shows, included in annual directories or guides, get gallery representation or exhibitions or shows and more.

    Now some of these offers and invitations may well be worthwhile, but unfortunately many turn out to be wastes of time or money or at worst, outright scams. We all want it now, but please, whatever the proposal, use common sense and investigate it fully first. Maybe much of what you're about to read is stuff you already know, but just to make sure we're gonna review and refresh anyway. Keep in mind that not all "opportunities" similar to those itemized here are problematic; some may actually get you somewhere. But any solicitation involving either your money, your art or both should be regarded with caution. There's hardly anything more irritating than sending your money or your art off into the cosmos and receiving little or nothing in return, or worse yet, getting hoodwinked by a hustler. So let's play safe, play smart and bolster the knowledge base...

    CAREER MOVES THAT NEED TO BE RESEARCHED FIRST:

    * Paying for mailing or email lists of galleries, agents, collectors or any other arts-related professionals, businesses or institutions that can supposedly advance your art career. This is often a waste of time and money not only in terms of buying the lists, but also with respect to time and costs of crafting professional sounding emails or if you're sending actual mail, designing and printing mailers. Mail or email lists tend to be arbitrary and non-targeted (and often not even accurate), meaning that the overwhelming majority of recipients will have absolutely no interest in your art right from the start, and the rest will likely have no interest either because they have no idea who you are or why you're contacting them. The right way to do it? Research potential galleries or art world contacts one by one to determine whether your art is something they might be interested in seeing more of and learning more about. Getting personal is the only way to go. Still itching to buy that mailing or email list? Ask the company selling the last for the names of 20 artists who have already bought it, call or email those artists and find out how effective the list was. If they refuse to give names, move on.

    * Galleries that want a chunk of money up front to give you shows or wall space, especially those that tantalize you with the prospect of exposure in major art centers like New York or London, and especially those with fees ranging into the thousands of dollars. To begin with, what incentive does any venue have to sell your art when you pay them in advance? Certainly a lot less than they have if the only way they make their money by selling your art (like most galleries do). Plus you have to assess whether these galleries even know who you are or what your art looks like or whether they're just spamming from an email or mailing list they assembled or bought. It's your responsibility to find these things out. (Hint: I occasionally get offers to pay to show my art at galleries, but guess what? I'm not an artist.) By the way, some of these galleries make it seem like all artists pay for their shows, no matter what galleries they show at. THIS IS NOT TRUE AND IT NEVER WILL BE. And some of these galleries make it seem like they have a selection process for the artists they exhibit. Again, it's your responsibility to know that process is, and to get specific details directly from the source. You want it to be something more than you write them a check; they give you a show. Having said all this, if you're still interested in paying for a show and the gallery seems genuinely interested in you and your art, make sure you stand some chance of getting a reasonable return on investment by fully researching the opportunity first. Either ask the gallery for the names of at least 10 to 20 artists who have paid for shows there or take the names of 10 to 20 artists off the gallery's website. Call or email those artists, and ask how successful their shows were, how much art they sold, whether they would do it again, etc. If enough of them give you the thumbs-up, go for it.

    * Show offers that promise reviews of your art, exposure to curators or museums, significant advertising and other forms of art world publicity in exchange for a fee. Again, verify all such claims. Which curators will see the art? What publications will print the reviews and are they in-house (published by the people giving you the show or exposure) or ones widely respected in art world? Which critics will write the reviews (or have written reviews of past shows or events)? What publicity will you get? Where will the advertising appear? What past successes can the gallery or enterprise report? Do they even know who you are and what your art looks like or is their offer simply part of a mass mailing or emailing? Once again, either ask them for the names of 10-20 artists who have paid for these services or take those names off the offerer's website and call or email them to find out what they got for their money.

    * Competitions, juried shows, contests, or annual exhibitions where you pay to participate, especially those held at retail galleries, especially those without a history or tradition or without recognizable jurors or sponsors or locations, especially those with healthy entry fees. (be aware some of these organizations hire people from known institutions to jury their shows. Even when a juror or jurors are known, always investigate fully before paying.) Verify the history, tradition, significance, and jurors of any such offer before entering or sending money. Verify that they have a track record of successfully getting their exhibiting artists somewhere. For example, I received an offer not too long ago about a competition that had supposedly been going on for the better part of 20 years. I emailed the sponsor and asked them to email me the winners of their past competitions in this series and-- you guessed it-- I never heard back. Still thinking about entering? Then you know the drill-- get the names of artists who have already participated, either from the website's lists of previous participants or directly from the people producing the competition, and do due diligence. Whether they won or lost is not what you're after, but rather did they get ANY feedback or positive response or career advancement with respect to their art whatsoever? If you're gonna pay, it's always nice to get something in return. Simply seeing pictures of your art on a website or hanging in a show may be personally gratifying, but is that enough?

    * Books, magazines, or other types of directories that offer to include your bio and images of your art in exchange for anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some publishers claim that they send their publications out to thousands (or more, sometimes many more) of international dealers, curators, museums, distributors, and collectors. Any such claims MUST be verified, not only in terms of whether the purported recipients actually receive the publications, but more importantly, whether they take them seriously. Before you send any money, ask for the names of 10-20 museums, galleries, or significant art world notables who receive the publication, and then selectively contact them to see whether they're ever heard of it, seen it, or taken it seriously. Ask where you can buy the publication. More importantly, tell them where you live and ask where you can see a copy of the publication. Ask for the names of people in the area who can show you a copy of the book. If you get evasive answers to these kinds of requests and come away without being able to see a copy of the publication... well, you know the rest.

    * A variation on the above example is periodicals that will give you an article in exchange for purchasing a certain amount of ad space. People in the art business know which publications operate this way... and generally do not take their content very seriously because it's based on who pays rather than on who's good. Again, always research first. Contact artists who've taken out ads or who have been featured in articles and see what they have to say. If you hear enough positives, go ahead and participate. If not, it's probably best to move on.

    * Websites offering to sell your art online for a fee. For instance, I once received an invitation to sell my art (I'm not an artist, remember?) on "one of the world's most important art sites." Corroborate all such claims with concrete proof, in this case, that this website is indeed a major online player. You can check any website's traffic and rankings on Alexa. FYI, that "world's most important art site" turned out to be anything but. Then contact participating artists who show on the site to see how they're doing and find out what kinds of returns they're getting on their investments. Selling art online is never easy, especially if you're not well known, especially on a website that offers thousands of works of art by hundreds of artists-- selling art against these kinds of odds is almost like winning the lottery.

    * Unsolicited offers from total strangers to build you a website that will sell lots of art.

    * Unsolicited offers from total strangers to get you high rankings on online search engines.

    * Anyone who wants money up front to be your agent, broker, or representative. As with galleries where you pay up front, these individuals have little incentive to peddle your art when you pay them first. In fact, paying them to represent you may actually be a disincentive-- they've already made their nut. But wait; it can get even worse. For example, you pay them X amount of dollars to represent you for three months or six months or whatever, the time passes, they sell nothing, and then they ask for more money, perhaps giving you the impression that sales are in the offing, it takes time to get your name out there, whatever. For those of you who insist on pursuing a fee-based agent or representative, ask for names of artists who they represent. Get at least ten names, preferably more, and find out how often and how much those artists sell through that agent or representative. Now if a healthy percentage of the artists report that they're making money after expenses, fine. Otherwise, you're taking your chances.

    * First-time contracts with dealers, agents, or galleries you're not familiar with or haven't done business with before that require long-term exclusivity agreements (greater than six months or a year) to be your sole representatives over large geographical areas like statewide or nationally or internationally, reproduction rights to works of your art that pay no residuals or royalties to you, or similarly one-sided concessions.

    * Offers to purchase get-rich-quick instructional books or courses that supposedly teach you how to make big money selling art on eBay, online, or in any other circumstance.

    * Any offer from anyone who does not know who you are or what your art looks like, for example, emails from individuals or organizations that begin with the words "Dear Artist."

    TIPS FOR EVALUATING OFFERS OR PROPOSALS:

    * To begin with, does any email correspondence you receive include a strict disclaimer that instructs you not to share its content with anyone, or asks you to delete it from your computer for any reason? If yes, find out why the sender would not want as many people to know about their offer as possible. Individuals or businesses offering opportunities for artists, or soliciting artists to participate, generally want as many artists to know about and sign up for them as possible. They also tend to post them freely to social networking websites, encourage people to share them, post them on calls-for-artists websites, and do whatever else they can do to get the word out. Instructing people not to tell anyone about their offers is not at all typical, and cause for concern.

    * Find out how they heard about you. Ask what they know about you. Ask them to describe your art. If they're so sure they can advance your career, you would assume they know who you are and what your art looks like. The truth? Often, you're little more than a name on a bulk mailing or email list, and those making the offers have no idea who you are. It's your job to separate out those genuinely interested in your art from those genuinely interested in your money.

    * Ask for references including enough contact information to verify that they are who they're represented as. These include names of artists who have sold well, gotten shows, gotten reviews, or won prizes as a result of their participation in whatever is being offered. Verify that whoever or whatever it is has the reputation or influence they claim to have in the art community. Third-party press in established art world publications or reviews by respected critics are always good signs.

    * You are perfectly within your rights to ask organizers about past shows or events, specifically, estimated number of sales, attendance figures, satisfaction of artists, "return on investment" or about any other concerns you might have. If you don't get the information you're looking for-- and especially if you get run-around answers, hostile answers, evasive answers, answers that throw everything back on you, etc-- then this is likely NOT an opportunity for you. You want straightforward direct honest responses from people who seem to be concerned about you and your artistic well-being. If the organizers make claims about getting artists exposure, providing resources or giving access to certain sectors of the public that you wouldn't otherwise have, then you deserve to know exactly what that means-- in terms of concrete verifiable results.

    * Does the application clearly state whatever fees you'll be required to pay if you get accepted? Are all fees clearly displayed somewhere on the website or in the email making the offer? If not, why not? Before you fill anything out, get complete disclosure on costs. If websites or emailers are less than forthcoming or responsive when you ask about costs, it's best to move on. In general, beware of any offers that initially come across as being free, but actually charge for services.

    * If your email correspondences with an organization or website making an offer puts any kind of pressure on you to sign up, be careful. For example, if they claim the offer is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" or make other representations in terms of international exposure, career advancement, etc, ask them to explain exactly what they mean-- with facts.

    * If an email or website lists stores, galleries, institutions or other retail outlets where their publication or publications are distributed and available for sale, call those places to confirm that this is actually the case. Only being available on amazon.com, print-on-demand sites, their own websites, or other mega-sites that sell millions of books and publications is not enough.

    * If an email or website claims that they get large amounts of online traffic, check those claims out on Alexa. Compare their website's rankings to those of websites that you're familiar with in order to verify that those claims are in fact true (or otherwise).

    * Search online using the title of the event, or the name of the gallery or individual making the offer. Exercise due diligence here; don't just read a few top search results (those results may belong to the parties making the offers). And watch out when all you come up with are press releases written by the parties making the offers, and posted on free press release websites. You want realistic assessments from third parties.

    * Search online using the names of the individuals or businesses or offers along with words like "complaint", "scam", "spam", "warning", "fraud", "legal", "judgment", "court", "defendant", "creditor", "bankruptcy" and see what comes up. You can never be too careful.

    * Does the organization sponsoring the offer say they're a non-profit? If yes, verify that by typing their name into this IRS Charity and Non-Profit search form.

    * If you get an email that mentions certain works of your art, your art in general, or seems otherwise personally intended for you, copy phrases directly from the email of perhaps 5-15 words each (one phrase at a time), put them in quotes, and search them on Google. You want to determine whether the exact same email has been sent out repeatedly and to multiple artists.

    * Type the address of the venue into Google, locate it on Google Maps and Google Street View. Does the organization have a physical gallery, an office, a home office, a post office box?

    * Speak to a principal either by phone, Skype (with camera on), or in person.

    * When verifying claims, never accept generalities. For instance, a statement like "this publication will be distributed to museums worldwide" is not adequate. You want specific names and contact information. Complete contact information is essential-- names, street addresses, phone numbers, websites, emails.

    * Always remember-- fame is not bought; it's earned.

    POSSIBLE SCAMS:

    * Offers to purchase your art, the purchase to be paid for by one party, and the art shipped to another party. This often results in a complaint that the art was never received and a subsequent request for a complete refund.

    * Offers to pay for your art in forms of cash, including wire transfer to your bank account, money order, Western Union, cashier's check, escrow services, or personal check-- especially when the amount of the payment is greater than the cost of the art (you're supposed to cash the money order or whatever, then send the buyer the art plus the amount of the overpayment. The bad news? The check or money order often turns out to be counterfeit).

    * Credit card purchases (assuming you accept credit cards) where the name of the purchaser does not match the name on the credit card. Require the cardholder to personally contact you and verify that the charge is legitimate, and that he or she knows the buyer (the name on the credit card). And don't forget to get the card's security code and billing zipcode. And ship the art only to the address of the cardholder.

    * Email requests to buy your art, but that do not mention you by name and contain no specific information about either you or your art.

    * Email requests to do business with you where you are asked to reply to an email address different than the originating address (unless the sender has a verifiable explanation for using an alternate email address).

    * Anyone who contacts your gallery, agent, or representative claiming that you're in trouble, that you need money, and to send that money to a third party fast-- either by wire transfer or by Western Union. Believe it or not, this scam is actually going around, and I've heard of at least one gallery falling victim to it.

    * Offers to do business that involve having your art picked up by curriers rather than standard shippers, third-party intermediaries, or shipping to addresses or countries other than where the offers are emanating from. Also watch out for people who make excuses in order to explain why transactions must be completed in unconventional ways. Scam transactions often involve supposed buyers making excuse after excuse in order to justify how the transaction must be made.

    * Unsolicited communications from anyone you don't know claiming to have a piece or pieces of your art sold, to send them the art, and that they'll pay you either upon receiving it or after they get paid for it. These may occasionally be legitimate, but make sure you get references and verify whom you're dealing with before shipping anything off in the mail.

    * Unsolicited or unqualified requests to send samples of your art to dealers, galleries, agents, or representatives you're not familiar with.

    divider line