How to Research Offers for Artists to
Pay to Show or Exhibit Your Art
Do you get unsolicited email offers or invitations from galleries, art fairs, publishers, social media pages, or websites to show your art, apply for contests or shows, be included in books or directories, or for other forms of exposure? If an offer or invitation comes to you unsolicited and you've never heard of the senders, you need to know more before you get all excited, especially if any fees are involved.
What's the big deal about fees? Because if you're being asked to pay, you have to figure out whether the offer is more about your art or your money. You want to do business with people who are more interested in your art and who care about advancing your art career. That's what this article is about-- giving you the tools you need to make sure anyone who approaches you is doing so because they are genuinely impressed by your art and by you as an artist (and not by your ability to pay), and believe they can sell your work. When fees are involved, being able to research and fully understand what you're getting yourself into is essential. You want to make sure you'll be spending your money wisely and getting good value in return aka sales, not the opposite.
The most important part of spending your money wisely is making sure whoever you are paying ACTIVELY PROMOTES, SHOWS, AND SELLS YOUR ART. It is NOT nearly enough to put a few images of your art up on a website, send out an email or maybe two with an image of your art along with images of art by other artists, or hang your art in their gallery or at an art fair without actively promoting it (or you). Posting or showing your art with little or no marketing or promotion efforts beyond that is NOT how art gets sold. Sad to say, many of the businesses offering exposure for pay spend FAR MORE TIME soliciting artists to pay them than they do representing, showing, promoting, and especially selling the work.
In the art world, representing an artist means repeatedly promoting their art on an ongoing basis, getting the word out about that art, contacting clients who may be interested in buying, sending out press releases and emails featuring the art, and most importantly, SELLING THE WORK. Galleries and art websites show art they think they can sell, and they do what they have to do in order to actively sell it. They don't let it just sit there. If you receive an email or DM on social media from anyone who says they are interested in your art, or thinks your art is good enough to show, ask them what they intend to do in order to sell it. "Showing" is not enough, exposure is not enough. DOING is what you want... especially if you're paying for it.
Doing a simple Google search or reading online reviews is not necessarily enough to figure out whether a pay opportunity is worth it. Sadly, some individuals or businesses making these offers actively scour and purge the Internet of negative reviews, unflattering feedback, negative discussions, or less-than-stellar coverage or articles about their practices. If they find something they don't like, they do whatever they can to get it removed, including use of intimidation tactics and even threats of legal action. So finding 100% positive and zero negative reviews just might be a sign to dig a little deeper than quickie searches. You need to make informed intelligent decisions, and here's how to do it right:
* First and foremost, are all fees stated up front or easily accessible on a website or application form? This includes fees to apply, additional fees you will be responsible for if accepted, fees to be included in a show or exhibition, fees to appear on a website or social media page, fees to be in a book or directory, representation fees, promotion fees, gallery show fees, and so on. Beware if you receive any unsolicited invitations or offers that do not fully and clearly state or disclose fees up front, either on their websites, in emails, in DMs, on social media pages, or anywhere else. Being surprised with fees after applying or responding is not what you want.
* If you can find no information about fees, ask whether any fees of any kind are involved. Ask to see ALL fees, not just application fees. Do this BEFORE you apply, not after. If they are unwilling to provide fast, direct, straightforward information about fees, that's not a good sign.
* Do you have to establish an account, sign in, send an email request, or provide personal information in any form just to see fees? Having to reveal personal information before you can see what you are revealing it for is never good.
* Unexpected fees always raise questions that need to be answered. The main question why were they not stated up front in the first email or message or correspondence you received? And of course, this raises the question of whether other information is not stated up front as well.
* Is the offer or invitation addressed to you by name? If it's not, this could be a cause for concern.
* Is the content of the offer or invitation personal? In other words, is it from a specific individual who is specifically contacting you about specific works or aspects of your art?
* Does the offer or invitation give specific reasons why you are being contacted? Reasons may include citing examples of your art, your exhibition history, awards, coverage, or other distinctions you may have received in your career. General reasons are not adequate. Look for reasons that have to do with your career history and accomplishments as an artist, not simply someone saying they like your art.
* Regardless of what the email, DM or other form of contact says, ask how and why you were selected to receive it. Get specifics. Get names of those who selected you and why.
* If the email states that a jury or selection committee is involved, find out who is on it. If the names are not in the email or on the website, ask to have them emailed to you. When you get names, visit their websites or social media pages and see whether they list the event in their resumes. You might even contact them directly and to make sure they are jurying whatever opportunities you are being asked to apply for.
* Find out what percentage of people who apply for the offer are actually accepted.
* Are most of their emails about asking you to pay, or about promoting the work of the artists who have already paid? Websites, companies or galleries sending emails often send far more "invitations" to pay than they do to promote the art of the artists who actually pay. When this is the case, that should tell you something about their priorities. So BEFORE signing on, ask to be provided in writing with the SPECIFICS on how you and your art will be promoted.
* Put quotes around certain groups of words, phrases, or entire sentences in any emails or offers you receive and search them on Google. Do this with multiple word strings. You are looking to see whether any other artists are receiving the exact same invitation, and if yes, how many. Google search results will show any pages that contain those exact same word strings. Multiple exact matches usually mean you have received some type of mass email or even spam. The more exact matches you get, the more you should be concerned. Most importantly, visit whatever pages come up and see what people have to say. At the end of the match list, if Google says they are not showing duplicate results, but that you can see them by clicking a link, CLICK THE LINK. This can be very enlightening.
* Click every web link in any email you receive and read everything on the site, not just the entry form or application page to make sure you fully understand the offer. Also check the sender's social media pages to see how many followers they have and how much engagement they get with their posts.
* Check any website's popularity or ranking on Alexa (alexa.com) and similar website traffic checkers. Do this especially if the offer is to pay to have your art included on a website. Sites with low popularity rankings, or with little or no traffic data available could be cause for concern. Websites without much traffic will do little to get the word out about your art.
* Ask for complete lists of ALL artists who have participated in whatever offer you receive. For example, if you are being asked to be in an art fair or show at a gallery, ask for a COMPLETE list of all artists who have participated in recent years, not just a few hand-picked names they want you to see, but the COMPLETE list of every artist involved. Ask for at least the last three years. Galleries and art fairs typically list names of all exhibitors or artists who they represent or who show.
* If they won't provide names or don't list them on their sites, that's not generally a good sign. The main question would be why aren't they public? And is other information is being hidden as well?
* If complete lists are posted or you can get complete lists, contact at least five (preferably more) artists who you choose at random. Ask whether they received any tangible benefits from the offers including sales, commissions, invitations to show at galleries or fairs that DO NOT charge, and so on. Did they make a profit over investment? Would they would participate in those offers again? Would they recommend the offers to others? Saying they met other artists, that lots of people saw their art, or they had a great time is NOT enough. You want to hear tales of tangible success, and nothing less.
* When you get complete lists, compare name-by-name year-by-year to see what percentage of a previous year's participants returned the following year. If an artist has a successful fair or gallery show one year, they tend to return the following year. If they don't have success, they tend not to return. In other words, the number or percentage of artists who participate in consecutive years is an excellent indicator of the success of the fair or gallery opportunity you are receiving. Many returning exhibitors is typically a good sign; few returning exhibitors usually indicates the opposite.
* Are the offers reviewed or covered by established or respected third-party art websites or publications that have no connection or relation to those making the offers? This does not include PR websites where anyone can post a press release, websites that are owned or operated by the same people making the offers, or any other forms of self-promotion. You want proof that neutral third-parties care about these offers or events and believe they're worth writing about.
* If you receive an offer to be included in a book, magazine, or directory that is supposedly distributed nationally or internationally, the first question to ask is whether it is published in hard-copy, print-on-demand only, or only available online. If published in hard-copy, ask how many copies are printed. Don't automatically assume hard-copy.
* If a publication is stated to be published in hard-copy and distributed nationally or internationally to galleries, collectors, libraries, museums, critics, curators, bookstores or other businesses, individuals, or institutions, get the COMPLETE list of all names, or at least, of all names in the nearest major city or cities to where you live. You need to determine (1) whether the list is current, (2) whether the businesses or individuals on the list still exist, and if they do, (3) whether they have actually received or heard of the title in question. Most importantly, you have to see a copy at one of these locations so you can personally inspect it.
* If any of your questions about any offer are not answered directly and completely, it's best to move on.
* Once you get on one fee-based email or announcement list-- and especially if you pay to participate-- expect to receive even more from other senders.
For more detailed information about how to research and evaluate offers or invitations to pay for exposure, read Art Contests, Competitions, Offers & Shows Where You Pay Money or Send Art.
(still from an early animated film by Oskar Fischinger)
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