Art Contests, Competitions, Offers & Shows
Where You Pay Money or Send Art:
Will They Be Good for Your Career?
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, 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 might 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 really compelling and all which can be yours for varying amounts of outlay-- in either cash or art or both. Yes, in exchange for your hard earned dollars you can have endless opportunities to take part in artist contests, competitions, exhibitions, juried shows, non-juried shows, be on art websites, get gallery representation or exhibitions or shows, and be included in art books, directories, encyclopedias, annuals and guides. And more.
Some of these pay-to-play offers and invitations may be well worth your while, but they can also turn out to be wastes of time or money, or at worst, outright scams. We all want it now, but please, whatever the proposal or offer or invitation, do due diligence first. Any solicitation involving either your money, your art, or both should be fully researched before signing on-- especially when you're contacted out of the clear blue by businesses or individuals you've never heard of before. There's hardly anything more disappointing 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. Is signing on a good idea or not? The following tips and pointers will help you find out.
CAREER MOVES THAT NEED TO BE RESEARCHED FIRST:
* Galleries that want money up front to give you shows or wall space, especially those that tantalize you with the prospect of getting exposure in major art centers like New York or London, and really especially those with fees ranging into the thousands of dollars. Some of these gallery emails don't mention the money part up front, perhaps giving you the initial impression that their main interest is to show and sell your art. Even on their websites, figuring out whether any fees are involved can sometimes be daunting. Only after you've signed up or submitted your art or have been communicating with them do you realize that you have to pay. In short, hidden or undisclosed fees are are not typical of how conventional galleries do business.
But let's back up for a minute. First of all, a gallery typically does not make initial contact with an artist by email and when they do, they already know plenty about that artist and their art. They've most likely been following the artist's career, are familiar with their art as well as their exhibition history, and have very specific ideas about how and what they would like to show. That level of knowledge will be evident from the email. Any gallery email you get should show a depth and understanding of your work along with basic information like how they discovered you, what specific artworks they are interested in or would like to show, why they would like to show them, and how they would like to proceed. In other words, you want clear indications that they actually care about you, and that the email is not simply some form of "we saw your art somewhere and think it would be good for our space" or other vague or non-specific approach.
Because some pay galleries spam artists everywhere with mass emailings, you have to figure out from any email offer you get whether they even know who you are or what your art looks like or whether you're just another name on a list. For example, if you start getting multiple or frequent email invitations or offers from a gallery or venue you've never heard of before-- regardless of your experience, resume or career accomplishments-- this may be cause for concern. (Hint: I occasionally get offers to pay to show my art at galleries, but guess what? I'm not an artist.) Some of these emails go so far as to make it seem like all artists pay for shows or exhibitions no matter what galleries they show at. THIS IS NOT TRUE AND IT NEVER WILL BE. In the conventional gallery world, artists do not pay for shows.
If a gallery states that they have a selection process for the artists they exhibit, it's your responsibility find out what that process is, and to get specific details about how it works-- like names of jurors or judges or owners or directors, what their resumes and qualifications are, who does the selecting, how they make their decisions, and so on. You want that process to be something more than you pay them money and they give you a show.
Another point to keep in mind is that anytime you pay for exposure up front, you effectively reduce the incentive a gallery has to sell your art. That incentive will certainly be less than if you pay nothing and the only way they make their money is by selling your art-- like the very large majority of conventional galleries actually do. To repeat, in a traditional artist/gallery relationship, no money changes hands in advance of a show; the artist provides the art and the gallery provides the venue. That's how things work and don't let anybody tell you different. The artist and gallery essentially form a partnership where each party takes on a comparable degree of investment and risk.
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. Do their shows get reviewed in publications or online at websites other than the gallery's? Call or email five to ten artists who are listed on the gallery's website and ask how successful their shows were, how much art they sold, whether they made a profit, whether they would do it again, etc. If enough of them give you the thumbs-up, go for it. If not, then maybe take a rain check.
* Show offers that promise reviews of your art, exposure to curators or museums, significant advertising, wide distribution, and other forms of art world publicity in exchange for a fee. Again, it's your responsibility to verify all such claims. Whatever they are promising, find out exactly how they deliver on those promises. Where do they show your art? Who sees it? How many people see it? Besides their own websites, do they have a significant online presence or profile in the art world? If yes, where? Which curators will see your art? What publications will print the reviews and are they in-house (published by the people offering the show or exposure) or independently published ones that are read and respected throughout the art world?
Ask which critics will write the reviews (or have written reviews of their past shows or events)? Ask to see examples of those reviews. What publicity will you get and where will you get it? Where will your advertising appear? What past successes can the gallery or business report? Can they provide specific verifiable artist success stories and relevant contact information? Once again, either ask them for the names of five to ten artists who have paid for these services or better yet, take those names directly off of the sender's website and call or email them to find out whether they are satisfied with the results.
* Competitions, juried shows, contests, or annual exhibitions where you pay a fee to participate. Before entering and sending money, verify the history, tradition and significance of the event itself. Assuming it has jurors, who are they and what are their credentials? Even when a juror or jurors have profiles in the art community, that does not automatically mean the show is significant (any gallery or website can pay someone with an art-world profile to be a juror). Most importantly, does the show have a track record of successfully advancing prize-winning artists in their careers, or helping any of the exhibiting artists for that matter, either in terms of sales or other forms of advancement.
Ask the sponsors to explain the selection process for entrants, how they decide who gets in and who doesn't, and what criteria they take into consideration. Find out what percentage of artists they accept. If you get vague or unclear explanations or answers here or no answers at all, this may be cause or concern.
Do they publish names of previous winners along with their contact information? If yes, contact them and find out how they benefited from winning and if yes, in what ways. If no previous winner's names are published, ask for them. I received an offer once to participate in a competition (even though I'm not an artist) that had supposedly been going on for the better part of 20 years. I emailed the sponsor on several occasions and asked them to email me some names of winners of past competitions and never heard back. Hmmmm. Really?
Still thinking about entering? Then here's the drill: Check the contest or competition's online profile and make sure it extends beyond the people or organization sponsoring it. 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 artists won or lost is not what you're after, but rather did they make any sales or get ANY feedback or positive response or career advancement 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 really enough? If it is, fine. If it's not, better to find out now rather than later.
Some email senders spam artists constantly with new contests or competitions-- sometimes as often as one every month or two-- and some claim to give thousands of dollars or more in prizes. First off, typical significant competitions, contests or shows happen much less frequently, like annually-- not every month or two. And with constant contests or shows, how much attention can the promoter (yes, sometimes it's just one person doing all the emailing) or promoters or websites or organizations give to any one contest or event and its entrants before the next one is underway and they have to focus on it instead? That's not the level of attention you want for your art.
Do the individuals or businesses producing the shows continually or repeatedly extend deadlines? Multiple "Deadline Extended" emails are often a tip-off, especially if deadlines are extended on a regular basis. Other come-ons like "Limited Space Available," "Only X Days Left to Apply," "Only a Few Spots Left," "Only X spaces left," "Apply before the event fills up," and similar pressure or deadline-related statements may also be cause for concern. Established, recognized and respected juried shows, exhibitions and competitions do not typically use that kind of language, engage in these kinds of tactics, or promote their events in this way. In fact many of the established recognized events and opportunities have many more applicants than they can accept.
As for the prizes, they may be offering thousands of dollars, BUT READ THE FINE PRINT. The amount of cash being awarded is sometimes only a small fraction of the total, with the bulk of the prizes being "cash equivalents." These might include being featured or reviewed on the sender's website, having an article written about their art or getting free advertising space in a publication they publish, getting a page on their website for a certain period of time, and so on. If they do, make sure the promoters, their websites or their publications have standing in the art community as a whole. If they don't, then what good is any of that? Once again, always research the opportunity first. If the contest passes muster, go ahead and enter with confidence.
* 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. Make sure to corroborate any statements publishers make that they send their publications out to thousands (or more) international galleries, dealers, curators, museums, distributors, and collectors. Verify that the purported recipients actually receive the publications, and if yes, whether they take them seriously. Before you send money, ask for the names of ten to twenty museums, galleries, or significant art world notables who receive the publication. Contact them to confirm that they actually receive it. Ask where you can buy the publication-- just having it listed on a handful of websites like Amazon, is not enough. But even on Amazon, you can check to see if it has any reviews and get an idea of whether anyone is buying it. Tell the publishers where you live and ask where you can see a copy of the publication in your area. Ask for the names of people or galleries or institutions that can show you a copy of the book. Beware if you get evasive answers to these kinds of requests or come away without being able to see a copy of the publication in person.
Some of these publications sound really important and have titles that make it seem like the artists they include are famous or accomplished in some way. If you're not famous or accomplished now, do you think paying money to be included in publications like this will suddenly change your status? Doubtful-- especially if all you have to do to upgrade your status is pay a fee. Again, no matter how fantastic any offer sounds, thoroughly research it in advance to determine whether being included will advance your career, and if yes, how.
* Being offered an article in an art magazine or similar publication in exchange for buying advertising 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 do it. If not, it's probably best to move on.
* Websites offering to sell your art online for a fee. Some have established online profiles; others just say they do. Some are good for selling art; others just say they are. For instance, I once received an invitation to sell my art (even though I'm not an artist) on "one of the world's most important art sites" which turned out to be nothing of the sort. Corroborate all such "important or high profile" claims with concrete proof, in this case, the statement that this website was a major online player. You can check any website's traffic and rankings on sites like Alexa. After researching their rankings, check online reviews of the site, 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.
The good news is that art websites like this are becoming less and less relevant as major social media websites like Instagram and Facebook allow artists to control their own destinies and get the word about their art with greater and greater effectiveness. Artists who post new art regularly, keep their narratives interesting and entertaining, and engage with with their fans tend to attract more and more followers... and if they do a good job, make more and more sales. And they're free! If you're going to pay an art website for exposure, at least make sure they can sell your art and make you money in exchange for their fee.
* Anyone who wants money up front to be your agent, broker, or representative. As with galleries where you pay up front, these individuals have significantly less incentive to peddle your art when you pay them first. In fact, paying them to represent you may actually be a disincentive for them to sell. Let's say you pay them X dollars to represent you for three months or six months or whatever. They sell nothing, but ask for another payment, saying that it takes time to get your name out there, that they came close to selling a few times, that prospects for making sales are improving, etc.
If you're really intent 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 are selling, whether they've gotten any gallery shows or representation, or how their art world profiles have improved as a result. 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 make significant demands. These include requiring long-term exclusivity agreements (greater than six months or a year) to represent all of your art, to be your sole representative over large geographical areas like statewide or nationally or internationally, that require you to pay them a commission on any art you sell regardless of who you sell it to or where you sell it, granting them reproduction rights to works of your art that pay no residuals or royalties to you, or similarly one-sided concessions. These are the kinds of terms you might consider only after a relationship has already proven to be profitable over a significant amount of time, and that all parties involved work extremely well together.
* 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. Why? Because you don't even know who you're emailing to, what their areas of specialty are or how specifically to explain why they should be interested in your art.
Mail or email lists tend to be arbitrary and non-targeted (and sometimes not even accurate), meaning that the overwhelming majority of recipients will probably have little or no interest in your art right from the get go, and the rest will likely have no interest either because they have no idea who you are or why you're contacting them. When your email or mailer looks like it's going out to tons of recipients at once, don't be surprised if no one responds. If you can't make a gallery feel like you care, then chances are really excellent that they won't care either.
The right way to do it? Instead of spamming everyone at once, search 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 absolutely the best way to go. Still itching to buy that mailing or email list? Ask the company selling the list for the names of five to ten artists who have already bought it, contact them and find out how effective the list was. If the seller refuses to give names, it's probably best to move on.
* Offers to purchase instructional books or courses that supposedly teach you how to make big money selling art on eBay, online, or in other ways.
* Unsolicited offers from total strangers or companies to build you a website that will sell lots of your art.
* Unsolicited offers from total strangers to get you high art rankings on online search engines.
TIPS FOR EVALUATING OFFERS OR PROPOSALS:
* Does the individual or organization contacting you even know who you are and what your art looks like or is their offer simply part of a mass mailing or emailing? Do they address you by name? Do they talk specifically about your art, where they saw it, what they saw, and how they decided to contact you? If yes, that's good. If no, not so good.
* Beware of any email correspondence you receive that includes a strict disclaimer instructing you not to share the contents with anyone, or asking you to delete it from your computer for any reason. If they want you to delete it, find out why the sender would not want as many people to know about the offer as possible. Individuals or businesses offering opportunities for artists, or who want artists to participate, generally want as many artists to know about and sign up for their services as possible. They also tend to post their offers freely to social networking websites, encourage artists to share the offers with other artists, 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 an offer in a threatening way is not at all typical, and definitely cause for concern.
* Find out how anyone who contacts you has heard about you. Ask what they know about you. Ask them to describe your art, like what specific pieces they're interested in and why. If they're so sure they can advance your career, you would assume they've researched you, and are familiar with your resume and what your art looks like. You want to make sure you're not just another name on a bulk mailing or email list, and that they know who you are. Are they more interested in your art or your money?
* Ask for references and enough contact information to verify that they are who they say they are. These include names of artists whose art they've sold, or who have gotten shows, reviews, or won prizes as a result of their participation. Verify that whoever or whatever it is has the reputation or influence they claim to have, online as well as in other sectors of the art community. Significant online profiles, third-party press in established art world publications, or reviews by respected critics are always good signs.
* Ask anyone producing shows, fairs or exhibitions specific questions about the success of past events they've organized. These might include requests for information about how much art was sold, attendance figures, satisfaction levels of artists or exhibitors, other forms of "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 contacts, 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 facts and results.
* Does an application form for a show, publication, gallery, fair or other type of offer 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? If not, ask whether any fees are involved and where you can read about them. Before you fill anything out, get complete disclosure on costs. If websites or emailers are not up front about fees, it's best to move on. In general, beware of any offers that initially come across as being free or low cost, but actually charge significant amounts of money for services.
* Beware of pressure tactics. For example, watch out if you're told that an offer is a "once-in-a-lifetime" or "limited time" opportunity for representation, international exposure or career advancement, and that you have to act now. Ask them exactly what they mean, and to support their answers with facts.
* If an email or website lists stores, galleries, institutions or other retail outlets where their publications are distributed or available for sale, call those places to confirm that this is actually the case. Only being available on websites like Amazon or print-on-demand sites, their own websites, or other mega-sites that sell millions of books and publications is not enough. You need evidence that the publications are actually selling, getting to, and being read by people who count.
* If an email or website claims that they get large amounts of online traffic, check those claims out on websites like Alexa. Compare their website rankings to those of websites that you know and are familiar with in order to verify that any claims of having high rankings or online profiles are true (or not).
* Search online using the title of the event, or the name of the gallery, individual, website, or business making the offer. Exercise due diligence here; don't just read a few top search results (those results usually belong to the parties making the offers, not third-party search results). 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 information from sources other than whoever is making the offers. If the top ten or twenty or more matches are all related to the entity that contacted you and to no one else, that's rarely a good sign.
* If you're not familiar with the names of the individuals or businesses who have contacted you, search their names along with words like "reviews", "complaint", "scam", "spam", "warning", "fraud", "legal", "judgment", "court", "defendant", "creditor", "bankruptcy" and see what comes up. You want to make sure the offer is worth researching further.
* Does the organization sponsoring the offer say they're a non-profit? If yes, verify that they actually are a registered USA non-profit by searching them on the Internal Revenue Service's Tax Exempt Organization Search.
* If you get an email that mentions certain works of your art, your art in general, or seems otherwise specifically 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 make sure the exact same email is not being sent out to multiple artists.
* Type the address of the business, gallery or other venue into Google, and locate it on Google Maps and Google Street View. Does the organization have a physical location like a gallery, an office, a warehouse, a home office, or is it just a post office box, a private home or apartment, or a building in the middle of nowhere?
* Speak to a principal either by phone, Zoom, WhatsApp, or Skype (with camera on) or in person. Making personal contact is often far superior to going back and forth in impersonal emails. You really want to get a sense of who you're dealing with.
* 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. This is essential in order to confirm that the publications are actually being received.
* Always remember-- fame is not bought; it's earned.
* Email requests to buy your art that provide little or nothing in the way of details about the person who's emailing you, additional contact information, where they live, how they found out about your art, what they like about it, etc.
* 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. As mentioned above, Google phrases from the email with quotes around them to see whether anyone has posted them anywhere else on the Internet, and if yes, what they have to say about it.
* Emailers who say they're familiar with your art, but then ask for the URL of your website or image page or social media page. If they're familiar with your art, wouldn't they have found those pages already? In cases like this, the emailer likely has no idea who you are or if you're even an artist, but may instead only have your email address or be spamming numerous artists from an email list.
* 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).
* Requests to complete transactions in unconventional ways including but not limited to ways of making payment, shipping requirements, lack of verifiable contact information, unwillingness to speak by phone, etc.
* Strange explanations about why transactions must be completed in unconventional ways. Scam transactions often involve buyers who make excuse after excuse in order to justify their unusual shipping, payment, or receiving requirements.
* Offers to purchase your art where the purchase is paid for by one party and the art shipped to another party. This has the potential to result in a complaint that the art was never received and a subsequent request for a complete refund.
* Shipping addresses that are not verifiable residential or business addresses, but turn out to be mail services, drop-off or pick-up locations, or PO Boxes.
* Offers to pay for art with a credit card that is in a different name than that of the person buying the art. Verify all third-party transactions before accepting payment, and make sure that the cardholder is aware of the purchase being made on their card. Personally speak with the cardholder to verify that the charge is legitimate. Also find out how the purchaser knows the buyer (the person whose credit card is being charged). Don't forget to get the card's security code, billing address and zipcode. And ship the art only to the address of the cardholder. If you have any questions, contact your payment provider.
* 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 are then given instructions to cash the money order or whatever, then send the buyer the art plus the amount of the overpayment.
* Offers to pay for the art where the money is sent to you by services, websites or businesses you've never heard of and cannot verify.
* Offers to do business that involve having your art picked up by curriers or third-party intermediaries instead of standard shippers, or requests to ship to addresses or countries that are different from where the people making the offers are located.
* 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 the art or after they get paid for it. These may occasionally be legitimate, but make sure you get full contact information and 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.
* Anyone who contacts your gallery, agent, representative or friends 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. I've heard of at least one gallery falling victim to this.
Are you considering an offer or opportunity where you're being asked to pay for exposure, but aren't sure whether or not to go for it? If yes, you can always consult me first. In a half-hour, not only can I elucidate the situation, but I can likely give you additional information to help you make your decision. Total cost? $75. If you're interested in making an appointment, email Alan Bamberger-- or call 415.931.7875.
(Art by William T Wiley)
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