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 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 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 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 a part of artist contests, competitions, exhibitions, juried shows, non-juried shows, art websites, and included in artist books, directories, encyclopedias, annuals and guides, and get gallery representation or exhibitions or shows, and more.
Now some of these pay-to-play offers and invitations may well be worthwhile, 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, 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 offers and opportunities similar to those mentioned here are problematic; some may actually get you somewhere. But any solicitation involving either your money, your art or both should be fully researched before signing on-- especially when you're being contacted out of the clear blue by businesses or individuals you've never heard of before. 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. 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 10-20 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.
* 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 getting exposure in major art centers like New York or London, and especially those with fees ranging into the thousands of dollars. Some of these gallery emails don't mention the money part up front which isn't exactly an above-board approach. Even on their websites, figuring out whether any fees are involved can sometimes be daunting. Only after you've submitted your art or have been communicating with them do you realize you have to pay. In short, hidden or undisclosed fees are almost always a tip-off.
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 they would like to proceed. 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 about how they would like to move forward, and not simply some form of "we saw your art somewhere and think it would be appropriate for our space."
Because some of these galleries spam artists with mass emailings, you have to figure out from any email offers you get whether they even know who you are or what your art looks like or whether you're just another name on an email list they've either assembled or bought. 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. It's your responsibility to find out what you're getting yourself into before you write the check, not after. (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 no matter what galleries they show at. THIS IS NOT TRUE AND IT NEVER WILL BE.
Some of these galleries also make it seem like they have a selection process for the artists they exhibit. They may or may not, but it's your responsibility find out, to learn what that process is and to get specific details directly from the source-- like names of jurors, what their resumes and qualifications are, who does the selecting, how do they make their decisions, and so on. You want that process to be something more than you write them a check; they give you a show or exposure.
Most importantly, anytime you pay for exposure up front, you effectively reduce the incentive a gallery has to sell your art. It'll certainly be less than if you pay nothing and the only way they make their money is by selling your art-- like the large majority of 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. It's 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. See whether their shows get reviewed in publications or online at websites other than the gallery's. Either ask the gallery for the names of at least 10 to 20 artists who have paid for shows there or take random names of 10 to 20 artists off the gallery's website (this is better than asking). 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. If not, then maybe take a rain check.
* But before we even get started here, 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 (not that they've simply seen it, but how they made the decision to contact you).
* 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, it's your responsibility to verify all such claims. Whatever they are promising, find out exactly what their methods are. Where do they show your art? Who sees it? How much traffic does the "show page" typically get (not the whole website, but the specific page)? Besides their own websites, do they have a significant online presence or profile? 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)? And ask to see examples of those reviews. What publicity will you get? Where will the advertising appear? What past successes can the gallery or enterprise report? Can they provide specific verifiable success stories and contact information? Once again, either ask them for the names of 10-20 artists who have paid for these services or better yet, take those names directly off of 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 significant entry fees. Verify the history, tradition and significance of the event itself as well as of its venue, sponsor or promotors BEFORE entering or sending money. Assuming they even have jurors, what are their credentials? And if they don't have jurors, what are the credentials of the competition's sponsors? Verify that they have a track record of successfully getting the prize-winning artists somewhere positive with their careers, or any of the exhibiting artists for that matter, either in terms of sales or other forms of advancement. Research the opportunity in advance even when a juror or jurors have profiles in the art community. Any gallery or website can pay someone with a profile to be a juror.
Ask the sponsors to explain what the selection process for entrants is, how they decide who gets in and who doesn't, what criteria they take into consideration. 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 whether they benefited in any way from winning and if so, how? If no previous winner's names are published, ask for them. I received an offer once about a competition 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 in this series 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 (other than winners) 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?
Some of these emailers 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? 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," "Apply before the event fills up," and similar 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 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" like being featured or reviewed on their website or in a publication that they publish, having an article written about their art, getting advertising space, getting a web page for a certain period of time, getting free educational materials, and so on. But if the promoters, their websites or their publications have little or no stature in the art community as a whole, then what good is any of that? Right you are. Hardly any good at all. So 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. Some publishers claim that they send their publications out to thousands (or more, sometimes many more) of international dealers, curators, museums, distributors, and collectors. Regardless, 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 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-- 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. So tell them 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 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 drill.
Some of these publications sound really important and have hifalutin words in their titles like Masters of this, Genius of that, International this, Best of that, Collectors or Connoisseurs Choice of this or that, and so on. If you're not any of these things 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 acquire that status upgrade is write a check. Again, no matter how fantastic it sounds to included in anything like this, thoroughly research all such publications in advance to determine whether either they or their books have a significant online or art world profile, one that extends significantly beyond whoever publishes them.
* 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. Some have high 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 (I'm not an artist, remember?) 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, that this website is 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. 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.
The great news is that specialized art websites are becoming less and less relevant as major social networking websites like Facebook and Instagram become increasingly sophisticated, and artists learn how to use them with greater and greater effectiveness. Artists who post regularly, keep their narratives interesting and engaging, and regularly interact with their fans attract more and more followers. The math is simple-- the best social networking websites have far more users than specialized art websites. And they're free! Why pay an art website with limited social networking capabilities and a limited audience to show your art? With the way the Internet is evolving, platforms like that make less and less sense.
* Anyone who wants money up front to be your agent, broker, or representative. As with galleries where you pay up front, these individuals have significant less 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.
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 sell through that agent or representative or how their art world profiles have been enhanced 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 serious 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.
* 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.
* 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.
* Any offer from anyone who clearly 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:
* 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 those making the offers know 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 represent themselves as. 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.
* You are perfectly within your rights to ask companies producing shows, fairs or exhibitions specific questions about past events they've organized. These might include requests for estimates of the amounts of art that have 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 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 facts and results.
* Does an application form for a show, publication, gallery, fair or other type of offer 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? 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 less than forthcoming or responsive when you ask 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.
* If your email correspondences with an organization or website making an offer put any kind of pressure on you to sign up, be careful. For example, if they state that the offer is a "once-in-a-lifetime" or "limited time" opportunity for representation, 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 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 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 or individual 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 nothing 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 can never be too careful.
* Does the organization sponsoring the offer say they're a non-profit? If yes, verify that they actually are 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 make sure the exact same email is not being sent out repeatedly and 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 or a building in the middle of nowhere?
* Speak to a principal either by phone 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. Complete contact information is essential-- names, street addresses, phone numbers, websites, emails.
* 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 it 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 networking 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 unusual ways of making payment, unusual shipping requirements, lack of verifiable contact information, unwillingness to speak by phone, etc.
* Buyers who start making excuses in order to explain 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 and billing zipcode. And ship the art only to the address of the cardholder. If you have any questions, contact your credit card service.
* 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. The bad news? The check or money order often turns out to be counterfeit).
* 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 it 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 take the plunge? If it's going to cost you any more than a few hundred dollars, consult me first. In a half-hour, not only can I elucidate the situation, but I can give you plenty more helpful related information as well. Total cost? $75. If you're interested in making an appointment, please email me-- Alan Bamberger-- or call 415.931.7875.
(Art by William T Wiley)
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