You’ve probably heard the phrase “pay to play,” or maybe you’ve seen one of art critic Jerry Saltz’s “artists should never pay” proclamatory tweets. “It’s a scam,” he writes. And you might be nodding your head vigorously, because you’re sitting there in your bedroom, which is also your studio, trying to make artwork after a long commuter schlep to your full time job, running errands, attending art openings, and you’re basically broke all the time. You already have to purchase all the materials, not to mention pay rent, as well as invest real time in what you’re creating. And then there’s the part where you want people to actually see it. Why on earth should you have to pay for that?
You’re not wrong to feel this way. It’s frustrating. But it’s also not helpful (for you, most of all), especially on principle, to totally dismiss opportunities that require a small fee. Sometimes those fees are what keeps small projects afloat–the exact project you value enough to apply to. So there’s one key thing to keep in mind: not all “open call” opportunities are created equal.
Just like there are numerous genres of art and countless ways to go about sharing it, there are also countless ways that everyone from independent curators to successful commercial galleries go about finding artwork and exhibiting it, and they often fall under the “pay-to-play” category. It’s hard to bite the bullet, or know which calls to participate in, when there are so many options and you often have any idea how that money is used. And when your work is not accepted, it can feel like you threw it away. This is why I urge you to educate yourself and find opportunities that fit your work, and that you feel good about. Even if your work is not accepted for that particular opportunity, if you apply well, your work will still go in front of industry eyeballs. Do your research, and weigh the value of the fee and the time it takes you to prepare the submission.
The resources and tools that, for example, an established institution has accumulated, through years of fundraising (aka. “development”) are completely different from artist-run spaces or DIY curatorial projects. And the artist-run initiatives and the DIYers out there often rely on what I think of, not as pay-to-play, but as old-fashioned arts crowdfunding. When you look at it that way, it starts to feel a little less scammy. But it means you have to take responsibility, as an artist, for knowing what’s worth it–and what’s actually kinda scammy. It’s not hard to pick out where your money is best put: an Instagram account charging you $10 per post in the hope that you’ll get a few new followers, or an exhibition or publication opportunity charging $30 to get your work in front of art world professionals, with the possibility of further collaboration.
Below are some thoughts and tips for approaching open calls. If I’ve missed anything, or you have something to add, please comment!
Things to consider when researching:
Some questions and thoughts to consider when deciding which opportunities are best for you…
+ What do you know about the organization? Is it an organization? Is it just a person, a small artist collaboration, or similar?
+ How is the organization funded? Are they a nonprofit? A self-funded artist-led space? Someone using their paycheck from their day job to make it happen?
+ How long have they been around? What is the history of the organizer or organization’s work?
+ Do you know any artists who have participated before? Was it a positive experience?
+ Does the organization offer free ways to get involved too? This can include features on their blog or online platform, shares on social media, etc.
+ How well do the organizers communicate during the process, especially if you have questions in the beginning? If you don’t know, always ask before applying. Never hesitate to send an email. If they don’t get back to you within a couple days, or you don’t have a great feeling about it, let it pass. There will be others.
+ You don’t have to apply. No one is making you. Avoid being bitter or commenting on opportunities that just aren’t right for you.
+ Submit your work to calls that make sense for your work. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else a favor by submitting with that you know doesn’t fit, just for “exposure.”
+ Consider the amount of the fee — think annually — what other opportunities will you apply for? What is your budget? A yearly maximum can be helpful.
+ If you are accepted, how much more will it cost to ship work and/or how much time will you have to invest? Is it worthwhile to you to do that?
+ Will you have to ship your work? Is this an artist-run or independent project, or a gallery/nonprofit? Both institutions and artist-run spaces often won’t cover shipping for large group shows, but they should if they’re doing smaller shows with 1-4 people (although these often are not the focus of open calls). More frequently, online exhibitions or alternative modes of display help to keep costs down, but still may include a fee (such as Young Space online calls).
+ Who are the jurors or curators? What institutions or projects do they represent? Does it align with your work, or where you see it going?
Some basic tips for making a good application:
Often, calls for art bring in hundreds of applicants, if not thousands for established, popular opportunities. That’s a LOT of artwork. To make it more likely that your work will be noticed, and that your application will be considered, you can avoid common pitfalls and help yourself have a better chance.
+ Are you eligible? This may sound a little basic, but make sure there are no limitations on geography or medium that mean your work doesn’t fit. Many times these limitations have to do with logistical considerations or the mission of the particular organization.
+ Avoid submitting numerous types of things you work on, such as drawings, ceramics, and paintings all at once. Choose one — they should all “go together” to get an idea of your practice in general.
+ Take good pictures! Most jurying happens online these days… it can be mind-numbing going through thousands of images of artwork. Make sure your work looks the best it can. Dark or shadowy snapshots just don’t cut it, and you do yourself a disservice to apply with anything that isn’t a clear, straightforward, bright image of your work.
+ Read the instructions carefully, and include everything that the application requests, such as images, how to name files, what supporting documents to include, and so on.
+ Submit to calls where you actually want your work to be seen — who is the audience?
+ Ask if you don’t know, need clarification, or you want more information.
Did I miss anything? Something you’d like to add? Leave a comment!