Artist Open calls – should you be paying?

You don’t have to pay to submit a CV, so why pay to submit artwork? I get it, I understand that some galleries need the money to host the exhibition, they need the money to run, pay staff and bills etc, but do you not think they should only be charging those that are successful? It seems weird to me that they charge all applicants to open calls, so you are funding an exhibition that you may not have anything to do with. And some of the galleries/organisations out there, are charging you, telling you that you are unsuccessful, and not giving you any feedback! That’s not cool man.

From a personal point of view, we at Cotton On MCR run an application process for the art fairs we host, it’s free to apply. You then have to pay when successful and you pay for the table hire. However, following the last two fairs, we have had people apply and then pull out a different stages. Some, when we announced they have a confirmed space, pulled out straight away. Others, after telling them they were successful, we didn’t hear from them for 1-2 weeks after that, so we were chasing, making sure they were aware they had a space. When we did the Pop-Up Art Fair last September, one artist pulled out 2 days before the event!

This is all pretty shitty, and creates a lot of work and a lot of stress in the Cotton On MCR office. And I am not saying all this to point fingers or be like ‘woe is me.’ I am just saying it as I think some people’s attitudes to this type of thing may be different if they had to pay for the application in first place. Having people pay is a way of making sure all those that apply are serious about it and there to make the commitment. Plus, as a business, it is another way to make money. I highly doubt we will ever charge for applications but, I do get on this occasion, why organisations charge for them.

However, on the flip side of that, there are huge organisations that charge £70+ for submissions. They are also selling the artists work at the galleries, so I can’t help but think how much money they make from the sales too. Plus, generally, the galleries can’t run without the artists work, and the more work they have, the more people will be coming to the gallery, using the cafe, going to the gift shop etc. So the galleries will automatically be making money from that as well. It just seems to me that the artists are getting a pretty rough deal out of all this.

Let’s have a look at BBA gallery open call for example. It costs $39 (approx £31) to download the application form. They say:

  • Each year, a panel of professionals judges the entries, looking for the artist who shows the most significant potential and professionalism, and who has convincingly and skillfully executed a concept or work.
  • BBA will take payment from the buyer of the artwork and, once payment is received, will pay the artist minus 40% commission on total sale price. Gallery will receive 40% commission of the retail price, with 60% going to the artist.

So they take money from all applications and also money from sales too. They state that any medium is welcome – so basically, what I am reading is that literally any artist can apply and there is no criteria at all – great! Or is it? Because of this lack of criteria, hundreds, or thousands of artists could apply, all paying $40, with no guidance as to what the panel are looking for. It also doesn’t say anything about feedback for those unsuccessful.

There are cheaper ones out there. A little closer to home, I know AIR Gallery in Altrincham tend to charge £5 for their open call submissions. This was the case for one of their ‘Lucky Dip’ exhibition, where the artists and works shown were picked at random.

I’m not saying don’t apply or pay for these open calls! I’m just saying, have a really good look at what you are applying for and what you get from it. One of my lovely helpers, Lara, is an artist and regularly applies for open calls. Here’s some tips from her as to what to look for:

  • Time scale, can you make the work you want/have it ready for the deadline?
  • Size of work and medium/type, does it fit the criteria
  • Look at previous winners and the exhibitions held to get an idea of what work they have chosen before, is your work suitable?
  • Costs: not just the fee, but travel, delivery and pick up of your work
  • What do they do with your work after the show, do they store it for you, is this free/do you have to pay and if not are you able to collect your work?
  • Pricing your work, look at the commission the organisation takes
  • Is it worth it? Every open call is a gamble with no guarantee, so make sure it’s something you really want to do and are willing to lose the money if you don’t get it
  • Don’t let it knock your confidence, the amount of applications vs the amount that get picked is usually a huge gap so be able to not let it get to you and keep going

Paying for open calls is a minefield. Artists have to apply for these to be featured in galleries, to get their name and get their work out there. I get that. I just don’t want to see anyone get ripped off. I hate the fact that these places don’t offer feedback (the same when applying for a job for that matter). I hate that they take money from those that may not be chosen and then not offer refunds. I hate that there’s really not anything we can do about it and it’s just one of the ridiculous struggles artists face. I hate that the art world is so bloody tricky to work in and make decent money from. But what can we do about it?

There are a few places you can look for open calls including: ArtQuest, ArtRabbit or #ArtistOpenCalls on Facebook- but there are plenty others.

Read other art based articles: The Problem with my Art Degree / Arts unhealthy relationship with Instagram / or watch our video about Building Your Online Presence.

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