Opens and Competitions.

There seem to me to be two main problems about Opens and Competitions, the first about economics (aka morality), the second about the straightjacket of prescription. This blog is about the first problem, which stems out of the main weaknesses of ‘artists’ (by which I mean creatives of any shape or colour, though here I am mainly talking about the visual).

Artists are the old two-headed eagle – one head does the work, the other flogs it.  The two heads may argue with one another, and sit uncomfortably on the same body, but the product must flaunted if money is to be earned.  If no-one sees your work, no-one buys it. In addition we need feed-back, and a sense that someone, somewhere, appreciates what we are doing. This need for an audience is the artist’s Achilles’ heel, and there are plenty of vultures around ready to take a peck at it. (Yes I know that was Prometheus, not Achilles, but you know what I mean). There are also good fairies who want to help artists, outnumbered of course by the vultures.

Opens, which appeal to the marketing hunger, are a great boon to institutions. These don’t have to pay artists: contrariwise, the suckers pay the institution for the pleasure And such is the hunger of artists for exposure that there are usually more submissions (and therefore more fees) than works chosen

A fictitious model. Let’s say your institution (with existing staff & funds) has the capacity to show 100 pictures. You advertise an Open and 300 artists apply, They can send in up to 3 pictures at £5 per submission. Supposing an average of 1.5 pictures submitted per artist, you have £2,250 in the kitty – probably enough to give a good prize with the rest going on expenses and publicity. You put on the exhibition. You are a public benefactor. You then collect a percentage of any sales.

What do the artists get? Because some artists had more than one work selected, less than 100 artists were exhibited.  It would be unusual for more than one third of the works to sell; so less than 30 artists came away with earnings.

The worst is that, leaving aside sales, this model creates a transfer of money from some artists to others. Let me say that louder: in this model unsuccessful artists pay the successful ones.  Not the connoiseurs & collectors, not benefactors, not the greater public, but other artists. The model is the lottery, in which the many suckers provide wealth for the few winners (this is why the National Lottery was called a tax on the poor).  There are alternatives.

Leaving my invented example, let’s look at two real ones.  The first is The Cut Open (Halesworth, Suffolk).  The Open this year had a fee of £6 per entry, two entries permitted. But it guaranteed to hang at least one entry (in practice in recent years, and this year, everything has been hung). 82 artists sent in 196 works (which gives an income of £1176). Prize money in the region of £200 was handed out.  The Cut does not receive any  public grant, and the show is dependent on voluntary labour It does not sell a high proportion of pictures shown, (twelve were sold) but it only takes 25% in commission. Everyone who submitted at least had their work displayed, at a reasonable cost.

The second example is The National Open Art Competition. Chichester, Last year the submission was up to 3 works at £20 per work. The selection was in two stages, the first sifting by internet, the second selection from delivered works. 1650 works were submitted, (which would generate an income from submissions of £33.000.)  The October newsletter stated that £33,000 of prize money was ‘awarded to artists from around the UK.’  It’s rather surprising that these figures match, but there you are. Many of the prizes are sponsored.  430 works were exhibited. So the unsuccessful artists who submitted 1220 works paid upwards of £20 each, and provided as much as the value of the prizes. There were of course other benefits for the successful: prizewinners showed work at the Pallant House Gallery, for instance, and exhibitors’ work remained, for sale, in an on-line gallery – not inconsiderable benefits. Of the 119 pictures at present on view at the on-line gallery, 18 are marked as sold, Apparently paintings to the value of £32,000 were sold. The organisation takes a commission of 40% on sales – which represents a further income of £12,800 (all figures derived from National Open Art Competition newsletters). This year individuals may submit up to 6 works. so unless more room is going to be found for hanging, the odds against acceptance will likely be increased, and the income greater.

At one end of this spectrum you have free events in which all artists get their work seen, while at the other you get competitions in which the majority of artists pay money without their work being seen. Those people would do better to pool their considerable resources and hold their own exhibitions (cf the Salon des Refuses),

I am worried by the moral aspect of all this. How far do we want to go down the slippery road to Simon Cowellism? We might be thinking of better ways to put our wares before the public.