Here is something to think about over your morning coffee: how many times have you been offered “free” exposure? It comes in many forms, from the charity / non-profit that asks you to donate a piece of artwork for their silent auction, down to the “opportunities” presented through competitions sponsored by galleries, suppliers and even online hosting companies. We even have conventions that offer us the chance to network with peers and are told we might be left behind or miss out on being discovered if we don’t participate in them.
However, it is usually the companies that sponsor these events that are the big winners in the end. How can that be when the events are designed to help artists get exposure for their work? It’s simple, it’s just business. And as a professional artist, you have to think like a business person. That means you have to ask yourself an important question: What will the return on your investment be for participation? Exposure is not the right answer, you need to quantify your answer with specifics–how much, if any, money will you make? how many new contacts will you make? will they be worthwhile contacts within your target audience? will your participation give you increased credibility? who are the other participants? are they professionals or amateurs?
First, we have to take a look at how this environment came about. The bottom line is, there are too many artists out there, and not enough people who buy original art. In other words, artists have a product for which there is not enough demand. It is really that simple. Hence, there is an opportunity for those who choose to exploit this environment with alternatives to the problem of not selling enough art or getting representation in desirable venues–however, most do not increase the profits of the artist, they increase the profits of the companies that promote them.
For example, let’s say a supplier has a new product they want to launch, or they are interested in a new look for their brand’s packaging. Instead of putting out a request for a proposal, looking through portfolios and hiring a professional artist or illustrator who will be paid a commission and licensing fee for their efforts, they host a competition and open it up to everyone. They might even charge a fee to apply! Imagine the profits generated by all the entrants paying the fee. Plus, the compensation for the winner might be some supplies and a nominal cash prize, while that may sound ok, a professional artist cannot make a living on supplies and prize money. Don’t get me wrong–there ARE suppliers who actually provide free samples of their products to professional artists and instructors for testing, evaluation, and because they know it makes good business sense to support the people who buy their products!
Online competitions are another money maker for those in the art business. Most are just popularity contests where the artist pays a fee to participate and then has to get “votes” for their work to win the prize. Well, what better way to get exposure for the sponsoring company! The artist gets to expose their work mostly to people who have seen it already–their relatives, friends and other artists participating in the same competition. And they get to pester their online friends for votes in the process. Meanwhile, the sponsoring company is getting massive traffic on their site and most likely more artists joining the queue for the next round of competition.
Juried shows sponsored by galleries are another pet peeve–a gallery should earn its profits from art sales, not exhibition fees, jurying fees, and other fees designed to compensate for a lack of sales. What other industry takes a 50% commission? While it can be said that most galleries that require a hanging fee or other fee have a lower commission structure, it still means that the only way an artist is going to make money is if they sell something. If the sponsor is making enough from the fees, what is their motivation to sell the art?
As for non-profit auctions, there are some out there that compensate the artist and do not ask for an outright donation. Those types are worth considering if they are for a charity you support and if the other work presented is of the same quality/caliber as yours. Otherwise, it can result in a devaluing of your work and can upset collectors who have bought from you or your galleries at full price! Imagine a collector finding out a painting similar to the painting they bought for $1000 was auctioned off for $300–not a good situation.
The thing to remember is, think before you pay that entry fee. Remember to ask yourself the question first: What will my return on investment be? Be specific with that answer, consider all your options, then decide if it is truly an opportunity that will further your career. If it isn’t, maybe you should look for something that is.