What are your showing rules?

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Alyson B. Stanfield has an excellent podcast this week about the importance of assessing art venues.

Considering your exhibiting strategy is always worthwhile. The artworld judges you not only on how often you show but also where you show and who your fellow exhibitors are. Not all exhibitions are created equal – a selected group show in a well regarded gallery usually rates much higher than an open submission exhibition with a high proportion of amateur artists.

Do you have rules for showing and places you won’t consider? If you don’t have any showing rules, then it’s definitely time you sat down and did some strategic thinking about this issue.

Personally, I won’t apply to exhibitions that charge an upfront non-returnable application fee unless the show is extremely prestigious or has some other compelling factor. For example, I’d consider putting in for the Jerwood Drawing Prize even though they charge an application fee because it has national exposure, a proper catalogue and is very well regarded in the British art scene. I chose not to apply this year but if my drawing continues to evolve then I might consider it next year. I know that my chances of getting in would be low because they have a lot of applications and the standard is high but even applying would feel like a step up to me.

There are a couple of other UK juried shows that I feel that way about but they’re fairly few and far between. Usually they’d need to be in an extremely good venue that I couldn’t otherwise get into at this stage in my career or have some other major advantage.

That said, I’m completely fine with paying a small fee to take part in things like local art trails. Now, if you look at it logically, this doesn’t seem to make sense – I’ll happily bung £15 to a bunch of artists organising a local event, while I’ll scoff at a gallery charging the same amount in an application fee.

However, there are couple of good reasons for this.

Firstly, I’m just more comfortable with artist-led projects – at heart, I’m a grassroots kind of girl! I know exactly what it’s like to put together projects on a complete shoestring and believe me nobody’s getting rich doing it! Usually you’re doing well if you break even.

But it’s not just about supporting local artist-led initiatives out of the goodness of my heart – art trails often have a lot going for them. Our local art trails get fantastic visitor numbers and good coverage in the local media. Plus, they can be a great way to build up a local following; add to your mailing list; attract local visitors to future shows and make vital connections with the movers and shakers in your regional art scene. On balance, I’m more than happy to pay for that, there’s enough value in the exchange to make it worth my while.

Secondly, artist-led projects usually don’t want money from you unless you’re accepted, whereas a lot of galleries seem to think that it’s completely fine to charge you money for the privilege of them looking at your work.

I know from my curating experience that having that kind of show can be an excellent money spinner for galleries. You get the fees from all the artists who’ve applied, not just the ones who’re eventually selected. Then, because you’re showing a lot of artists you get a bigger than average crowd when the artists invite all their friends and family. In turn, large crowds give you a higher chance of generating big sales. Believe me, I can completely understand why galleries put on these kind of shows – I’m just not sure that it’s my job as an artist to subsidise them.

I’m not saying that artists should automatically rule out every exhibition that charges an application fee but you should definitely consider the following things:

  • Is the venue far enough above your current level that it would boost your profile considerably?
  • Is there a proper catalogue?
  • Does the show have a good reputation in the art world?
  • Does the show get good media coverage?
  • What are the visitor numbers like?
  • Does the show traditionally have an excellent sales record?
  • Is there a prestigious guest list for the private view?

As with everything where money is involved: caveat emptor! Know what you’re getting into and why, understand your reasons and don’t apply to or accept shows out of sheer desperation.

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

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