The Bitter Guide to Juried Exhibitions: How to Not Piss Away Your Money
I’m by no means an expert, but I don’t need to be an expert to call out a racket when I see it. Juried Exhibitions definitely seem to fall into the category as one of the fastest ways I’ve pissed away my money as an artist. If there’s one thing I’m passionate about, it’s about helping people and artists avoid mistakes I’ve made along the way--learning as I go. I mean, we have to stick together because we have strength in numbers, and we will thrive better in community over competition. Now more than ever, I think we need to put our minds together collectively and form an alliance of market disrupters to take antiquated ideas, such as juried exhibitions, and turn them on end. Amirite? Let me explain...
First off, for those who don’t know, let me define what a juried exhibition is. Galleries will put out a call for entry to artists looking to get their work in front of potential buyers/collectors. If you read all the how-to articles, for some ungodly reason this is still regarded as “the best way” to get started as an emerging artist, and most articles tell you that the artist’s who are most successful are so because they’ve put in their “due time”. But let me tell you something...I call BS! I say this game more closely resembles racketeering and here’s why... The gallery will have someone of “clout”, sometimes arguable, decide upon a theme for an upcoming show. The point of the show is to bring new talent, but also money. This person is called “the juror”. The Juror will then put out a very general explanation, often adorned with vague elitist art terms, briefly describing the jurors background, the genre, and subject matter the juror wishes to see submitted.
Sounds pretty straight forward, right?
If you’ve ever participated in one of these things, it’s kin to what the cajuns call “noodling”--the process by which you dive head first into murky water and stick your hand into a deep hole hoping a catfish will eat your arm so you can “catch the fish”. Albeit an exhilarating experience, I would not classify this as “the best way” to get the job done. And if you’ve ever tried to read this thing we artists call “The Prospectus” it’s like reading in a dimly lit room struggling make out words on the page. You wade through the muckiest parts of the art world hoping you can grasp a glimmer of understanding about what the juror wants.
After reading the prospectus you will likely want to enter if you gleaned a relative understanding of what this call for entry might be about and if you think your work might fit the description. You won’t find this tip I’m about to offer you in any article seeking to enlighten you on how to break the code. No. Indeed you will not, because the art world is riddled with elitist hurdles only the fittest of artists (aka the artist who know the right people or else have spent a lifetime pissing away money and learning from their mistakes) get to pass up. I digress. If you have any hope at all as an emerging artist with skinny pockets you will do your research on the Juror before deciding to enter.
Jurors are human, though some might have you believe otherwise, they each have their own preferences and bias’. Though they may try to approach submissions without these factors being sniffed out, they will fail. So if you care even the slightest about the girth of your wallet, you will get real familiar with the Juror and their work. Lest you not heed my advice, you will throw away your money at record speed. If and only if aspects of the jurors work, history, and style is remotely reminiscent of your own, should you submit to the show. Your welcome.
Next, let’s talk about submission requirements
Entering a show usually requires a fee. Very seldom will you encounter a free submission though they do exist. However, getting into one of these is liking hunting unicorns. But hey, I love unicorns! And if my adolescent sheets were any indication, I’d hunt my whole life for a single moment’s glimpse of one. Alas, these fictional creatures wouldn’t be regarded as special if you could see one every day, much like these free entries. Consider yourself warned.
Most entry fees are somewhat reasonable ranging $35-60 for a submission and up to 5 images being pretty standard. Not too shabby until you enter a few at a time in the name of exposure. And you will if you’re trying to make a name for yourself. Still doable for the general population if that was the only fee, but did you read what happens if your selected? Some galleries then require your prints to be framed and shipped. Some will give the option print and/or “rent” a frame for...you guessed it...a small fee. This can be a really handy service if you make it past the juror, but you’ll find out what you’re in for ahead of time if you remotely care about those dollars.
The first show I entered, I spent $60 on the entry fee and then had to shell out another $100+ for framing when my work was selected. I also travelled to see the show for even more monetary urination, but that was voluntary because it was my first and it felt like a big deal.
Now, let me drop the bomb. Remember the part about making it past the Juror? Yeah. Once you’ve submitted it’s like a shot in the dark. A waiting game. The part where you cross your fingers and pray. It’s not a fun game and yet this is what all the articles regard as “the best way” to get noticed as an emerging artist.
Really?! This is the best you’ve got for me? <insert huge eye roll>
If you’re one of the lucky ones, you will have the pleasure of skating past the Eye of Sauron. By all means celebrate! You’ve got one more line on your elegantly exaggerated CV to push you one step further on the pernicious road to the holy grail, or what us emerging artists call “gallery representation”.
<insert fist bump> Get you sooooome.
You’ve got all my kudos.
But if you’re not selected…
This is where the gallery politely shows you the toilet...and then the back door.
More times than not, you will receive an email sugar coating the fact that juror thought your art sucked..probably because of some inherent bias that you have zero control over or ability to have known because of the ambiguity of the earlier stated prospectus.
Ohhhh but it’s so politely stated!
And to pour salt on the wound they will say things like, “Please do not take this news as a reflection of the quality or value of your artwork.” And then they proceed to pepper your inbox with every call for entry they ever have from here until kingdom come.
Why? Because you fed the beast!
Laying my cute eccentricities aside... I’ve got a real problem with this system and here’s why:
Emerging artists typically don’t have a lot of cash to work with. Myself totally included. And we’re told “the best way” to make a career of this is to throw your money in the hole and pray on bended knee it’s good enough to stay afloat in the proverbial juried-exhibition-toilet. And if a couple hundred dollars doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, how about when you’ve submitted to 6 shows in a few months time? If that’s still not a big deal, then you’re among the world’s elite and please buy my art! Now I’m sorry (not sorry) if that offends you, but this is why some of the worlds greatest art won’t be seen. And that makes me really sad!
The Part we haven’t even touched on is what happens if your work happens to sell at a show. Well, this has only happened a couple of times for me and it’s amazing! But what isn’t amazing is the gallery commission. Galleries who actually care about their artists are what we call “commission-based” and they will take around 50% of the commission give or take. So when pricing your work, be sure to factor that in. Anything beyond that I would label a “vanity gallery” and I would run not walk far far away.
The last bitter note I have about juried exhibitions is what happens afterward... which is basically nothing. If you ask me, the whole system is broken. Let’s say you manage to land a few shows. An unquantifiable amount of people will see your work in person. Of the ones that did only a fraction of them likely admired it among all the other pieces. If they liked it, you still have to overcome the hurdle of them not scoffing at your price. But if you actually attend the show, you stand to gain a whole lot more through networking.
So what is the point of all of this and where do we go from here? I’m going to tell you, but first I want to take a moment to congratulate you for making it this far. Well done good and faithful artist/reader/or whoever you are.
The point is to say this...The whole system is antiquated. It has not kept up with the advances in our culture and markets due to the connections we are able to make with social media. Used to we needed places like galleries to create ways to draw in fresh talent while acting as a hub for some of the worlds most influential artists to be found by buyers/collectors. That was before the internet; before the interconnectedness of social media. Now that the artist can take their work straight to their audience at the tap of a screen, the juried exhibition model is an old faction that we need to do away with entirely. It has slowly coerced the hard earned dollars of artists like me with empty promises of things like exposure and notoriety, but it only delivers for the elite few. The fact that this model still exists at all is just confirmation that this prior helpful business model is now just a racket put on by a dying breed of galleries in need of swift innovation if it is to continue in existence.
Now that we’ve established that, where does that leave us? How about in need of some new ideas, eh? Why should we sit around and wait for some institution to validate our work before we show it? Why wait for some big gallery name to open its doors to you? Who’s got time for that?! If you’re an artist then you’re already a creative thinker and a questioner. Chances are you find yourself within a community of other creatives, whether in craft, or art, or some other skill set and you’re all looking for ways to put your work out there. So why not come together collectively and make it happen? Why not organize your own exhibition whether inside someone’s home or a borrowed space? You don’t need to pay a gallery to market you, you have social media for that. Listen. We live in a day an age, where we have the privilege of not having to hire an entire team to carry out these tasks (although it might be nice to delegate sometimes). It is a brilliant time to figure out how to pool resources with those closest to you, in a way that benefits you all, or maybe it doesn’t and you just want to serve others in that way...that’s great too. But the point is, lets stop throwing our resources at antiquated, broken, business models to get our work out there. Find a way to put your heads together and do the damn thing! It’s going to take some educating of your audience, but the stage has already been set. Let’s not be afraid to get our hands dirty, disrupt old ways of doing things, and let trial by fire show us the way to make history happen.
After all, we are here for such a time as this aren’t we?