Last month, the ArtULTRA team surveyed artists about their opinion on the ethics of artist opportunities that charge a participation fee. Here is what we found...
Over 70% of participating artists thought that paid opportunities were indeed a scam, with around a quarter of participants complaining that exhibition hosts who charged a fee often didn't provide emerging artists with enough help with hanging works, networking opportunities or worthwhile exposure. Sometimes, there were more fees, added later on in the process by organisers. For several artists we interviewed, these opportunities were 'exclusionary', 'exploitative' and 'undemocratic', adding that for those from an affluent social background, it is much easier to make it in the art world if you can pay your way. A few artists were of the opinion that once participation fees had been paid, it meant there was little incentive for the organisers to do more.
However, far from being a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, the majority of artists highlighted the difficulty of assessing the benefits of paid opportunities. Although many participants labelled them as 'scams', it's interesting to note that 68% had themselves paid in order to exhibit work or enter competitions. Even if these opportunities are not entirely helpful, it's something many artists feel the need to do in order to get feedback, create deadlines for themselves, and build up their CVs. Nearly two thirds of those who took part in such opportunities thought that they were not particularly helpful to their career and creative development.
Over a quarter of artists who responded stated that they had never paid (and did not intend to pay) an entry fee when applying to opportunities. Several explained that as emerging artists who were focused on development and growth, they simply couldn't afford fees that some organisers were charging. However, it's important to note that over half of participants were keen to stress that they are willing to pay reasonable entry fees (around £10-20). For most of these emerging artists, it is not necessarily the fact that exhibitions charge a participation fee that is the biggest issue, but rather whether it is worth putting in time and effort into exhibiting work. What often tips the balance in favour of taking part, is whether the opportunity is organised by a reputable and well-known institution and is set up to draw significant public and media attention.
One artist commented that they understood why organisers might charge a fee to cover the costs of organising an opportunity, but charging a commission on top of a participation fee feels like a double whammy and rather unfair for organisers to get two bites at the cherry. The worst opportunities were competitions for which artists had to pay to enter, and ended up not even being selected. Lastly, our survey revealed that there are real scams out there, and you should always check out whether the organisers are 'legit' - check out their website and their publications. Have they existed for a while? Did they run previous, similar-looking opportunities? A simple internet search is an easy way to find out whether the organisers are of good standing.
Overall, the results were not surprising... generally, artists recognise that unless paid opportunities are organised by institutions who are reputable and care about creating helpful experiences for artists, they are probably a waste of time and money. Many commercial operations cater to the desire of artists for exposure, but charge high fees and provide little by way of career development.
Thank you to all the artists who took time to respond to our survey and give us such useful insights.