Imagine for a moment: You are an actor, and you’re going to a big casting call. When you arrive, the movie producers want you to pay for the privilege of auditioning. Their reasoning? They only want serious actors to audition, and they need the money to cover the cost of making the movie.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Yet in the visual arts world, this is often how artists are treated. Exhibitions and gallery shows have price tags attached to applying, which may (or may not) go back to selected artists, but will certainly help fund the show and its creators. This “pay to play” system is a serious problem in the world of visual arts. Entry fees can often dissuade talented artists from applying to programs, and can prevent artists of lower socio-economic statuses from breaking into the fine arts world.
Sharon Louden, an artist based in New York City, is the editor of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, a collection of essays by artists about the practical realities of being a working artist, and a staunch opponent of the entry-fee “scams” that plague the art world.
“The worst part of the pay-to-play entry fee required is that those who do not get accepted do not get anything in return. Nothing is transparent about the process and where the money goes,” says Louden. “It’s an old, unfair system.”
Louden believes that it’s not necessarily the fees themselves that are bad, but the idea of paying for something and getting nothing is harmful to artists. Artists should receive something in exchange for entry fees, she says, even if they aren’t accepted. For example, some photography calls will give artists portfolio feedback if they don’t get accepted into an exhibition. Literary journals sometimes give a subscription to writers who pay to submit, but don’t get in. In both cases, artists are given a perk that can help them improve as an artist, making the entry fee an investment in their career.
On the website Call For Entry, also known as CaFE, many of the listed programs have entry fees associated with them. In some cases, these opportunities are being offered by public institutions, like community foundations and libraries, which use entry fees to help pay for the program (as well as the the CaFE license fees). Other times, the call is put out by a gallery, which means private for-profit companies benefit from the entry fees. Some offer prize money. Some don’t. Very few offer portfolio reviews or other perks for artists not accepted into the exhibitions.
Recently on CaFE, the most expensive application fee—$50—was for Public Art Exhibition On Hilton Head Island put on by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. Every two years, 20 pieces are selected for the exhibition. These pieces are then temporarily installed at Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn on Hilton Head, allowing visitors to stroll the grounds of this 70-acre venue at their leisure. At the end of the exhibition (which runs October through January), the jury selects a piece to be purchased. The Town of Hilton Head permanently installs the selected piece in a location on the island.
The folks running the exhibition are not in this to make money off the artists (the 20 selected artists each get a $2,000 honorarium and a lovely stay in a beachfront resort). But according to Jean Heyduck, vice president for marketing and communications for the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, they do need the entry fees to help with exhibition costs. Sponsorships and donations primarily fund the exhibition, along with some funding from Hilton Head.
“We also seek grant funding, but haven’t been super successful in securing that,” says Heyduck. “For the 2018 exhibition we expect artist entry fees to make up about 4 percent of total revenue. We also receive about $26,000 in in-kind donations, such as lodging for the artists during installation, some donated advertising and donated food and services for our opening night Patron Party.”
With so much effort going into making such a big event happen, she says, finding a perk to give to artists not selected for the exhibition is outside their capacity. Or, at least, they haven’t considered the idea yet.
“We are one small part of the Community Foundation. We are not an arts organization, per se, although we do utilize the expertise of a [paid] curatorial consultant and local artists for the jurying process and other technical or arts-centered decisions,” says Heyduck. So we don’t really have the capacity to offer something like portfolio feedback. And offering something to artists who aren’t selected has never been brought up. Perhaps that is something we can visit in the future. Of course, the exhibition is free so artists are always welcome to attend,” says Heyduck.
Sometimes, having an artist run an exhibition helps improve the odds that their fellow artists are being best served. Art on the Atlanta BeltLine, which runs the public art exhibition, has become the South’s largest outdoor, temporary public art exhibition. Miranda Duncan, the project manager for the program, comes from the MFA sculpture department at SCAD-Atlanta. Art on the BeltLine’s submission process is free and draws in artists from diverse backgrounds to participate. While the BeltLine program is dedicated to remaining fee-free to enter, Duncan herself sometimes submits to exhibitions that charge a fee.
“As an artist coming from a formal arts background, I knew entry fees were part of this profession. But when I was starting out, there were so many incredible exhibition opportunities I could not even submit to because it was either ‘pay the application fee or put gas in my car.’ And I realized that the more exorbitant fees for some of these shows can act as a means of income discrimination. I have an application fee cap for myself when applying to exhibition opportunities now,” says Duncan.
This is a hard reality everyone in the art world recognizes: entry fees are part of our system. Shaking ourselves free from this will require artists to step up for themselves and demand they get something in return for entry fees. If they don’t get into an exhibition, they should receive some form of compensation to improve their creative practice. Not simply a lesson in how expensive and unfair the art world can be to many folks trying to make a living in it.
So, here’s what I say to my fellow artists: Send an email to the folks running these calls for entry. Ask what they will do in return for your fee if you don’t get in. Post on Facebook and Twitter asking (nicely … don’t be aggressive) for your fair place in this system. Give suggestions: We want portfolio feedback, free tickets, membership. Ask this of the judges, too. We need to start challenging the status quo to make the system better.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.