Friday, October 03, 2008

Fight Club

A number of people have asked me why I am against art competitions. The short answer is that art isn't about competition.
In art competitions, the focus and public discussion is not on the ideas within the works but on who might win and how it might affect the winner's and losers' careers and the future value of their work – they've become a sort of testosterone-fueled Fight Club for artist's bragging rights.
Even if artists enter them to increase their 'surface', their recognition, the majority of art competitions barely attract any publicity, let alone critical consideration, so they offer little benefit other than the prize money (which is merely a percentage of the artists' entry fees). Of course, non-artists make a really good living from them: one of the largest art transport companies in Australia earns its most regular bread and butter from artists transporting works to and from competitions.
Most competitions are not about helping art and artists. They're scams to promote and support an archaic, poorly funded, gallery-focussed arts industry, which has convinced us (from art school onwards) that entering art competitions is an elemental means to advance an artist's career. I was advised to do it by a commercial gallerist, a long time ago. He said, "The idea is you enter, your work is seen by your peers, curators, and institutions, and if you win, the institution buys your work for a set amount of money [the acquisitive prize]. Once the work is acquired, you can add the institute's name to your CV." Having work in institutional collections is supposed to increase one's sales – and prices.
Of course, institutions have their own agenda in terms of what work will fit their collection, what work will be a good investment. These considerations often outweigh the quality of individual works when it comes to divvying up the prize money. Again, this is not about art, it's about portfolio management. And it encourages petty rivalry and politicking instead of qualitative, conceptual discussion.
As for publicity, well it primarily promotes the gallery itself rather than the artists entering the competitions.
Of course, commercial galleries are never ones to let a good scam pass them by. They've picked up on the usefulness of art competitions (especially youth-oriented ones that make for better PR copy) to redeem or re-invigorate their reputations and their client bases. They sometimes offer a lot of money and promote the blood-sport aspects of the outcome. This works very well in Australia – a sports obsessed nation that loves a prize fight.
If you want a lotto-style shot at a traditional career within an archaic, dying system, then I guess entering art competitions is the way to go. But there are better ways for young, smart artists to spend time, effort, money – and creativity.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

azel, sometimes i think you've forgoten what its like to be an 'emerging artist'..i suppose its easy to have such black and white opinions when youve 'made it'.

Marlow said...

hahaha - you sounds like a disgruntled commercial gallerist to me.

Shen said...

thanks, that was an interesting and comprehensive post

Anonymous said...

Spot on Hazel.

Merry said...

And for the beginning or emerging artist? The alternative to entering competitions is what? It is very easy to criticize/monologue and not come up with any possible solutions or practical alternatives.

ccoh said...

obviously merry hasn't read the several entries on this blog where you describe very clearly the possibilities and alternatives for young artists. then again, maybe merry is a gallerist.

Nancy Wilton said...

A lot of people are missing the point here. Because of radical change wrought by new technology – we're already seeing its impact on journalism, the music business and publishing – artist have a unique, historic opportunity to re-organise the way they manage their careers, eliminating a reliance on third-party entrepreneurs and institutional funding and patronage, and recouping a greater part of the reward for their imaginative effort. If galleries – and awards and other things – are to have a role in the future of this fast-growing new territory of the art world, then they have to demonstrate their viability and relevance to it. Certainly, they are, for the first time, at a lot more risk than the artists themselves. Shit, guys, use your imagination and don't bag Hazel cos' she has obviously had the balls and the foresight to use hers!

Anonymous said...

I think Nancy may have forgotten that Hazel's career was launched within the gallery system and(conviently)found the 'balls' to venture out independantly after aquiring a following and collectors. I'd be a little more accepting of her views (in which I believe some are valid)comming from someone who followed her 'formula' from scratch.I have to say also that I love the way inwhich comments that arnt unequivocally supporting Hazel MUST be written by a commercial gallerist, because, gee- artists cant think for themselves can they?

ccoh said...

hazel writes openly (and bravely) as an artist under her own name – the flaw in anonymous' contributions here is that he/she doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Yeh I find the "must be a commercial gallerist" hilarious.
Very well said anonymous 5.23pm.

Jeff Martin said...

No anonymous, it is not about being ‘an emerging artist’ it is about being an artist. And what the hell does ‘made it’ mean?

Hazel is correct in her assessment of the system, all art is entirely subjective and how dare anyone deem my work better than the next persons. The ultimate joy for any artist is when a work resinates with a person enough for them to purchase it and hang on their wall.

Rachel Marsden said...

I definitely agree that art isn't a competition but as an emerging I still enter them. I've entered two since I read this post back in October and been a finalist in both and sold work from the first one (the second one opens in two weeks). As an emerging artist it was a great experience to hand over one of my prints in person to someone who absolutely loved my work - she was a private collector and bought the piece for her husband. I'd actually been thinking of giving up art as a career until that point because I hated the institutions and the 'investment value' of art. At uni that's what was being pumped into me. It was all so empty.
The look on that ladies face as I unrolled the work for her changed me. There was a personal connection there and that's what I wanted. If I hadn't entered that scholarship I wouldn't have found that connection.
I'm certainly all about the new technology revolution (down with the middleman! and all that) but as an emerging artist I'm keeping my eggs in several baskets.

Rachel Marsden said...

Ps. Totally agree with what Jeff Martin said:
"The ultimate joy for any artist is when a work resinates with a person enough for them to purchase it and hang on their wall."
I guess that's the point I was driving at but that entering the competitions has led me to such opportunities. I don't care about winning it or even not being accepted into it. I know it's totally subjective and even that how you present your entry plays a part. I just want my work to be seen.

Sorry for the rant!

JenXer said...

A gallery in my city holds a yearly open-call exhibition. I am an emerging artist; thus, I've been told over and over that I should enter this exhibition to "increase my exposure."

The chosen works will not be for sale, and I must pay an entry fee, regardless of whether my work is chosen.

The entry date is looming large, and I have yet to answer the question, "to submit or not submit?"

The irony of the verb in that question is not lost on me.

Jemima Smith said...

re: anonymous @ 5:23pm, who wrote:
"I think Nancy may have forgotten that Hazel's career was launched within the gallery system and(conviently)found the 'balls' to venture out independantly after aquiring a following and collectors."

Actually, Hazel did begin independently (and successfully). A commercial gallerist approached her because so many collectors told the gallerist about her work. I don't know why she agreed. Maybe it was because the internet wasn't ubiquitous then. Anyway, she left the traditional system completely after a few years, and began again from scratch, in EVERY way. How do I know? Because I knew Hazel then.

All you're doing is making incorrect assumptions that suit your view that it's not possible to have success outside the traditional gallery system.