The visual arts are different. No one would expect a dancer or actor to pay the director of a troupe in order to audition for a part, a musician trying out for an orchestra wouldn’t be told to pay a conductor, nor would a writer be asked to send in a check along with the manuscript for a publisher to read it. Visual artists, however, usually must pay an entry fee to be considered for a juried competition. Whether they are selected to be in the show or not, they have to pay. People don’t look at their work for free.
There are an estimated 10,000-15,000 invitational arts and crafts shows taking place somewhere in the country throughout the year, held by private companies, nonprofit groups and small towns, and they enable lesser-known artists and craftspeople to show their work to the public. Plenty of artists have grumbled privately about entry fees, which, they believe, place the financial burden for these shows on the shoulders of the people who have little money to begin with. I think the grumbling should get a little less private and a bit more public.
Entry fees are like a lottery. Artists pay for the privilege of having someone look at their slides, even if they are rejected. Emerging artists are told, Pay your own way until you’ve made it.
Entry fees usually are not such a huge expense in and of themselves, ranging between $25 and $50. However, that is $25-50 multiplied by the number of shows they apply to annually, and when combined with the costs of framing, crating, shipping and insuring one’s work (expenses that show sponsors almost never pay), the entry fee represents an enormous outlay of money for these artists. In many instances, artists forego the insurance and take their chances with damage.
It is argued that artists should contribute something for these shows, since they’re the beneficiaries of them. As a practical matter, most artists don’t generally benefit all that much from a given show, but the organizations that put on the shows often make a great deal of money by charging (read: exploiting) artists who need to show their work somewhere, and many also earn revenues from ticket sales, food vendor fees, souvenirs and a percentage of their exhibitors’ sales.
Originally, entry fees were established as a means both to control the number of participants in juried fine art competitions – it was assumed that rank amateurs could not afford the fees – and to provide organizations with upfront money with which to rent a hall, pay some notable art expert to evaluate the artists’ work (or images of the work) and to create prize money. The distinction between professional and amateur is no longer offered or has any meaning in this context; what matters is the desire to receive money from artists, any artists.
The money a lot of these show sponsors are raising more than likely meets their expenses and then some. National Artists Equity Association has been uneasy with the existence of entry fees since the organization came into being in 1947 and, in 1981, it wrote up ethical guidelines for its membership, stipulating that artists should refuse to participate in events where there are these fees.
This issue has caught on. Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens in Ottawa also claims that its membership “does not consider that the payment of entry fees is appropriate to an exhibition of work by professional artists.” The National Endowment for the Arts has been reluctant to create a policy of this kind but, on a practical level, it has generally refused funds for groups charging entry fees. Michael Faubion, former director of visual arts at the arts endowment, said that “it’s understood in the field that the panelists” – who judge each grant application – “don’t really approve of entry fees, but most of our applicants are exhibiting organizations which put may put on 10 shows a year, and one of them might be a regional juried show that requires a fee. It’s unlikely that the panelists would deny a good organization any funding because of the one show, although they might decide that none of the money that’s given to the organization can be used for that one show.”
The case against entry fees has found sympathetic ears on the state and local level, as both the Oregon Arts Commission and the New York State Council on the Arts as well as the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in Washington prohibit funds from going to organizations that charge entry fees. The Berkshire Art Association in western Massachusetts eliminated its entry fee, and other small town-sponsored events around the country have done the same, looking for money elsewhere. Many other show sponsors have chosen to maintain the entry fee system, however, realizing that there are so many artists around who are willing to send in money in order to have the chance to be shown that they might as well let them.
By Daniel Grant