Since moving from New York to London, I have been impressed by Britain’s numerous, high-profile art competitions. The United States has its share of open calls, but none uniquely blend stars and amateurs like the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Nor do American contests have the ability to catapult an obscure artist into public view as the John Moores Painting Prize did for Peter Doig in 1993, or the National Gallery Portrait award did for Felicia Forte in 2018.
Art competitions allow the less-connected, emerging artist an entry point into a restricted world. They can be a hassle to enter and the inevitable snubs can be discouraging, but the potential rewards are too good to ignore. I approach competitions in a fairly relaxed but determined manner. I don’t let the application process take over my life, and yet I try to apply constantly and methodically. Below are a few tips. Although I narrowly define an art competition as a contest to appear in an exhibition, theoretically the advice could pertain to submissions processes for other opportunities as well:
Consider success as an exercise in probability.
To an extent, art competitions function on merit, but there is obviously an element of luck beyond your control: who the judges are, who you are competing against, etc. You are unlikely to succeed in every art competition, but your eventual success is also a statistical matter. The more entries you make, the more chances you give yourself to affect a positive outcome. Rejections are not failures but notches accumulated to earn a result. It’s like a loyalty scheme at a coffee shop. You get your card punched after every purchase, and after a certain number, you get your free drink.
Maintain a spreadsheet of upcoming competitions, and be selective about which ones you enter.
I consult London’s Artist Quarterly, Parker Harris and Dark Yellow Dot, regularly to learn about open calls. A simple Google search will reveal many other useful links. I locate competitions of interest and keep notes on all of the critical information: submission dates, entry fees, and guidelines such as permitted dimensions. This routine is basically to keep myself organised and aware of what is coming up. I like to have two or three competitions on the horizon, and there should be no excuses to miss a significant deadline.
Importantly, do your homework. Use your discretion when deciding on entering competitions with higher fees. Applying to shows can get expensive, and you don’t want to waste your time or money with competitions that are not right for you. Dark Yellow Dot keeps fees pretty low which kind of reduces the pressure of winning and makes entering more accessible to first timers. Whatever you decided, research the jurors to learn about their tastes and histories. Investigate the institutions to see what they have shown before, and consider if your work might be a good fit.
Have your submission materials ready to go.
Save your grand exertions for making your art; competition entries should be a painless process of recycling and tinkering. Almost every competition will require a CV, an artist statement, and digital images of your work. Occasionally, you may need to provide press clips and a cover letter. As good practice, these documents should be constantly maintained, updated, and at hand. Then you will only need to make some adjustments, such as resizing your JPEGs or tailoring your statement to make a particular impression.
There are numerous DYD articles that may be helpful with these items, but I also recommend the book ART/WORK by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber. It is the Bible of practical art career knowledge.
artwork by Adrian Coleman
Sometimes you can bend the rules.
The fact is, you don’t have much to lose. If your work wasn’t quite made in the required time-frame, change the date. If your work has been shown previously but they want something never-before seen, don’t mention the last exhibition. If your work is two centimetres larger than the guidelines allow, round the measurement down.
I am not advocating that artists cheat. I am advocating that artists be streetwise.
A few years ago, I considered entering the Brooklyn Museum’s open studio competition. The five winners, shortlisted by popular opinion and finalised by the curators, would appear in a group exhibition at the museum. My only problem was that I didn’t have a real studio. At that time, I was working from a desk in a living room that I shared with two other people.
An evening before the deadline to enter, I called a friend and asked if I could borrow his basement. I moved all of my supplies and paintings across town, took some photographs of a staged work space, and a few days later, I was welcoming the public into my “open studio.” By some miracle, I won the damn thing.
I'd like to know what other competitions people are applying for, let me know in the comments. But if you found this article useful, share it around. You can also sign up to the mailing list for more posts like this. And, if you have any unanswered questions, you can send them to email@example.com or leave a comment.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adrian Coleman is a painter who recently moved from New York to London. He is a winner of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2012 open studio competition. His paintings have appeared at the Bronx Museum, Steven Amedee Gallery, the Mall Galleries, and Peckham Levels. He works by day as an architect.