The problem with open art competitions

One thing I have learned over the last few years is that entering open-submission art competitions is, on the whole, as pointless as trying to empty the Pacific ocean with a cup. There are lots of juried art competitions to choose from – The Jerwood, The NOAC, The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to name but a few. For the lucky ones they can be brilliant but for the rest of us they’re nothing more than depressing popularity contests that drain us of our money and fill us with false hope.

royal academy summer exhibitionProblem One: they can be partly curated before you ever send your work in

One major UK event boasts spaces for 1200 artists’ works from anyone resident in the UK. Sounds great right?

All is not what it seems though. The actual number of slots for people like me is far less than those claimed, partly due to a network of favourites and artists that get to curate their own artists’ works instead.

Those that are left get whisked past a panel of cobweb-ridden philistines who are out of touch with anything but the most shocking or most mundane of art forms and genres.

Your entry fee and transporting costs would be better spent on art materials or a book on social networking than being squandered on the notion that you are going to be the next big fish in the art world.

Problem Two: Who are they to tell me I am not worthy of being shown?

I do not believe anyone has the right to tell me I am not good enough to be put into a public show.

Some crusty fuck-head thinks that what you do is NOT good enough for others to see. This very principle is wrong at the most basic of levels. They ignore what’s going on in the real world and focus on their academic intuition to judge you. That’s not always a smart move. For me that means it’s pre-judged beforehand and that certain types of work will never get accepted as a result. How can that ever move art forward? If your work doesn’t fit into what they are looking for then you shouldn’t even send it in.

When you last went to one of these exhibitions as a visitor did you think the majority of it was a pile of crap or did you think it was a fantastic standard of work? Did you think you could do a lot better? I suspect you might have done. What does that tell you?

Problem Three: They are a great way to generate money for the organisers

For a competition that attracts 10,000 entries and shows 1200 do the math on the non-refundable entry fees. This is why they are a big deal to many organisers – they are primarily a revenue generator so they must appeal to artists (for their entry fees) and to the public for promoting their perceived value and reputation.

Most open-submission contests and exhibitions are simply shameless popularity contests and a way to generate an income. These have little to do with art and everything to do with money or the number of votes a piece of art can get. That’s like X Factor for art. What a great travesty that we have to reduce aspiring artists of all ages to a procession of wide-eyed wannabe’s because they are hoping to get exposure and sales. studio of art

For a few this will work but for the rest of us it never will. Art should not be a about the number of votes you can win. When was the last time you went out on a sunny day into your local park, dropped a canvas on the grass and started painting? Did you think about getting votes then?

Get real. Success with your art will have little to do with what you get from these competitions. Sure they can provide a platform to showcase your amazing work but they can also be very demotivating too. If you’ve been successful in the past then tell me, how has that changed your career today? Have you won a major prize and has that kick-started your career? I would love to hear from you if it has.

Problem Four: Waiting for the response

Then there’s the stress of waiting for the acceptance or rejection correspondence. Have you experienced that? You sit and hope that you will get accepted and then the envelope or email arrives and it’s a no again. How does that make you feel? Personally it’s a stress I can do without.

You don’t need juried or open submission art competitions. You simply don’t need them. And based on the growth of social media and a creative’s ability to reach their own audience, the people that run art competitions should be worried about artists losing interest. The world is changing and we are changing the way we view and buy art.

So let me give you my tips for selling art and making a career from it. I base this on 10 years of hands-on experience so I can talk openly and with authority as I am going through it all right now and on a daily basis.

Swarez doing a drip paintingThere are no substitutes for effort.

Hard, relentless effort.

I have no magic wand, no secret to selling art and no winning formula to share with you. I just work ridiculously hard seven days a week. I stress about where the next piece will come from, worry that I will never sell another piece and get frustrated when I throw away one canvas for each one that looks good.

I frame and staple until my thumbs bleed, I lie awake at night thinking about new directions and off-shoots for turning what I do into other forms of work. We all have a unique style and there is a market for all art. If you don’t believe that then stop because you are wasting your time.

If you loosen your grip for a second it can all start falling away from you. I sell paintings. I hand deliver most of them. I take art to people and hang it in their own homes. But it’s hard graft. I know a number of full-time artists (without any online presence) who work three hours a day, don’t know their market and don’t do anything to promote themselves and they wonder why they can’t pay their rent. Is it really that difficult?

Be relentless. Be consistent. Do one thing a day that puts you in a better position than the day before.

You do not need to be judged

People like your friends and other artists can do that for you and do it constructively. You just have to believe that what you are doing is right. You don’t need art competitions to do that. They may help if you are one of the lucky ones but pinning your aspirations on the nod of a judge’s head can do more harm than good.

Besides, becoming determined and resilient can make your art turn a corner. It shapes the very creativity that pours from your fingers. It makes your art better.

I will not enter any competitions (ever) or do another fucking Saatchi showdown (don’t even get me started on that one) and I have rebuked approaches from all kinds of people who seem hell bent on judging me without me ever asking for it or even seeing my work for real.

You can imagine the pleasure I have in telling them to fuck right off. I simply couldn’t give less of a shit about anyone’s opinions, least of all a competition judge.


Being scammed, manipulated and bullied by art judges and people who think they know what my work is about fills my heart with great sadness and my head with determination to succeed. I don’t need them and I will never need them. This prehistoric network of Neanderthals is rapidly becoming extinct.

Put your energy into promoting your website and artwork which, after all, is your shop window to the world. Make it work for you.

Establish a body of work, put your name behind it, build a cracking website, promote across the social networks and read every sales book you can find. Sooner or later someone will take notice.

And don’t let anyone tell you it’s not good enough. You can do that for yourself.

If you’ve found this by searching online then you may like to know I have some very strong opinions about other art related matters; head over to the blog and go take a look.