August 30th, 2011
by Jim Jeffers
Pay to play art shows are the pyramid schemes of the art world. For my $40 I get four images in front of three jurors with art world credentials in the hope of getting in the show and possibly winning some amount of money. Now I can rationalize this if the venue is non-profit, this revenue will be used to continue having heat and lights and someone to pound nails into the walls to hang art—also, this is tax deductible in the USA. As an artist in academia, the other rationalization—albeit sick—is that these exhibitions are juried, i.e., ‘peer reviewed,’ so my inclusion in the exhibition ‘will count’ toward my rank in the university—my own institution’s move toward wanting the show to be reviewed too is atypical and fueled by egos who have no idea how little press there is for the arts, let alone critical press. One can view fees for submission to juried exhibitions like any other speculative endeavor, like gambling or investing in the stock market, and you can make an educated decision as to the fit or resonance your work might have with the jurors or venue, like reading a company’s prospectus or knowing the odds and looking for tells, etc. But here is the kicker, you pay to submit and you pay to transport, and maybe you win a prize and break even or bank a few dollars, but most likely less then your cost of materials. Then there is the sale, your work might sell, now this slips into commerce and means someone wants to live with your work, and you make a bit of money—but this is rare in the world of non-profit venues, who are usually not savvy at sales. I paint a grim picture of this side of the art world and I think it is grim. Artists are like any culture producers—actors, dancers, musicians, etc—there are a lot of us working, producing great things in basements, backyards, and allies. The art word is not one world but many, where some artists live by their wits traveling to fairs in small communities selling, selling, selling, while others live by hawking our knowledge in the classroom—maybe adding to the problem more than the solution. But, like music, art has its Top 40, we all know their names and we see their work all the time, in galleries, museums, and on the cover of art magazines, and like music the list might actually be 200 artists who are making a good living with an un-supplemented studio practice, but this is in the whole world! The rest are gypsies, teachers, trust funded, sugar mommied, or no longer make art. I hate paying to exhibit, and have been fortunate to not pay to exhibit in non-profit and community-based venues to the point of having a teaching job, which pays the bills. I understand the engines that drive all the art worlds, and paying to play is one of many, but it just seems, from the artist’s perspective, like a Ponzi scheme without hope or the promise of great returns. This is especially true of for-profit exhibitions, where the fees are used to pay the winners and venue, without much or any social redemption—and no tax deduction.