After each BAC art competition I receive emails from artists asking why their work was not accepted. Every organization that offers such art competitions has its own rules, but some issues are pretty general. For experienced artists, the following remarks may not be of much interest, but emerging artists often seem to lack an understanding of some basic matters, and it is to them that I direct the following practical suggestions for applicants.
Follow the instructions on the call for entries. If a competition requests that artists submit email images, do not send a CD. When a competition receives hundreds of entries, for example, imagine having to process a comparable stack of CD’s. Artists should look upon the instructions with the understanding that every entry is multiplied many times for the organizers, with respect to recording and processing.
Be sure to submit the best images you can send. If they are out of focus, badly lit, skewed, they probably won’t even be considered. Also, they should be cropped to eliminate extraneous information (usually including frames). Judges don’t need to see your back patio and pet dog in the picture with the painting. If you are not a good photographer, hire one. These images are your key to acceptance, so they must be the best.
If the competition allows submission of more than one image, it is usually better to submit the maximum number. If you submit only one image, jurors might wonder whether you have only one work you consider good enough to submit, i.e., are you a complete beginner without a body of work? And when submitting several images, it is best to use similar work. Do not submit one realistic portrait in clay, one abstract painting, and one black and white print. Although most artists do experiment with different media and styles, the jury is primarily interested in the particular work submitted, not your whole artistic career. You are not applying for a retrospective exhibition.
If the competition allows or requests an artist’s statement, study up a little on how to write a good one. Avoid arrogant statements, such as “I am a keen observer of contemporary culture and the viewer will be enlightened by my art”, and keep it short. The jurors may read the statement just to get an idea of the artist’s general intent, not to be impressed by your profound thoughts, fancy writing or to be told the story of your life.
Above all remember: the jury and/or administrators of the competition are NOT YOUR MOTHER. They don’t care that painting watercolors has helped you deal with personal psychological problems, nor are they thrilled with the fact that you have learned how to use a paintbrush. The judges want to know if your work is unique or interesting in some way, compared to the literally thousands of other art works that experienced judges have seen in their lives. If you decided you are an abstract expressionist, the jury will be comparing your work, even if subconsciously, to the original great abstract expressionists such as Pollock, Kline, Motherwell. If you are painting in an impressionist manner, how does your work differ from the work of Monet or Renoir created over 100 years ago? These, in my opinion, are questions all artists must be asking themselves anyway, not just when entering an art competition. It makes no sense to assert that your art is completely original and unique. It would require an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art for anyone to make such an assertion and it would be extremely unlikely to be true, since art is created within a social and historical context, not in a vacuum. Much contemporary art is about art and a complete “outsider” wouldn’t be entering an art competition anyway.
Judges, of course, are not only not your mother, they have preferences for certain kinds of work. Although judges may try to be impartial, it is wise for applicants to know who they are and what kind of art they may like. Google their names, in addition to reading what the competition description tells you about them. Also, remember that quality of the work is not the only criterion for acceptance, and that no matter how impartial a jury may try to be, each competition and each decision is based on a variety of factors, including: How large a show is desired? Do the organizers want a show that is balanced in terms of media, size, and style? How well does a given work photograph (some artworks are exceedingly difficult to photograph)? I have experienced more than one instance where a prize-winner one year will not even be accepted into the same competition the next year. That’s one reason that organizers invite different jurors each time – to keep the competition interesting and unpredictable and to give applicants a reason to re-apply even if they were rejected a previous year.
One final point – many applicants wonder why competitions charge a fee or why the entry fee isn’t refunded for those not selected. In the case of the BAC, the answer is self-evident – we distribute $3,000 in prizes and the income from application fees still doesn’t completely cover that as well as the other costs of each show, including jurors’ honoraria, advertising, wine, refreshments and staffing for the opening, installation labor, etc. Jury fees are simply one of the expected costs of being a professional artist.
Although competitions are problematic for the reasons outlined above (and others), I think they can be a valuable tool for artists. For example, a young MFA graduate who entered BAC’s first annual competition was awarded one of the prizes by a juror who was a prominent gallery owner in Chicago, who then also purchased the work and eventually gave him a solo exhibition in his gallery. What a beautiful success story! That is, of course, rare, but it can happen. In other cases, curators such as myself have discovered certain artists whose work would be ideal for a future show I am planning. And some works are actually sold, although these days far fewer than artists would like. BAC gallery exhibitions, including the competition shows, have resulted in a number of works being sold over the past two years, including one painting that went for $10,000. Again, that is a rarity, but possible.
Last, be sure to attend the opening reception. It is a great opportunity, whether your work was accepted or not, to see and meet other artists, curators, collectors, and lovers of art.