Parker Harris is “one of the leading visual arts consultancies in the UK“, responsible for a number of well-known schemes or competitions including the Jerwood Drawing Prize and, er… the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition. Most of them require an entry fee, and the fact that these competitions proliferate and stick around is de facto proof that they’re a nice little earner. So for the next few minutes let me be your Countdown-era Carol Vorderman (minus the sketchy ads for predatory debt consolidation companies who put people’s homes at risk, the sketchy ads for fish oil, etc, ad nauseum) as we do the maths on the “opportunities for artists” currently on offer.
The Rootstein Hopkins Drawing Exhibition 2013 costs £10 for submission of the first drawing and £5 for each submission thereafter. There are prizes of £1000, £500, and two of £250, for a total of £2000. To cover this they only need 200 entrants spending £10 to enter one drawing each, or 100 people entering three drawings each (=£20). After that they go into profit.
The abstractcritical writer’s prize 2013 [sic: you'd think a prize for writers would have their own house in order with regard to title case and grammar...] appears to be free to enter, but the entrants also appear to be competing for what should be a commission of £500 rather than a prize. We shouldn’t be having to enter competitions just to work. Qualified plumbers wanted: send photos of your best boiler installation for a chance of winning payment for your £500 parts and labour invoice! The maths here is offering a competition≠a fair form of recruiting freelance employees. Whoreadsabstractcriticalanyway?
The Derwent Art Prize costs £10 for the first entry and £2 for each additional work up to a total of six. £8750 is on offer in prizes. Only 440 people would need to enter at £20 a pop (i.e. entering six images) for this one to break even. Anyone who’s had anything to do with arts administration and/or applied for legitimate, paid and openly advertised commissions will know that 440 is not an outrageously high estimate of the potential number of competitors.
The National Open Art Competition (“sponsored by Towry, the wealth adviser.” Excuse me while I vomit.) is £20 for every image you enter. We can see the economic calculus of these competitions laid bare by the strong implication that the higher fees are covering the payment of prizes that are commensurately larger. More bait means more little fishes nibbling. The upshot is that this competition is potentially not even making a loss with prizes totalling £39,000. One would hope that at least some of these prizes are given by the sponsors, otherwise the horrifying implication is that about 400 artists have spent about £100 each on entering this competition, or 800 have spent about £50 each, and so forth.
There are open submission opportunities and prizes that sincerely do their best to offer artists a step up, development of their career and practice, the beginnings of a fruitful relationship with a gallery, the public, or with other artists. But what happens to most artists after they’ve won competitions like these, anyway? You won £250, congratulations. Win another three or four and within a year you might be able to pay a month’s rent and bills.
Not that I’ve ever been one, but being in the mindset of entering all these competitions regularly and sincerely must be like what I understand of being a drug addict. A tenner here, twenty quid there, you might as well open your wallet to the wind, a quick hit of hope and then the inevitable long come down, you vaguely hope you’ll get out but you never will until you face reality and not being able to face reality is a big part of what got you into this mess in the first place. And the only thing you have to show for all your struggle and the money you’ve spent is another slap in the face, another reminder that you’re not one of the chosen. You probably never will be because the chosen don’t need to enter competitions to get what they want from life.
Addendum, 8th February 2013: For some context to the costs– both overt and collateral, e.g. transportation of work– of these competitions, the national minimum wage in the UK is currently about £5/hour for 18-20 year olds, about £6.20/hour for over 21s. Therefore a person such as an artist working (and being taxed on) a minimum wage job in order to support their art practice would need to work for over four hours just to afford a £20 entry fee. Jobseeker’s [sic] Allowance is currently up to £56.25 a week if you’re under 25, up to £71 a week if you’re over 25. This is the minimum that the law of our country says a person needs to live on.