7 Feb

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.

Carol VordermanThe 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.

5 Responses to “PARKER HARRIS MATHS”

  1. Alistair 07/02/2013 at 6:23 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

  2. gerrybellart 23/05/2014 at 9:04 AM #

    The only thing I can see you’ve left out is that ‘the chosen’ win these art prizes, long before they even deign to enter them. They only enter them when they know they’ve got the inside running – a bit like a lot of businesses, no?

    Also- having had Ab-Crit approach me for a review which I duly wrote and submitted only for SC to then shun (not even a rejection email) I can see sympathise with your contempt for the site.

    • Alistair 23/05/2014 at 11:24 AM #

      I can’t confirm or deny this with regard to the specific competitions mentioned here because I don’t know what their process is. But generally speaking, you’re right. I’ve discussed this extensively elsewhere on this site, and in my book. A few years ago I judged an artist-led (genuine) open that was extremely rigorous– even paranoid– in anonymising entries and judging purely on the perceived merits of the art work in front of us. At a pinch, we got the title too. This is a highly unusual practice, almost to the point of being unique. It’s a dirty little secret that most open submission competitions or commissions are extensively “pre-judged”, as they call it and which of course is tellingly close to “prejudice”… i.e. the overwhelming majority of applicants are considered for a matter of seconds and then dismissed by a barely-qualified or unqualified assistant or intern before the judges or commisioning panelists ever convene. This includes applicants who have done everything right, followed the rules and paid their fee (if any) just as much as all those people who persist in making applications and NOT doing what they’ve been asked to do.

      Furthermore, as you say, artists already known to the organisers are often invited to submit for supposedly “open” opportunities, and judged in full knowledge of who they are and that they are in the elite class of people who go through the application process for the sake of appearances rather than for anybody to genuinely judge the merit of their work. This (mal)practice runs through the entire arts infrastructure, from the bottom to the very top and many people can’t even seem to see why it’s wrong.

      For those dense people, I’ll spell it out: either you work with artists directly because of their reputation or previous work– which I think is fine, if you’re honest and transparent about it– or you’re genuinely open and give everybody a fair crack of the whip, which includes the possibility that your mates or those artists whose work you generally like are not in this case the right man or woman for the job. It’s profoundly cynical and wrong to deliberately give the impression that anybody can succeed through a process that is actually overwhelmingly biased against their success.

    • Alistair 23/05/2014 at 11:28 AM #

      And the “no news is bad news” approach to rejection is absolute shit. I hate it when people do that. It’s passive aggressive and arrogant. There’s no excuse for it. No is disappointing but ultimately OK if you just tell me so.

      Probably the only thing worse is hearing absolutely nothing and them ignoring all attempts at communication, then finding out you’ve not been selected or commissioned by reading publicity trumpeting about the person who has. This is also shitty, totally unprofessional and inexcusable.

      If you work in any kind of office or organisational role, answering emails (including the sending of polite, constructive rejections), letters and phone calls is not an annoyance or some kind of supernumerary responsibility. It’s a fundamental part of your bloody job. Just get it done and quit making excuses for yourself.



    […] past in the train’s buffet car on the way back to his seat in First Class. Another in Parker Harris‘ comprehensive range of reception hoppers for the excess money of aspiring artists, it will […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: