Art Competitions and Juried Shows: Are They Worth The Effort?

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

There’s a great temptation for artists, especially at the start of their careers, to enter art competitions and exhibit in juried shows but are they really worth your time and effort?

Entering an art competition is an expensive, time-consuming, lottery. The selection process by self-appointed unaccountable experts is arbitrary and subjective. Exposure and the chance of being ‘discovered’ is mostly a myth. Competitions serve the organizers and not the artists, they are little more than vanity shows and a patronizing pat on the back.

Maybe there’s a big first prize, but realistically, what’s the chance of winning? If you are thinking of entering a contest, consider the following points first and you may change your mind.

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Art Competitions Are Expensive to Enter

Entering art competitions is a costly affair, do so only with your eyes wide open.

The costs soon add up:

  • Entry fees
  • Framing costs
  • Professional scan or photo 
  • Transport costs to submit and collect your work
  • Insurance

Not to mention the loss of earnings taking so much time off work incurred.

When I entered the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year Competition, I had to take two days off from my art market pitch, in peak season, which lost me £300 in average sales. Ouch

Great white shark pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
2nd entry to an art competition
My Entry for the Competition

Did my ‘highly commended’ award make up for it? Not a chance. Did I get a link to my website? Nope. A cup of tea? What do you think?

You’re better off selling your own work and I’ll show you how!

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Art Competitions Give You Poor Exposure

Very few art competitions have any national coverage. They tend to be niche events and the audience is mostly made up of other artists. 

As far as sales are concerned, you will have a tough time converting that exposure into cash. Artists don’t buy art – as a rule.

I did this research, check it out: What Kind of Art Sells Best? All The Secrets Revealed:

I chose to enter the BBC Wildlife Magazine art competition because their BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is so big, it’s international, and gets good coverage. My mistake. I assumed that the Wildlife Art Contest would go the same way and, at the very least, I would make some new contacts.

As it turned out, I made two 100 mile round trips to submit and collect my artwork and met precisely no one. I was dismissed with a meaningless sticker as if I should be thankful.

The winners and runners-up were published to the magazine, but relegated to an uninspiring feature. It came across as cheap copy for the magazine. A little wonder the contest withered on the vine within a few years.

And that’s the problem with these top-down ‘prestigious’ events. They have at their heart a total lack of respect for the artists they profess to promote.

The dry truth is, that they are organizing the event to promote themselves. It’s not for you, it’s for them, and that makes anyone who isn’t the winner, inconsequential. 

If networking with other artists isn’t even guaranteed, I ask you, what’s the point?

Art Competitions Knock Your Confidence

If not winning isn’t of concern, how about being rejected for the show entirely? 

Why would anyone put themselves up for such a demeaning rebuffal? Who are on these juries? and who are they to determine your worth?

Anyone who attends an art show soon starts to question the selection process. It’s all so fickle. It’s another world. You have no idea if your style of art is going to be acceptable or fashionable with the judges. 

They come with their own prejudices, insecurities, and baggage. They’re no more expert than anyone else, yet, they sit there and pontificate with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. It’s so arbitrary.

How does that do anything positive for an artist? And if you get a ‘prize’ does that mean you were better than the rest? Of course not.

I realized how unpleasant judges could be when I decided to visit an exhibition event held by the Society of Wildlife Artists in London. 

They advertised for artists to bring in their own portfolios and an erstwhile member of their august society would critique your work. 

I was making good money selling my prints at the time and buoyed with self-confidence I took mine along with a view to joining the society if possible.

This will interest you: How to Sell Your Drawings: 10 Steps to Success

I arrived and this chap went through my drawings and without asking me anything about them, he said casually,

‘You know, you really shouldn’t copy from books’. 

I was taken aback and assured him that it was my work entirely. But he continued with his bias against realism and told me to loosen up and introduce a few metaphors.

River otter swimming on its back in reflective rippled water. A graphite pencil drawing.
The ‘great and the good’ didn’t like this one

Then it occurred to him that a pleb’, like me, wouldn’t know what a metaphor was so, unprompted, he tried to define it for me. Needless to say, I cut him short.

He went on to say if I intended to join the society, he would personally vote against me.

The lesson learned? You can’t rely on judges being well balanced, neutral, or even well mannered.

Sadly, one of the great drawbacks of the art world is dealing with precious, insecure, and pretentious people. The snobbery can be quite oppressive.

An Art Competition is Not a Stepping Stone to Success

Ever heard of a winner being discovered and going on to great things? Maybe there are some but I don’t know of any. 

I’d wager a dime to a dollar that they were already doing well and likely to do great things anyway. It was, in my opinion, already in the pipeline.

Art contests are irrelevant for the majority of us, in a career context that is, because there’s only one winner. That’s quite a limiting factor.

I’m trying to rack my brains for a notable contest that might mean something and all I can think of, here in the UK, is the Portrait Artist of the Year Competition. 

Why is that prestigious? Well, the winner is usually featured in the media and portraits are simply less subjective than other genres. It’s either a likeness or it’s not. 

Besides the rich and famous want to get their portraits done so they want to know who’s good don’t they? 

Bottom line, you’d better be a winner.

Not All Art Competitions Are Organized Professionally

I should’ve received the first message. I originally entered the BBC competition with this pencil portrait of a Nile crocodile.

monster croc pencil drawing. 1st entry to an art competition
‘Monster Croc’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

I submitted my scan and forgot all about it. I assumed that it had been rejected. Then I got a phone call from the event organizers asking why I wasn’t at the show.

The finals were being judged and my drawing was expected to win the category. They were expecting me. They insisted that they had sent me an email and were ringing me with only a few hours’ notice to attend.

It was too late.

It should’ve been a warning sign for when I submitted my shark drawing the following year.

Naturally, I submitted my 2nd entry into the black and white category, but unknown to me, the organizers decided to re-submit it to the sea-life category instead. Consequently, I was competing against some beautiful, colorful marine paintings, and, surprise surprise, I lost.

The black and white winner, by contrast, won with a very weak drawing and logic dictates that I had a much higher chance of winning.

I was not a happy bunny.

It was all shoddy and unprofessional.

Art Contests Are Patronizing and Exploitative

The basic tenet of a contest is to pitch people against each other in a scramble to the top. The winner takes all. The organizers exploit artists with the deceit that they have a genuine chance of winning and allay their fears with that other great lie – EXPOSURE

In return, you are supposed to doff your cap, be thankful for the opportunity to submit your work, for a fee of course, and be grateful.

Paying to be judged in a subjective, talent contest, doesn’t sound so appealing, does it?

What does it say about attitudes to artists that they’re treated as dispensable and held in such low regard? Why are their talents applauded and at the same time dismissed as trivial frippery? 

It’s not an attitude confined to the organizers but they do perpetuate it. 

It doesn’t take long to wise up. It’s only after you have entered a few that you realize that you’ve been taken for a mug. Competitions are for wannabes and amateurs.

Competitions and Juried Shows: Final Thoughts

If you want to be taken seriously forget being a star. No one is going to discover your hidden talents, no one is going to come knocking on your door begging you to put on a one-man show.

It’s a roll of the dice, and that sums it up nicely, you’re gambling, nothing more, and the only winners are the guys holding the competition.

You’d be far better off investing your time and money in promoting yourself online or at an art fair.

lion portrait pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Head of the Family’ by Kevin Hayler

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The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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