Taking the Temperature of An Arts Organization: Submission Fees and Is that Fee-based Opportunity Right For You?

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There are many and varied arts organizations out there doing wonderful things for artists. There is no denying that! Some arts organizations are mature, some are in their infancy, and some are just infantile! By “infantile” I mean that they don’t seem to have the ability to look at themselves with the goal of increasing their own performance–that is, they don’t know how to take their own temperature. They may have people within their organization trying hard, but the organizations as a whole lacks focus, goes with the flow, and never creates challenges for themselves that will lead to growth and maturity. Some signs may be– the organization hasn’t developed their programs since inception. When asked any questions about how the organization is run they use current catchphrases such as ” we are known for our transparency” while in a defensive mode of avoidance, providing no information at all.

Chaos and Fear

I’m not going to name the specific organization here, but I encountered one non-profit arts organization that seems to have a muddle of a mailing list–to which I was added ten years ago (not sure how I came to be on their physical mailing list)–but I was added in duplicate. So that I receive two of every letter they send out requesting donations. That means that two per campaign arrive in my USPS mail box together on the same day–two identical letters–regularly, and that has been the case for ten years. In those ten years no one in that organization printing out those letters and mailing labels, and stuffing those envelopes, has noticed the duplication. I have never received an invitation to attend any of that organization’s exhibitions, nor have I ever received any exhibition news or announcements from this particular organization–only requests for donations. When I contacted them about this, the Director, àpropos of none of my issues, replied, “we are known for our transparency and comminicativeness (sic).” He became defensive! He offered no information. Indicating that there may be some deeper issues within the organization. Guess what, if you haven’t updated your mailing list in ten years and you continue to mail out fat letters in duplicate using money from contributions, you are wasting funds and you are wasting costly resources! Are these signs that this is an organization swirling in chaos and fear?

They put out 11 calls to artists to submit annually, each with a required submission fee of $36 per three artworks plus $10 per each additional entry, and many of those calls are for group exhibitions. That’s a lot of group shows for any one arts organization! Are their promotions about the artists or are all their promotions about themselves/their organization? I don’t know. I’ve only encountered their fee-based calls to submit online and requests for donations mailed to me. When they do the rare solo-show, is it for any artist with funds to make a sizable donation, deliver and remove their own art, and pay for and do all their own promotional efforts? I don’t know. If you encounter any non-profit arts organization doing so, does that make them a gray area vanity gallery? A fee-mill? An exhibition-mill? Or is the organization providing a valuable venue for emerging artists?

These are some things for you to consider when taking any organization’s temperature and deciding which fee-based opportunities you want to submit to.

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Arts organizations rarely make major structural changes. If they’ve operated on an annual budget made-up of 80-90 per cent artist fees, it is unlikely that they will change. Yet, rarely, some may start this way and then learn to write for grants to gain more funding, making it possible to reduce or eliminate artist fees. They’ve taken their own temperature and learned how to grow and develop. I know of arts organizations that have an annual arts auction to raise a good portion of funding for their annual operating costs, while also writing for and receiving grants money. Established artists and art collectors donate work for their auction and their names are printed on invitations and gallery announcements giving them visibility. Artists don’t pay any gallery fees. So the model does exist.

The highly reputable and long-standing New York based womans gallery A.I.R. has an annual fee-based call offering opportunities for emerging artists to gain visibility. Look for the word “annual” on fee-based calls. If you focus your fee-based submissions on annual calls, which are often summer opportunities, this could be a good strategy for you to gain entry into prestigious galleries. That way you are sure to submit to the best opportunities.

If an organization puts out monthly fee-based calls to submit–that is 11 per year (one month off for holidays)–it may be tempting to want to get involved. For a beginner, it may be a good opportunity to submit to any group show that lands in your inbox without taking their temperature– it’s exciting to send in your submission fee, images, and hope you get picked. In fact, you can do that through-out your career as an artist, if you choose. But, to grow as an artist, to grow your career, you’re going to have to do more. Take your own temperature–are you stepping outside the path of ease and willing to seek out new paths that lead to growth? For instance, you may think that participation in such easy-to-get-into fee-based local group shows will make for great additions to your artist CV– but are they really? Or are you going to cringe with regret in the future and want to drop these shows from your list of credits? While your relatives may not know the difference between a vanity gallery and a prestigious art gallery, every arts professional does. Arts professionals know which galleries collect substantial artist fees and which galleries are vanity galleries. In the end, you probably won’t want art pros to see these on your CV.

If an organization puts out 11 calls per year are they a fee-mill? The same activities go on year after year decade after decade. Then all of a sudden they’ve purchased new real estate–physical and virtual–with more exhibition space and expanded fee-collecting possibilities, is this truly non-profit? Shouldn’t supporting artists get a piece of the pie? Certain organizations are counting on hopeful and uninformed newbies to support them. While most artists may start out participating in group exhibitions–and there are lots of good ones out there– they soon learn and come to know that sales do not often occur in group-shows but in solo-exhibitions.

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Quality arts organizations tend to fund-raise via annual fee-based group shows.

Others, doing a monthly fee-based call to artists, are relying heavily on artists’ support–and remember, there is no one selling the work, like in commercial galleries.

If you are an artist with enough disposable income so that you are able to submit to several fee-based calls each month totalling two hundred dollars or more, and this won’t affect your studio practice– that’s one thing. If supporting such organizations makes you feel good, I’m not complaining. Support who you wish. It’s up to you.

But many artists need to understand that they are not in a position to make such donations, and that they would be better advised to invest those hundreds into making more art each month and finding ways to sell their work. In other words, some artists need to care more about selling their work each month while others do not.

For any arts organization, look at two thing–how hard do they promote their fee-based calls in relation to how hard they promote their artists and exhibitions? This may be referred to as *how much bang will you get for your buck?* If you see mostly requests for donations and fee-based calls, but little about the artists and resulting exhibitions, perhaps you’ve missed something, or are only on one mailing list. If you inquire and the organization becomes defensive, that can be very telling. If, however, they respond that they will be happy to provide invitations, announcements or even press releases–then it just may be a matter of getting on more than one of their mailing lists to view their total promotional efforts.

It’s up to each artist to select the fee-based calls they will submit to. For certain fee-based calls the money goes into producing something for the artist–such as a public art project whereby the majority of the submission fees collected go into materials to create the public art (an example: Billboard Public Art projects where the fees determine the number of billboards that can be printed and displayed and submission fees go to printing costs, installation and promotions).

While some organizations gather fees to cover overhead and pay staff–(that is, artist fees go to paying electric bills, gallery maintenance, rents/mortgage, salaries for staff and other operating expenses). You may enjoy supporting such non-profit organizations and helping them stay alive, or you may wish to avoid such opportunities and invest your money into more innovative business oriented programs, such as Pop-up exhibitions and Pop-up art shops where you contribute a percentage of the rental fee and you make sales of your work. That way you can do the math to determine your expenses and income from such exhibition and sales opportunities.

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Photos courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

“Thermometer Buzz Means Public Relations And Aware” Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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