Dear Art Exhibit Venue,
We need to talk.
I heard you were having a juried exhibit. I was happy to hear it and after reading over your prospectus I thought about entering my work. These things are always tricky to figure out. I read about the juror(s) you selected and the cash awards you were offering. I checked the dates on my calendar and compared those dates to the other exhibits I had already scheduled. I looked to see what work I had available to show during that time and carefully considered how your juror(s) might respond to that work. As you know, I make a lot of 3D work so I also checked over your size/weight limitations and thought about how I might get my work to you if it happened to be selected.
I’ll be honest, I also thought carefully about your entry fee. Knowing that there would certainly be significant costs on my end if my work was selected, I had to consider if those costs would be justified. Let’s say I pay your $30 - $50 entry fee just to have 1 – 3 of my pieces considered. If those pieces are rejected, I’ve lost the entry fee and nothing more. If any of the entered work is accepted I will then need to either deliver the work to your space or have FedEx do that for me. If I deliver it, there’s the terrible cost of gas and the distance to your venue from my home to consider. There may also be a big loss of my time again depending on where you are in relation to me. And while FedEx is my preferred delivery service (other than me) they are not in the habit of delivering work or insuring that work for free. The bottom line is that one sculpture getting accepted is going to cost at least $50 in delivery. Those upper echelon venues only make me pay to deliver and they generously cover the cost of the return shipment, but you, well, you ask that the artists cover the cost of delivery and return shipment. That’s another $50 minimum. So we’re looking at $150 from my wallet in a best case scenario.
That led me to consider your prizes and awards. I know you say I’ll get all sorts of fame and publicity just from being in your show. You say it’s the biggest show in town and you get tons of humans to move through your space to see my work. That could be good for me. And yes, my work will be for sale so there’s always the chance that someone would want to buy it. And if that happens, I’ll forget all about that $100 (since I wont have to spend the extra $50 for return shipment…unless I prepaid return shipping through FedEx in advance). But the truth is, I’ve been getting in these shows for a long time now and that fame and publicity you promise hasn’t really made me famous or well publicized. In fact, you’ve downright broken that publicity promise quite a few times. What about those prizes you offer? Well, they sound good, but they’re almost like the lottery, right? Especially those BIG, “life changing” award amounts some of you advertise. I cant exactly count on winning the lottery so I have to be realistic and think I could just lose between $30 and $150 if I enter into this relationship.
Listen, you know I need you. You know I need to get my work out into galleries where people can see it. You know I need to have my work validated by my peers for professional purposes. And you know I can’t resist even the slightest possibility that I could win that big prize and become an overnight sensation. So if you create the exhibit and you dangle that carrot, you know I and many of my friends will likely enter. Hopefully it comes as no surprise to you that you’re not the only one for me. There are between 6 and 10 others each year. That puts those costs closer to $1,000 for me each year. I’m not gonna lie to you, it makes me wonder if your venue is worth it. I mean, is your town really an arts destination town?
All this makes me begin to think about how you treat me. This is what it really comes down to isn’t it? You may have a small gallery in a small town but if you’re very nice and very professional, I’m going to stick with you. You may have prestige and name recognition, but if you treat me poorly and act like my work doesn’t matter, I’m going to be done with you pretty quickly.
You gave me pretty strict instructions in your prospectus. You want me to be professional. You want me to enter by following a very specific set of instructions and you want me to do it by a certain deadline. You expect my artwork to be excellent quality and you expect that I’ll deliver it to you by another set deadline. You want me to come back again for the reception and then again to pick up the work after the exhibit closes. And you expect me to be on time for each of those appointments and to have my own materials for packing and moving. And you know what? I think that’s fair. I think those are very reasonable expectations for you to have of any artist.
But here’s where we went wrong: I have expectations too.
When you said I could deliver my artwork at that very specific time, I expected you would be there to receive it. I understand that life happens and maybe something came up, but for three, four years in a row? Come on now. That lunch break happens at pretty much the same time every day doesn’t it? But if you couldn’t be there for some reason I expected that you would either let me know well in advance or that you would leave some very specific instructions for another venue employee to handle the receiving of the artwork. I know we talked about the money I’ve invested in this exhibit but we haven’t even touched on the money I’ve invested in this particular work of art. This is, after all, an art object. It is quite valuable, especially to me. I spent days, weeks making this thing and spent hundreds of dollars on the materials and now I’m handing it over to a “volunteer” or some other person who appears to have never touched a work of art before. This kind soul makes it clear they had no idea they’d be handling art today. Do I need to sign something saying I delivered it in perfect condition? No one knows. Will it make it safely into the exhibition? I certainly don’t know and this leaves me feeling very uneasy about you. If I had a nickel for every time this has happened, I’d have a LOT of nickels. Seriously, there are venues where artists have running jokes about the staff never being on time or even showing up for appointments.
When you said you were an art venue, I expected you were being honest about that. You said this was the biggest thing in the region and that people from all over would come to see it. You said the work would be on exhibit for the public. You didn’t mention that the exhibit space was literally a wall or shelf in a local business. At least you didn’t mention it until my work was accepted. You expect professional quality art but you want to exhibit it over a table at a restaurant? That really makes me reconsider that entry fee. Oh and I’ll need to coordinate the delivery, exhibit, return of my work and the contract with that local business? Are you kidding me? I’m sure you were thinking it was fine and that nothing could go wrong. Surely no customers would touch the weird sculpture with sauces on their little 5 year old hands. There’s no way it would get dropped or scratched or lost while being handled by the restaurant owners, right? Lucky for me it wasn’t dropped or scratched. It did however get lost. For about a week no one at the restaurant seemed to know what I was talking about when I asked why my sculpture wasn’t returned on the date stated on the contract. “Sculpture? What sculpture? Oh, that thing? I haven’t seen that in a week or so. I think the artist came and got it.” Also lucky for me you had at least one competent employee working for your event who immediately made it her job to find the sculpture and return it to me. It had been dropped in a box and shoved under a shelf in the kitchen. Nice. Well on your way to becoming a world class exhibition!
In these types of juried exhibits the artists are putting themselves out there to be judged and categorized by the quality of their work. I wonder what would happen if you were to be judged and categorized by the quality of your work?
In our relationship, if I fail to live up to reasonable expectations, you toss out my entry and keep my money. You may even reserve the right to stake an ownership claim on my work if I don’t pick it up on time…it says so in the contract. But what happens when you fail to live up to reasonable expectations?
We will stop entering your shows. And when our artist friends forward the email and ask if we are entering, we will feel obligated to tell them why we wont be signing up for more abuse this year. Your reputation as a respectable venue will suffer. Will other, younger/emerging artists enter to take our place? Maybe so but unless you change your ways, they’ll be ready to wash their hands of you soon too.
Its not that I want to end our relationship. You do have some good qualities. But you need to know that there are lots of up and coming venues, some of which are being steered by working artists who are very familiar with these types of relationships from both sides. They’re treating me really nice and even respecting my artwork. Heck, they not only show up at the designated time, they offer to help carry the artwork. They care about more than just their gallery or their job (or their lunch break). They care about the artists and the artwork.
Maybe there’s still time to save this thing. Really all I want is to be treated fairly and for you to have some respect for my artwork. And as a gallery, museum or exhibition space shouldn’t that already be one of your goals?
So if you see my entry next time, you’re probably doing it right or at least I’ve heard you’ve really changed. If not, I’ll put all your tshirts and albums in a box and you can pick them up later.