Most days I receive notes from galleries or art competitions, promising to help to boost my art career, so it seemed useful to pass on a few words of advice from an old campaigner as it were.
The imputation behind of all this is that to become successful you have to get your work ‘out there’; but is that really the case?
Let’s start with your definition of successful. Is it enough to be successful to the point where your art pays for itself, or should it cover your mortgage, a second home, employees, that brand new range rover?
Measures of success are personal, but in 16 years of living and working in the visual arts the most common aspiration I hear is ‘I just want to be in a gallery’.
So when I see e-mails flying into my i each day from galleries offering to do just that I get hacked off
Let’s start with Art Societies, of which I have to declare an interest. Despite making a very successful career as an artist and writing on the subject regularly for magazines I have absolutely no interest in joining one.
The people I know from Art societies are invariably nice, decent and talented people, but as Ken Howard wrote, to be in a society you have to be ‘clubbable’; that is to like the idea of committees, of approved styles, of rules, in short of membership. I’m not that kind of person, and as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog I feel that wanting to get into clubs can do a great deal of damage to the creativity of developing painters.
But leaving that aside, let’s assume that you want to get into an Art competition somewhere prestigious what are your chances, and if you do get in, what happens then?
When I started painting in 2000 getting in was very simple, you bought an entry, pitched up with paintings and (hopefully and in the fullness of time) received the nod. The whole exercise cost a few hundred quid, bearing in mind that it required you to buy into the competition, paint your stuff, frame it well, and then make 2-3 trips up to London (once to deliver, once to collect unselected works, once to collect unsold work). If you can tie this into gallery visits or work it’s not a bad proposition, but for most amateur painters it can really add up.
I’ve been fairly lucky with competitions as I’ve exhibited with the ROI, RBA and (inexplicably, given my entry) The Discerning Eye.
When you think about it, getting into a competition is a pretty big punt. First of all, one has to qualify for entry, be able to get to and from the venue and then produce work of a quality which has a chance of selection.
Once you factor in the size of the venue, appreciate that the amount of work which can be hung is fairly small, then take out the hanging allocation which is guaranteed to the members, and those from persons who are informally ‘ruled in’ (usually relatives, employees, affiliates, potential members etc) then the amount of space truly open for ‘competition’ is a fraction of the hang.
And if , by the way, you think I’m making this up, several of my students on a foundation art course several years ago asked my advice as to which of the pictures they had previously painted they should hang (not send for selection) in a very well known Open competition. That’s an instance, not evidence of a systemic problem, but it does have a ring of authenticity to it when one looks at the work which is accepted.
These days it’s much easier to enter most things if not to succeed at them – you can, should you wish, enter work to be digitally pre-approved. This means that the competition organisers can make it far easier for more people to enter, but cannot of course physically hang more pictures, and leaves me with an uneasy feeling, which would be utterly assuaged if rejected works were declined with advice on how to improve them to meet the aims of the organisers.
Having exhibited with societies, and received a bit of favourable coverage, I can tell you that once you are accepted the earth doesn’t move, the ‘phone is unlikely to ring, and one is left with a feeling as to whether it was all worth it.
I could be wrong, and I know I should have used the times I was accepted to meet other members, ingratiate myself with the great and the good, and plan a set of pictures for the next show which builds on success; but I’m just not ‘clubbable’, and don’t want to pay the price to become so. The trick I think is to see any competition as a means to an end and any success in getting into one as the end of the beginning to paraphrase Churchill.
I don’t think for a second that societies are bad, although I know there not for me, nor do I think it’s all just a money making exercise – although it has the potential to be just that – nor do I deny that good original artists find their way to exposure through these competitions, it’s just that I wonder if there’s not a better way?
Art societies feel like a 20th-century solution to the problem of giving artists a meaningful outlet for their talents, and for the record,I like the digital alternative of online vanity galleries even less.
The solution, if there is one, is for artists to be happier with self-accreditation, or that of their local art clubs, and if that is impossible then the act of painting must become a reward in and of itself.
My advice? Set your own measures of success, the first of which must be ‘does making my work make me happy?’ When you can answer yes to that then the impulse to seek third party approval withers on the vine.
As it stands I’ve decided to do my bit and open The New British Art Gallery, an exhibition space for emerging artists who don’t want to enter a mammoth competition, join a society or dance to anyone else’s tune.
True, the gallery is focussed for most of the year on promoting the work of my diploma students (who as you will see categorically do not paint in a house style, much less mine), but real opportunities exist for talented artists to work with us and become known.
My current show The Painted Garden, wasn’t created as a commercial venture, nor was it painted to satisfy the criteria of a gallery or art society, or to meet the perceived needs of my collectors, it was purely and simply for the sheer joy of surviving a sudden illness and being alive and well enough to do it.
Last word. Don’t enter a competition- change your definition of success.