Application Sunday, part VIII: To apply or not to apply? 7 indicators of the wrong kind of artist call

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I have learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I have sent work for consideration to the open call to artists / writers / poets of the Brunswick East Cafe independent bookstore in London

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VIII:

As is the form, so too is the soul
Ancient Greek adage

Recently I stressed the importance of choosing the right kind of artist opportunities and described the nature of the wrong kind. I made this distinction: The wrong kind are those designed for the sole benefit of the organizer; the right kind benefit both parties, the organizer as well as the artist. Here I will discuss the indicators one should look out for that could be used to discern which is which from the very start of your search, that is, as soon as the page with the various artist call announcements appears on the computer screen.

One of the first things that hits someone commencing the hunt for artist opportunities they can submit work to is their sheer quantity. The landscape of the artist opportunities posted online is so vast that one can easily be overwhelmed and confused as to where one would be best advised to focus and look into further, especially when one is aware that many of these announcements represent opportunities one should rather avoid. Confusion can lead to indecisiveness, and at times can be paralyzing, leading one to call the whole thing off, or at least postpone it (which often is very much like calling it off). Failing to make an initial sifting from the get-go, which would allow us to determine where to click our way through and eventually apply, we may find ourselves virtually swamped by an ocean of ads we feel compelled to wade through one by one (that is, click through the announcement and go through the details of each one on their respective pages), therefore squandering our valuable resources, namely time, money (if during this process we happen to be lured into paying an application fee), and, maybe most importantly, peace of mind.

This ability of being able to single out from the very start which artist calls are worthy of our attention becomes even more important for yet another reason: The majority of the calls happen to be on the “bad” side of the spectrum: Think of them as misleading baits representing opportunistic ventures. At least this is the conclusion I reached after my first year of consistently submitting work, and after spending much time and energy wading through this vast field of “opportunities”. Getting better and better at spotting the misleading calls from the get-go gave me the advantage of being able to focus and be more productive.

After this first stage of excluding the artist calls that are no more than “white noise”, a skill that in time should become second nature, one can invest one’s resources in the opportunities that matter.

Of course, in this process, the individual goals and aspirations of an artist come into play as well. If one determines that the most desirable thing is to populate one’s CV with exhibitions, artist residencies, features, etc., regardless of their value, then this whole discussion may probably seem irrelevant. Here I address the problem that one may face when interested in the quality of the artist opportunities that one responds to as well as in not overtaxing any resources in identifying the few opportunities that matter. Also, it is considered as taken for granted that an essential first determining factor when singling out the opportunities that are good for us is the particular field or practice we identify with: A sculptor will exclude the artist calls addressed to painters, a video artist will exclude those addressing performance artists, etc. So this natural disqualification factor is here considered as a given and not as part of the “problem” to be solved. We are interested in what may be the indicators of an opportunity being unworthy of our attention after we have resolved: (1) That the opportunities providing us with value are indeed the only ones we care about and (2) The disciplines we identify with and would see ourselves competing in.

I found that just as is often the case with people, here also, the esthetic qualities can be indicative of matters of essence. What, more than anything else that gives away a “bad” kind of opportunity, is poor esthetics

This is good news, because it means that we can get rid of a great deal of these calls with practically one glance at the artist call list. Bad esthetics though is not the only indicator. Also, bad esthetics goes further than just hair-raizing color combinations, poor quality of photos used in the ad, or tacky terminology.

Here is a complete list of what I consider to be the basic indicators of a “bad call” one can train oneself to identify practically at a glance:

  1. Flashy visual identity. An ad that “shouts” to be noticed usually betrays that there is no concrete, real value to be had. Art call announcements that look like the ads on the last pages of a newspaper are not what you should be spending your time on.
  2. Poor use of language. If the organizers can’t use language correctly or are not interested in investing the necessary time or money for a decently versed ad, they should not be rewarded with our attention. This “detail” is an indicator that they will most probably lack professionalism elsewhere as well.
  3. Use of the language of advertizing. This is as simple as that: We are not sheep.
  4. Fees. As a fellow artist put it recently, “If money is going to pass hands, then that’s the bottom line”. Especially when it is significant and coupled with the promise of an award of dubious value, application fees (or “participation fees” if they are paid only by the artists selected) betray that the organizer’s primary interest is financial rather than artistic. Alternatively, it should serve as an indicator that this simply is not a serious, well organized venture. In my post about choosing the right kind of opportunity, where I presented my experience of a poorly organized exhibition, one where I failed to see the participation fees requested as a red light, I emphasized that one should be skeptical, if not dismissive from the get-go, of “opportunities” essentially funded by the artist. In the era of crowdfunding and with so many state funding opportunities that still abound, in some countries more than others, why should we continue to accept “the artist pays to be exhibited” practice? It doesn’t make much sense, since in most cases it is not a sustainable practice for the artist and apart from that, since art addresses an audience and, essentially, is a product directed to society as a whole, shouldn’t the costs of bringing it to the public be funded in ways other than the artist digging into his or her pocket? Unless of course one regards art primarily as a self-advancing enterprise of the artist, in which case any kind of fee goes…
  1. Calls being “sold” heavily on their connection to a particular location. You should be wary of calls whose main attraction is that the events they invite you to apply for are being held in places considered to be international art centers, like New York, Chicago, Miami, London, etc. It is usually certain galleries that engage in this predatory practice, by issuing calls for group or solo exhibitions. If one takes a closer look at these “opportunities”, one will see, from the language used as well as other tacky advertizing methods, that they prey on the artist’s desire to have their work connected with the location where the exhibition is to be held and rely on the misconception that this alone can provide an artist with career value. The truth is, what many artists must have had to learn the hard way, that having shown at a major international center does not, by itself, confirm that you are an internationally renowned artist or that the show you participated in is some kind of testimony to your “success”. On the contrary, it can often furnish the opposite results: These galleries are generally known among the people of the art world, that is, critics, curators, other gallerists, and in general people an artist would naturally be interested in attracting the attention and gaining the respect of. Seeing the name of a gallery engaging in these practices, often known as a “vanity gallery”, on your CV, will most likely be taken as a bad rather than a good signal by the reader of the CV. “Vanity galleries” are so aptly named because they appeal to the “vanity” of artists, who, instead of waiting for their work to improve or until they’ve gained further recognition for their work, meanwhile showing in the framework of traditional galleries, are willing to pay in order to get exposure. “Vanity galleries” often advertize themselves with a flashy ad and on their site, they seem to be promising you the world if you exhibit there, often showcasing testimonials from other artists stating how their whole career changed after showing with them. In general, they project a misleading glorified image and an elusive “award” they are willing to bestow for a hefty price. A classic example of such a gallery, which is mentioned in the artist career handbook “How to survive and Prosper as an artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul” by Caroll Michels, and also one I have very often come across in my application hunt, is Agora Gallery. Their site provides a unique graphic example of what is presented here.
  2. Calls playing the card of big names participating in the jury combined with a fee to participate. This is a very similar case to that of the “vanity galleries”. The organizers prey on the artists’ “need” to be somehow connected to renowned names in the art world, and are lured into paying a fee in exchange for a dubious outcome. Often, as is the case of a Greek artist friend having sent work for an exhibition in Japan, never to see it again or been able to get a reply from the organizers to her attempts of communication, after the fee has been paid and the work has been sent to the exhibition venue, the organizers are nowhere to be found, nor is the artwork.
  3. Artist calls that include “awards” of $50 (or something along these lines): It is plainly insulting and betrays an ignorance of what an artist is (Is he/she a millionaire Sunday painter? Would he/she be above any material needs, able to survive without sustenance?) If an award is included, it should amount to a dignified one and shouldn’t match the “give the dog a bone” approach. This also includes artist residencies that award money for “subsistence” which, given the cost of living in the places they are located in, wouldn’t be even close to covering the basic needs of the artist. This is just another case where the cliché of the artist being able to get by on scraps is insultingly perpetuated and employed in a vulgar way for the organizers’ benefit. Usually these applications require a fee of somewhere around $35. Do the math and see how much this brings in for 1,000 applications, a very likely number for international venues such as New York, London, etc.

Needless to say that any announcement where more than one of the above indicators are red pushes it into the “high toxic” calls list and should definitely be avoided.

Steering clear of the traps set up by the professional parasites of the art world is not an easy thing. After all, this is their bread and butter and they are expert in misleading artists, usually by appealing to their “weaknesses”, namely, ambition, vanity, and sometimes even despair. The above “red lights” that I identified are most probably not the only ones you should be looking for out there, nor is this a bulletproof method, sure to keep you safe from the “bad guys”. I believe though that it is a good starting point in training your “artist nose”, which is an indispensable tool in the process of submitting work and getting your voice out there in a way that represents you.

So next time you click on a site listing artist calls, do a test: Set the timer to 15” and see how many of them you can exclude during that time. And the time after, do the same again. If you are doing things right and training your “nose”, soon you will be able to exclude more and more in less time, filtering out the unnecessary “white noise”, saving more of your valuable time and resources and being left with the handful of “gems” that are good for you.

Mind you though, even a gem may have some imperfections and often we can’t taste the goodness of an artist opportunity without also getting a taste of the bad. The key here is to keep trying to get closer to what we believe is good for us and our work, without setting unrealistic standards that may eventually make us cynical and dismissive of the whole effort of getting our work out there.

Is there any indicator of a “bad kind” of artist call you would add to the above list? Was there a time for you where ignoring one of the indicators led to a significant waste in resources and/or a negative general outcome? Was there a case where you applied to an ad that involved one or more of the “bad call” indicators and it still furnished a positive outcome?

Featured image: “Still Life With A Skull”, circa 1671, oil on panel, 28 cm (11 in). Width: 37 cm (14.6 in), Philippe de Champaigne – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

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