I Gotta Pay to get Rejected? Navigating Photographic Calls to Artists.
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Yes, we've seen it done by other artists seeking to be recognized for the fine work they produce -- a way to get their work "out there" in the public's eye, get their work seen by prospective arts patrons, collectors, gallery operators, and media representatives. It's among the first exposure we artists look for in reaching beyond our own meager effort of posting our work on websites, photo-sharing sites, and on social media like Facebook and Instagram. I'm talking about the infamous "Call to Artists" that alludes to greater recognition and visibility by the broader arts community that clearly must have an interest in our work.
Let's first clarify just what this is -- a "call to artists". On the surface it appears to be essentially that, a request made by an art gallery, arts council, community collective, a business, festival, or just about any organized effort to facilitate an "exhibition" of sorts, allowing artists the opportunity to display their work. Generally, these are group exhibitions that may include work by other artists (often not just photographers) from within a region, across the nation, or internationally. The exhibition may reoccur annually, may build around specific themes or categories, such as black-and-white landscape, color portraiture, photo manipulations, or most any manner of presentation the host is looking for. The artist calls are usually advertised through organizational websites, arts publications, or on sites that specialize in artist calls, such as CaFE, one of the easiest portals to find such calls, where they can be filtered by region, medium, theme, date, etc. A google search on artist calls will find a slew of opportunities from the pragmatic to the absurd. Though my insights may apply to all artists, most of my observations will be directed to photographers.
Pay to Play
Bear in mind -- you'll probably have to pay to submit your work for consideration, and it's generally a fee per each piece submitted, usually $5-$20 each, and perhaps with even an administrative fee on top of that. This means you might pay as little as $15 for three submissions, up to a couple of hundred dollars if they let you submit ten or more pieces. Exhibitors use these funds as a revenue device, that also pays for hanging and publicizing the exhibition, payment for the jurors, and cover costs for the reception food and wine. Likewise, there are no refunds. If you submit your work and get rejected, you're also out the cash. If you submit to a lot of exhibitions, it all adds up, because most of the time, you are rejected. Depending upon the show, there may be ten times the submissions than what they have room to display. Online enrollments through specialized sites have streamlined the process of submission, so it's easier for you to participate digitally -- that's good. It's also good for everyone else, increasing competition -- that's bad. However, there are ways to separate yourself from the crowd.
First, filter out all the calls that don't apply to you such as a man applying to a show focusing on the work of female photographers, or being a non-member applying to a members show, or a show limited to Colorado photographers when you live in Florida. Be sure to check eligibility first, as many shows will technically not be available to you. Second, try to match your style of work to the exhibition in question. If your best work is traditional landscapes, don't suddenly try to take on calls for street photography or photo manipulations, unless you want test yourself with something new, but understand the odds and competition. Also read through the entire call guidelines. Is the cost acceptable to you? Is the size and notoriety of the exhibitor appropriate to where you are in your development? Are you able to meet the requirements of submission, and more importantly, the extended requirements if your work is selected? Will the exhibition provide sufficient notoriety for your work if selected? Are your odds of being selected suitable to you? Do you get to control any aspect of how your work is displayed, or will you lose the option of printing, framing and preparing your work? Try to stick to your strengths artistically, and to a submission process you're comfortable with, plus a choice that serves your reputation and level professionally. If you can, research the exhibitor and any previous calls they've sponsored -- compare the previous winners with the style and quality of your best work -- does it fit in and does it compete? Also, check out the jurors -- search out their websites. Does their experience and work coincide with the work you plan to submit? This need not always be a perfect fit, but it may provide insights into how they view things aesthetically. Never try to "push through" any work that does not strictly meet the theme of the show or the intent of the jurors, no matter how good it is -- it will be rejected. Also, check out the "prizes" should your work receive an award. Understand that getting accepted into a show is usually prize enough, as the odds of also being among the best-of-show is even less likely. Though cash prizes are frequent, the amounts are generally only a little more than the expense you'll incur participating. Given the odds and the cost, don't plan on making a living this way. Prizes might also include equipment, a future solo show, gallery representation, free workshops, etc. Make sure these perks are of interest to you before submitting your work.
Most submissions these days are electronic, and if you work through a site like CaFE, you'll have the option to build a personal profile and supply a library of your work for ongoing submissions. It is common that the work will be streamed to a safe storage space, so you'll need to be comfortable with terms such as resolution, pixels per inch, and controlling image size to a few megabytes. Likewise, you may be asked for medium, dimensions of finished work, framing details, title, description, artist statement, etc. Works are generally not to be watermarked to provide anonymity, and each call via the site may ask for more specialized information regarding your background or insight as to how your submission relates to the hosted show. They will provide dates for submission, notification, shipping, jurying, opening, and return -- make sure you can make all dates where you have an obligation to get something done on your part.
Many sites will require you to list a price for your work if selected, and you should be prepared to release the piece if purchased unless you have the option to list the piece as not for sale. This policy may vary as exhibitors like to have the option of collecting a commission on pieces they might sell. That likelihood depends a lot on how effective the exhibitor is in selling the pieces in their shows -- everyone's different. The price you list is generally up to you, but be certain to include all possible costs of production, framing, your time, plus shipping, and commission (if sold) -- suddenly, you may be looking at a price of several hundred, if not over a thousand dollars. Keep it priced at a level consistent with your professional stature, with a higher probability of generating a sale, but the price will generally be higher given the added logistics of getting ready for this show.
Preparing Your Work If Selected
Sometimes your digital submission IS your actual submission, which can make life easier, where the exhibitor will take on the process of printing and framing. If so, you have little else you need to do. However, in most cases, if your work is accepted, you now have the added logistics and costs of printing, framing, and shipping your piece for exhibition. Print size and framing may have to fit certain parameters set by the exhibitor, but generally, you will have the latitude to submit what you want within reason. As overall presentation is often part of the scoring process, along with the quality and significance of your image, you will need to carefully consider the quality and style of the framing as it best presents your work. Having the work professionally framed with museum-grade acrylic glass is preferred, both for display and to survive shipping. Shattered glass will add to your costs to replace, or even disqualify you from the show. In addition to the added time and cost of shipping, you will also be providing advance return shipping and packaging once the exhibit is over. For me, shipping is always a pain, so I also tend to favor shows within driving distance to save on shipping, but also as a means to meet the exhibitors, perhaps attend the opening, and schedule a couple of photoshoots en route both delivering and picking up the work. It also allows me some peace of mind knowing the work arrived intact as desired. With entrance fees, framing costs, and shipping, you may easily be into the show for several hundred dollars -- but who cares, you're in the show, dammit.
Waiting for the Show
If you have not received notice that your work has arrived in good condition, contact the exhibitor directly to ensure it has arrived. You might have enough time to pursue an alternative plan if something goes wrong. Works might not have arrived, or may have arrived damaged, or are unsuitable for hanging based on overlooked parameters, etc. If selected, the exhibitor wants to hang your work and may have solutions on their end that could help, but be prepared to bear the cost they may incur on your behalf to help you out. If you have the opportunity to attend the show and/or opening, do so if it's reasonably accessible and not thousands of miles away. Prizes are frequently awarded as part of the opening festivities, and even if you don't win, just seeing your work being seen by others in a formal setting is very satisfying. Be sure to meet your hosts and jurors, as these relationships not only provide greater insight into how your work was received, you also make important contacts for the future. Take your business cards, social media, and web information. Take pictures of your work on exhibition for self-marketing purposes. Consider contacting your local media about a feature where local artist does well.
After the Show
The exhibitor will return your work as arranged, or you will pick it up accordingly. Again, if you have not received your work as the exhibitor claimed, contact them directly. If the work is not claimed, it often will become the property of the exhibitor by default. Once the work is safely back in your studio, be sure to thank the exhibitors and jurors for their support of your work. Again, this is an opportunity to make an impression, make contact, and open doors for future encounters. Include the show and awards in your professional vita, on your website, and in social media. This adds credibility to the fine work you already produce.
The Call to Artists is regarded by many as a necessary evil of exposure, But I've always seen the value in having my work assessed by other professionals in the field, providing insight on how my work holds up and how, perhaps, it may progress in the future. The credits and awards of acceptance into a show are generally worth the experience, and it is something I do carefully each and every year. Patience and diligence is the key, and eventually, your work will get selected.