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Art Contests—giving your talent away

For an artist who wants to make a little money, or get his work seen by more than just the few that visit an art gallery, a Design or Art Contest sounds pretty tempting. Art students and struggling artists may see some great advantages. The come-ons are intriguing; “Have your work seen by thousands”, “Have your work seen in a local newspaper, or blogs!“, or maybe, “$250 – $500 cash prize!” We’ve all seen these ads for work on the internet or facebook, and they are publicized in your local newspaper, art blogs, or even in respected art publications. We, at Culture Seen might have even posted one or two of these. So, many of us have sent off our artwork in hopes of recognition, exposure, and a little cash. It may sound like a good idea, but there are things that you might want to consider before blinding giving away your artwork.

Can you imagine any other profession entering a competition like this? Would an accountant, lawyer, or another professional give away their services for free? I think we all know the answer to this. These organizations (and most are completely legitimate, by the way!) may offer a benefit to that “lucky” winner, but why should artists be singled out for free “spec” work? These opportunities only disrespect our chosen field. If a business, city service, or for-profit organization needs a logo, poster, or other specified artwork, they should pay for the service just like they would for an accountant or lawyer. But, the fact is, they know that artists are hungry, and will offer free services for less than the going rate. Why hire a designer for $1000, when a business can offer a $500 prize that is owned outright, without any usage fees later on down the road?

Of course, helping a non-profit with pro bono work is one thing. Your artwork (on your terms) would benefit a charitable organization that you truly believe in and trust to do good for others, so, by all means, help them out. But, if artists really want to be respected and get a fair prize for their talent, then I recommend that you take a pass on contests for any profitable, government agency or group . If you hope to benefit from all of the promises offered, you might as well buy a lottery ticket.

After reading this, and you are still compelled to send off your artwork to a competition, please be careful. Here are some reasons why:

  • If a competition does not feel that the call for entries produced a worthy “winner”, they may actually hire a professional to get the job done correctly. Then there actually is no award given away in the end.
  • Unless stated, once you send off your artwork, your work is owned by that organization. They could use it to promote their agenda, without any compensation for you.
  • Often times the judging is done by nonprofessional artists who have no idea of quality work. More often the people judging the competition are employees of the organization, and not at all qualified to be judging artwork. Therefore, the best work may not even have a chance in hell.
  • The “winning” design may be modified without any input from you. Therefore your name will still be attached without your true artistic vision.
  • Often times the “winner” is expected to be available for photo shoots which is great for exposure. But remember that you are now a representative and spokes model for their organization, so be prepared to understand what they stand for.
  • A few organizations ask for an entry fee, but it is unwise to send money to one of these groups that need money to “process” your entry. You can say bye-bye to that money.
  • Lastly, I will reiterate that the more that these competitions are around, the more that artists will not be taken as serious professionals, and that hurts everyone.


  1. onlooker (Reply) on Tuesday 28, 2012

    My sentiments exactly. I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. The only paying jobs for art that I get are very low brow. Folks find out I do these things to scrape by, value (and personal perception of own value) plummets. Some connections are really lost (they have even unfriended me on social media)
    I hold out for “real”exhibitions, then I have to get a job to afford food, then i’m physically exhausted to create.
    I have a few friends who have slogged through the trenches and are now just so successful (or putting on successful looking PR campaigns) that it makes the whole thing seem like a Himalayan mountain climb.

    • Lisa Marie Sipe (Reply) on Tuesday 28, 2012

      I love your line, “it makes the whole thing seem like a Himalayan mountain climb.” I often feel that way too trying to navigate through the crazy art world.