Are competitions worth it?

Are competitions and prizes worth the time, money and energy you spend entering them? Clare Davidson on the ups and downs of submitting your work to a jury 

Getting your work seen as an artist is hard, so open competitions seem like a solution. But the reality is that being selected is the exception.

For example, the 2010 John Moores Painting Prize had 2,880 entrants and 45 works were chosen. The Jerwood Drawing Prize 2011 had 3,354 works submitted by 1,779 artists; just 73 works by 60 people were chosen. The 2011 Threadneedle Prize saw submissions double this year from 2010 to 4,350, of which 52 works were chosen. The statistics aren't promising, but if you can view competitions as an experiment, rather than a test of your ability, they can be worth trying out. 

Be selective about what to enter – submitting work can be time consuming and expensive. There are many competitions and open submission shows beyond the big London-based ones: regional competitions, themed competitions and those geared to a specific art form, such as the Print Biennale. Chose shows and venues you would like to be part of. Check out who the selectors are and be honest with yourself about the type of work they are likely to want. The Royal Academy Summer Show, for example, accepts far more works than most (1,117 out of 12,000 in 2011) so the variety tends to be wider.

If you’re looking for competitions and prize shows to enter, calls for submissions can be found on a-n, Artquest and Transarts, among others.

Many competitions are annual and there can be a months-long gap between registration and exhibiting, so planning in advance can relieve the headache of scrambling to submit work. Competitions invariably require work details (measurements, medium, title) so having a log of such details can facilitate applications. 

Then there is the cost and time. Most shows require a fee, often upwards of £20 per work. It can easily cost hundreds of pounds by the time registration,  framing and travel are factored in, not to mention the time and material you needed to produce the work in the first place.

Good presentation of work is critical. Some juries base initial selection on digital images before deciding if they want the original piece of work – in this case, how you document the work can be just as important as the work itself. Other shows, such as the Jerwood, require all works to be submitted in person, framed.

In the run up to major shows – notably the Royal Academy Summer Show – many framers are overloaded with work. If you leave it to the last minute you can risk paying over the odds or having to frame your own work. 

If you’re selected, the turnaround time to submit work is often short. One of the challenges is how much time and money you invest before knowing if you’ve been selected. If you know you are going to enter a certain competition or several, one option is to get work ready to submit and framed to avoid last minute stress.

But this isn't always feasible. Artist Jane Eva Cooper, who had a print accepted at the Royal Academy in 2011, said she wasn’t going to print her whole edition of 50 until she knew she had been accepted. Once accepted she then had lots of work to do! Her advice? Wait if you want, but make sure you leave enough time for such eventualities.

Read instructions carefully about how to frame and submit work and make sure you are around to collect rejected work. If your work is heavy, plan how you are going to transport it – lugging large unwieldy pictures home by yourself is no fun. The Jerwood, for example, has a collection point a good 15 minutes’ walk from Wimbledon tube in zone three. Collection for rejected work is often limited to a few days and at weekends.

Having spent all the energy and effort to make frame and deliver work, it is always a blow if you are rejected. But persistence can pay off. Jane Eva Cooper was accepted in 2005 for a print in the Summer Show, turned down in 2006, 2007 and 2008, accepted in 2010 but not hung, and this year accepted and featured in the colour catalogue. She sold 26 prints out of an edition of 50.

And acceptance can lead to benefits beyond the show. Amy Ison got into the Jerwood first time, as a student who hadn’t entered other competitions. Someone who saw her work contacted a co-curator who then invited Amy for another contemporary show. That in turn led to her gaining an agent, and being commissioned for a series of drawings. She no longer has the agent but says it helped gain contacts having recently moved to London from Wales.

Glasgow-based lawyer-turned-artist Patricia Cain, who had been exhibiting since 2003, won the £25,000 Threadneedle Prize in 2010. She said the prize helped put her on the map, underlining that being out of London is tough for a UK artist. Winning the prize, coupled with another big achievement – she was also awarded the £15,000 Scottish Aspect Prize in 2010 – undoubtedly helped her get her recent five-month show at Kelvingrove in Glasgow.

But for most people who don’t win a lot of money or get a solo show right away, the immediate result of winning a prize is far from clear. But in the long term, being selected can lead to contacts or commissions months or years down the line and it can help on a CV. It can also simply help boost morale, even if you don’t sell lots of work or get rave reviews.

If, like most competition entrants, you don’t get accepted, the process can still be beneficial. Entering competitions makes you think very clearly about your work, what you want to be seen, and perhaps helps you clarify what your practice is about and how you want it to develop. Most artists agree that getting into competitive shows isn't the be all and end all, but if you have the right attitude, there’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain from it.