Besides the joys and challenges of art creation, artists are always faced with making decisions about how they will display their work. The options are many, but I have been lately struggling with the question of “national” juried shows. The following musings may be heresy for some, but I do think artists who wish to be professional — i.e. actually sell their work and make a profit — must remove their rose colored glasses for a moment when considering these shows.
I’m frequently tempted, especially by the shows that specialize in printmaking or works on paper. When I had work accepted into the Boston Printmakers 2013 North American Print Biennial, it was a heady experience. I even made a pilgrimage to Boston to see the show. The Boston show is arguably one of the premier printmaking shows in North American, and having it on my resume is probably beneficial.
The importance of reading the fine print
Whenever I see a call for submissions, I always have a rush of “oh yes! let’s enter this one!” But I make myself read the fine print regarding commissions and shipping requirements. My work is larger than some printmakers, and even when framed with plexiglass it is cumbersome. This makes it difficult and expensive to ship. In these juried shows, the artist is almost always required to pay for shipping both ways. Some places require proof of return shipping payment before they will hang the work at the show. (Note: if you get a Fed Ex business account, they will print a return label that will only get charged to your account if it is used. I haven’t been able to accomplish this with UPS.)
And then there are the commissions. I have seen required commissions on any sales between 30 – 50% for these shows. This is after I have paid a $35 – 50 entry fee for 1-2 images, with additional costs for more submissions.
Asking the forbidden question
When you do the math (yes I said math) I wonder just how much this “exposure” is worth. Even if my work was sold (and didn’t have the return label used) after my materials and framing costs, I would lose money.
I realize it sounds crass to talk about losing money… But why are creative professionals expected to exist on such a ridiculous financial knife’s edge?
My own decision-making plan
I don’t have the answer this question, just some guidelines that I have set up for myself to balance my desire to have my work seen, with the realities that the IRS needs to see me make a profit if I am to be considered a professional artist and not a hobbyist.
- I look for shows that are within four hours driving distance. Transporting my larger work by car is still cheaper than shipping.
- I look for works on paper shows that still ask for the work to be sent unframed — possibly just matted — to be displayed under plexiglass. The Boston Printmakers Biennial did this is 2013 and it made all the difference. Sadly, they have changed their requirements and now require black metal frames — something I never use.
- I look for shows that have 30% commission or lower. Any higher, and I lose money because framing works on paper is expensive.
- I spend most of my effort and marketing dollars on local and regional efforts. I am more than willing to drive the four hours to a group show opening, in the hopes of making another regional contact. These efforts have been much more fruitful than many of the juried shows I have entered. I know this limits me — as I’m close to Chicago, but not to the coasts.
Saying no to oneself is difficult. Weighing (very unlikely) accolades against your bottom line requires the cold light of day. This artist still needs to do the math.