Competitions and ­the Business of Art

Armand Cabrera
I get asked to do a lot of competitions; these days for the most part I politely decline. I find most of these shows poorly run and badly structured for an artist to make money at. The prize money is always a gamble and while I have my share of ribbons from past competitions, a shows worth isn’t measured by prizes, it is measured by sales and exposure for the participating artists. Professional artists need consistent clients.
Steady income is a must for professionals; I make my living from creating art for clients. As such I have criteria that shows must meet before I will apply or accept an invite from.
What percent does the venue take from sales and what do they do for that percentage?
When I was doing Plein Air competitions and other shows the percentage for the venue was 35 to 40%, sales were good and there were ad campaigns purchased by the venues in all of the major magazines and local news coverage. This was paid from their percentage of fees collected from submissions. Now venues want 50% for that they better have a good track record of sales for all their artists not just a few.
Is the number of artists limited and is the show really juried for quality?
I like being in shows of my peers or my betters the converse is not beneficial to me in anyway. When you are starting to establish a career entering lots of competitions is good. As your career matures though its better to be more selective about where you show and who you show with.
What percentages of paintings sell at the show?
 If it’s lower than 40 percent it’s not a good venue for sales. It’s geared toward making money from the artist’s submissions and participation, not selling the artist’s work. Its also important to know how many of the participating artists sold work. Its easy to skew that number with one or two popular painters while the rest sell nothing.
What is the average price point for sales of paintings at the show?
 Before I say yes to a show I need to know that my price point is well represented? There is no good reason for me to travel across the country to be in a show where the average 12 x 16 painting is sold for a quarter of my price for the same size work. This is not pretentious this is practical for a professional.
Can you as an artist break even or make money at a show?
When you add up jury fees, shipping costs, travel expenses, meals lodging, supplies and framing do you still come out ahead?
It’s easy to figure what you need to make to break even or turn a profit. Say you have a five day painting event and to get in there was a $50 dollar jury fee. It’s a  distance you can drive, so you take your car. $200 round trip to the event, $200 for gas while you are there, $100 a night for hotel and $40 dollars a day for meals.  Say $1000 dollars for the trip when you figure art supplies and frames too.
The venue takes 50% so you need to sell 2000 worth of paintings just to break even. How many paintings is that at your price point? Say it’s three. Does the venue allow you to show more than three paintings for the weekend or one day sale? If not, the best you can do is break even, even if you sell out.
But I’m sure I can win a prize. Great, let’s look at prizes, most venues now only give cash awards for the top prize, all the other prizes are gift certificates for products. So say you get a prize worth $500 but you don’t sell, you just got $500 worth of art supplies for a $1000 of show expenses. Warren Buffet you are not.
Competitions can be fun. You can make new friends and get a chance to compare your ability to other artists in your field but if you’re in this as a professional you have to treat it as a business and look at your bottom line. Make sure the competition venue offers you something you and your career need before signing up.


4 thoughts on “Competitions and ­the Business of Art

  1. Thanks for this, much needed, practical advice. In the past, I spent a lot of cash on these venues and hardly ever broke even. The last couple of years, I've looked at the bottom line.
    Thanks Again!

  2. Good for you I wish more people would pay attention to this. The lack of professionalism at these events is what drives prices down,

    I've been at large events on the east coast that allowed artists to slash their prices for the second day of the sale, hardly a professional attitude. And of course once collectors realize they only have to wait a day to get the same paintings at half price, they do. These venues are about being self sustaining, for profit entities not venues that really promote the artists and their work.

  3. Thanks for this post. I don't enter shows anymore, too old and find it too much work. This is great, sage advice for the younger artists. I think we tend to overlook the bottom line many times. Good reminder.

  4. Thank You Armand For this post. I am at the point were I am looking to start doing some shows and this was vary helpful!

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