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The Case Against Art Show Entry Fees

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The visual arts are different. No one would expect a dancer or actor to pay in order to audition for a part, nor would a writer be asked to send in a check along with the manuscript for a publisher to read it. Visual artists, however, usually must pay an entry fee to be considered for a juried competition. Whether they are selected to be in the show or not, they have to pay. People don't look at their work for free.

There are an estimated 15-20,000 invitational arts and crafts shows taking place somewhere in the country throughout the year, held by private companies, nonprofit groups and small towns, and they enable lesser-known artists and craftspeople to show their work to the public. Artists treat entry fees sometimes as a cost of doing business, but they still grumble, since these payments (ranging from $10 to $50 per event in most cases, occasionally more) place the financial burden for juried shows on the shoulders of the people who have little money to begin with. Considering the fact that many artists and artisans apply to numerous art fairs and juried competitions over the course of a year, the amount of money starts to add up.

"Entry fees are a bit like a lottery," said Shirley Levy, an official of National Artists Equity Association, the membership organization of visual artists based in Washington, D.C. "You pay for the privilege of having someone look at your slides, even if they are rejected. Emerging artists are told, 'Pay your own way until you've made it.'"

She added that, combined with the costs of framing (between $25 and $200 per work), crating (between $25 and $250), shipping and insuring one's work (expenses that show sponsors almost never pay), the entry fee represents an enormous outlay of money for these artists. Most artists forego the insurance and take their chances with damage.

"A lot of people think that artists should contribute something for these shows, since they're the beneficiaries of them, but that's wrong," Levy stated. "Artists don't generally benefit all that much from a given show, but the organizations that put on the shows often make a great deal of money by exploiting artists who need to show their work somewhere."

Originally, entry fees were established as a means both to control the number of participants in juried fine art competitions -- it was assumed that rank amateurs could or would not afford the fees -- and to provide organizations with upfront money with which to rent a hall, pay some notable art expert to evaluate the artists' work (or slides of the work) and to create prize money.

George Koch, former president of Artists Equity, complained that "the money a lot of these show sponsors are raising is far more than needed to meet their expenses." He added that they could easily earn this money in other ways than taxing artists, including soliciting contributions from local companies, charging admissions from the public, creating prints of works on display, marketing a catalogue of works in the show and holding an auction of some of the pieces.

Artists Equity has been uneasy with the existence of entry fees since the organization came into being in 1947 and, in 1981, it wrote up ethical guidelines for its membership, stipulating that artists should refuse to participate in events where there are these fees.

This issue has caught on. Other artist organizations in the United States and Canada have adopted similar guidelines. A statement by the Boston Visual Artists Union, for instance, notes that "Exhibitions do take money to mount. However, it is inappropriate for artists (accepted or rejected) to be a source of these funds," and Canadian Artists' Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens in Ottawa also claims that its membership "does not consider that the payment of entry fees is appropriate to an exhibition of work by professional artists."

Artists Equity has pressed agencies of the United States government to develop a policy prohibiting them from funding groups that put on juried art shows requiring artists to pay an entry fee with limited success.

The National Endowment for the Arts has been reluctant to create a policy of this kind but, on a practical level, it has generally refused funds for groups charging entry fees. Michael Faubion, former assistant director of visual arts at the arts endowment, said:

It's too specific a thing for our agency to get involved in. It's understood in the field that the panelists -- who judge each grant application -- don't really approve of entry fees, but most of our applicants are exhibiting organizations which put may put on 10 shows a year, and one of them might be a regional juried show that requires a fee. It's unlikely that the panelists would deny a good organization any funding because of the one show, although they might decide that none of the money that's given to the organization can be used for that one show. But, generally, we don't want to interfere with the way organizations are run.

Artists Equity has also attempted to pressure the U.S. Interior Department to drop the $50 entry fee it requires for its annual duck stamp competition. This is the only juried art competition sponsored by the federal government, and over 1,000 artists a year pay the fee to submit drawings for a duck stamp commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Interior Department. "Why does the Interior Department need to make money off artists?" Koch said.

The case against entry fees has found more sympathetic ears on the state and local level, as both the Oregon Arts Commission and the New York State Council on the Arts as well as the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in Washington prohibit funds from going to organizations that charge entry fees. The Berkshire Art Association in western Massachusetts decided in 1985 to eliminate its entry fee, and other small town-sponsored events around the country have done the same, looking for money elsewhere. Many other show sponsors have chosen to maintain the entry fee system, however, realizing that there are so many artists around who are willing to send in money in order to have the chance to be shown that they might as well let them.