Art Competitions – The Good, the Bad, the Dodgy

by Julianna Sands

The Australian art scene has seen some challenges in recent years and the punching bag always finishes up being the struggling artist. Issues such as the global financial crisis and widespread tightening of the buyers’ purse strings, superannuation changes which reduce the attractiveness of artworks as part of self managed funds, intellectual property rights reforms which promise the artist a “cut” of the resale value (worsening the attractiveness of art to investors), all have had the unfortunate effect of depressing the market and making the life of a professional artist worse than ever. Gallery owners are not immune, as the product sales decline, there has been a shakeup of the private gallery scene with operators downsizing, retiring or simply closing their doors.

The surviving private gallery directors have even more power over the professional artist than before – they are going to be picky, they are not necessarily interested in the innovative or the eclectic, they want to sell product. Get that deep pocketed punter in, give them wine, fawn a lot and tell them which artwork to buy so as to look cool.

The salvation of many an artist, or at least a way to keep the rent paid for a few more months, is the humble art contest. Open in theory to all applicants, the pros line up against hopeful amateurs and the winner can often pocket a five figure acquisition fee. Even the minor prizes make a big difference to the artist’s bottom line and can keep them in the game. There are a lot of these around. Most are run by local councils, some are done by schools or colleges and a few are backed by corporate or other sponsors.

The authority running the award gets various benefits. They get to tick the “cultural” box in their brief as an exercise in community engagement. They get a nice picture on one of the office walls, something the Experts they have brought in tell them is cool. They get some sort of an investment. They are happy.

However, the artists, who have put the work in, had the judgements and try to make sense of it, are often far from happy.

Nobody begrudges somebody a win with an unusual or controversial work. After all, that’s what art is, isn’t it? An attention grabbing work well executed in any medium could be worthy.  But the grumbling and discontent starts when it dawns on some of the participants, who have stumped up an entry fee from their limited hard-earned, that the recipient is none other than a former student of one or two of the judges. Or a financially-strapped friend. Did this sway one or more of the judges? Did they talk about that between themselves? Did they rate the work independently of the other judges or just have an agreement over a chardonnay? Did they vote in the winner because they’d won their last two competitions and are Obviously Therefore Cool, and the judges want to be cool by association? Anything is possible. When was the last time, for example, a judge withdrew from a contest due to a conflict of interest. Ever?

So how are these run, and how are they kept truly open and fair?

The answer is, there are no rules.

I have checked with the National Gallery, the State Gallery, the Department of Local Government, the WA Local Government Association, Arts Law, NAVA and other authorities. There is no unifying code of conduct which ensures fairness. Maybe the operating manual of a local council could be a governing document, but does anyone really check or care?

“The decision of the judges is final, and no correspondence will be entered into.”

Stuff that. I’d like to find the author of the cliché and choke them with a well worn rule book. No correspondence? Sorry, but what if you cheated? What if you don’t really have a clue and just came for the council funded posh dinner and drinks, or the free holiday? What if you voted for your own students because it would make you, the academic, look good to have given birth to success stories?

The industry needs a code of conduct. A quality-assured system like companies in the real world use. Pull the shutters off, let the sun in, make the hidebound vampires collapse hissing into piles of smoking ash. So what do we need to see? Well, here’s a few things:

1. Fully independent judges, ideally from interstate.

2. Diversity of judges. Not all academics, not all painters, not all sculptors

3. Brief CV of judges

4. Declaration of interest of judges.

5. Exclusion of judges and their scores if any conflict of interest

6. List of definitions of conflicts of interest.

–  personal friendship, family or other relationship  (as opposed to just knowing the person)

–  prior professional representation of the person

–  judge recognises the artwork or believes they know the artist

7. Completely de-identified artworks, no CVs to be allowed until after the judging is complete.

8. Curator to take no part in shortlisting of artworks, this to be done by the judges alone. Exception: exclusions based on not fulfilling the brief – e.g. wrong genre, wrong size.

Oh, and one other thing. A white knight. The National Gallery, State galleries, maybe a Minister or three. Get a code together. Endorse those contests which adopt the Code, and withdraw patronage from those who don’t. Artists boycotting the dodgy ones who won’t cooperate. Justice for the Artist – well, there’s a first time for anything.