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Should I pay fees to show my Art?

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

Being an emerging artist it can be hard to turn down an opportunity. It can be tempting to pay to enter a competition or art fair in hope of exposure or being able to sell your work. But how do we know which opportunities are exploiting young creatives and which ones are there to support us?

The following blog post has been written by our Member Lewis Buttery about getting sent cold call emails by galleries and Art fairs.

“Lewis Buttery was born in Leicester and was introduced to the art world by local charity Soft Touch Arts, in 2013, after dropping out of his A Levels during his worst period with his mental health. Upon introduction he immediately started practicing as a self-taught artist, taking part in a group residency and exhibitions that year. The following year he started delivering workshops on behalf of the charity: which he continued doing until 2018 within arts organisations, schools, youth clubs, council estates, and prisons.

During that period Lewis was in the local paper and on the local BBC Radio station more than once. He was involved in numerous big projects, like curating Leicester's leg of the touring Generation Art exhibition and being part of the corresponding panel talk.

In 2016 Lewis decided that he wanted to improve his skills, so he began a Foundation in Art & Design at De Montfort University part-time alongside his professional practice. Upon completion in 2018 he then chose to do a full-time BA in Fine Art at UAL: Central Saint Martins. While there, in his second year, he was awarded the annual BWW residency with Liquitex and also took part in the annual Tate Exchange group show at Tate Modern. He ended up graduating during a COVID lockdown in 2021.”

“I had a cold-call email come through today from a vanity gallery who added me to their mailing list. I often get emails just like it, often with an unsubscribe button even though I didn’t subscribe to them in the first place. They charge hundreds of pounds to show work with them but never seem to mention that in the email; it’s only when they’ve achieved a conversion, of convincing you to click through to their website, that you’re presented with the astronomical cost. Vulnerable people are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt about it. The email presents you with a narrative of an institution wanting to work with you. It’s easy enough to then rationalise the lack of transparency on fees with things like “of course it’s not free, nothing’s free”, or “they’ve got to make their money too”. And that’s true but focus on the red flags of the situation.

When a gallery initiates contact it means they’re interested in you. There are two options for why. Either they’re scamming you and therefore interested in you as a target, or they’re genuine and they’re interested in you as an artist. Giving them the benefit of the doubt means telling yourself it’s the latter. But since they’re the ones initiating contact with you? If anything, they’re the ones who should be giving you the benefit of the doubt. A gallery who is genuine in this context would do things regarding fees like paying you to show your work. If they can’t afford to do that, then the least you should expect from them is to ask you to do it for free. Realistically that’s the best-case scenario for most of us in the current iteration of the art world.

But here’s what I’m getting at, think of social media platforms; at this point everyone is aware that the reason they don’t make their money by charging us directly is because we’re the product. Social media platforms have spent the past two decades making their money by selling our data instead. Initially a lot of us were sickened by it. I’ve become begrudgingly desensitised, not happy about it but used to it. The art world is the other way around. Here, it’s better to be the product. Galleries are supposed to be able to make money by selling our art. Charging us directly removes their incentive to do that. There are grey areas, of course, but here’s a red flag you can look out for: their ratio of fees versus commission.

If they have high-end fees and low-end commission rates, that’s a red flag. That tends to be the case with the cold-call emails. 0% commission, meaning they make nothing from selling art. Selling art isn’t even part of their business model. But they charge hundreds, or even into the low thousands, for the artist just to hang their work and have a little opening. As long as they can keep manipulating artists into paying those fees, and gaslighting us into thinking that the lack of sales that come out of it is our own fault, they have a viable business model. They have no incentive to facilitate sales, only to look like they’re facilitating sales to keep us hooked. There are exceptions. There are times when an opportunity has entry fees and is legit and I’ll get into discernment, into how to tell the difference.

The big thing first of all is what I mentioned earlier about the context of them getting in touch with you. When this specific high-fee, zero commission business model of gallery initiates contact, that’s something to look out for. But sometimes you’ll come across opportunities on your own, without having been targeted, and then it can be harder to tell. That’s where individual research comes into play. The best thing to do is to default to not applying for opportunities which have application fees. Make exceptions only when you find a reason to do so. That’s instead of defaulting to applying for ones which do have fees and only blacklisting them when they do something wrong. That’ll save you a lot of pain. And money. So, then it becomes about when you might make an exception. The answer to that is when there’s proof, or an indicator.

For me, I’ve never applied to an art fair. Some of the cold-call emails I’ve gotten have been from art fairs. Art fairs have a business model of charging fees for booths, a paywall which is a barrier to entry for me and as a rule I’ve stopped applying for any opportunities which have those. But there’s one specific fair I want to try out and that’s because there are a handful of artists based in my hometown who I respect and who are at a level in their careers that I want to get to, and they all sell their work at one specific fair. That for me is grounds to make an exception. It’s social proof that this fair works for the artists I want to be like and who are in my geographical section of the art market.

Also, again, there’s a grey area in terms of an institution’s relationship with entry fee and commission. Yes, high fees and no/low commission is a big red flag. Yes, paying you to exhibit/no fees and a standard commission rate (30-50%) is a green flag because it means they have an incentive to sell your work. It’ll often be in between: something like £10-30 to enter and a 40% commission rate for example. Not a red flag or a green flag, no indication of whether it’s going to be worth it or not. And this is why as a rule I don’t apply for things which have application fees. If I applied for ten opportunities which each cost £20 in one month, that’s £200 a month. That’s unsustainable. Completely inaccessible. But sometimes, as above, there’ll be indicators that it might be right to make an exception.

I have a list of the cold callers who I’ve added to my personal blacklist but I’m not going to post it publicly because I don’t want to cause issues for the WCCD, either legally or in terms of harassment. One of the art fairs for example scalped all of the members’ email addresses from the WCCD website and added us all to their mailing list, then sent abusive messages when we realised that’s what they’d done. It’d be better not to reopen that can of worms, but their ego couldn’t take feeling called out. So that’s another red flag. If they manipulate you when you start asking questions, run. Listen to the way your nervous system reacts. It’s the same as with any other toxic person or relationship. I’m hoping this post helped even without giving those specific examples.”

If you have been contacted by a gallery or an art fair and are unsure of whether to pay a fee or if it is the right option for you, drop us an email.

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1 Comment

Huge thanks for this write up. I'm just starting back on my art career and have been weighing up whether to pay such fees to enter a particular gallery and secondly an art fair. Both of them have a pre-screening process, or pretend to, which then makes you believe you have been selected because your work stands out. Both though want to charge over £300 for the privelage to show. Reading your post and hearing of some other bad experiences with similar set ups I'm going to pass on these opportunities and have faith that my art will find a true home and outlet somewhere else. I'll put the saved money into creating rather than exhibiting. Many thanks fro your…

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