Selecting opportunities

Artquest, along with many other websites and independent organisations, list opportunities for artists. But how do you pick the one’s that are right for you?

Exhibitions, screenings, residencies, conferences, commissions, prizes and awards are all competitively selected. Some charge fees to apply, while others are driven by advertising fees paid to the listing website rather than quality. Others are inadequately vetted to ensure the organisation advertising the opportunity has a good record of working with artists fairly – offering fees and adequate budgets, for example.

Because we don’t have advertising on Artquest, we’re able to pick the best opportunities without relying on advertising income. We update our opportunities every day from a huge selection of magazines, newsletters, emails, referrals, and tips from the 150 artists we work with each year, each one researched for quality and fairness to applicants by the practicing visual artists we employ.

Artists need to understand how to evaluate opportunities for themselves to make informed decisions about the kind of opportunities they encounter. You should also bear in mind that an opportunity can often be negotiated – it’s important to understand and improve your negotiation skills for opportunities to make sure both you and the organisation have a high quality and useful experience.

Opportunities are all different

Every opportunity that you encounter as an artist is unique in detail, with its own eligibility criteria, benefits, challenges and conditions, and we detail here some points to consider when evaluating whether or not to apply.

It is important to understand exactly what is being asked of you before you apply, making sure the offer is suitable for your practice and what you need at this stage in your career – otherwise you may end up spending a long time, and possibly application fees, in applying for opportunities that you don’t want, can’t take up, or don’t need right now.

If in doubt about any opportunity, ask the advertising organisation for more details well in advance of the deadline.

Residencies

A residency is thought of as a period of uninterrupted time to focus on and develop your practice, sometimes coming with financial support. There is no single universally agreed form for a residency, however, and you are well advised to check the specific arrangements.

A residency might, or might not, provide a studio space or access to specialist collections, equipment or staff. Some residencies require payment by an artist to cover accommodation, materials and food during your time there, and many will not cover travel. For some, there is an expectation that the artist will leave some of the work they made during the residency for their collection, produce an exhibition or work with the local community.

International residencies in particular are highly competitive, but can be unsuitable for artists with families. Our Exchange network (building on our previous Artelier programme) will provide an alternative to international residencies, allowing any artist anywhere in the world to sign up and look for partners to swap with.

Because residencies are so different from one another, we interviewed artists about their experiences and tips for making a residency successful.

Exhibitions and screenings

When any public platform shows your work, you increase your visibility, build relationships with other artists and art world professionals, and build an audience for your work.

Not all exhibition opportunities are of equal quality, however. Some galleries require payments to cover venue hire, invitation printing, private views or delivery of your work. Many open exhibitions (where any artist can apply to exhibit, for a fee) are also an additional income stream for galleries; even large galleries use them in this way, making many thousands of pounds out of artists’ application fees to support their other programmes. Some are still good opportunities for artists despite this, but take careful soundings from your friends, research past winners and what happened to them before applying, to make sure you stand a chance of making the most out of them. Beware being asked to transport and insure your own work – this is usually the responsibility of a publicly funded gallery, although different economics apply to artist-led spaces (who often operate much more ethically).

Most galleries will ask for commission to be paid on sales, which, given the efforts and costs they put in to selling your work, is standard practice. Make sure the level of commission they are looking for is right for you – see the interview below with Rene Gimpel about relationships with galleries, including commission levels.

A number of galleries, particularly those that are publicly funded, will pay artists to exhibit their work – an important investment into your work considering the time and money you have spent in getting it to this stage, in return for an exhibition that benefits the gallery as well. a-n are running the Paying Artists Campaign in order to draw attention to this important issue for artists.

Exhibitions tend to vary according to the kind of gallery you are working with – our Gallery Films will take you through the different kinds of gallery that you are likely to encounter and help you understand the curatorial and financial relationships they have with artists.

Some publicly funded venues may want you to undertake some education workshops or a public talk – negotiate for this to be paid in addition to any fee you receive for your exhibition (unless specifically included, and a fair cost for your time in addition to the exhibition).

Whatever kind of gallery you are working with, make sure you get any agreement in writing, even if only on email, in order to settle any possible problems in the future. Open and honest communication will help avoid problems before they happen, and encourage trust throughout your relationship.

Commissions

A commission is an opportunity to create a new piece of work, most likely to some kind of specification (as to material, subject matter or display) but with some financial support for your time and materials. Many commissions also bring some kind of public exposure for your work.

Each commission will be specific to the organisation you are working with and the kind of work you make, so must be researched and negotiated individually. Often, these will advertise either the total budget or the artist fee – if possible, try to find out what the total budget for the project is so you can understand how much is available for materials and other costs, and where it may be possible to negotiate this. Commissioners make assumptions about the kind of project they are looking for, but are often happy to discuss the detail on budget spending once a project has been agreed.

Sometimes a commissioner may be looking for engagement, social, or health benefits for a community rather than artistic excellence: try to find out, or deduce, where the money for the commission is coming from – a hospital or school commissioning an artist will probably have a different measure of success than a gallery or local council. This can indicate to you what the ultimate aim of the project might be, and increase your chances of getting the commission if your work relates specifically to their aims.

One common issue that artists face in commissions is around who owns the final work. A commission agreement does not automatically entitle the commissioner to own the work, but sometimes they will offer, or expect to be offered, to purchase it at the end, and may want this included in their agreement with you. You may be able to make an edition (depending on your practice) and gift or sell one of them to the commissioner – again, negotiate this with the commissioner before you begin or sign a contract.

Prizes and awards

Prizes and awards sometimes come hand-in-hand with another opportunity, such as an open exhibition where one of the exhibitors is selected to win cash or solo exhibition.  An award will usually be free of tax – generally, cash that is awarded (where you didn’t ask for it) rather than applied for (like a grant) will be tax-free, but awards for open exhibitions are something of a grey area if you apply to be in the show in the first place. Work with your accountant to make sure – each circumstance will be different.

Again, check what the implications of receiving an award might be – you may be asked to conduct media interviews or write an article about your experience, or to keep in touch with the organisation making the award for some time afterwards. Awards can be partly a public relations exercise for some organisation – which can take time for you if you win, but also increase your audience and validate your work within the art world.

Professional development

Some organisations offer opportunities for professional development – mentoring support, advice sessions or other useful career development. Before you apply, make sure that you understand what’s being offered and research who will be providing this advice. We have been contacted by a number of artists who have been asked for hundreds of pounds to receive professional development or mentoring advice that has been patchily provided or of low quality, and tied to gallery representation.

For any professional development you are considering, see how much it might cost, find out who is giving it (and research them yourself), make sure you have the time and try to find other artists who have taken part to gauge the impact on their careers.

And if you don’t get this one…

Even if you don’t get selected, your work will pass under the noses of the influential artists, curators or gallerists who make up the panel who will remember your work in the future. Some adverts will publish who is on their selection panel or jury – if you do a little research about these people, you can strategically build their interest in your work, making an application so that a curator or artist you want to work with will get to see your work. It still has to be a good application, though, if you don’t want them to think you unprofessional.

Whatever opportunity you are awarded you’ll likely end up working with other artists and art world professionals who will build your network of contacts. As with any new networking opportunity, it’s important to maintain a relationship with the curators, directors and funders you have met for your future benefit.

General points to consider

To save your time, and the money you may spend on application fees, only apply for funds, exhibitions, residencies or opportunities that suit your practice, your stage in your career, and your aspirations for the future of your career. Opportunities tend to be aimed at a certain level of experience from their applicants, whether new graduates or more established practitioners.

For any opportunity you are considering applying for, do some basic research:

  • Who has won the award in the past: are they at a similar career stage to you, and what did they do next?
  • What kinds of benefits will this offer: does it balance your immediate needs with your future potential?
  • Do you have time to make a good application before the deadline: might it be better to wait for the next deadline?
  • Is the work that you make – or want to make – suitable for the project they are looking for?
  • If you got this opportunity, would you have time to do it: does it leave time for your other commitments and work?
  • All of this will help you consider: do you stand a fair chance of getting this opportunity?

Once you have got an opportunity, make sure you follow up any negotiations with a written agreement – even on email – for exhibitions, consignments, money, timescale, copyright of the work and commissioning. Anything you have in writing can be used to settle disputes later – if we had a pound for every artist who contacted us wishing they’d got something in writing, we wouldn’t need Arts Council funding any more…

See our comprehensive information on written agreements and negotiation skills for artists, plus considerations on copyright and licensing – and if it’s gone wrong, we have a first-stop legal information service too.


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