Most people in the arts seem to accept and even embrace that collaboration is embedded in much of what we do, so when it came to pondering whether to run another cycle of the art award I set up with Georgina Talfana in 2017, I was stuck with questions that wouldn’t go away. Are competition and cooperation not mutually exclusive concepts, and why is so much that we do to get jobs and opportunities in the art world based around such intense competition, aka fighting like rats in a sack for just one pay day?

The art award was fully independent, and without having a vast private income this means either securing funding or using a commercial model to raise the funds. Even five years ago, putting on a show was an expensive undertaking. There are the obvious costs of hiring a space, if you don’t have your own gallery, to things like promotion and insurance.

After the pandemic all of this had become more complicated and expensive, and the independent funding model was stretched to the limit. Overall, it was still more successful than may have been predicted in that it didn’t actually bankrupt the curators, people got the advertised prize and the gallery got paid but this wasn’t quite enough to make it simple.

Some of the ideas behind the Refresh Art award included choosing work independently of corporate, institutional, government or charity funding, which gave full control to the curation. Working in the arts, of course I am a fan of non-commercial funding but in practice it feels like a murky area. As well as being in such short supply that it is another point of cutthroat competition, in practice I’ve come to feel that arts funding doesn’t really mean a project is run better, even if that logo on the promo seems to speak of legitimacy and authenticity. For example, unlike many larger shows, which often seem to secure funding easily, Refresh didn’t use a staff of unpaid interns working ‘for experience’. My own college used to be the collection point for a really large prize, and students were usually offered the chance to work on this without pay as a good entry point into the art world. It hadn’t appealed to me at the time because luckily I had already been working on arts jobs for years before I did my MA and didn’t buy into the notion of shifting heavy things in a warehouse without pay as a CV highlight. There was a t-shirt involved but I suppose if you get paid you can buy your own t-shirt. As a university lecturer now, I don’t think I would even try to get away with something as brazen as that with my own institution, while pretending it was a real opportunity, but it does still seem to be a fairly standard way of affording to put a project on. With Refresh we had wanted to prove you don’t have to work that way, which we did only partially successfully.

Overall, it was possible to run the show with these ideals, if not easy. By last year, post pandemic funding and logistics really seemed to be squeezing independent curation hard, and in particular shows in London. The top 3 galleries we had lined up in 2019, including the one we used, had all closed down leaving mainly exorbitant or student-level / community spaces in the city, which can be cleaned up but don’t have the relevant security or insurance to host more pricey pieces of work.

In short, our funding model did work but made it an even more giant project to run than it could otherwise have been and it started to keep me away from curating the smaller shows that I enjoy.  There were things that could have made it work better, including putting the cost of entries up even if that meant gaining fewer of these, and moving out of London. However, the amount of work that would still be required to keep it going made me start to think about whether I really believed in the model anymore.

When we started, I was the half of Refresh that didn’t really have the experience of entering opens and competitions. Although I have exhibited my work, this isn’t how I earn my income and becoming an exhibiting artist was never my art career goal. Therefore, I see they’re not very good value and that you’re not statistically that likely to get anywhere but I have probably only ever entered one a year, so feel okay about rarely getting in and never winning cash.

I can see how frustrating it would be though for people who are trying to break into the gallery scene. I still don’t think that the £10 entry fee for Refresh is too much to take a punt on winning £3000 but maybe if you shell out for lots of these, the whole thing just feels like buying a lottery ticket. This is one of the reasons that we set up a small gallery on our website for every entry, to at least give people a little value for their fee.

I used another model for Spaghetti Intaglio, which I curated in 2019. It was still artist funded but free to enter, so less of a crowd funding than collaborative model. There are more risks for the curator this way, and it is also more expensive for artists, but people who don’t get in don’t have to pay anything, which I suppose seems a bit more fair. It was this that got me thinking about competition again. I don’t think that that the above model is a feasible one for running a competition with prizes, but I wonder why there are so many of these around and why we seem to take it as a normal way of finding work? After all, we’re talking about a profession.

It is true that competition seems to be a natural way of deciding things sometimes, from which buffalos outrun the Lion to which of us gets the role at our next job interview. Yet even Darwin thought that the survival of the fitter was relative, and in early human societies as much as the animal kingdom, collaboration and cooperation seems to help us all survive longer and live better. Certainly with the society we have developed today, surely cooperation should be something we value more than narratives about being the best and fighting to get to the top as if that were the only way to realise individual dreams, or make good art.

This was really bothering me about running an art competition. Even though I don’t really have any of the answers to how we would go about creating a more financially successful collaborative industry, I don’t want to operate from that default position of personal salvation being the only thing that pays the bills for us. After all there might be some top doctors, baristas and car mechanics around, but the others all seem to have paid jobs while they hone their skills. I really think that the only reason the art world isn’t currently like that is because we’re all participating in something else, and it is partly out of choice. As you learn in art college, you’re not the best nor ever will be, and at least 10 people have had exactly the same idea as your genius inspiration for the next piece of work. We all become artists and make better work, which sometimes gets really good, but that isn’t determined by how good the next person’s is. There will always be a basic level of competition for opportunities in life (I was a winner today when I got the only reduced loaf left on the supermarket shelf) but basing a whole important industry on this seems wrong; in particular when it is an industry that at its best is so rooted in collaboration.

I probably wouldn’t have even thought about this if it wasn’t for the twelfth year of austerity and arts funding starvation, the pandemic and other things putting the cost of organising a show up so much. With a lot more time, I still think that the Refresh funding model would work and become more profitable if the show kept going for another 5 years. However, that funding model keeps the project very lean until it does get bigger, and I had to be sure it felt right for me before committing to a pile of work that means I can’t do anything else for 2023. In the end I decided that I want to put on smaller shows and try to develop a collaborative model a bit more. Even if it costs artists more than £10, it might be better than the competition model.

In the meantime, do check the gallery page on the Refresh Art Award website which will be showing the 2021 entries until December as promised. Support the artists if you can by following their websites or social media, and do consider buying a piece of work if you are in the market for art at the moment.