With finances tighter than ever, arts organisations large and small are exploring different models to create revenue and stay afloat. And in a sea of cafes, gift shops and crowdfunding, another beast is lurking – the open exhibition.

Traditionally, open shows involve artists submitting examples of their artwork to be judged by a panel of industry experts who then select successful applicants for a group exhibition. For a long time this has involved a small group of high-profile opens. For example, the biennial John Moores Painting Prize was founded in 1957 and currently awards £25,000 to the winner, who also features in a group show at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery.

Other heavyweights include the BP Portrait Award (previously the John Player Portrait Award) with a first prize of £30,000, and the Jerwood Drawing Prize, which offers £8,000 to the winner and in 2014 celebrated its 20th year.

The most popular UK-based open is still the annual Royal Academy Summer Show, which has been running for nearly 250 years and styles itself as ‘the world’s largest open-submission exhibition’. Each year an average of 10,000 artists apply at a cost of £25 per piece, and the final show features around 1000 practitioners. All work is for sale, with the Academy receiving 30% of the purchase price.

Few would argue that exhibiting in one of these well-established shows is anything but beneficial to the artists involved. Even if you don’t win a prize, participation raises profile, increases the likelihood of sales and ultimately progresses an artist’s career. Nevertheless, open submissions are facing more and more scrutiny as issues around artists’ fees and pay are increasingly under discussion.

Over the last ten years a number of smaller-scale open exhibitions have been set up. With a myriad of different approaches, most have at least one thing in common – artists pay to submit their work. But where does all that money go and is it ever OK to ask an artist to pay to exhibit?

Winners and losers

One artist who has clearly benefited from entering an open is the 2014 Jerwood Drawing Prize winner Alison Carlier – receiving the £8,000 first prize is something she hopes will result in more focus towards her practice.

“It feels great,” says Carlier. “I’ve worked in health for over 20 years and tried to maintain my art practice alongside. The prize money gives me an opportunity to leave healthcare and finally work full-time as an artist.”

Part of what attracted Carlier to the Jerwood, which costs a minimum of £18-£22 (£12-£15 students) to enter, was the quality of the selection panel: Gavin Delahunty (Dallas Museum), Dr Janet McKenzie (former co-editor of Studio International) and artist Alison Wilding RA.

“It is inspiring to be endorsed by three judges who are at the forefront of contemporary drawing,” says Carlier. “The win has provided my practice with a clear focus in terms of my direction and purpose.”

Rose Wylie, who won the 2014 edition of the John Moores Painting Prize – which had a submission fee of £30 – echoes Carlier’s positivity. “Winning feels wonderful yet unbelievable,” she says. “It’s already helped pay for travel to two of my shows in Copenhagen and Wolfsberg. I’m not sure what the long-term impact will be but it has to be good.”

Both Carlier and Wylie illustrate the positive impact open exhibitions can have on an artist’s career. Nevertheless, for every prizewinner there are thousands of unsuccessful applicants. The 2014 Jerwood Drawing Prize for example attracted 3,234 submissions, yet the final exhibition only featured 51 works by 46 artists. Do all those rejected artists really see it as a positive experience?

One artist and curator who has been investigating the negative side of open exhibitions is London-based painter Sean Worrall. He has written a detailed explanation of what he feels is the exploitative nature of open exhibitions on his blog Cultivate Vyner Street. Worrall is heavily critical of what he views as smaller-scale organisations essentially using artists’ cash to help pay the rent.

“For me, the growing practice of curators, galleries and organisations charging artists just to simply submit an email and a jpeg to maybe, if we are lucky, get to take part in a show is a serious problem,” he says. “For some, it is an easy way to fund a gallery space or the lifestyles of those who run these shows.”

Worrall, who until recently ran his own gallery, Cultivate Vyner Street, says he doesn’t have a problem with the principle of sharing reasonable costs of a show – it’s just that he’d like to know he’s taking part first.

“It is tough running spaces, I more than most appreciate that,” he says. “I’ve battled to pay rent, spent time on admin, on opening the emails, dealing with artists, I know what’s involved. However, it seems obscene to be expected to pay a fee just to send an email.”

The result, according to Worrall, is that many artists are being frozen out. “£15 here, £20 there, it soon mounts up. Artists are really being hit and it is resulting in more conservative shows, shows in which only a certain type of art or artist is getting to show.”

Worrall believes open calls and open submissions can be a vital thing, especially for new and emerging artists, but only when they are run in the right way. He says: “Charging artists for something they are not even going to be involved in is cynical. Doing it is morally wrong.”

Importance of transparency 

Tristram Aver, exhibitions officer at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, has been running the Nottingham Castle Open since 2009. Having previously charged £12 to enter, for the last two years this opportunity for Midlands-based artists has been free following an organisational rethink that reduced admin costs dramatically.

Says Aver: “As a curator, I enjoy seeing the breadth of work being made within our region through platforms such as the Nottingham Castle Open, and it concerned me that some artists were not applying because they either couldn’t afford it, or objected to entry fees as a whole.”

That said, he does not object to other opens charging an entry fee. “I cannot guarantee the Nottingham Castle Open will remain free forever,” he says, “especially as economic pressures imposed by Central Government are putting considerable strain upon dwindling budgets and staff within the sector.”

Interestingly, Aver also notes that while getting rid of the entry fee has been widely welcomed, there have been some unexpected consequences. “Some artists claim that a fee means it is a professional exhibition as this reflects ‘quality’ – making it comparable to national competitions – so don’t apply. Others spend less time making the application (especially when documenting their work or following entry guidelines), so do not present themselves well during the judging stages.”

Tim Marlow, director of artistic programmes at the Royal Academy and a judge for the 2014 John Moores Painting Prize, believes transparency should be at the heart of any open exhibition. “It is absolutely essential. At the Royal Academy we are very clear about the deal artists get when submitting. I also believe it is a very good one, with artists receiving 70% of the sale of their work. Also, the client is put in direct contact with the artist which is also beneficial.”

For Marlow, organisations need to be clear where their fees actually go. “For us, they cover a whole host of things, including administration and staffing costs. Also, the revenue helps fund the Royal Academy Schools. This was the original purpose when the exhibition started in 1768, and it is still the case today.”

He adds: “For both sides, it’s a win-win situation. Artists get to exhibit at a prestigious venue, whilst the fees fund the school. This includes providing bursaries for a number of students each year. The result is we are now the only fully-funded art school in the UK. ”

Sandra Penketh, director of art galleries at National Museums Liverpool – organiser of the John Moores Painting Prize – has a similar view. “No matter what exhibition you are putting on you should be clear what the objectives are. You are effectively spending public money and it should be spent in the best way possible. You need to be efficient in how you use your resources to get best value and be open about the process involved.”

New models

Outside the larger open shows, a number of artist-led organisations claim to be offering alternative models. Rosalind Davis, who with Annabel Tilley is co-founder of London-based Zeitgeist Arts Projects (ZAP), says that with the ZAP Open they not only aim for complete transparency, but also to create long-term relationships with the artists involved.

“With every ZAP Open a number of the artists are selected for a further exhibition with us and we invite them into other projects with ZAP,” says Davis. “I still work with and support artists that were selected from the very first Core Gallery Open in 2010, such as Tom Butler, Marion Michell and Alyson Helyer.”

For Davis, these are fruitful relationships developed through mutual understanding and conversation. “Artists are not just a number or payment. Both Annabel and myself are artists, and having been in opens ourselves we found some of them to be impersonal experiences. There was no real interest beyond the event or any further relationship. You feel like you’re just another artist paying a fee.”

However, the elephant in the room remains: can these opens offer something to unsuccessful applicants – beyond judges simply seeing their work – that truly justifies the fee? Davis comments: “We do run talks that offer insights into the choices available, plus offer discounts to certain events for all artists who have applied to the Open. This can be as much as 25%.”

Jo King, director of the Ludlow Open, believes a number of strategies could be adopted to make opens more reciprocal for unsuccessful applicants. “A reduced fee for subsequent years could be a gesture, although it might entice artists into a deal that doesn’t ultimately suit them.”

King suggests that in some cases opens could offer unsuccessful artists a refund. “Refunding their fee if they are not selected could be doable. However, I still think the best idea is for artists to make applying to opens, or not, part of a rounded business strategy.”

Informing artists

Of course the decision on whether or not to enter an open, whatever the model, ultimately rests with artists. But do they have the required knowledge to make an informed choice? Penketh believes it is part of the role of art schools to give advice about opens.

“I think informing artists from a young age is important. When they are at art school, tutors should be telling them about the wide variety of opens that are out there. They need the tools to make an informed decision on what is right for them. I’m sure there are a lot of art courses that do that.”

Gordon Dalton of Swansea-based Locws International, who is one of the judges of the second annual Public Art Open, agrees that artists need to take more ownership of their decisions. “I think a lot of artists send off applications to things they probably have little chance of being selected for,” he says. “Maybe it’s because it’s more work doing the research than just sending an email.”

However, Dalton disagrees with Penketh on how efficient art courses are at delivering advice. “They are about 20 years behind in terms of professional practice. I’m constantly surprised by how little is taught and you’re lucky if it’s even mentioned before the third year. Artists need to do it for themselves.”

Marlow agrees that ultimately, this is about artists taking their own, informed decisions. “I think artists are an intelligent bunch,” he says. “If they like the sound of the jury or a particular organisation, then they will probably go for it. If not, there are a number of different models they can use to get their work shown.”

Marlow feels that the healthiest way for open exhibitions to operate is to do what artists need and want – and that is to sell their work. “Organisations need to come up with a business model that works for artists. That’s how the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has always operated. Most work is for sale because artists need to make a living.”

That way, believes Marlow, artists can decide for themselves if an entry fee is a reasonable price to pay – or whether they’d rather spend the money elsewhere.

“It’s all a bit of a storm in a tea cup,” he says. “I salute artists. I think the majority of them are probably in their studios or whatever space they use and are focused on their work. They can work out whether, within the context of their practice, certain shows are right for them. We need to trust artists more.”

More on a-n.co.uk:

Open exhibitions and entry fees: artists respond to a-n feature – here’s how artists responded via social media following the publication of this feature.

Jobs and opps – see Awards, Competitions and Exhibiting sections for latest open opportunities listings.

Prizes and awards – articles from across the a-n site including news of recent open exhibition shortlists and winners.

Open exhibitions – A collection of material relating to open exhibitions, including top tips on assessing and applying for open exhibitions and on setting one up.