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Finding Open Calls Worth Your Time and Submission Tips

Not all open calls art competitions are created equal or conducted in an artist’s best interest. But, that doesn’t mean you should write them off altogether as legitimate avenues to gain recognition and awards for your work. There are many highly reputable open calls that provide worthwhile opportunities for compensation and exposure; and plenty of others that frankly exploit entrants, slyly luring you to give away your ideas for inconsequential rewards.  Only you can decide if an open call is right for you with proper online research and asking other artists who have entered. However, there are key factors that will help you identify the credible opportunities from the scams and money-makers.

Credible Open Calls and Art Competitions:

  • Are well-known and have an excellent reputation
  • Get multiple results in a Google search
  • Show the work of previous winners
  • Have a respected and well-known panel of jurors, judges or reviewers
  • Provide real opportunities (publication, exhibition, publicity, adequate and meaningful exposure, compensation with prize money, resources, a job or internship)
  • Have respected and well known sponsors (if at all) or organizers
  • Align with your artistic or career goals
  • Have clear guidelines, including eligibility and criteria
  • Do not ask you to produce work on spec (create something to submit that doesn’t compensate you for your creative product or idea)
  • Require no or minimal fees to enter (some artists shun ever applying to open calls with fees)

Get Organized and Plan Ahead 

Once you’ve decided to apply to an art competition in art or design, make sure there is enough time before the deadline to submit a thoughtful entry. While some open calls are quick and easy to upload work and a few contact details, others are much more involved. They will require setting aside time and planning ahead. I some cases, you may be creating new work to apply. Based on the extent of what you must include, prepare carefully and review everything before you hastily click that “submit” button. It’s helpful to copy the open call application guidelines and paste it into another document that you save. You will be studying and reviewing this information carefully and a separate document is easy to reference and take notes on as you work on your submission.

Before jurors or judges even consider the merits of your application, someone will review it first to make sure that you have submitted all the necessary components. If you haven’t followed the guidelines or provided the required supporting documentation, you will be disqualified. For online applications, required form fields may be used and either you can’t submit without completing them, or the system asks you to review your application before submitting. On rare occasions, you might be contacted notifying you that some element is missing, but don’t count on it.

Create a Boiler Plate for Open Calls

Many open calls require the same information, such as your artist statement or bio, resume or CV. “Boiler plate” refers to information and templates you already have created that you have at hand to be customized according to the specific purpose of the competition. Keep these documents in a digital folder and frequently updated so you have them at hand and aren’t creating everything from scratch for every open call you want to enter.  Entering a competition is an excellent opportunity to motivate you to get organized and make sure your current career highlights and artwork are current, which can be used for other projects and proposals. Take the opportunity to tackle administrative tasks that can be handing on your to-do list.

open call
When applying to an open call, choose work that addresses the theme in a unique and intriguing way.

Criteria, Creativity and Originality

The criteria for judging open call submissions should be properly articulated and disclosed in the guidelines. If it isn’t, how do you know what qualities they are looking for? Whether there’s a panel, jury or judges, reviewers of entires will have the criteria and scoring system in front of them when looking at your submission. This is called a rubric and enables all the reviewers to consider the same criteria for each entry and have instructions on how to weight those factors. For example, there may be a score for a particular criteria ranging from 1-5, and the criteria for scoring a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are outlined in detail. 

Some art and design competitions have very detailed rubrics, and some do not. In the latter case, it’s up to the individual reviewer to determine what a scale of 1-5 represents.  When creativity and originality are part of the criteria, curator and The Art of Spray Paint author Lori Zimmer has two factors in mind when jurying an open call with fewer reviewing instructions. First, Zimmer considers the quality of the work on a visceral level, asking herself, “Does the work move me?” She then goes on to evaluate the place of the work within contemporary art as a whole. She notes that she will often ask herself  “Is the work derivative? I try to look for the glimmer of originality and try to choose an artist who can give me  a new experience.”

Originality is a key element you want to show both in your artwork being presented and in your response to the theme of the open call. Stay away from submitting work that appears obvious.  Instead, consider the theme and select suitable work that applies. Or, if the prize or opportunity is big enough, create work specifically for the competition to ensure that you are addressing it. What about your demonstrates and resonates with the stated theme for the open call? Applications presenting original artwork of high quality and creativity will stand apart from the pack.

High Quality Images

This factor is a non-negotiable. You must have high quality images that represent your work in detail, with proper lighting, focus, and alternative views, if that applies. Images that are blurry, poorly lit,  showcase older artwork, or are otherwise unprofessional will put your submission in the trash bin (digital or literal). Not only will bad images not do justice to your work; it will show reviewers that you don’t care about how your work is presented professionally to others.

Whether you take the time to photograph your work yourself (or learn how to) or pay a professional, this is one of your most important investments as an artist. Artist and open call jury panelist David Rios Ferreira points out that often times artists who submit poor quality photographs are automatically nixed from the beginning.  “One key factor is image quality of the file. When reviewing a lot of applications, poor quality work samples make it easier to cut the number of applications down. If the image is too small a file size or pixelated, then the jury can’t properly evaluate your work” he notes.

Fit and Alignment

In addition to your image’s ability to visually convey that you uniquely address the open call theme with creativity and originality, you want to do the same in any written narrative required essay. This is where you thoughtfully, distinctly and professionally address how your submission is an outstanding open call winner. Through your open call submission materials (narrative, images, and supporting documentation), you want to be explicit in answering the question: Why do I belong here and what shows I deserve this opportunity? State the obvious. Don’t assume the reviewer knows anything about you or what you intend to get across. Show a common thread linking all of your submitted materials to the open call’s focus and you will make a strong case for winning consideration.

For example, if the competition is asking artists to submit a painted portrait and you submit a landscape with people in the background, then it will be difficult for reviewers to think your work aligns with the purpose of the theme. If you submit a portrait that is ordinary and expected, you will likely have the same result. On the other hand, showing conceptual and artistic originality and a high degree of technical skill will get your submission noticed and be memorable. Your goal is to apply with a submission that no matter how many others the reviewers looks at, they just can’t get yours out of their mind. To do this, make sure your images tell a story in some way. Look at past winners to see what types of work, styles and sensibilities have been recognized. They will vary from year to year, but you should be able to sense common traits that the winner’s work possesses. 

Make an Impression

Ultimately, you cannot control how you will fare in an open call. You don’t know who else is entering, what they submitted, or how many were received. The only thing you can control is what you decide to submit. Even if you don’t win, a strong submission can open up other opportunities for you from the open call organizers, sponsors, or reviewers. You may be surprised to get a call or email that goes something like this, “We were very impressed with your work. Although we selected another winner, we’re interested in talking to you to see what opportunities may be a good fit.”

When you have presented a portfolio and supporting documentation belonging to a consummate professional, no matter who is accepted as the final award recipient, you will remain in their minds when they are conceiving of future exhibitions, hiring for freelance or full-time jobs, or something else. You may be an artist they follow on social media and keep track of. Think about the bigger picture and stay focused to ensure that open call submissions can be your foot in the door for more opportunities to come.

What are your best tips for applying to an open call? What’s worked and what hasn’t? Let us know in the comments!

About the author

Jenifer Simon

Jenifer Simon's mantra is 'Art Always in All Ways." She is Artrepreneur's Director of Business and Content Development and editor of Art Business Journal. She's dedicated her career to helping artists sustain their creative careers and holds an M.A. in Arts Administration from Columbia University and B.S. in Studio Art and Art History from Skidmore College.

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