ART CONTESTS, MURDER AND CONTROVERSY
Last summer I included a call to artists in my arts email newsletter for an international assemblage exhibition in Berlin. I got a lot of emails about this call for submissions, asking me for more information. I don’t actually research each call, and so I trust that artists will look into each venue and do a quick google search to find out if there has been any negative press or controversy about a venue before applying. But the assemblage call seemed intriguing and so I decided to test it by going through the whole application process myself. I became my lab rat and entered the maze.
The application fee was 50 euro which came out to be like 35$ dollars or so. It called for an image of the specific piece you’d like to be considered for inclusion and so I chose, “Narcissivision”, which recently sold.
Calls for artists are often partly fundraisers. The application fees add up to revenue for the venue. I am fine with that. If a gallery has to review hundreds of submissions and then show it at their space then they deserve to be paid for this. They pay rent and often only get paid when work sells and they get a commission. Art does not fly off the shelves like Home Entertainment Centers and so it is a gamble. Application fees are a large part of the revenue stream. If a venue gets 1000 application fees at 50 euros each then my infallible math skills tell me that that equals 50,000 euros, which would cover a lot of costs and sushi. I think of sushi like wampum, I often trade web work for raw fish and rice. Sushi is currency; euros are currency. So far this all makes perfect sense.
I found this particular call in one of my international arts newsletters to which I subscribe. So, this venue had to pay to be in this newsletter that goes all over the world. All logical and sensible. But forward thinking people would ask themselves, “what if such a call to artists could next year get 100,000 applications? Or, a million!” That’s like 50 hundred thousand million euros. That is serious bank. If I were this venue I’d be thinking constantly about how and where to advertise to make those fabby numbers happen. More advertising? Word of mouth? The cult of underground internet spread-ability? Controversial publicity stunt? Infamy has its own power, as we know, and power is money.
So I applied and handed over my paypal euros and “Narcissivision” was accepted. Now came the daunting task of shipping my work (“daunting” and “task” are words that frequently appear together. They seem to fit, in a Sisyphean kind of world view. You know how when two words become one they are called contractions? I’d like a word for when two words always appear together. Like, “Hilarity ensued”. I am going to put this on my to do list; create such a word for when this happens)
Anyway – back to shipping my work to Berlin. It’s a great city for art. It would look fabulous as a line item on my cv.
But then I got an education. To summarize 3 weeks of research into a few sentence fragments; You can ship work via the USPS cheaply enough but it would still cost a lot of hundreds and would be uninsured. I contacted international shipping companies. For $1800 plus various fees I could ship it to customs in Berlin and insure it for its full value but it would need a letter of documentation from a licensed appraiser and I would need to hire another shipping company in Berlin (and pay a hefty collections fee and various customs taxes), to collect it at customs and bring it to the gallery, more hundreds of euros. And, were anything to happen to Narcissivision, I’d actually never be able to collect the insured value unless I could prove that I’d sold a evry similar piece for that amount and even then… well, I learned the “even thens” are rampant.
If it sold, I would pay xx% to the gallery, xx% to local taxes, another xx% to country taxes and another xx% for some other charge (I forget) so I decided even if it sold for its full price, it would end up costing me like %125 of the sale price plus shipping, thus negating any profit and so I decided I could not afford to be in the show and I declined. I wondered how people could afford to be in this international show? Who are these artists with all this money for shipping and fees?
When you *pay* to be in a show it is sometimes called a vanity show. Not overtly of course. But such shows are commonly referred to as vanity shows. I am not saying that this show is a vanity show, I am just saying that the phrase, “Vanity Show” exists and it is a thing people who can so afford pay to be in and it can often look like a nice line item on an exhibition history or cv. I am not one of those artists who can afford to be in international shows but I would have been if i could have worked it out. This experiment proved that.
Anyway-back at the ranch in which this tale is staged, I was anxious to get the final announcement to see who won 1st place of all the assemblage artists in the world who applied to this show. Most shows have prizes and monies so this makes it more attractive to enter. The possibility of “winning” a mention plus cash makes you hit that “pay now” button faster than you might have, just to be in a show in Berlin. This show had a small cash prize or two.
I finally got the official email notification listing the winners. It showed an image of a really resonant and brilliant piece but the image had no artist credit so I assumed that of course it was the first place winner’s work. It was a beautiful piece with the aura of “winner” exuding from every pixel. That same winning piece is on the cover of the show catalog one can buy but I didn’t have that many increments of money either so I don’t know if perhaps inside the cover the winning artist is credited. I scoured the show website and there is that fabulous piece again but still with no credit.
The email announcement listed the winners under that aforementioned image. The first place winner was named Marvin Francis. I googled Marvin Francis and it turns out he is in prison in Kentucky for murder and he makes sculptural pieces graphically depicting the horrors of prison life with toilet paper, water and paint and none of his work looks anything like the featured, uncredited, winning work in the announcement, which is made of wood and glass and newsprint. Odd, that.
I emailed the show’s sole creator, director and listed juror, Pablo (who is listed as winning various placings in past of his shows), who had previously answered my emails in a timely fashion, asking who is the artist who created that stunning work featured in the email. No reply. I emailed a few more times. No reply. And then I found a few, but very few, blog posts here and there with medium outrage levels. the story evidently did not spread very far but there were a few people who were incensed that Marvin Francis, the winner, could kill a man yet still win an art contest. The 3 or 4 discussions I found all seemed to have this one point of view; you should not award a murderer a prize. It became a moral issue.
Well, I get that. I don’t know Marvin and I wasn’t there that day of the murder and I know none of the circumstances of his life or of that ill-fated robbery. It is horrible that a innocent man (it was a shopkeeper and a robbery situation) died. And people really should not kill each other. I am firm on that.
But, if the jurors of the contest deem his work to be the very best, then their decision stands for said contest. Jurors are appointed to make such decisions in a juried contest, not popular opinion. Mass appeal might dictate what is covered in newspapers but it doesn’t decide winning art in a juried show. And if the contest rules do not state that incarcerated persons cannot enter the competition, then his submission is valid and their decision did not bend any rules so they can do what they want and by “they” I mean Pablo, the sole listed juror. I am not an art critic so my opinions about Marvin’s work are not worth mentioning here. If I were worthy of being an art critic then I might be an art critic. But I can’t help but wonder this; if said jurors officially deem his work to be absolutely the most superlative and winning-est of all the work entered, then why isn’t that winning work the one piece pictured in the announcement email? Why is his work not the piece on the cover of the show catalog? Why do they (Pablo) not stand behind his work by proudly positioning it in the email announcement and on the cover of their catalog? And I further wonder if the contest received enough free publicity from the moral issue such that the number next year’s applicants will be ever higher and generate more wampum.
Appointed Jurors in an art contest get to pick the winning work.
The winning work deserves to be heralded as such on the show catalog cover.
People really should not kill each other but they can enter art contests if the rules allow.
It is expensive and tricky to ship work overseas.
Controversy is controversial.
Applications fees are mathematical.