Art Competitions: A Selective Comparison of Applicant Pools, Awards, and Odds
Arts organizations often tout the winners of competitions; only a few groups publish the number of applications received. Without this data, it’s difficult for artists to gauge the competitiveness of open calls. Selecting residencies, fellowships, grants, and opportunities to apply to can involve research, past experience, word of mouth, and hefty a dose of intuition. Yet artists accrue unpaid hours at their own risk with every submission, not to mention investing nominal fees and expenses.
Motivations. A few months ago, I started creating information graphics about art competition odds. I wanted to improve the efficacy of my efforts, and to put my principles into action. I’m convinced that demystifying the art world benefits artists and institutions. Further, artists can fight assumptions, stereotypes, and cynical perspectives by becoming agents armed with knowledge.
Approach. I gathered initial figures from the letters I received in response to my applications. To expand the data set, I turned to trusted artist friends who share the principle of mutual aid.[i] I also conducted searches of institutional websites and annual reports, and requested data directly from selected organizations. As to be expected, this data set of 26 competitive programs from 23 organizations is highly selective; I make no claims to achieve a diverse or representative cross-section. In fact, organizations in New York and California are over-represented as a consequence of my personal geography.
Furthermore, accuracy is limited given the tendency for organizations to maintain only a rough count of the number of applications received. For example, Lauren Davies, who runs Kala Art Institute’s Fellowship program, estimated that they received “about 200” applications this year.[ii] I found this kind of approximation (often rounding figures down) very common.
While I focused on visual art opportunities, some opportunities are also open to writers and musicians, with only overall figures available. Additionally, the data is only a snapshot, not an average over time—the charts below strictly reflect competitions held in 2010 or 2011.
Findings. Once I gathered the data, I parsed it in three ways. The bar chart on the left displays the size of the applicant pools in light grey, with the number of awards/recipients/selected artists in darker grey. Each square represents one application, with 10 in each column. The bar chart on the right presents any given applicant’s statistical odds. It’s accompanied by the percentage of successful applications. Lower odds and higher percentages make for better chances.
The Odds: An Indicator of Competitiveness. The odds seem like the most pragmatic way to evaluate competitiveness. For example, CUE Art Foundation’s Open Call had the smallest applicant pool of 120 submissions, yet with only one selection made, its 1:120 odds ranked as the seventh most competitive. On the other end of the spectrum, the MacDowell Colony Fellowship had the largest number of applications by 500, but it also had the highest number of awards—250 fellows—and consequently, the third most favorable odds with one in 10 applicants receiving a fellowship.
One-Award Competitions. In general, the more awards the program offered, the more favorable its odds were likely to be. Thus competitions offering only one award were highly competitive. All six single-award competitions placed among the top eight most competitive programs. Of those eight, 13 awards were dispersed for a combined applicant pool of 2,650. The most competitive program was the Frieze Foundation’s EMDASH Award, in which 550 applicants vied for a high-profile residency, commission, and exhibition opportunity.
Financial Incentives. I was surprised by the competitiveness of some programs. In particular, the Lower East Side Printshop’s Special Editions Residency ranked as the fourth most competitive overall, and first among U.S. opportunities, with 600 applicants competing for four spots. The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation’s Space Program culled through some 1,100 submissions to award 17 studio spaces; in a similar program, Smack Mellon received 600 applications for six studios. At first, I speculated that these programs’ popularity might be attributed to financial incentives: Special Editions residents received a stipend of up to $4,000—a figure easily exceeded by the cost of one year’s studio rent, which the latter programs neutralized.
Geography as Attraction. At the same time, all thee programs are based in New York. Indeed, seven of the nine New York programs ranked among the top 11 most competitive.[iii] I surmised that New York competitions attract local artists plus artists from beyond the region seeking a foothold in the city—roles I’ve experienced in the past and present.
Geography as Limit: Two Views. On the other hand, it appears that geographic restrictions might make competitions more favorable in other areas. Programs limited to artists in California comprised three of the top six most favorable in this data set—even when cash was at stake. The most favorable grant surveyed was Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure, limited to visual artists or organizations in San Francisco or Alameda County. One in eight applicants received an award. Both grants from the Center for Cultural Innovation, which serves California artists, followed in second and third place as most favorable grants.
Those programs form a stark contrast against Southern Exposure’s Graue Award, a single-award commission un-restricted by region. It ranked as the sixth most competitive overall.
Perhaps a program’s location outside of major art cities doesn’t guarantee less competition when there are international application pools. For example, the third most competitive programs are tied between international residencies at Islington Mill, located outside of Manchester, UK, and Kunstlerhaus Dormund, in Dormund, Germany.
Fees and Publicity. Since Islington Mill’s residency program is relatively new and small—hosting only one artist per season—I suspect that many of the 200 applicants learned about the opportunity from Re-title.com. The fact that the application was entry-fee free did not hurt. On the other hand, prestigious competitions like Skowhegan, which received 2,000 applications despite a hefty $50 entry fee, will likely continue to attract applicants.
If anything is safe to assume, it is that a variety of factors, including financial incentives, geography, publicity, and fees, impact applicant pool sizes and competition odds, but not in any decisive fashion.
Limitations. The data only reveals the numerical facts of the programs’ competitiveness. In filtering this data, I’ve disregarded runner-up prizes and unquantifiable, tangential benefits. For example, Kala’s Davies told me that four Fellowship applicants are selected to receive honorable mentions and a one-month free studio residency. Additionally, Davies carefully reviews each application for consideration for gallery exhibitions.
I wouldn’t like to increase administrative burdens, yet I find the idea of audits of art competitions and the recipients they select quite interesting. It would be useful to compare award recipients’ professional levels, primary media, press coverage, and the likelihood of their social circles overlapping with the host organizations’. How many recipients are local, regional, national or international? How many hold MFAs? How many are women or people of color? What are their median ages? I am curious if trends like these would emerge over time at particular organizations. One especially pertinent question I would pose is this: Among organizations that encourage emerging artists to apply, how often do they actually select them, and in what proportion?
Some art organizations, such as Creative Capital and the Jerome Foundation[iv]—are very specific about what kind of artists should apply and what kind of proposals are successful; to them I’m very grateful. I am frustrated by organizations who cast very wide nets when the artists they have awarded in the past fit a particular profile—whether it’s international or established, comfortably 2-D or 3-D work, or traditional aesthetics.
Even if application fees merely offset the costs of the program, and organizations want to attract the largest pool of entries in order to secure the best applications for its outside jurors, I believe more specificity about which artists should apply would behoove jurors and applicants. If this data has any effect, I hope that organizations take the efforts of applicants into genuine consideration if they do not already, and that artists can be more wily, optimistic, and successful in their application choices.
[ii] Email correspondence with the author, June 3, 2011.
[iii] The Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant is geographically limited to New York City as well as Minnesota.
[iv] Disclaimer: I am a recipient.