• S. Wardell

Deadline Extensions and the Spectre of Popular Demand…

I don’t enter many art awards and competitions. Partly because I’ve been running my own for the last few years, that I think is better. Partly because even with a good one, it’s a bit of a lottery to actually get in to anything and I don’t always have the spare cash to gamble with.

It’s different if it’s cheap but on average decent things seem to cost about a minimum of £30. I think this cuts down the number of people who are able to enter, so must skew the work. Also there’s the question about what’s likely to get in and / or win. Obviously this is very hard to predict, so it’s a strange experience when months later you look through shortlists and find everything looks extremely predictable.

Sometimes I do though. I like the ones where you might get in a really decent show, or there’s a niche exhibition, or a brief that perfectly suits what I’m already doing. I’ve been lucky and got in to some, and not others. So while it’s not really possible (nor maybe desirable) to cleanse final submission and prize decisions of fashion, subjectivity and art world politics, the other elements of these competitions could be run a lot more transparently.

When we ran our first round of the Refresh Art Award, we knew we might not make enough money to cover our considerable costs of venue hire, prize money etc. It’s an independent art award, funded solely through entries, and with these sorts of things quite a lot of cash has to be stumped up at the start. We knew the risks so were ecstatic that when we got to the final hours of the call for entries, we were just about in a position to cover our costs if you exclude the hundreds of hours of work we’d put in. Having been set up by artists, we’d always said we weren’t going to extend the deadline, so the closing date really was going to determine whether it went ahead, bankrupted us or got cancelled with full refunds for everyone.

Most art awards do not appear to be quite in this precarious position; especially ones that already have their own gallery, staff, reputation, 1000s of entries and high entry fees. So why do so many extend the deadlines for their competitions? The usual line is that due to popular demand the deadline is going to be opened up for another week or so. That doesn’t ring true because it’s hard enough to choose the best, or most show-worthy, work from a small selection. Surely ‘popular demand’ means you made the money you need and have a heap of great work to choose from, not that you need to open for a longer period?

As most of these things are annual or biannual, evidently people who miss out will just have to remember to apply the following year. I can’t even begin to wonder how many (even extended) competition deadlines I’ve missed. I’ve occasionally been annoyed with myself (annoyance usually tempered by knowing I saved 50 quid) but parameters aren’t a bad thing for chaotic creatives.

From running a couple of shows now, I can’t see any reason for extending entries beyond the desire or need to get more money in. With small shows, there might well be an excuse for this but isn’t that the risk you take as a curator? It isn’t just the small shows that do it though.

When regularly occurring, big international awards start with the ‘due to popular demand’ line I feel cynical. It isn’t putting on another few nights of a one off performance. That might make more money but would at least give people the chance to see something they’d otherwise miss. If you miss one of these art call outs, you’re mostly just missing it for another year, or missing that particular one but have another 20 still open.

What is the effect of this on artists? Well, if you spent time doing your application for a deadline, got the images together and paid your fees on time, it’s really annoying and dispiriting to see that the deadline has been extended. You know that the competition is going to be tough anyway, but a couple more weeks will mean maybe hundreds more pieces of work to get lost in.

Worse than that, many artists might have to hurry some aspect of their application. Hurrying work for a deadline may not be a great idea, but it seems a lot of people do it, and then there’s the hasty photography that doesn’t do justice to a piece, or a personal statement that could be better, or typos in the application. It's better than not getting the work in, but you do all of that and the next day realise you could have taken another leisurely week to make everything super-slick.

It doesn’t seem to be the worst practice that happens in art shows, but still doesn’t represent good customer service. And why shouldn’t customer service be a part of art competitions? Surely if you’re asking for a sum of money for entry then the artists paying that are your customers? Yes you’re giving them an opportunity too but the process of charging money for this service should be an exchange and not just a tithe.

I’ve got a few shows I want to put on, that have been hindered by this Covid-hell the world is in at the moment, which reminds me that I have also seen that as an excuse for extending deadlines this year. Popular demand hasn’t been this summer’s catchphrase, but something about this new excuse still doesn’t ring true.

Like most in the creative industries, I’ve seen an earnings drop due to Covid, along with the potential long climb to get this income back due to facility closures, jobs drying up, social distancing and funding gaps. So pretty much everyone in our industry has an excuse to blame things on Covid, but maybe competition deadline extensions aren’t really the answer?

For me, I’m not a rich and powerful curator so the shows I do usually come at a big financial risk to me. Therefore I’ve pushed back what I’m doing for a bit. For competitions and open calls that can still go ahead, I’d suggest that reduced fees or a different approach to curation might help more than deadline extensions. If people aren’t applying enough to make putting on a show feasible at the moment, then push deadlines and shows right back, or do a smaller show?

What do people think about this? When I reopen the Refresh Art Award in 2021 I’m going to carry on not offering a deadline extension just because I hate goal posts being moved when I’ve taken the trouble to follow instructions.

Am I the only artist that feels this way? Is the deadline extension greedy/broke galleries who want/need more money, or is it good that these purported rules are fluid?

It could just be me being pedantic, but if I’m taking money from an artist to have their work evaluated and potentially show with me, I don’t want their first experience of our exchange to be one of disappointment when they realise they paid for something that has changed.

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