• S. Wardell

Paid-For Fine Art Rights of Passage: Getting Involved With The Refresh Art Award

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

This post was originally published on my former AN blog in June 2019

When studying fine art there is often no obvious choice of a first job role after a BA, or even MA course. It evidently isn’t like studying dentistry or accountancy, where there is a vocational clue in the title of the degree. So most students don’t expect to walk in to a job as a fine artist. An arts education, however, can give sharp transferable skills that may or may not be recognised as such in the jobs market thereafter.

As well as learning to make and produce things within an on-going and sustainable creative practice, my own fine art degree contained units on the ethical field of an artist, critical theory, collaborative practice as well as a fictive dissertation on Lefebvre, that also managed to involve researching food supply chains (knowledge that has been useful in the run up to Brexit).

However, in all I found my higher degree a lot more useful than the BA for boosting my professional earnings, though that might be for a number of personal reasons as well as those specific to what and where I studied. I have always had one foot in the ‘commercial arts,’ ever since first studying an art and design BTEC in the 1990s, so I might not be a typical fine-art graduate.

Since that first ‘90s foray in to art education, I never took too much notice of exhibiting opportunities because I always preferred storytelling and books to the gallery wall. (Although I like do to dip a toe in the water sometimes). So I was always quite happy to combine academic development with my previous vocational training to apply to actual jobs, sell lipstick, draw something to someone else’s brief etc.

Yet people I know who wanted to have a go at becoming exhibiting artists only seemed to have one clear right of passage, and that was to win some kind of prize thereby getting discovered. My MA wasn’t strictly fine art, and none of my group did much about shows after leaving, although I know many people entered art competitions during that time. Our college was one of the collection points for the Jerwood Drawing Prize, and some of the MA Drawing alumni had actually been in the award and won prizes. When tuition fees and living costs in London are crippling, it all seemed like the promise of that bank holiday Euromillions rollover. We’d had a guest talk by one of the winners who had said it had changed her life.

Naturally none of us ever got selected for a show or won anything. A friend and colleague who graduated a year later was in a more fine-art centred group on the same course, and many of them had quite impressive London shows afterwards. The year after my MA was mostly spent doing more training, gazing after tumbleweed and watching my bank balance plummet, so I wondered how they had so much success. (Aside from the obvious conclusion that their work was much better than mine). It took another year or so, and digging around by said friend, to discover that the shows were all self-funded and quite expensive. It hadn’t happened as a result of being ‘discovered’ after the degree show.

So there everyone was still left with art competitions, and that’s about all any of our tutors ever had to say about how you gain a semi-affordable exhibiting opportunity and get to claw back some cash at the same time. What you do as a job after training in art was always left as a rhetorical question, and not that many people ever seemed to be keen to discuss their own career paths. I always wondered if they didn’t want to give away secrets, or if they were hiding the fact that much of their income still came from desperately selling crap on ebay.

Those who did, openly spoke about how they could start teaching immediately after their degree to support themselves (no QTS and PhD needed for entry level university teaching then), or how they were able to work part time in average jobs and still afford to pay rent, bring up a family etc. These were obviously people who got established before the mid 1990s.

I don’t actually think that’s satisfactory advice for people doing degrees in the 21stCentury. Even though a BA is not a vocational qualification like the NCFE nail technician’s diploma I collected, surely some career advice wouldn't go amis. When called upon to give advice to my students I try to make it more practical because I think they deserve it. They’ve spent time and money for me to teach them how to print or draw and the least I can do is give them some practical advice on their next steps. Where I don’t know what the hell they should be doing to recoup the costs of their tuition fees in our tanking economy, it has to be acceptable to say that.

One thing I seldom advise as a solid career route is entering competitions, although every year the print presses at college are all aflutter close to the deadline for the RA summer show application. This year an ex student has been selected for the preliminary part. We’re all really excited because if her prints get in, they’re likely to sell… and selling the work you make…well that’s another strangely alchemic process that nobody seems to understand. Unless you do dogs and landscapes of course.

So after all that, why did I get involved with the Refresh Art Award? For me it was probably more to do with my interest in the economics of the art world than anything else. How better to understand these things than running an award? My co-founder has more experience than me of actual exhibiting and entering competitions and awards. I suppose I have the experience of putting in funding proposals though, and the thing we were both disillusioned with is the sheer cost of entering anything in comparison for the value you are likely to get. Surely something can be done to address this?

Winning a competition might seem a bit like a lottery, and it’s no surprise why. As reported by the BBC, the Royal Academy Summer Show in 2016 accepted 12,000 entries online*. That many entries puts the odds of getting noticed down a bit, surely. With prices for entry at £35 per work, someone might be left wondering who the real winner is. While those who get in to art shows, usually get beautifully curated and sometimes prestigious exhibition opportunities, what happens to all of those who don’t get to exhibit or win a prize?

Added to this, not all competitions are as transparent or worthwhile as the RA Summer Show. Even with the very few I ever entered (blame it on MA fever) I know that you pay up anything from about £5-30, get a rejection some weeks later and are never any the wiser. Working with process-based drawing, and modern (think Farage trying to kiss Dianne James) or illustrative fairytale images, I really should have just spent the money on getting drunk, or buying lottery tickets or chocolate or something.

So there we were, writing a wish list of what a decent, worthwhile competition for artists might actually look like. A few weeks later we’d somehow launched. Basic criteria went something like this: We’d try to have a lowish entry fee, so that more people could afford to enter without it becoming sacrificial. We’d have gift vouchers for people to club together to support struggling art purists living like Van Gough. We would try to offer everyone some value, because we knew that the maths of art competitions mean that most people don’t win the prize. We’d stay independent.

So rather than begging for funding or eliciting money in exchange for brand advertising, we’d be self funded and later from entries. We’d set up a proper banking system so that if we were proved incompetent, at least entrants would get a refund. We’d accept work from anyone as long as it was contemporary art. We wanted this to be global and to use the digital to do what it does best, which is to be borderless and collaborative. We wouldn’t hire ‘interns’ or students without pay.

Is any of this even possible? And, if so, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, with only a couple of weeks to go until the deadline, it’s definitely possible. Whether it is a success or not is still hanging in the balance. As mentioned, self funding was the way forward, and we need to have a good couple of weeks with entries not to be living like Van Gough ourselves. We’ve already put in hundreds of unpaid hours (intermingled with activities as diverse as breast feeding and working full time) due to above principle of not conning anyone in to thinking they’re gaining valuable career experience by working for us for free. Yes it’s much better to drop your principles and I’d advise anyone to do that.

What has been really amazing about this though, is the support we’ve received from the art community. Talking to lots of the artists I’ve met at their private views of shows, or during random interviews for our blog, there really is some appetite for a way to exhibit, enter shows and approach competitions without just burning money constantly and never seeing a return. Maybe there really is a gap for something like this.

For those who don’t win the prize, or get in to the show, the value we conceived was in promotion and also in being able to sell their work through us. So everyone who enters gets promoted across 4 social media accounts and beyond, plus we have an online gallery that turns in to a shop for the duration of the physical show. True it’s not the RA dream of Grayson Perry personally selecting your work, and then going on to sell every print in an edition, but it is definitely more value that the average art competition. We recognised that on some level, the selection of work for these shows is always going to be a little bit personal. It could also be political, practical or for sound curatorial reasons. So we wanted to give everyone something for their £10.

Due to the idea that we’re going to represent every single person who entered, I had been asked if that meant we’d just get rubbish. The amazing thing is it turns out that the art world of people at large making work is hugely self-editing! Even with an entry as low as £10, we’ve not received a single piece of anything even approaching rubbish. Look at our gallery of submitted work and it is thoroughly amazing. This begs another question… if we’re so good at self-editing as a community/industry, why on earth do we need people to represent us anyway? More about that in another article.

Getting involved with the Refresh Art Award has been a professional learning curve beyond others: The self-funded nature of what we have been doing has been akin to independent crowd funding, without the framework of a well known website who could give us visibility. So it has been really tough. Many artists who sign up are often not at all social media savvy, which is an interesting observation for us when we’re promoting them. When we were trying to spread the word, we realised rapidly that we’re definitely not appealing to the establishment, and that has made promotion much harder too. People who you might want to get involved definitely do not want to get involved. (Special thank you to London Print Studio, Richmond Art School and UAL Postgraduate Community for bucking the trend and being wonderfully supportive).

Instagram algorithms are murderous fiends…

Ten days before I may or may not lose the freedom of movement across Europe I was born with, I’m currently the most happy that our use of a digital base has made our competition borderless. I squealed with excitement the other day when I saw we had an entry from Peru. This is why dictators ban creativity before they ban opposition parties. Art spreads like a virus.

If you like the sound of any of this, or have any comments at all about the nature of what we’re doing, please write or ask questions below. As we’re tiny, self-funded, physically and financially limping to the end and digital, the best way to help us, and all the artists who have shown faith in this business model, is to spread the word. We’re on social media @refreshartaward or at

*The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition sees double for the first time: June 2016. Accessed 19thMarch 2019 from []

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