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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Advice on Open Calls (to be dismissed or taken on board, as you see fit)

Open calls are the bain of an artist’s life. Just like playing the Lottery, for the vast majority of artists, the cost (time spent on the application plus any fees as well as the emotional impact of receiving endless rejections) far outweighs the benefits of the very occasional successful outcome. Yet the allure of the opportunity, seemingly overrides our objective reasoning and compels us to continue the cycle of endless applications and endless rejections.


I count myself lucky, for the few successful outcomes I have had from the mind-numbing amount of applications I have made – my estimated success rate is less than 5%. If I were to do a cost-benefit analysis, my logical, objective brain would tell me to stop immediately and focus my time and effort on work which has more guaranteed value. But, my emotional brain argues back, that I must have hope and that I must keep trying – an artist friend said to me once, the secret to success was never giving up – whatever that means… The compromise position I have reached is never to enter a paid open call and to do thorough research to check the eligibility criteria and my suitability before starting the application. I also try to avoid making new artwork for specific open calls – instead I only apply to those where I have an existing artwork which matches the criteria – this helped to reduce the lost labour time.


Of course, I didn’t always take this approach - I used to pay for loads of open calls and make bespoke works – always in vain. In fact, one artwork I made for an open call with a climate change theme back in 2020 - which was rejected – was later accepted for another open call with a similar theme in 2023 and I won a £500 prize and publication in a report. Swings and round-abouts.

'The White Man's Burden?', oil on canvas, 40 x 50cm, 2020


But after receiving repeated rejections and a disastrous incident at the hands of the RSA and Mall Galleries (more details in the next paragraph), I decided to rethink my strategy. Ultimately, I hope that one day I will be successful enough as an artist that I don’t feel like I have to apply for open calls ever again – sometimes, I question why I don’t just stop now.


So, on to my drama with the Royal Society of Watercolour Artists. In 2020, I applied for the RSA Watercolours exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. Having spent 2019 trawling across the EU27, I had produced an entire book’s worth of watercolour and ink artworks of landscapes and architecture. The application seemed pricey, especially at a time when I had very little income – but it seemed like a very prestigious venue with the opportunity to sell work. In the end, I digitally submitted the maximum number of works (5 or 6 - at a cost of around £60-70 (I can’t remember the exact numbers). Only one of my artworks was “preselected” for the exhibition, this means that they expect you to deliver the artwork to the Mall Galleries in London so they can judge it in-person before they make the final selection. That’s fine if you live in London, but I live in Sheffield - the cost of getting to Mall Galleries and back home would be over £60, as well as taking an entire day. This particular artwork, an inky grey depiction of Stockholm was my favourite artwork from my EU27 tour and quite important to me and having lost several packages by Royal Mail – I didn’t want to risk this option. Art couriers were quoting £50-60. Thankfully, after asking round a friend who was driving to London at the right time offered to take it for me – I was grateful and gave her £20 to contribute to petrol – it was by far the cheapest option. Then came the judging day and inevitably my painting was rejected – they sent the rejection in an email which went to my junk box – I didn’t find it for several days. In the email was an instruction to collect my artwork on a specific date, which by the time I read the email had passed. I then spent a week chasing RSA and the Mall Galleries, sending emails, making multiple phone calls trying to find out what had happened to my painting – I got no answer. A friend of mine who lives in London, went directly to the Mall Galleries to ask for me – he got a number for an art courier company who apparently had my artwork. So, I phoned the company – no answer but they did send me an email. The email stated that they would charge me a £60 collection fee to the artwork from their warehouse in Doncaster (about 1 hour train journey from Sheffield and a £15-20 ticket). The other problem was that the warehouse was actually no way near the station, you’d have to drive to get there. I can drive but I don’t have a car. It was also the pandemic, and amidst ongoing lockdowns, I decided not to attempt the journey and wrote the painting off, vowing never to pay for an open call ever again. This experience was an important lesson in how the elite, titan institutions of the art world treat working artists – abysmally. The story has a sort-of happy ending in that I did eventually get my painting back when the courier company offered to deliver it for the £60 fee when they happened to be delivering another painting to Sheffield – this was in 2023 - three years after it originally went missing. In total this pointless debacle cost £140 and an incalculable amount of time and stress.

'Stockholm', watercolour on paper, A4, 2019


I’ve had other incidents which were similarly frustrating but without the cost and emotional baggage of losing an artwork; I applied for a residency in Slovenia and after completing a lengthy form, I was invited for an interview. The interview was 1 hour long and at the end they asked me to write a project proposal which I duly did only to be rejected at the final stage – wasting an entire day of my time for nothing. That’s not to mention the days of my life I have wasted on arduous Arts Council England applications I have made (for DCYP and project grants). Anybody who has attempted to apply for funding from the ACE will know how complex and time-consuming their application process is, in addition to their archaic system which is effectively non-legible to visual thinkers (ie. Most artists) many of whom have Dyselxia (I’m leaving in this apt typo). The only funding I ever got from ACE was a Covid-19 emergency grant which they were giving out willy-nilly to any artist who had previously received public funding (I was awarded a Democracy Needs Imagination grant by the European Cultural Foundation in 2019) – it was also the easiest of their applications to fill out.


My advice on open calls is based on my professional experience in communications and the arts sector, as well as my participation in Destructura - a forum for young, European artists which examined the systemic barriers to opportunities and success in the creative industries. In 2022, I ran an open call for an NGO campaign against antisemitism, Islamophobia  and conspiracy theories. I insisted we had to pay the artists a decent fee, since we had the budget to do so, I also ensured that the application form took minimal effort and that the judging panel was diverse and fully transparent. As an artist myself this is exactly what I expect from open calls I apply to but rarely see in practice. I also work for an arts charity who have an opportunities finder and take great care to only include opportunities which are of genuine benefit to working artists. We also regularly run open calls for micro-grants, writing commissions and digital residencies as well as having a fellowship programme - all of which prioritise giving artists financial support and professional development that genuinely benefits their practice.The fact of the matter is that open calls who charge a fee are predatory and exploitative. It makes me so angry to see the proliferation of open call sites which almost exclusively list opportunities which cost the artist. Good open call sites curate the opportunities which are listed and make sure those that charge a fee are visibly labelled so that artists don’t waste their time reading through an open call or completing an entire application only to discover hidden charges after needlessly wasting their precious time. I firmly believe that if you don't have funding to pay artists for their time you SHOULD NOT be running an open call. Organisations whose business model centres around the exploitation of some of the most precariously employed and poorly paid workers in society can only be decribed as immoral and if you pay to submit to these open calls you are unintentionally supporting this unethical industry.


So, my advice to all working artists?

·      Never apply for an open call that requires a submission or participation fee.

·      Don’t make bespoke artwork for an open call (unless you wanted to make the artwork anyway and this prompt gives you the motivation to complete it).

·      Always prioritise confirmed work with genuine value and only apply for open calls in spare time.

·      Research the open call thoroughly, to assess if you fit the eligibility criteria, how relevant the call is to your art practice and the work involved in the application.

·      Prioritise open call applications which take less time and effort and offer more tangible benefits (ie. They pay an artist fee).

·      Expect 98-99% of your applications to be rejected.

·      If facing endless rejections is damaging your mental health – stop applying and focus on self-care.

Finally, remember there is an opportunity cost to all open calls - the time you spend on the application is time you could otherwise spend on developing your creative practice, networking, researching and making new art. Your time is valuable - don't let other people take advantage of it.


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