how much does it cost to exhibit?
We got an email yesterday from somebody who told us they were due to be part of a group show in London but the gallery had sent them a contract that included a four figure bill. We’ve seen the contract. It says pay us this huge sum and you can be a part of this exhibition where you’re not even the star of the show because it’s a group show and everyone has a limited amount of space. No big deal. Just four figures. When you’re ready.
I know things are bad but I didn’t know they were that bad.
People talk about the ‘art world’ but it’s like a universe with three different planets. There’s the institutional art world where major galleries and museums, which are generally publicly funded in this country, own collections, commission artists to make new work for exhibitions, or share existing work with some money paid to the artist. There’s the independent art world where artists do things of their own accord with very little money in circulation, struggling, tired, doing it for the love of it and/or doing all of this art stuff in an attempt to find security in the institutional art world. And finally, there’s the business art world.
The business art world saw what was happening between the other two planets. It watched people trying to rocket themselves over to safety and thought ‘haha we can make some money out of this.’ In practice, the business world approaches the flailing independent art world population with invitations to exhibit… at a cost. Hire a gallery or hire a small section of a wall. Big promises. Big dreams. The business art world sees the independents have little to no success securing institutionally-validated opportunities so it offers them what looks like a short cut to fame and fortune: pay us £200 and we will hang your painting in this exhibition with 30 other people, and hey, you can come along and toast to your future, and if the painting happens to sell we’re going to take a massive cut, and if the painting gets damaged that’s nothing to do with us. What’s £200. £200 is going to be nothing when you’re rich. Fancy people come to our galleries, you know (they don’t). This could be the start of everything (it won’t be).
Students are targeted with emails from the business art world. Some students are understandably terrified of graduating into such a precarious industry so they pay to be in one of these exhibitions because then they’ll have one line on their CV and some install shots to put on their website — they’ll have a reason to make a website, and they’ll be able to invite people, and ‘get their name out there.’ We have had messages from people who went through this, people who asked to borrow money from family to pay for the cost. These people feel a bit ashamed about this now looking back, and I hate that. But even though in plain terms it is a simple exchange — money for exhibition space — there is a sense of feeling conned. I think that’s because people are buying something and banking on more following, seeing it as an investment. It’s rare anything happens as a result of showing in these spaces. But I think it’s also because the independent art world people being targeted by the business art world can sense this is just a sham of the institutional art world, smoke and mirrors. They feel dirty for pretending it’s anything more than it really is — they didn’t get this exhibiting opportunity because of merit, they got it because they paid. I feel the sadness coming from multiple directions. I also feel like it’s important to state that a CV full of these paid-for exhibitions isn’t necessarily going to look good in the eyes of the institutional art world. It can taint an artist. It can make the artist look like a sham, too.
It’s shit. I sympathise. It’s like there can only be virtue in the independent art world but only if you live a weirdly unrecognised creative life, and get your income from a job other than ‘artist.’ Of course, people gamble on the shitty business promises. It will pain you to know then that the people running these pay-to-play galleries are charging some dizzying prices. We asked our readers for the highest numbers they had seen and - god, I thought the initial four figure example we were emailed was bad.
We spoke to an artist who was approached by the European Culture Centre to exhibit in Venice at a casual cost of FIFTEEN THOUSAND EUROS. Like a full €15,000, ‘whereby we can dedicate a wall of approx. 4 metres long in a shared space with other participants works or a space in the middle of the room up to 3m2.’ The email continued, ‘Alternatively, if you [sic] like to consider a larger solo space, from 10m2 on, the budget will grow according to the size and the complexity of the space needed.’ A second artist managed to one-up this same deal from the same venue, sharing information that the European Cultural Centre charged them 16K. Get to fuck.
We had multiple warnings about ItsLiquid, also in Venice, citing spam emails, and appearance fees at €300. ‘I felt so scammed after being at the opening night.’ What the fuck is going on in Venice. Stay away.
‘1000 vases asks for £1000 to put 3 vases in their exhibition and you have to pay shipping.’
‘Someone messaged me asking for me to pay €50 for them to post 3 stories of my work.’ Read that again.
‘£500 per meter of wall space.’
Everyone has to pay for their own shipping, especially when that’s international shipping.
Brick Lane Gallery was mentioned over and over again. 3 metres of wall space costs £660, 6 metres £1320, 9 metres is £1980, but don’t worry because packages include installation and set up, invitations to their 30K-strong mailing list, invitation cards, an opening reception, the show listed on the website, ‘professional staff invigilation,’ pricing advice and sales support. Please don’t read this as an advert. Please do not pay £660 for 3 metres of wall space. The sinister thing is that people described being approached by BLG as if they had been personally selected… but then they’re given the cost.
We also spoke to people who had gone along to interview for ‘paid’ internships at Brick Lane Gallery but ‘when you went to interview, they said the post had been taken but you could intern for free. Turns out it was a lie and one of the interns got paid.’ But I digress.
The bottom line is that artists should be paid to exhibit. Artists shouldn’t pay to exhibit. Most people just ignore emails and messages from the business art world but unfortunately, being a full time artist is basically impossible so not everyone does. I don’t blame them. I don’t even blame the business villains and their pyramid schemes. I blame the institutional art world for all of its shitty hierarchy; for its classism and racism and ableism and transphobia. I blame the government this art world exists inside, and I blame history too. 16 thousand euros for a room. That’s evil.