Pay to Play? Orange County's Vanity Art Spaces

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There have always been collaborative galleries that sell memberships and support their members with exhibitions, but since the decline in the economy, and the folding of so many exhibition spaces, more galleries are starting to switch to the "pay to play" model. On one hand, it helps keep the galleries up and running as providing a steady stream of art. These galleries are supposed to help new artists get a jumpstart on shows, and widen their viewing audience in the area. But do "pay to play" galleries really help artists? If you pay for space on a wall, isn't that just like advertising? "Pay to play," art is becoming more common, here in Orange County, so I wanted to find out, who really benefits from this practice.

Memories of my youth are littered with late nights, holding girlfriends' hair back while they puke in skeevy club bathrooms, and dozens of rock n roll shows. Ahh, yes. Memories. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had tons of music-minded friends who would give their heart and soul for a chance to play at a Hollywood venue, and did quite often. The "pay to play" clubs in Hollywood represented a golden ticket to some young nobody bands, just trying to get heard. It is a commonplace occurrence in music -- smaller venues will let you play if you can sell a certain number of tickets, and if you don't then you have to buy them yourself. These venues serve as an entry-level desk job to these young and uncorrupt bands. It is only beneficial if you make it that way.

In L.A. and O.C., the art market has had a long-standing relationship with this technique. At this point in our weakened economy, it makes sense for galleries to ask new and unknown artists to pay a small fee to show, which helps to keep the galleries afloat. Often, artists are so passionate and driven, that they think, "what's a couple dollars in the grand scheme of their career, anyhow?" We would not have half as many galleries and events if we didn't have extra hidden fees, entry fees, or application fees, etc. Not everyone can be a non-profit organization, getting money from giant grants and fancy donors all across the board. Sometimes the artists support the art institution, and in some places, it works out for them too.

Matt Gleason, an arts writer and owner of Coagula Gallery in L.A. talks about paid juried shows and artist membership organizations as being a very beneficial to new artists on the scene. "There is some value in these things, the trick is to have an exit strategy," Gleason says. Paying a small fee to enter into a juried show is chump change in the grand scheme of your career, and it is a useful tool to get your feet wet in the art world. Gleason warns not to get stuck in that cyclical route as there is never any long term future for paying for people to see your art. Membership galleries have annual dues, and possibilities of studio visits, group exhibitions, and other beneficial VIP access to certain types of events.

Matt Gleason. Photo: Kathryn Arnold

Some galleries like Orange County Center for Contemporary Arts (OCCCA), The Hibbleton Gallery, Showcase Gallery, and The Santora Arts Association have good reputations, a decent list of past artist-members, and most of all create a community of artists to act as a kind of support structure for the members, which is very helpful as a newcomer to a certain art scene. But just like any high school clique or small town community, you can get comfortable and get sucked in, through your habitual involvement with the space and with your wallet as well. A lot of artists get complacent, and think they are succeeding by just being involved with a handful of people, but like Gleason said, the trick is to branch out--always. These vanity spaces are not looking out for the artists' best interest in the long haul, they are merely trying to keep their exhibition space afloat, and give new artists in the community a soapbox to shout from.

"Pay to play" terminology evokes a negative connotation for most people, and the new trend of membership galleries do not like being associated with the term. But essentially, they are one in the same. The membership galleries have a marketing strategy down pat. Selling the artists in a "pay to play" way of working is not going make artists think this a great and reliable exhibition and growth opportunity for their careers. But by kindly requesting membership dues and supporting membership community gives participating artists a sense of support that they may feel they are lacking on their own. Often this membership also includes work that an agent or a gallery might do for their artists, so a monthly dues and possible volunteer time is an easily sellable point when looking at the big picture for struggling artists. All in all, the "pay to play" membership galleries and exhibitions are controversial, but a welcomed controversy for struggling or new artists to our little O.C. art bubble.

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Top Image: The Hibbleton Gallery. Photo: Evan Senn

About the Author

Evan is the Editor in Chief of Inland Empire Weekly, Culture Magazine, and Rogue Art Research & Writing (RARW).
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The idea of premise to pay to get your work in a show is a tough call. The biggest problem with this model is 96% of the time, these type of shows are unfiltered and the gallery often displays as much work as will fit on the wall regardless of the quality of the work. Your contemporary piece will end up next to a very poor attempt at fine art. A good example of this is Huntington Beach Art Centers yearly hodgepodge. They have too much work crammed into a room and then they add insult to injury by placing work far above the 6 foot level. OCCCA isn't much better with their "By the Running Foot" show. The title doesn't help that much as a dot on your resume because it lets everyone know this wasn't a regular juried show. When Matt did do "pay to play" type shows at least he tried to make sure the works went with each other and he allowed for proper spacing between pieces.


What is the purpose of being included in an art exhibition? Exposure? Access to community? Vanity? Yes, then by all means pay to play - you have joined the club and your membership fee is part of the transaction.

However, if an artist is hoping to sell artwork, then these sorts of community and membership exhibitions are a dead end. Ask any one of those galleries or organizations - Do you actually make money on ART SALES or do you simply rely on submission fees and memberships to keep your doors open?

Better to sell your own art. Get a website. Make art. Promote it on Facebook. Spend your money on a booth at your local art fair. Make art. Pander to your friends and family. Go to art school - or whatever instruction you can afford. Hone your craft. Practice. Make art. Live in obscurity. Make friends with artists (but don't ever pay for that privilege). MAKE ART because you love it. Be an artist. Or be a hobbyist.

Neither choice is better than the other - just recognize which path you are on so you can decide where to spend your time and energies.

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