Art Competitions or Exhibitions?

This file is based on a policy published in the 1980’s by the AIAE and was adapted by Max Darby in 2010

The AIAE was the Australian Institute of Art Education. It is now AEA, Art Education Australia. Further advice and information can be obtained by contacting AEV, Art Education Victoria.

Schools are often asked to participate in Art Competitions. Prizes awarded are often in the form of art equipment or materials which can be used by the school or by the winning student.

The art competition is commonly run for, or by, a worthwhile charity (sometimes even the school) and therefore support is usually expected. Teachers are often quite happy to support the charity involved, and such support should be encouraged. The question to be answered is whether involvement in an art competition is educationally an appropriate way for that support to be provided.

While some schools encourage their students to participate in art competitions, most schools also organize their own art exhibitions, usually for quite different purposes. Art exhibitions should always be seen as a celebration of student achievement. Art competitions can also be presented as celebrations of student achievement but usually are used as a way of promoting the achievements or functions of an organisation or a product. While the decision is quite appropriately yours to make, there are some points to consider before making that decison quickly.

This file unashamedly proposes that ‘in most cases’ an Art Exhibition should be preferred to an Art Competition (although some qualifying comments will be made later in this file). There have been some exciting instances where commercial companies or outside organizations have listened to sound reasoning from teachers and have accepted the invitation to instead support an art exhibition. Or, alternatively, to ensure that their art competiton builds into its structure and presentation appropriate educational benefits that might otherwise be overlooked. To achieve full educational value from an art exhibition or competition teachers should, wherever possible, include work by all students in a class or level. That does not mean that all work from all students’ must be included. Decisions about ‘quality relatative to educational value ‘and to ‘available space’ always need to be faced.

Art is a valued area of the curriculum of all good schools and therefore there are good reasons why it is included in the school program. These reasons have to do with students developing specific knowledge, unique experiences, enjoyment and success that can be provided by the visual arts – experiences they are not able to get in other areas of the curriculum. In providing these experiences, art educationally needs to challenge all students and allow all students to enjoy success and fulfillment in the various activities in which they are engaged, not just the talented or ‘gifted’ students. All students have a right to the benfits of art education, not just a select few. I think you would agree that anything organized by the Art Department should provide activities and experiences that help all students to enjoy success and feel a sense of achievement.

A good art program will, of course, allow students who appear to have ‘talent’ or ‘ability’ or ‘special interest’ in art to be challenged to achieve highly in the things they do. It must equally allow students who appear to be ‘less talented’ or ‘less able’ and even ‘less interested’ to also achieve to the best of their own individual ability. Teachers sometimes say to me that ‘such and such’ a student isn’t interested in anything I do in class. My blunt and in someways simplistic response (I admit) is that’s your problem not theirs. Give them something they do find interesting to do! It is art, after all! I contend that students have a ‘right’ to a good art education regardless of whether they are ‘interested’ or not; whether they ‘deserve’ it or not; whether they are ‘talented or gifted’ or not…so too with education in general. We are there for them not them for us! Many art teachers already realize that success in the art program is often best measured by the achievements of those initially considered less talented. Some of these students learn and grow artistically to a much greater extent than those who appear to have ‘natural talent’.

Art competitions emphasize and reward those students who are ‘talented’ at the expense of those who are not. There are few winners and many losers (and, even some of the talented students lose!) ! And, this is ‘double rewarding’ those students who are winners’ because they also get higher marks during assessment. Alternatively, the students who get lower marks during assessment have that reinforced by realizing they can never win an art competition. They are ‘doubly unrewarded’. Doing this not only discourages the less able to try – it also is contrary to the aim of art education to encourage everyone through their experience in the visual arts. With a lack of achievement (or a personal feeling of lack of achievement) they will drop out of art after Years 9 or 10…and you have nothing to contribute to those who drop out! You missed your chance.

While competition is a part of everyday life, it seldom encourages learning in the majority of school students. Besides, competition hinders self development and confidence for the majority of students, and to have that damaged before their formal learning has even been completed is contrary to the whole purpose of education, not just art education. Had I been subjected at school to intense competition, and had it reinforced that ‘I wasn’t too good at art’ (which is what would have happened since I was not one of the ‘naturally gifted’) I would never have been involved in Art Education at any level. A special thanks here to Arthur Markham, a man ‘long before his time’.

Art Exhibitions:

encourage participation of all students in the art program

encourage participation of all students in art activities provided in class

encourage all students to work to the best of their ability

encourage all students to feel they have achieved something of value

encourage all students to try again if something hasn’t worked well

make visible to administrators, parents students and teachers the achievements of all students.

Art Competitions:

reward a ‘small few’ when the aims of the art program are for the benefit of ‘the many’

encourage and support learning for some students but discourage the vast majority (they are, therefore contrary to the aims of general education)

work against educational practices of sharing of ideas and feelings

unequally emphasize the importance of the final product over the processes used to create a work

seldom recognize the intended and specified outcomes of the art program and often impose their own

are often judged by people using criteria that are not appropriate for school art (often more suited to adult art)

support arbitrary judgments

impose adult processes, motifs and ways of working on students

do not provide positive feedback to assist students to improve and move on

sometimes stipulate themes, topics or subject matter that is outside normal student interests

provide little relationship or continuity with other art activities in the program

often encourage plagiarism and copying

seldom require proof of the student having produced the work

are often organized by promoters more concerned with selling their products or promoting their services than they are with educational intentions.

Teachers who themselves decide to organize a competition should keep in mind the points raised above. They should try to avoid the negatives outlined and try to ensure that the work students present is within their personal artistic development stage, their own interests and their artistic level. I sometimes get asked to chose artworks and make awards to students when I open art exhibitions. I always comment to my audience that my judgements are no better than theirs (parents, students and teachers) and invite them to have another look to see how they would have responed to the task. This focuses their attention on just how difficult a task it is and usually ensures some interesting discussion and debate after the awards have been made. The very least teachers should do if organising a competition, or if they’re presenting awards, is to ensure that all students who participate receive appropriate public acknowledgement, perhaps a carefully-worded certificate that mentions the wonderful achievements on display. Perhaps a student could design such a certificate!

One final personal comment that might well cause discomfort to some ‘successful teachers’ is that I have grave concerns about ‘supposed’ art exhibitions that, while they are that, are also art competitions displaying the worst negative aspects of art competitions. They should be a real concern to genuine art educators. In the Australian States of Victoria and New South Wales (possibly elsewhere) we hold the Top Arts and Art Express annual exhibitions that showcase the so-called ‘best works’ of the final secondary years of schooling (VCE and HSC). Each year works from many of the same schools are selected (about 50 works in Victoria and sometimes in that small number 3 or 4  are selected from one school). Given there are thousands of outstanding and interesting works from which to chose, many deserving of selection, it is essential to spread around the selection process to avoid whole schools perenially having it emphasised that their work isn’t good enough to be chosen. That’s simply untrue and for educational reasons a deliberate effort needs to be made to ensure a greater cross-representation of schools over successive years – different schools. It appears that one of the criteria for selection is to have been chosen the year before, and the year before and the year before etc! And, such ‘success’ has become a political tool for some schools. For reasons of fairness, some outstanding works from ‘other schools’ need to be included. Inceasingly, many schools now no longer encourage their students to even apply…and that should be a concern to true art educators.

Perhaps such exhibitions have had their time. But how then might we showcase the value of art education to a greater audience? Certainly, these education-based ‘exhibitions’ are the most popularly attended in the major galleries that hold them   Their success cannot be ignored by administrators in education or the galleries. They usually draw more people into the gallery each year than any of the major blockbusters. But, art teachers should be concerned (apart from the 50 who are the ‘winners’!). This is not an example of ‘sour grapes’. My school is always included! It’s time for others to enjoy that acknowledgment.

The challenge is for you….but, advertising what we do well has always been a challenge.

If you have ideas or experiences of your own about these issue that you’d like to share please feel free to comment below.

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2 Responses to “Art Competitions or Exhibitions”

  1. max says:

    I’m happy you like the ideas of this article. I’m interested to hear how your exhibition/competition proceeds. Best wishes for its success. Max

  2. Farman Karim says:

    Dear sir,
    you have described the reality of art competition. I agree with you.
    We are going to arrange an art competition in our region so your great ideas will be helpful for us to organize the program.



    Farman Karim

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