by Joey Phoenix

The first year I started taking photography seriously I was eager for any and every opportunity that came up. I scoured Craigslist looking for gigs, joined Thumbtack, and commented on my friend’s threads asking for photographers trying to drum up business. I shot a wedding for under $300, delivered work I didn’t get paid for, and ran myself ragged trying to get into the game.

It was bad. Like, really bad.

When I wasn’t underselling my time and talent I was doing shoots on the side to grow my skills and expand my portfolio. I had a lot of faith in what I was doing even though I had very little idea what I was doing. It was around that time that a certain company – one that markets itself as a company that serves independent artists with tools, resources, education, and exposure needed to thrive and succeed in their creative careers – reached out to me asking if I would be interested in being part of one of their upcoming showcases. I leaped at the opportunity. An internationally recognized organization wanted me to show my work in one of their group shows!

What a wee artist baby I was. Having never shown anything before I was bedazzled – I felt seen! Here was a chance for me to show my work like a real artist. There was a catch, of course.To have a table at the event I would have to sell 20 tickets at $25 apiece. If I didn’t sell the 20 tickets, then I would have to make up the rest of the cost myself. At the time I didn’t have the community I have now, so ultimately, I didn’t smell the fish until it was all over.

I managed to sell all but 2 of the tickets and went ahead with the show, but the experience was ultimately fruitless and deflating. I had paid to be part of something run by a company that didn’t care about what I was doing, they had just been headhunting anyone good enough to get suckered into the system. In the 7 years since this experience, I’ve learned a bit about how to avoid these kinds of programs meant to take advantage of artists rather than helping them up, and I’ve told just about everybody who I know who have also been headhunted by similar companies to avoid them completely, or tell them thanks no thanks when they’re offered a “super exclusive” spot in their shows.

There are countless, practically faceless, groups and individuals who prey on artists’, especially new artists’, vulnerability and eagerness to rise in the art world by offering them opportunities that come with strings attached. The main rule I’ve learned is that ANY opportunity that makes you pay to play without being able to show you what verifiable benefits they will be offering you in return is simply there to scam you out of your money, your time, and your talent.

Some examples of this include Artist’s Residencies that charge participants to be a part of them, company-hosted contests that get artists to submit tons of work for the business’s consideration for free, and venues which have a cost to play. Words like “crowdsourced” and “exposure” get thrown around as justifications for these offers, but they can’t be justified.

They are scams, plain and simple. Avoid them.

The one exception to this rule is membership programs like art collectives or associations, places that will charge a monthly or yearly subscription fee who will actively work to get your art seen and heard by the community. They do the work to provide you with connections that you will not have the opportunity to experience or find otherwise.

But that is the ONLY exception. Most scams are one time invitations that invite artists to be a part of something for a fee or for exposure. Then, once they’ve used the artist once they will go out and find someone else to sucker into their scheme.

If you are an artist just getting started, you are in a critical position because your eagerness makes you more willing to do things for free that you shouldn’t. There are ways to build your portfolio that don’t require you to pay hundreds of dollars, and while you’re dealing with crippling imposter syndrome while you’re figuring out how to flourish as an artist, it can be incredibly tempting to think that you can fast track it to greatness by taking part in these schemes.

Any working artist will tell you that there is no fast track. The only way to rise in the industry and gain a reputation for doing good work is by being patient, putting in the time, and applying for things that have a legitimate reputation for doing right by artists. There are hundreds of curated opportunities that you can apply to each year that will not take advantage of you and your efforts.

The pay-to-play option tends to be popular among new artists because it allows them to skip a terrible experience: rejection.

Did the word send shivers up your spine?

Rejection is awful. It feels like someone is looking you in the eyes and saying to you, “Hey, guess what, you are just not good enough. Maybe you’ll never be good enough.” And this makes people want to crawl up into a ball.

Make rejection a part of your life. Become best friends with it. Rejection means that you have eliminated one door in a hallway full of doors, thus making your choices easier. Rejection is nothing more than an opportunity for you to go knock on more doors.

So what have we learned:

  • If it seems to good to be true, It probably is.
  • If you’re paying to play, you’re advancing someone else’s career or business, not your own
  • Talk to other artists and join collectives run by artists, they will have your back in the way that businesses and non-artists won’t. There are some exceptions to this, but they are very few.
  • Be patient and grow your work while searching for genuine opportunities. If you don’t know what opportunities are genuine, ask your fellow artists.
  • Embrace rejection. Being afraid of it will mean that you will lose out on things you could’ve had if you had just knocked on more doors along the way.

You have to stand your ground and respect your work because if you don’t, no one else is going to do it for you. Don’t be the artist who pays to play, works for free, or creates for exposure. Take the high road, the harder road because you owe it to yourself.

Being a working artist is not an easy career choice, but if you’re going to make it, make sure you’re the kind of artist that no one can take advantage of.


Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com