The Value of Competition

Competition / Collaboration

by Michelle Schultz

Productive competition creates value. It challenges, reveals and amplifies. It pushes and moves forward. Unproductive competition destroys value. It regresses, withdraws and obstructs.

The so-called ‘art world’ swarms with competition between artists, galleries, curators, writers and institutions. Beyond the promoted and publicized examples, many competitions are products of the public and private economies in which art is disseminated. Other forms of competition are so ingrained that they are rarely acknowledged or challenged.

Productive competition creates value. It challenges, reveals and amplifies. It pushes and moves forward. Unproductive competition destroys value. It regresses, withdraws and obstructs. It leaves everyone bruised and bloody. In spaces where so many people are vying for the same opportunities and resources, when is competition productive and when is it unproductive? What is the value of competition in the art world and what values are propagated by certain types of competition?

The art prize is an obvious example, often hyped because of its public nature and attached dollar value. These prizes can generate both productive and unproductive competition. They challenge the status quo in the best cases, bringing attention to and supporting under-recognized artists as well as awarding innovative and poignant practices. At their navel- gazing and nepotistic worst, they waste resources and fortify boundaries and categories.

The everyday competitions faced by artists, writers, curators and galleries are less sensational but much more incessant as they seek and work towards exhibitions, grants, residencies, press, curatorial attention and sales. While not celebrated like prizes, these markers of success are arguably of greater long-term value. These challenges can be productive, but stacks of rejection letters can result in smouldering self-doubt, debt and sheer exhaustion. Here, there is the inherent risk of abandoning nascent ideas of potential and depth for pandering, short-term gain and survival. We can give into playing by the rules and structures set in front of us, or we can fight against them, break them down and build new ones.

For commercial galleries, one of the most public-facing measures of success is acceptance into art fairs. The price of these competitive trade shows is steep, particularly for Canadian galleries presenting outside of the country, and a presence at these events can be conflated with value. Art fairs often require galleries to have a permanent space and represent artists. While less explicit, there is also the expectation of having put on a certain number of shows or having programs with artists of significant recognition, as well as having the five figure capital to participate. This leaves little room for innovative galleries that are trying to break the mold by foregoing permanent space or representing artists whose practices are not yet recognized, or who do not have deep pockets.

While more obvious in certain kinds of competition, very specific types of cultural and financial capital are often required to participate. In thinking about what values particular types of competition enforces, it is necessary to address who is there and why. And more importantly, make space for those that are not and ensure that competition creates, rather than destroys, value.