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Are Art Contests Good or Evil?

I’ll be honest, I hate contests. I don’t like the hoops contests make me and my students jump through to enter. I don’t like most of the themes or topics contests insist that we follow, either. Still, I can’t get away from them.
 
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There are so many student art contests and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The only constant is that they keep coming. There are local contests that our PTSA offers, our county offers a contest called Pieces of Gold and our State Fair offers a contest for all school-age students. In addition, many teachers around the country are familiar with and enter their students’ work for the Scholastic Art Awards. With so many contests, it would be impossible to enter all of them.
 

So, how do we select why and how to enter a contest?

 

Consider the Contest Benefits

Even though I’m not a fan of contests, there is one lure that piques everyone’s interest. Contestants enter a contest with the knowledge that they may win. With winning comes rewards. Sometimes the rewards are more intrinsic like a blue ribbon or simply being labeled “Best in Show.” Other contest prizes are more material like winning art materials, scholarships or cash. It is interesting to consider if the type of prize factors into deciding if the contest is worthy of entering.
 

Think About What’s In It For The Student

From the student’s perspective, there are several advantages to having his or her art entered into a contest, especially if the teacher has selected the student’s work to be entered. In that situation, a student will get a boost in self-esteem simply by being selected. The feel-good kudos received are followed by a secondary perk, the student can add the contest to his or her resume. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to be accepted to college. Being selected as a contest entry looks good on an application. Winning a contest looks even better.

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Think About What’s In It For The Department

Contest entries can be advantageous to the art department as well. First, as advocacy. Just as a win by the football team is a win for the school, a win for an art student showcases the benefits of the art program. An additional gain for the department is often material in nature. Many contests back up a student’s accolade with a subsequent prize for the art class. This award might be supplies and materials but can also be a monetary gain.
 

Weigh The Good And The Evil

With all of these aforementioned gains, it might seem odd that I began this article expressing my dislike for contests. However, the cons may lie more in the pursuit of the contest rather than in the contest itself. For example, there is a difference between entering a preexisting artwork as opposed to specifically creating a piece to fulfill a contest requirement. The latter can take away valuable time and resources from our currently established curriculums. Numerous contests have specific media and size requirements. This too can distract us from exploring a more complete set of media in our classrooms.

The key to determining which, and how many contests to enter, is to find a healthy balance. We can accomplish this by selecting the contests that benefit the students and the department with the least interruption to the class curriculum.
 
 

Which contests do you routinely enter? How do you determine if they are a good fit for you and your students?

Do you have any contest pet peeves?

 
 
 

Ian Sands

Contributor

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.

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