Tuesday, July 14, 2020

What is an emerging artist?

what is an emerging artist?
Do you know the definition of an emerging artist?

"Emerging artist" is a term which is often used by various art competitions which, one would like to think, are serious about helping to develop the careers of those who are starting out and beginning to 'make their mark' and be recognised.

Today's post was prompted by a message sent to me via Facebook by an artist querying the definition of an emerging artist. It struck me that:
  • a lot of would-be artists are confused by the term "emerging artist"
  • I know a lot of people get puzzled about who/why certain people get selected for competitions
  • The points worth making probably would benefit from a wider audience than just the young lady who asked the question
So first the question, then my view as to the definition plus other views on the definition and finally some comments about art competitions.

The Question

Hello Katherine,  
First of all, thank you so much for creating Making a Mark - it's such a valuable resource for all artists!  
I actually wanted to seek your thoughts on something I noticed in the world of art competitions as it seemed a bit odd. 
Recently, a UK competition titled "[sponsor name] Emerging [deleted] Painter Prize" announced its finalists, and I was surprised to see that amongst those selected was an artist who has in fact been practicing art for at least a decade and gotten a major commission (for the Olympics back in 2012) as well as winning first prize at major international art competitions in previous years (these were not geared towards emerging artists). 
I'm still new to the world of art competitions so I was wondering if this is the norm, where clearly well-established artists are generally accepted as fair game at such emerging artist competitions? I understand that all competitions value quality, and in that sense those with years of experience would have an advantage over emerging artists. But to my mind, these competitions (especially if titled as such) are aimed to spotlighting artists who are relatively inexperienced and could really benefit from some extra attention on their work.  
If in your experience as a critic/judge/curator, the above situation (established artist selected in emerging artist competition) is in fact quite acceptable, then perhaps it is I who need to adjust my thinking about art competitions for emerging artists. I really hope you can offer some thoughts on this.  
Thank you in advance! 

Warm regards etc
I comment further about this particular competition - and how it fails emerging artists at the end of this blog post. 

DEFINITION: What is an emerging artist?

My definition

Here's my definition of an emerging artist. (E) means essential; (F) indicates happens frequently
An emerging artist:
  • aims to be professional artist - having gone well beyond 'hobby artist' status while not yet an 'established' or 'mid-career' artist (E)
  • is committed to his/her practice and has worked seriously over the last 5 years (or less) to develop and promote a career as a professional artist  (E)    
  • has developed an original body of work with a clear identity and/or one (or more) theme(s) (E) 
  • is not defined by age - because people develop second careers and take up art at various ages (E) 
  • demonstrates potential AND has had some notable success - in terms of sales or awards/prizes and/or getting their art noticed and/or selected for significant exhibitions (E) 
  • has a career on an upward trajectory (E)
  • may operate on a semi-professional basis - but has another job which helps pay the bills (F) 
  • graduated with an art degree within the last five years (F)

I require emerging artists to have demonstrated some level of success because otherwise they are what I call "aspiring artists". Some might call them "wannabes". (Think 98% of the people who turn up on TV talent shows)

An "established artist" for me (in the UK) is no longer "new" and has gone beyond "emerging". He or she is somebody who has been writing "Artist" as their main or one of their main occupational activities on their self-assessment tax return for 5 years or more AND paying tax and Class 2 National Insurance from their profits (i.e. because they're generating enough profit to be required to do so - because people have recognised value in what they do).

If you're not doing either then from my perspective you may well be an 'aspiring' or 'hobby' artist.  (However see below for what others have to say on this topic!)

A "new artist" / one just starting out is also to me distinct from "emerging" in that
  • there's LOTS of artists who are new to competitions and the art market - 
  • but very few will become recognised as "emerging artists" (according to my definition) and 
  • even fewer will become "established artists".
One might debate the number of years. I have a very clear view as to why I use 5 years as a benchmark. In my opinion, if - within five years - you're
  • NOT making some significant progress in creating a unique identity and body of work 
  • NOT getting noticed 
I'd begin to doubt whether you ever will or whether you really want to be an artist as a career.

Some other definitions

Here are some others who have commented on what an emerging artist is

A decade ago, 'emerging' signified an artist who was getting some attention—emerging from the pack, as it were, and onto the radar screen of curators, dealers and critics. There were a number of indicators that an artist was emerging: inclusion in good group shows, positive reviews, a well-received solo, maybe sales to a few good collectors, and some word-of-mouth buzz.

Germane to this issue, a parallel, more democratic definition has evolved. Emerging now seems to mean beginning. That's how students and professors use the term at the various institutions where I have taught or visited. By this standard, all newly minted artists (even art students) are emerging. This definition may not appeal to the hierarchic tendencies of the art world, but it does make more sense. And for the 25-year old who emerges bigtime? How about lucky? Or well-connected? Or child of famous parents? Joanne Mattera
An emerging artist is someone who’s in the early stage of their career, someone who’s caught the eye of an art critic and/or gallery, but hasn’t yet established a solid reputation as an artist amongst art critics, art buyers, and art galleries. 
An artist who has specialized training in his or her field (not necessarily gained in an academic institution), who is at the beginning of his or her career, and who has created a modest independent body of work. 
The term emerging artist is often used for young and recently graduated from a prestigious art college, but can also apply to someone who’s made a career change or recently decided to prioritize their art above everything else. You could say it’s a label art galleries use because it sounds better than “new artist” or “unknown artist.” (Bmore) 
Emerging artists:
  • are the principal creators of new work;
  • take risks and embrace challenges;
  • develop voices revealing significant potential;
  • are rigorous in their approach to creation and production
  • have some evidence of professional achievement but not a substantial record of accomplishment;
  • are not recognized as established artists by other artists, curators, producers, critics, and arts administrators
Career stage is a factor but not a limiting one. Many emerging artists fall in the early career category, but not all do. Age is not a factor in determining an emerging artist.
  • various dictionaries define "emerging" as
    • becoming apparent or prominent.
    • newly prominent
    • beginning to have success
    • just beginning to exist
    • growing in strength or popularity
“Emerging artists” is another stretchy term pertinent to the art market, implying a group of artistic creators who have reached a certain point in their professional development. But although they have gained some recognition, these creatives have not yet reached a high point in their careers. They are often young, frequently fresh-out-of-college individuals, but mid-career artists who are considered emerging are not a rarity either. While many of them show significant potential, not many of them will reach the highest top of success, and the majority will continue to build careers with financially moderate performance in comparison to the top sellers.
A general category for contemporary artworks created by young artists whose careers are on the rise. In addition to younger artists and newer works, the category also includes artists who are relatively under-recognized but for the most part considered on the path to critical and/or market acceptance.

Some Marketing Abuses

It's very clear to me that there are a number who ABUSE the term "emerging artist" for MARKETING purposes. 

For example
  • website references emerging artists in name or url or website description. When I visit the site I can find no reference to what they mean by "emerging artists"
  • an art competition states it's for "emerging artists" - but has no definition of what this means on any online site besides one which includes every aspiring artist under the sun (or maybe just the UK)!
Personally I think there are number who are exploiting the aspiring "wannabes" for exactly the same reason that Vanity Galleries hold exhibitions and competitions and send you emails to say they've noticed your wonderful artwork.

The artist starting out who does not know better provides the income for that gallery's business model. It's very sad. It's probably not going to get them noticed.

RECOMMENDATION: Stick to the serious and well known art competitions and open exhibitions for getting noticed - ones which get a lot of traffic both online and in person in a gallery. 

  • review the number of followers on their Facebook Page (if they have one), Instagram and Twitter
  • note the venue for the exhibition - and check whether it regularly holds important exhibitions
  • note (if stated) the number of people who entered the competition and the number of people who visited the exhibition. 
  • note any previous track record on sales (if work is for sale)
Bottom line there is no point in getting into an exhibition that nobody knows is being run and very few people visit.

Commentary on how art competitions are run

Let me start by saying there are very many respectable and well managed art competitions run by people who know what they're doing - and what is and is not OK.

Sadly that's not the case for every art competition.

Indeed I've had numerous emails and messages over the last 15 years I've been writing this blog from people who feel that there is something wrong - and they don't know what to do.
  • Should they just shuffle off feeling very disappointed?
  • Should they not damage their future careers by calling people out? 
    • This is the preferred option of many. 
    • Of these many go on to tell their friends what they noted.
  • Should they speak up and call out? (This is where I come in - and what I do if satisfied from independent verification that there is an issue - although you don't always get to hear about this!)
I wish there was a Code of Conduct or Protocol about how art competition are run - but sadly there isn't one.

I've known organisers embarrassed by artists they have short listed for a prize

I've known selectors who quite clearly have thought art competitions - in the past if not the present - were a vehicle for awarding cash prizes to their friends or the son and daughters of their friends. There is one competition run by one such individual which I never ever cover as a result.

I've known organisers who very sadly don't understand the first thing about quality control and trust that all those who submit work will comply with the stated criteria.

What should be the protocol for an emerging artists competition?

It's totally obvious to me that if you are creating an art competition for a specific class of artist you need to DEFINE who that artist is

That' why I always have a section in my "call for entries" posts which state "who can enter?"

Hence if it's an art competition for "emerging artists" it needs to define what an "emerging artist" is.

The lady who asked the question did not tell me about the prize in the sense that she withheld the name of the sponsor. However she left in enough for me to work out which it was - which meant I could review their terms and conditions and criteria for the competition.

Which is how I identified the problem with that particular competition - and why she was confused. I would be too.

The issue with this particular competition

In relation to who can enter, the organisers provided these words as to who is eligible to enter.


  • any artist over 18 
  • must live and work in the UK


  • work must be completed in last 2 years, not previous exhibited in London and dry
In other words - re. the basics - no surprise and absolutely the same as a lot of other competitions. 

But this is a competition for emerging artists. So what does it have to say about that?


  • the competition's definition of an "emerging artist"! Zippo!
Instead it asks for a short statement (with a word limit) about:
  • how they want to develop their career.
  • how winning the prize would help them develop their practice
Sounds OK - until you realise that
  • you could actually ask this question of any artist between the ages of 18 and 80 
  • who have been working for 12 months or 6 decades - and 
  • the artist would probably have an answer.
  • i.e. it is nonsensical - and it means anybody can enter!
In other words the "Emerging Artist" in the title of the competition is
  • a whimsical notion with absolutely no definition to act as a criteria for who can enter.
  • a way of allowing experienced artists to enter the competition and get selected - and maybe even win the prize 
In my book, these competition organisers need to pull their socks up and be a bit more businesslike IF they want to create a respectable art competition.

and finally......

On the competition organiser's website and Facebook (it doesn't rate a Page - which tells me a lot!) for the competition, there is the artwork of those who have been selected.

That artwork is presented without:
  • any title
  • any media details
  • any size
  • any information about the artist
Now there is one thing I know about any organisation which is serious about helping to develop the careers of emerging artists. They will ask the artist to provide a URL where their contact details can be found.

Instead we have nothing. Not a sausage.

Certainly no URLs (live or otherwise) to the website or instagram account of the emerging artist.

Is the objective of this exhibition to help out an aspiring gallery or other initiative - and you are the fodder

The major lesson for all emerging artists is when tempted by a title such a "emerging artist" - check out previous years and see what the organisers have done to help the emerging artists.

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