This is basically a blog. 

An Open Letter to Poster House Museum on the Subject of Art Contests.

Good afternoon!

Whatever you pay your social media person, it probably isn't enough. I put some pressure on them yesterday and they handled it about as well as any organization could hope for. I put pressure on them because I felt like it was important to have some visible, public push back to the animation competition that you are holding with the Library of Congress. Competitions like this are almost always an unethical way to collect work. Sadly, this attitude towards skilled creative artists is quite common place, so I'm writing to you now as a plea for you to reconsider how you approach engaging the creative community now and in the future.

Before I get too far into this, I should introduce myself. My name is Dominic Maschler and I work at an animation studio in Atlanta, GA, called Floyd County Productions. I'm currently the Lead Compositor on the cartoon "Archer", but I have also worked in motion graphics, illustration, character animation, editing and a myriad of other rolls over the last 12 years. I've even designed a few posters. I could write an art school thesis paper on why these sorts of competitions aren't just a bad idea, but also an unfair and unethical way to treat talented people, but I'll try to distill this down to a few simple points:

Competitions fall under the category of "spec work", which means that the artist has to fully finish their work, in order to have a juried chance at winning the "prize". In your case, that prize is exhibiting their work at your museum and using it however you see fit for the next 3 years, without any monetary compensation to the artist. All of the artists who fully complete work for you, but are not lucky enough to be chosen, will have done their work for even less.

These sorts of competitions are often presented as a way to "engage the creative community", or "seek untapped talent", or even "give students an opportunity to showcase their talents". None of those premises actually achieve their stated goal. If you wish to engage a creative community, it is crucial to empower them, not pit them against each other. If you seek untapped talent, you can have a "call for proposals" where anyone can submit their ideas, and no one has to do fully finished work for a chance at a prize. If you wish to give students an opportunity, you can work directly with schools and teachers who would likely be thrilled to have their students work on a collaborative, educational project. There is always a better way to engage the creative community that shows you respect their skills than making them compete for a prize.

Without making any assumptions about your own organization, I can say that the truth behind many art competitions is that they have a 3 fold benefit for the organization holding them: 

  1. They are very cheap, because even if you offer a cash reward, it is likely much less than an actual artists rate for commissioned work.

  2. They are a method of publicity where the organization gets to hold events and ceremonies to announce winners and exhibit the work.

  3. In a world of social media, it is a method of spreading awareness of an organization through every artists who participates. The artists put their work on their own social media, talk about it being a submission for a competition, which links back to the organization, thus spreading their social reach. 

Those benefits are vastly more attractive than paying an artist for their work, negotiating licensing of their work, and doing all of that before getting a chance to window-shop against competitors. It is very difficult to apply these sorts of practices to other skilled labor without quickly exposing the absurdity. 

Imagine holding competitions for someone to remodel your museum, where each contractor has to fully finish the project before you pick the one you like best. 

Imagine hiring a caterer for your opening reception, where all the caterers have to fully complete the hors d'oeuvres before you select one.

Imagine in both of those scenarios that you were only trying to "reach out" to culinary students or to contractors in trade school. Imagine that you were "seeking untapped talent" from those professions through a contest. It is difficult to imagine, because we place those professions into a category that we do not place the work of designers, animators, or even musicians. We regularly ask some creative talent to compete for the chance at winning, without stopping to ask if it might diminish how they perceive their worth in the world.

This is not an attack on your forthcoming museum. You are not the first and will not be the last to hold an art contest. You are however, a museum that seeks to showcase the work of poster designers throughout history, so I would request that you treat the animators of today with the same sort of dignity that you are showing to skilled, and compensated, artists of the past. You can be an example of how to approach the search for creative work in a respectful way, and I sincerely hope that you reconsider this competition, and avoid perpetuating the practice in the future.

Thanks for your time,

Dominic Maschler

p.s. For some further reading (as if this email wasn't enough) on why spec work is a bad practice, please check out