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.
art contests
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.


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

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


  • Phyllis Bloxson

    I do several contests but am very specific about them. Do they meet design based standards? Does it make the students think and problem solve? I know that presentations and posters are a part of most school classrooms, so teaching the students how to make a successful poster is helpful to them academically. The main reason I do school sponsored contests is for those student who are artistically gifted but struggle in other areas of academics. It gives them a reward on awards day that they would not otherwise get. I know this because I was such a student. I get frustrated because a lot of contest appear to be rigged so I started my own. Thank you for your article!

  • Mr. Post

    I am not really sure what “advocacy” for the art department ever means. I know administrators love awards as that gives them one more thing to brag about in school publications. No matter how much advocacy my art department does it does not translate into more money for the art department.

    Every classroom in my school district got new high tech projectors so teachers could show their computer on the dry erase boards – every classroom that is except the art rooms.

    I use my classroom TV for every class, every day all year long to show art visuals and somehow the district overlooked us when it came to giving out the one piece of technology I really could have used.

    Our art department holds a district-wide art show, hosts a special Arts event with a live auction of teacher art work and student art – but even with all of this “advocacy” my art budget for the year is $320 at a school of 500 kids. Contest winners and the Scholastics awards recipients are often highlighted in my district’s online publications but this does not translate into monetary support for the art department. …and that’s what I need the most from my school district – monetary support for my program.

    • Jessica Blumer

      Ugh, that’s rough! I am completely dependent on my Promethean Board in the art classroom. I would be lost without it while there are some teachers who barely use them.

      I can relate with the small budget. PTO is my life raft.

      • Mr. Post

        I am completely dependent on my Square1 Art fundraiser for art supplies. My fundraiser through them pays for all of my clay and some of my paints. You do what you have to do as an art teacher to make your program work.

    • Jodi Youngman

      I totally recommend trying Artsonia! It not only advocates and gives kids of feedback from people outside of school but also is a fundraiser. I’ve gotten two iPads in one year from the funds I raised just from Artsonia.

    • Watson

      Awards and publicity can give you leverage to advocate for your budget, but they don’t solve the problem. I was in a similar situation to what you describe. Then my students started to win awards, then they started to win bigger awards, then they started to get full art scholarships to Yale, RISD, MICA, SCAD, and Cal Arts.
      In my low income school, it was very easy for me to argue the good that my program was doing with these results. I told my Principal that I could do better with a projector, laptop cart, and 10 DSLRs. Over the next few years she made it happen. And, I did do better almost all of my students that go into the arts or art related careers get hefty scholarships now, and my Principal has given me a much better budget. Last month we even got a 3D printer.

  • Laura Grundler

    This is so timely! It’s that season. We just discussed this topic on our PLN Twitter chat #pisdartchat and this weeks theme is Visual Arts Advocacy. Join us #pisdartchat Thursday nights 8:30 pm cst

  • Jodi Youngman

    I teach elementary, so I participate in our regional and state YAM shows and have an in-house art show at both of my schools. We also do Artsonia and have a community exhibit in honor of Earth Week every year. The only CONTEST type thing I do is the Celebrating Art publication, but I don’t tell the kids I entered them, I just wait for the winners to get their permission postcard and get excited!

  • Tim Bogatz

    The conclusion is spot-on. My students LOVE contests that benefit them and showcase work they’ve already completed. They HATE wasting time chasing contest requirements. Their interest drives the choice of which shows we enter. Well said, Ian.

  • Matthew Martinez

    My students participate in our annual district art show that our local art association sponsors. It is required by all my students to submit an entry, but not all of them are accepted. I am okay with those that are not accepted because they give me a legitimate reason why they were not accepted (copyright, etc.)

    It was not really a contest but my students were asked one year to design the patch for newly created county EMS service with the chosen student’s design would be their patch for the year. One of my students “won” but they changed their mine about having it as their patch design because it was too amatuerish. I told one of them that these are (high school) students and not professionals. Why have the contest in the first place?

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