Why on Earth Put on a Physical Show in 2021?! 

It was actually a tough call with the pandemic as it was, and we're still not sure of disruptions come the date. Yet a physical show was always so much part of Refresh that I didn't think there was a good enough excuse to go totally online. We already had this big digital side of the project and I felt that pushing the date back a little within the year was enough to be able to organise something, come what may. It wouldn't have been the same without it. 

Untitled, Ruth Davis
Untitled, Ruth Davis

Who are you Anyway? 

I started Refresh in 2017 with fellow artist Georgina Talfana, whom I know from studying at UAL. Since 2020 Georgina has concentrated on other projects, but I decided to keep Refresh going with help from a few other people. I'm the current director, and am mainly responsible for direction and curation this time round, leaving a lot of the judging and marketing responsibilities to other people in the exceptionally tiny team I have put together. 

Why do you Charge for Entry When Artists are Struggling?

I wanted to answer this question because it's an emotive topic at the moment, especially when the basic income of many in the arts has been decimated by the pandemic and a luke warm government response to this in the UK. 

I also noticed that the Artist's Union England have been talking about this recently, and campaigning for an end to this practice in the arts. 

The short answer to the above is that this is how the award is funded. Charging £10 for entry raises the funds for the prize money, pays for any staff and gallery hire in London, website and online gallery hosting, advertising etc... Hosting an art award is a HUGE expense and not the money-spinner people think it is. The funding model we went for is to raise the costs via what we felt was a reasonable entry fee that would be affordable for many. 

We're fully independent and that means we don't get any money from anywhere else. Without the entry fees, the whole project would not go ahead. At the moment, as the founder I work for free on the award and put in hundreds of voluntary hours. In principle if the award got bigger, I wouldn't be averse to paying myself for my work from the funds but you can see the number of entries we get and do the maths, and realise I'm a long way off from being able to pay myself anything. In the meantime I love curation and art, have a permanent job as an academic, so feel I get other benefits from this. 

Of course there are other funding models, and it would be interesting to know how the people who call for this practice to be abandoned completely would propose funding independent shows. Having curated a few things, I have done open calls that are free to enter, where the final show is funded by a reasonable hanging fee. This works best with shows that are less expensive to put on as it would never cover a prize. The reality of this is that of course you are effectively charging artists to show their work, and may have a high drop-out rate, leaving the project financially unstable. Still, it does work for some circumstances. 

Another popular method is sponsorship. At the moment we have a hideously underfunded arts sector, so the reality of getting state funding for these things is slim, and ditto for large charities / institutions etc. So you might go with brands but we never wanted Refresh to be someone's advertising platform. For a start, being independent really allows us to pick the work we want to, and not something that will please a commercial sponsor or brand.  

On the whole, of course I want more state funding for the arts, but am also a believer in mixed economies. Otherwise it's so easy for small, independent or unfashionable voices to get shut out in exactly the same way they can if sponsored entirely by the private sector. One giant interest controlling who sees art can't be democratic or inclusive, whether that interest's seat of power is the unbridled free-market economy or the state. On balance I do still think there's a place for the £10 entry, if not the £35+ entry, which does seem to be inaccessible. £10 allows us to be independent and still put a show on that's a bit different. To balance it out, Georgina and I set up something that gives a bit more value than just the entry as we show and promote all entries. We felt that was okay for £10. 

What do you think about this debate? I have an opinion but am open minded about this, so would love to hear other people's thoughts or good ideas for other funding models. 


What's Different About This Competition? 

As artists, when we set this up we wanted this to be better value for entrants. Personally, as an artist, I don't really mind paying for the odd competition entry, but am also aware that the chances of winning the top prize, or any prize, can't be that high. These things have so many entries and then you're competing against everyone else in the particular cohort as well as curating decisions and personal preferences of judges. It isn't fair and it can't really be made to be 'fair.' However, it could be a little more transparent and better value. 

So this is what we did: 


  • Have an online gallery where ALL ENTRIES go, so they get promoted throughout the show and people also get to choose their own favourites, follow the artists they like and make up their own fantasy shortlists.


  • We also promoted all the entrants across social media.


  • Artists shortlisted for the show did not have to have work framed, which can be a prohibitive cost. 

  • We had work for sale throughout the first award but did not take commission. 

  • We also did ad hoc interviews with artists on our site that we will be continuing throughout this award. 


What's new for 2021? 


Moving on from this I wanted to develop things further. 


  • A print catalogue, with shortlisted artists having main entries, and a directory for everyone else at the back. Digital archives are great but do we ever really remember anything, or is it all eventually swallowed by the plethora of constant content?

  • This time, we'll keep re-curating our online exhibition until December 2022. We hope this will give even more value to entrants who have their work promoted for 18 months, and having a strong online gallery website also builds on a reliance on only social media with its vagueries.

If You've Got Any Other Ideas For Things You'd Like To See Us Do Then You Are Welcome to Get In Touch Here Or On Social Media - remember we're a tiny team so might not get back to you instantly but will try to respond soon. 


A little trivia... Artist Helen Ridgeway (below) has been working on ideas surrounding vaccine disinformation and the spread of contagious viruses for several years, and not just since the current pandemic. Seems her ceramics work had great foresight... 

How do you Choose Anyone - all the Entries Look Good...?

It's been very difficult and in August the choosing isn't over yet. When we started this, Georgina and I wanted judges, but despite having both worked in the arts for a long time, we were both nobodies and very few people of consequence were interested in working on an art show that was bound to fail. 

We were really sure that we wanted to be ethical with our award, so even budgeted to pay people, which apparently isn't necessary... (fyi I still pay everyone who does any work on Refresh and don't hire 'interns' or students for experience as is common practice). 

In the end we felt some ownership over the whole project, and being tired of rejections decided to do all the curating and judging ourselves. We were very glad in the end because we put on a really great show.

This time round, I knew I didn't want to do too much judging myself, because it's been a huge job running it all by myself in a pandemic anyway, but also because I recognised work from some of the artists who applied again and I wanted the judging to be fresh, different and without too many of my own biases. 

So I enlisted the help of Mr Marcus Woodcock, an artist/collector I have known and admired for over a decade. I knew we could work well together and also that he would have mostly very different responses to me when looking at the work. He has a different background and interest to me, as well as a vast knowledge of the contemporary art world I can only admire from afar. After the first meeting I knew I had made the right decision and that this is going to be a really different show to the last one. 

If Refresh continues after 2021, I'd really like each of the shows to be completely different, reflecting the feel of the times as well as each individual cohort. Enlisting someone else to judge has helped on the road to this and I am excited for the results, even if it is personally hard to step back a bit.  

Anyone Else you Want to Thank at the Moment? 

Erm well there are a very few family and friends who have done some free skivvying for this... so thank you to them.

Technicians et all who will put up the show... 

Hannah Harding has been the main driver of marketing and other work for Refresh, as my freelance assistant. She also works on other projects I run and is so efficient that she has largely made me superfluous to my own life. I'm extremely grateful for all her hard work and encouragement to date and am looking forward to her getting involved in the latter stages of the curation.  

Curator Space and Zealous also deserve a mention. They are more than listings sites because they offer complete and affordable resources for indie curators as well as artists. As well as offering a good service, they're both run by lovely and helpful people and I can't recommend them enough. 

Thank you to anyone who has entered, shared or liked us on social media or supported any of our artists. You have made this happen. (Again). 

What's the Best Thing About Running an Art Award? 

Lots of things and I would probably say seeing all the work and being inspired by it off the top of my head. It was certainly a really exciting 6  months seeing it all come in and also investigating all the artist responses to our current world. This was always supposed to be a snapshot of what's going on at a particular time and it's exciting to see that. 

From last time though, seeing the show was probably my highlight. It was a great sense of achievement seeing it actually all put up.

Refresh Art Award Show on 4th - 8th of November 2021. AMP Gallery, Peckham. 
Private view 4th November. 
Opening hours TBC.

Highly Contageous - Helen Ridgeway