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Poster contests: in the students' best interest?

In the Students' Best Interest?

Each year, numerous corporations, government agencies, private non-profit groups and international organizations sponsor unsupervised poster contests in which tens of thousands of American youths, from kindergarten through college, participate. Art educators witness firsthand the down side of these poster contests, and not surprisingly, many have come to distrust and resent the insensitive, exploitative sponsor-driven approach.

What is a Poster Contest?

Poster contests can be local, regional or national and usually focus on specific issues, such as wildlife preservation, literacy, disarmament, ecology or drunk driving. Although all these groups are well intentioned, their contests, with rare exceptions, squander a unique opportunity to expand the social and creative skills of all participants.

The "best" posters are usually picked by a panel of anonymous "experts" and prizes are then awarded to the "winners." All other participants are left frustrated and in the dark about who won and why.

Where They Go Wrong

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a contest is: "1. A struggle for superiority or victory between rivals. 2. A competition, especially one in which entrants perform separately and are rated by judges."

Struggle, superiority, victory, rivals and competition are not terms we should be using to teach visual communications skills. Yet sponsors continue to underwrite poster contests using outdated methods that are considered counterproductive, and even harmful, by many art educators and parents. Many poster contests originate because sponsors assume they are efficient, cost effective vehicles for focusing student attentions on a particular social or political issue, and because poster contests often have a high public-relations payoff.

Most sponsor-driven poster contests are designed and administered as though the creation of an effective poster is a competitive game. This approach misses the educational point entirely, which is: the creative process is vastly more important than the sponsor's need for a product.

Dr. Kent Anderson touched on this issue in his editorial in the December 1991 issue of Schoolarts magazine. He describes one young artist's bewilderment, hurt pride, and refusal to participate in any future art project - all as a result of a poster contest sponsors' misleading brochure and flippant attitude toward the feelings and needs of young artists. Unfortunately, the scenario described by Dr. Anderson happens all too frequently.

The potential to damage young artists' self-esteem is another reason many art educators are uneasy with sponsor-driven contests. Because poster contests are completely unregulated and often appear with little advance notice, it is difficult to evaluate or change them systematically. Indeed, even professional education associations seem stymied. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Advisory List of Contests and Activities 1991-92 states that "the Committee is ... deeply concerned about general art poster contests sponsored by organizations other than art groups. Since there has been increasing concern on the part of art teachers that art contests were being used to promote an idea or viewpoint rather than art, the Committee is no longer adding art contests except those sponsored by art groups to the list." The NASSP list provides a great deal of information about contests in general, however, its only reference to the problem of sponser-driven poster contests is to state that "Unsupervised essay and poster contests will not be listed." A less passive position would benefit concerned administrators, art educators, parents and students, and would also benefit the sponsors of future poster contests.

The position of the National Art Education Association is equally passive: "The NAEA does not endorse any contest of competition in art ... It is the position of this Association that the nature and purposes of contests are often incompatible with the goals and objectives of art education and therefore careful consideration and evaluation of each competition should be made by the individual instructor." This policy statement goes on to list six elements of an undesirable contest that are so broad as to allow any clever poster contest sponsor to claim legitimacy. It would have been much more helpful if the NAEA delineated the specific nature and purposes of exploitative poster contests and articulated an acceptable working solution.

Both the NASSP and the NAEA seem to think that by withholding endorsements, undesirable contests will disappear. This is unlikely. Therefore, a central question remains: What is it, precisely, that troubles art educators, parents and others about many unsupervised, sponsor-driven poster contests? Two recurrent criticisms emerge: (1) Poster contests, for the reasons stated above, contain the potential to alienate young artists from the joys of creative expression, and; (2) Gifted students, art majors, design and communications majors as well as those in other specializations all have an undeniable advantage going into a poster contest. To be genuinely fair and educational, a poster contest must be committed to discovering and developing latent talent. To do this, the educational process must define posters as visual communication devices, and teach basic visual communications skills within the context of the poster contest. It is unfair at best, and art mis-education at worst, to ask unitiated teens to "do a poster" as though there were no specialized skills, knowledge or need for guideance involved.

Making Things Right

In 1990 and 1991, Liberation Graphics received requests from the VVAF (Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation) and the Mid-Atlantic regional office of Amnesty International to design and administer school-based poster programs on their behalf. Both sponsors were aware that many art educators had reservations about poster contests as currently implemented, and they wanted to develop an alternative approach.

One object of their poster program was to develop an ethical methodology based on student needs instead of bureaucratic convenience or corporate public relations objectives.

To begin, the printed promotional materials of more than thirty current or recent school-based poster contests were researched and analyzed. Contest sponsors, art educators and young artists who had recently participated in poster contests were interviewed. It became apparent that a few sponsors, most notably the AAA (American Automobile Association), operates its contest out of a deepened genuine commitment to art education. The AAA has the longest running school-based poster art program in the country, and uses student art in many of its publications. Every clement of the Amnesty and VVAF programs was held to a single, inflexible criterion: Does it serve the educational and expressive needs of young artists? The challenge was to design a poster contest that taught visual communication skills and promoted participation and a sense of ownership on the part of all the artists involved.

The word "contest" was the first thing to go. It is fraught with risk and a likelihood of failure. It also instigates pressures to be first and to win. "Call for posters" was substituted - the same term used in academic and professional circles when original works are being sought. It connotes an invitation among equals, not a test. To take part or not is the artist's decision.

Next, rules were recast as guidelines and written in a way that opened up possibilities rather than controled creativity. These guidelines focused exclusively on two fundamental principles: inclusion and empowerment.


* The calls for posters were open to all interested age-qualified artists including those not enrolled in a formal school setting.

* The VVAF call for posters featured captions in English and Vietnamese, and all Amnesty materials were printed in both English and Spanish.

* Both brochures were written in easy-to-read language in a comic-book format, and shipped in bulk to interested schools, community centers, etc.

* The brochures were designed to be easily photocopied and included design tips, quotes from famous poster artists, examples of effective posters, background information on the issue a caption blank, a mailing label and a list of resources.


* A request for feedback encouraged all participants, parents and educators to comment on any aspect of the call. Judges included recognized poster specialists with experience in art and education. The judging standards were openly stated in advance and at least one (non-participating) art student was included as a judge in the Amnesty call for posters.

* Each artist was encouraged to prepare the caption which was permanently affixed to the back of the posters. Captioning allows an artist to share the meaning of the work and how he or she hopes to affect the issue at hand.

A Word on Theme

Since a call for posters seeks to involve as many students as possible, it should not dictate a single spin on a theme. The Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) contest only accepted posters that "illustrate the joy of reading." For many young people, reading is a struggle, not a joy. Is that a valid reason to disqualify them? A better approach would be to call for posters that "show how you feel about reading." This leaves the content and thrust of the poster in the artist's hands, where it belongs.

Another inclusionary approach is to offer an open theme category where artists submit posters on any related subject. This provides creative feedback for the sponsor's future efforts, while it also increases the diversity of perspectives.

Telling Good from Bad

There are many technical aspects that make up an effective and fair call for posters - too many to list here in detail. However, art educators can get some idea whether their students are entering a sponsor-driven poster contest or an artist-centered call for posters by scrutinizing promotional materials to see how they address the following elements.

A student/artist-centered program: * differentiates between age and skill levels with respect to language and themes, and offers each level appropriate challenges, opportunities and rewards. * encourages artists to focus on important issues rather than garnering a prize. It encourages artists to work cooperatively, sharing ideas and credit. (In the real world, posters are often collaborative efforts between several artists, an art director, clients, printers, etc.) * recognizes excellence in two separate areas: technique and concept. A poster differs from a work of fine art in that it is a communication device which combines graphics and text for social or political effect. A poster can-have an exquisite graphic, yet miss the mark because the concept is weak; or a poster can have a very mediocre image and be effective because the underlying idea is strong.

By creating an award category for concepts as well as graphics, a sponsor increases the appeal of the call, and creates additional opportunities for young artists with different strengths to work cooperatively. Depending on the theme, it may also offer opportunities for artists to integrate class assignments. Effective graphic communication often requires some in-depth research into the issue, its history and its symbols.

This approach can be used to integrate poster themes and class work such as: AIDS awareness with health/hygiene; prejudice awareness with social studies; disarmament with political science and environmental issues with geography and earth studies. * allows at least one full semester for the completion of the poster, and should be offered on an annual or biannual basis, thereby allowing young artists to art educators well in advance, allows them the opportunity to incorporate the call for posters into planned learning activities. * displays all submitted posters at least once. The artists should have a chance to see their work displayed where their family and friends can see it. Preferably, posters are displayed locally - school lunchrooms and corridors-before being submitted. Student poster displays create an excellent backdrop for debates and discussions about theme issues.

Local art galleries, libraries, museums and other public spaces are often eager to host local student art exhibits. For national or regional programs, sponsors can often access public space at no cost.

As a resource for art educators and students, both the VVAF and Amnesty have funded a slide show depicting fifty posters that will be available on a loan basis prior to the next call for posters. * presents a range of awards that encourage further development of creative, expressive skills. Preferred alternatives to cash prizes include scholarships, bonds, gift certificates for graphic supplies, school awards (the school receives art books for their libraries, graphic supplies for their art classes, subscriptions to art magazines, etc.), and all-expenses paid trips to art conferences or national theme-related conferences.

Recognition and Reward

The VVAF and Amnesty calls for posters recognized, individually, the effort of each and every artist who submitted a poster. This was done creatively and inexpensively by reproducing several selected poster entries as full-color 5 x 7" greeting cards and mailing a set of twelve with envelopes to all participants. The cost is competitive with that of the standard certificates of appreciation, and has the advantage of allowing participants to see the work of other artists who submitted posters on the same theme.

Other ways of rewarding participation include inviting artists to help develop the next year's brochure, incorporating selected posters in subsequent brochures or preparing a video wherein participants discuss the poster-producing process for the benefit of other young artists.

The awards process is admittedly a complex one. However, a committed sponsor can multiply the number and kind of awards that are given to include an ever wider number of participants. For example, sponsors can give twenty or more "top category" awards, simultaneously, neutralizing the competitive nature of a contest and recognizing the work of many more artists.

Awards can be presented for the "most improved" work and the judging can also be demystified by having the judges prepare captions explaining the reasons for their choices. Non-competing artists - perhaps finalists from the previous year's call for posters - can be included in the judging panel.

Getting the Message

Poster contests have been around a long time, and by all indications, there are going to be more of them in the future. Reasonable people can disagree over such issues as whether or not contests should be restricted to art classes and schools or even what an "arts group" is. What is not arguable, however, is that sponsors of unsupervised poster contests have to get the message that there are much better ways of doing it. Art educators must speak up and demand fundamental changes in the way unsupervised poster contests are administered. They must take a more vocal, visible position and delineate the approaches they will support and those they will oppose.

Bertolt Brecht said "Art is not a mirror held up to reality but rather a hammer with which to shape it. Art educators must be encouraged to critique the motivations and practices of poster contest sponsors and demand that they design and administer their programs solely to accommodate the aspirations and empowerment of young artists.

Dan Walsh is the Art Director at Liberation Graphics in Alexandria, Virginia.
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Author:Walsh, Dan
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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