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 Yet sponsors continue to underwrite poster contests using outdated methods that are considered counterproductive, and even harmful, by many art educators and parents.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 . …