Conflicts of Interest in the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest

So whatever gave you the idea I'd eat you and sell your eggs through my produce company?

Don’t you trust us?


I am starting this post with a premise. Either the organizers and sponsors of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest know absolutely nothing about how to run an art contest, or they have chosen to deliberately disregard established safeguards and universally accepted standards and practices.

I continue to be surprised by how many of Orbit Trap’s antagonists seem to believe that Tim and I are just making up contest regulations out of whole cloth, or are trying to impose our own eccentric guidelines on the beleaguered BMFAC. Take, for example, this recent remark by Ken Childress on his blog (find link via Google):

I didn’t really object to anyone on the panel having images included in the exhibition. Yes, this event is a contest. No, it’s not the kind of contest OT wants to lead everyone to believe must be run.

But it’s not just OT who believes that art competitions should be run using established and agreed upon protocols; it’s nearly everyone else — ranging from federal/state/college art associations to international symposiums on ethics in fine arts and cultural activities. I’m afraid it’s BMFAC’s director and sponsors who either don’t know about instituting methods to shield art contests from abuses, or they have intentionally not implemented such safeguards in order to not be bound by them.

The BMFAC director, in an exchange last week on the Fractint Mailing List, said my previous OT post was “written by someone who knows next to nothing about the contest.” Actually, I’m very familiar with contests in quite a few artistic genres. I served for six years as an Associate Dean in a College of Fine Arts in a moderately-sized (13,000 students) public university. Part of my job responsibilities included overseeing an artists in residence program and competitions in the disciplines of music, theater, film, creative writing, and visual art. One of the first things the college dean insisted I do was to draft conflict of interest policies for the competitions. So, I did some research — research the BMFAC organizers and sponsors either never bothered to do, or, more likely, don’t want any of you to do. Here’s what I found.

From the College Art Association’s “Statement of Conflict of Interest”:

A conflict of interest arises when an individual’s personal interest or bias compromises his or her ability to act in accordance with professional or public obligations. In situations where no public scrutiny or oversight is possible, the risk of a conflict of interest increases.

One way to understand a conflict of interest is to describe the situation as a conflict of roles. A person having two roles — like someone who sells commercial software and who is also judging an art contest that includes submissions made with that same software — may experience situations where his two roles conflict. The conflict can be denied or possibly extenuated, but it nonetheless exists. Playing two roles is not necessarily wrong, but the contrasting roles definitely provide an increased incentive for inappropriate acts in some circumstances.

Furthermore, the idea that BMFAC has any public scrutiny or oversight is laughable. The organizers have been consistently secretive, even to the point that the 2007 BMFAC site contains no information at all about the 2007 exhibition — no announcement, no location, no dates, no photographs, no reviews, no nothing. It took Orbit Trap seven months to discover whether the exhibition had even taken place.

One would have to be blindfolded on a deserted island not to see that BMFAC has a discernable and overriding bias. Over its three years, the majority of the judges have been UF users, teachers, web hosts, code writers, and advocates. The majority of the winning entries shown in the two previous exhibitions were made with UF. The judges’ back-door submissions to the previous two exhibitions — almost without exception — were made with UF. The majority of alternates and honorable mentions were awarded to UF users. Several current or past students, enrolled in UF classes taught by two BMFAC judges, won or placed in previous competitions. The enormous file sizes required to enter the contest heavily favor UF, the most easily scalable software — even to the point where some non-UF using fractal artists cannot render images large enough to participate in this contest designed to showcase, as the 2009 BMFAC rules page states, “art that represents our art form.”

And, in case anyone still has the slightest doubt about what kind of fractal art this competition privileges, this year one of the judges is the author and owner of Ultra Fractal. So, if what I’ve outlined hasn’t convinced you of BMFAC’s overt UF bias yet, maybe you need to back up and re-read Tim’s last post.

Barbara T. Hoffman, in a chapter entitled “Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts,” which appears in the seminal book Ethics in the Visual Arts, cites the definition of conflict of interest used by the International Council of Museums “Code of Ethics for Museums.” It states a conflict of interest is:

The existence of a personal or private interest which gives rise to a clash of principle in a work situation, thus restricting, or having the appearance of restricting, the objectivity of decision making.

Responsible Conduct Research, based at Columbia University, provides the following account of what constitutes conflicts of interest:

A conflict of interest involves the abuse — actual, apparent, or potential — of the trust that people have in professionals. The simplest working definition states: A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity.

But the clearest and most detailed discussion about conflicts of interest in the arts comes from a comprehensive study done by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies. Their report is entitled “Conflict of Interest Policies in Arts and Culture Funding Agencies” (linked here in a .pdf file) and says:

Conflicts of interest arise when a person making a decision is faced with more than one interest against which to judge their best course of action. The conflict typically of most concern is that between a person’s personal interests and their professional interests.

[...]

Indeed, as many of the policies cited later in this report recognise, the mere perception that a conflict of interest might exist is enough to make such a conflict an issue for concern – whether or not it is ‘real’, or whether or not it tempts an individual to act inappropriately.

As you can see, there is an encompassing history of concern over the problem of conflict of interest in the area of the fine arts. This is not just a case of Tim and I wanting to impose “our way” of running contests or of Orbit Trap promoting “conspiracy theories,” as one of this year’s BMFAC judges said recently on the Ultra Fractal Mailing List.

In fact, it does not matter whether you and I think the BMFAC judges are honest and would never act inappropriately. What matters is the recognition that a conflict of interest exists. That perception alone is enough to contaminate BMFAC’s integrity and erode public trust.

The IFACCA survey goes on to say that conflicts of interest become especially troublesome when “people in the arts who are appointed to decision-making bodies” (like judges of an art contest) might gain financially or personally from rendering services and notes that

An obvious type of gain is financial, but other types of gain are equally relevant, such as the ability to gain prestige, wield power or advance a career.

Financial conflicts of interest permeate BMFAC’s selection panel. Two of the judges are authors and owners of commercial software, Ultra Fractal and Xenodream. It is inevitable that the competition will have entries made with these software programs. If entries created with both programs do well, it is reasonable to assume that both authors stand to benefit financially. Whether the authors make a pittance or a fortune is irrelevant because what matters here is the principle. Even if the two author-judges were to miraculously make no money, conflicts of interest, as we’ve seen above, are often about the mere appearance of impropriety. Therefore, I repeat the charge I made in my last post: the two judges who are authors of commercial software should immediately resign.

Another financial conflict of interest is self-evident. Two of the BMFAC judges are or have been on the faculty of the Visual Arts Academy where they are paid (by charging fees) to teach courses in the use of Ultra Fractal. Again, if entries made with UF win, it stands to reason that one or both instructors stand to benefit financially. Even in the unlikely event that enrollment doesn’t rise should UF submissions make another near-sweep of the exhibition, the improper demeanor is enough to be a conflict of interest. These instructor-judges should also resign, or, at the very least, should not be teaching classes in any year when the contest is being held.

I hope you can also see why Orbit Trap protested so vehemently over the inclusion of work by BMFAC’s judges in the last two exhibitions. It was not because, as some of our adversaries claim, that we are bitter whiners who hold grudges and produce bad art — or similar invective tossed at us as a smokescreen for failing to directly address our arguments.

No, we were upset because including the judges’ work was a glaring conflict of interest resulting in personal gain for those individuals. Rather than simply paying the judges, either directly via the sponsors or by charging an entry fee, BMFAC’s director and sponsors gave them a free pass to display in the “contest” exhibition. This action resulted in each of them (follow along with me from the quote above) gaining prestige, wielding power, and advancing their careers — even to the degree where they could anoint their heads with crowns and write their own ad copy declaring themselves to be “the most important fractal artists in the world.”

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OT readers might find an ongoing dialogue I’ve been having about the contest with some locals over at the FractalForum of interest. Things really picked up when Garth Thornton, one of the two current judges who is an author of commercial software, showed up to address the conflict of interest issue. To date, Thornton is the only BMFAC judge to ever come forward and speak to OT’s allegations. You probably owe it to yourself to read the whole exchange, although you will have to join the forum to make comments.

This excerpt serves as the basis for what I said to him:

Your main points seem to be that you and Frederik [Slijkerman] are qualified to be judges because “we know the software’s weaknesses inside out,” any money made from selling software will be insignificant, and that including vendors as judges “will have a minor influence.” In short, although you admit that you might benefit financially, even if minimally, your claim is that your presence as a judge will have little overall effect, and that I should just trust you.

The way any competition earns trust is by being proactive and showing that it is aware of potential abuses by putting visible policies in place to keep any potential improprieties from occurring. These steps have become standard practice in art competitions. Any competition that deliberately foregoes such policies immediately arouses suspicion and appears less trustworthy.

And, for our more anxiety-inclined readers, this excerpt might make you excitable. It begins when Thornton says

I can confirm there is no form of remuneration for judging.

to which I say

I personally believe contest judges should be paid for their time and effort. One reason BMFAC is fishy is that it has no entry fee. Many artists, including me, generally despise such fees, but they are a necessary evil. Such fees are used to pay judges and screeners and to cover the administrative costs of running a contest (like publicity and printing images, for example.) Most significantly, entry fees do not create conflicts of interest; in fact, their presence makes abuses and inappropriate behavior less likely.

I do have a question, though. Could you clarify what you mean by “remuneration?” Are you saying BMFAC’s judges will receive no money? Or are you saying all of the judges receive no compensation at all — compensation like having their own art work included in the 2009 exhibition? I’ve already said on OT that I’m taking on good faith that no BMFAC judges will have work hanging in this year’s show. But some of OT’s more paranoid readers have written to me pointing out that the 2009 rules only say the judges are excluded from participating in “the contest.” Nothing whatsoever is said about the judges not being a part of this year’s exhibition.

Moreover, one of those nervous emailers wonders why Rick Spix is on the UF Mailing List saying things like

“As to having work in the shows, it seems like a good way to pay those folks for a good many hours spent doing the judging thing.”

when the issue is presumably dead and the general assumption from the posted rules is that the BMFAC judges will not be recompensed by displaying their own art in this year’s exhibition?

You could quell these rumors by stating categorically that no art by a BMFAC judge will be displayed this go around. Better yet, to be more convincing, the director should come forward and make a public statement clarifying this matter.

I am curious to see what Thornton will say in response. I do not expect the contest director will see fit to issue a proclamation.

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