Juried Shows for Artists, From the Inside Out

I was working in the basement when my wife came down the stairs with an envelope in her hand and a smile on her face. I had been waiting for notification from the jury of a national show I had entered months before. My wife was smiling because this envelope was fat, and we both knew what that meant. We were accustomed to the skinny envelopes and self-addressed return postcards announcing another rejection. This was my first national show acceptance, and I was thrilled to be crossing another threshold in my career. I could have practically papered the walls with my rejections up to that point. I remember often wondering what sort of alchemy I needed to conjure up in order to impress those mysterious exhibition jurors.

Many years have passed since then, and the tables have turned somewhat. I seldom enter juried shows anymore, but I am now occasionally asked to be the one to sit in judgment of those many hopeful artists who sacrifice so much in order to get their work onto the exhibition stage. Believe me, I have not forgotten what it was like to wait in anticipation for the juror’s reply, and I can still feel that sting of rejection. I wish I had known then what I know now.

Three Constants of Juried Competitions

There are several overriding considerations that are constant to juried shows and that everyone entering them would be well-advised to keep in focus. First, rejection is inevitable — you cannot take it personally! The same work of art that wins an award in one show may be rejected from the next — it is the nature of the process. You will win some and you will lose some, no matter how advanced you are in your career. Even if you are accepted 30 times in a row, chances are your day of rejection will come. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and enter the next show. You must not allow rejection to become debilitating. Sure, it’s discouraging, but try and toughen up if you find yourself flat on your keister after every rejection postcard arrives. Artists must learn to accept rejection without internalizing it.

Second is the law of averages. The more shows you enter, the more chances you have of acceptance. Be consistent. Don’t give up! I recently had one of my students tell me that he was no longer entering a certain show that could do him some good because he had been rejected from it two or three times previously. Wrong! If the show is worth entering to help you on your career path, then enter it. You may get in or you may not, but you surely will not if you have given up.

The third constant is to be sure that your visual documentation is first rate and accurately represents the work you are submitting. In the last two exhibitions I juried, I rejected works simply because the images were so poor that I could not be certain of what I was seeing and was unwilling to take a chance. Whether we like it or not, 35 mm slides are a thing of the past, so we have to buy the proper digital equipment and learn how to use it, or hire a professional to accurately document our work.

Also, be sure that your work shows well on a digital monitor. Except in local shows, most preliminary jurying is not done from original works; the digital representation is what’s important. Remember that a 10-inch work will appear the same size on a monitor as a work 10 feet across. Even when projected via a data projector, you cannot expect your work to look as it does in actuality. A small, delicate work may lose all of its subtlety. A large piece may lose all of the impact of scale. Some textures may be impossible to replicate. Be certain that what the juror sees looks good. Awards are normally judged from the actual accepted works after the show is hung, but your primary concern is to make it past those first rounds. The digital representation is the only chance you will have to make an impression.

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Professional Artist. Click here to download or purchase other archive issues.

Variables in the Process: The Jurors

The astute artist will find out as much about the juror as possible before entering a show. Having some insight can help you in selecting which of your pieces to submit.

Search the Web to see reproductions of the juror’s work (if the juror is an artist) and find things they have written. For example, reading this article could tell you something about my priorities if I were the juror of an exhibition you were considering entering. If the juror is a curator at the Whitney, you could reasonably expect an edgier show than one juried by the president of a watercolor or pastel society, but trying to second-guess a juror’s taste can be misleading. Don’t assume that because a juror is a realist he or she might not be sympathetic to abstraction. In fact, a juror could be harsher with works in his or her own genre or discipline due to greater familiarity. Simply learn what you can, and select your work accordingly.

It also helps to understand the juror’s job. Jurors are usually given certain guidelines and parameters to work within. The sponsoring organization may have a target number of works to fit the exhibition space, and this may greatly influence the juror’s decisions. After a juror selects his or her favorite work, if there is still space that needs to be filled, he or she may have to include pieces with which he or she is much less pleased. Conversely, a juror may be faced with eliminating work that he or she is enthusiastic about if the show needs to be cut further. Jurors have their own methods of working their way through the applicants. I prefer to begin by leisurely scrolling through the artwork several times as an art appreciator, simply to get a feel for what I have to work with, trying not to form too many conclusions.

I may be immediately impressed by some things and put off by others, but I intentionally avoid making any decisions or focusing on individual works at this point. Next, I go through the work again, this time referring to the accompanying list containing titles, sizes, etc. Artists’ names or other personal information should not be listed. I then begin removing the pieces that I do not believe are at the level of the best work presented. I start with those that are most obvious to me — any doubt and they stay in until the next round. I continue this process, cycling through the remaining works again and again. Each time it gets progressively more difficult to eliminate some. The question I ask myself is, “Am I making the show better, or only bigger, by including this piece?” This process can take many hours, depending on the number of entries. Eventually, I count the remaining work. If I am lucky, the number will be close to what the exhibition organizers are looking for.

Now we enter into the truly subjective. Although the look of a show is largely determined by the art that has been submitted, on some level it is also a reflection of its juror. Jurors inevitably bring their particular points of view and priorities to the process. I recently judged a watercolor society exhibition in another state. I rejected several exceptionally well-crafted watercolors. I found out later that some of these were done by previous award winners and respected society members. I accepted other watercolors that were obviously less technically competent. Why? I get tired of seeing the same subjects and techniques repeated over and again — like some page out of a generic “how-to” book. Although I admire good craftsmanship and a mastery of materials, a fresh and personal point of view is much more interesting to me. Another juror might have come at this show from an entirely different perspective.

Jurors learn as they go, too. I was initially most impressed with the abstract paintings submitted for this show, and I accepted many of them. When I juried the awards from the actual pieces, I noticed several of these abstract works employed similar techniques and motifs, including using identical stamps to create texture. I came to find out that many of these painters attended the same workshops and studied with the same teachers. I was much less impressed with these artists’ invention after seeing the work in person, and I imagine I will be a bit wiser next time.

Weighing the Pros and Cons for Each Show

There are numerous exhibition opportunities out there, so you need to be both informed and selective. The listings here in Professional Artist magazine are an extremely valuable resource, but you should follow each listing up with a little research. Weigh the costs versus benefits. Is the show sufficiently prestigious to warrant shipping your work halfway across the country? Will there be a catalog printed? Are there generous cash awards? Will the line on your resume truly enhance your professional credentials? Consider the potential advantages and disadvantages before you enter and be wary of dubious juried exhibitions hosted by vanity galleries. They may charge excessive fees and are often come-ons for solicitation. Listing these shows can have a negative impact when your resume is reviewed by a knowledgeable professional. Entering juried shows can be both frustrating and expensive, but it can also be an effective way of building your reputation. It just takes time, effort and persistence to gain momentum.

Insights from Seasoned Jurors

Katherine Chang Liu and Harold Gregor are well-established artists who have frequently served as exhibition jurors throughout their long careers. Between them they have judged more than one hundred shows, including many prestigious national competitions, as well as served as review panelists for granting organizations. Harold suggests that when multiple entries are allowed, artists should ensure that all of their entries are of equal quality. “Some artists submit one high-level work backed by a second weaker one. The lesser work in some cases confirms the weaknesses in the stronger effort.” Katherine agrees, adding, “When more than one entry is permissible, it is a good policy to show consistency in quality as well as in approach. A juried show is not where one shows versatility; entries that are too different in approach imply that the artist is still in the searching stage, leaving the impression of an artist who is not quite ready.”

Both Harold and Katherine feel that the quality of work in most national exhibitions is so high that technical proficiency is “a given.” This makes it challenging for entering artists to reach for something beyond virtuosity. Harold shies away from work that is obviously derivative of better-known artists, and he views clichéd subjects with skepticism unless the artist has “invested it with new life,” because “in either case artistic individuality, the assumed goal of every artist and an important factor in assessment, is not achieved.” Katherine echoes these sentiments: “The ‘reach’ of an artwork is the combination of the artist’s individuality, expressive ability, personal visual language, and a hard to define depth of content.”

Katherine suggests that artists who have had success in local and state level competitions should consider moving on to larger regional and national exhibitions in order to gain a wider audience, but she cautions that competitions may not be the best way for artists to measure their artistic growth:

“There are too many variables in a competitive show, and in some sense the juror can’t avoid comparing apples with oranges. The real measure is for the artist to compare his or her current work with that of previous years.”

Matthew Daub (www.matthewdaub.com) is a Professor of Fine Art at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. His watercolor paintings and drawings have been included in numerous invitational exhibitions at institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and most recently at the 185th Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at The National Academy of Design. Daub is also the director of ARTS SOJOURN (www.artssojourn.com) — an arts/travel company specializing in painting trips to Italy. He is represented by ACA galleries in New York City.

© PROFESSIONAL ARTIST MARCH 2011

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Professional Artist.

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