Juried Art Shows; One Perspective on "Fairness" and "Why Didn't I Get In"?

Art, like beauty, is subjective. Tastes differ and what we bring to a work of art as the viewer, such as our memories, ideas, personal experiences and emotions act as a filter and plays a huge role in how we perceive. These (deeply personal) filters subconsciously affect our preferences for one style and/or subject in art over another.

So, can someone objectively and fairly jury a show? Why does one work get first prize and another not even “make the cut”? From (this) jurors’ perspective, it helps when the gallery or organization coordinating the show has clear and yes, kind of narrow, parameters on subject matter, style (realistic, abstract, etc.) and medium (oil painting, pastel or watercolour; photography or sculpture).

In many large shows, one big problem I see is this: when we look at two different pieces of art, it is very difficult to compare and then choose which is the “better” when one work is a bold abstract sculpture and the other is a sensitive and highly realistic watercolour. They are different mediums, with different objectives and require vastly different technical skills. If we are going to try and be as fair and objective as possible, I believe we need better baselines for submission. It will help the artists submitting their work, the jurors and, it will help with the integrity of the show.

Let’s look at a common, real-life occurrence with many juried competitions: An organization has a call for entries; Beyond one or two rather broad parameters (e.g., work inspired by a geographic location and not to exceed a certain size) all kind of work is accepted for submission. Let’s say there are 180 entries and there is room for 60 to 70 works of art in the venue. First, that’s about a 30% acceptance rate, the odds are not in your favour! Next, submissions will range from abstract sculptures to Naïve art to hyperrealism and everything in between. Needless to say, there will be a very large range of technical skills amongst the entries. Guaranteed, with this setup, a lot of people are going to upset when their work is not selected, even though it’s “a great painting / sculpture / photograph” and is often the artists best work.

People try desperately to figure out why they didn’t get in; the realists are miffed because work they claim “their kid could do” won a prize; the more creative or abstract artists feel that their bold vision is being snubbed. I see the posts on social media from artists complaining about this All. The. Time. Jurors and show organizers are blamed, artists get mad (or at least, very passive aggressive), gossip beings as to “why this happened”. It’s simply not good, and quite honestly, that kind of behavior lowers the dignity the artist and the profession of art itself.

Yesterday, I served as juror for the Bethlehem Palette Club’s Spring show. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw all the work submitted was representational. No abstracts, no sculptures, fiber art, etc. Before me was simply a collection of representational paintings and drawings. This made deciding how to jury the show a snap.

The primary criteria was technical skill. It’s easy (and fair) to assess representational art this way. The juror can look at the work and objectively analyze and compare the art based on facts. What is the quality of draftsmanship? Is the perspective correct? Are mass tones (values of light and dark) well organized so they create a good composition and can the viewer easily identify the subject from many feet away? Examining proportions, the quality of line (yes, even in painting, there is quality of line!), lost and found edges, correct use of light, illusions of distance, depth and weight, all factored in. Technical analysis also included the artists’ handling and skill with the medium and overall professional presentation. Regardless of subject matter or personal style, this is an objective measure that made the initial selection process easy and fairer than a subjective standard such as creativity, visual impact or my own preferences. I also came back to this objective standard when “splitting hairs” was required to including a work or not, as well as when awarding prizes.

The second criteria were more subjective and there’s simply no getting around at least some subjectivity in being a juror. I was looking for a feeling of life and sensitivity to the subject. When I looked at a piece, did the feeling of life and energy (which could be “quiet” or more energetic) in the subject clearly, and honestly, come across?

The best analogy I can make for this is music. I’m sure we all heard one piece of music played by two different people. One person really puts their soul into the piece, and combined with great technical skill, it strikes you, you really experience the energy, life and emotion of the artist and the music. You can’t avoid it, it’s “there” and you react to it. The other person may hit all the right notes, but there’s something missing, you don’t feel anything - it’s just notes.

The final criteria were creativity and originality. Some may argue with me and say this should be higher on the list, but here’s my logic: first what is creativity? It’s being imaginative, bringing forth a new idea or interpreting something in a new way. Yes, It is important, in fact it is vital in the arts, but in this particular case, it was not the most important thing. If I were jurying other kinds of work, or another kind of show, I may put more emphasis on this element, but given the work submitted, it was not as important.

So here’s something to think about if you are disappointed in your acceptance or placing in any show. If it’s a “catch all” show as I described in the beginning of this blog post, please, just let it go! It’s far too difficult to understand the complexities, and how’s or whys of selection with such a broad range of mediums and styles. You tried, it didn’t work, move on to the next thing. And yes, there are absolutely times when the jurors are inexperienced, have an agenda or are “pulling favours” for someone. It happens and unfortunately, there’s not a single thing you can do about it. I’ve experienced it when I’ve entered shows; it really stinks and it feels unfair. My choice, when I found out about “nefarious” jurying practices was to think hard and think twice before I entered that show again.

However, go to the opening and look at all of the work in the show. See if you can find a theme to the work that was accepted, and what won prizes. Learn from the experience, maybe you entered the wrong kind of show for your work, (and sometimes yes, you just unwittingly enter a “bad” show) and maybe, you need to become a better artist. The latter is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s how we grow, by realizing we still have growth to do and skills to get better at. Ask yourself, “what can I learn from this?” Instead of asking questions or complaining to the show organizers, jurors, or worse, blasting negative comments on social media, be a good sport, and a professional, congratulate folks who got in and those who took home prizes; and then, go create some more art!

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