what being a juror taught me about juried shows

February 02, 2008  in  Art as a profession       Related posts:  

I usually use the slow winter months as a chance to send my art into juried shows and competitions. I used to send my work out quite a bit, but I’ve found that I’ve gotten more and more selective. It could be that I’m just tired of not winning (what, another show that doesn’t like weird abstracts of dead plants?). But it’s mainly because I am being more demanding about what the show can offer me. I look for shows that give me a chance to meet like-minded people — jurors, collectors, and other artists. I want shows that can help me further my career in tangible ways, instead of just padding my resume.

Conventional wisdom says that an artist should apply to as many shows as possible, so that you can add them to your resume. Many equate the number of shows on your resume with your credibility as an artist. But whenever I enter a competition, I am reminded of the time I had the opportunity to be a juror. I discovered that the process of choosing winners for a show had only a little to do with talent, and had more to do with how the artist fits into the ever-evolving desires of the show.

When I was creative director at Yahoo!, I was given had the honor to be a judge on a well-respected design competition. I quickly learned that while being a judge is an honor, it’s also a bit of a curse. There were six of us locked in a hotel room for three days, trying to critically evaluate thousands of entries. It is literally a physical challenge: your eyes blur, your fingers get covered with papercuts, and colds get swapped around the room. You start with the best intentions to find the best work, but after 100, 200, 500 pieces…. oh man, they all start to blur together. You *have* to get rid of 99% of the work, so you do, in any way you can. Sure, you toss out the obvious losers, and then you work through the pretty-goods. But that still leaves you with a huge body of good solid work. Since you can’t differentiate this work by its quality, you begin to judge it on how easily it helps you get the job done. Around day 2, we began to find artistic patterns within the applications: similar themes and styles. Without consciously realizing it, we found ourselves beginning to rate people against that pattern. How well did an applicant do compared to the others who created similar work? Those that did something different often got left aside, not because the work wasn’t good, but because it was harder to evaluate. How do you compare the quality between two artists who have completely different styles?

In the end, it wasn’t a matter of which work was the best — it was a matter of which work survived the process. I can’t say that every show is like this, but I have to assume many are similar. Art competitions may create winners, but they don’t necessarily reward quality or generate credibility. The credibility comes from the context of the competition: who did you compete against, who will see your work, and how this exposure will help you build new relationships. In those relationships comes the credibility and, hopefully, the success. I’ll continue to apply to shows. But I’m going to continue to be critical about which ones are worth the time.

Some others have been blogging about shows lately as well: