what being a juror taught me about juried shows

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:


It was probably a great experience as an artist to wear a juror’s shoes. I’ve heard similar stories from friend’s who’ve juried shows and a former prof who did the same.

I imagine it would be a bit like sitting on a jury for a trial – coming to a consensus would wear you down.

Daniel, I also had a “juried show altering” experience as a juror. I was on a jury panel for another state’s grants for drawing/printmaking, and went back to the same state later to jury a large exhibit as an individual – the art was already there. So, two very different experiences.

Both times the works that were eventually ranked the highest stood out pretty quickly, but both times some very good work was not included/awarded a prize simply because it did not “fit” with the rest of the show.

My choices in the second show were clearly the strongest works, but one of the staff persons disagreed with me so intensely, I was glad other people were there to witness the ones I had chosen (otherwise I’m pretty sure she would have changed the result).

So, I definitely made my own rules about juried shows and frankly, I have hardly submitted to one since. Most of them are income-producers for the institution, and are full, mostly, of grad students padding their resumes until they get a college teaching job, then once their jobs are secure you rarely if ever see those names in the catalogs again.

interesting post dan, good to get an idea of the other side of a juried show.
i have to ask, what are you intentions for your career? what would it look like for you if you ‘made it’?

Paula, it’s pretty simple: my goal from my career is to make a living from being creative. Simple as that.

This was a hard post to write because I didn’t want to come across simply as being negative about competitions or jurors. There are some wonderful ones out there. I just wanted to describe the difficult (impossible?) job jurors have, and how that impacts how I enter competitions.

Dan, great post yet again.

I too had the horror, I mean honor of being a judge on a rather large grant project. After all was said and done, if I had known what I was in for, I would have politely bowed out. It was a very difficult process.

But like you said, it really does help to know how these things work when you’re on the receiving end of a rejection letter. Knowing what we know, we can just let some stuff roll off our backs.

Thanks for the view from the “other side”. As a fiber artist, I have always resented not having my art selected for juried shows. Now at least I have the understanding that my work may have not been selected because the jurors had not idea how to “rate” it against painting, sculpture and photography.

I’ll try to avoid those shows that are “open” to all media and concentrate on those that focus on fiber art or craft.

Yes, Kim, context is everything! I have found that even though I am a photographer, my art doesn’t do well in most photography contest because my style is so different from what is popular. I often find better luck in competitions that are open to all media, but that are focused by theme or style.

The same thing happens with socializing with other artists. I usually find I have more in common with painters than photographers, because our approach to our art is more similar.

Dan- Yes! Your work is very painterly work. I can see how you find yourself talking to painters alot.

Just curious, do you ever find yourself in a situation where you are surrounded by photographers who are more focused on the technical aspects of photographic work?

I know you’re a total tech junkie too :)~, but how do you keep a balance?

Kesha, I find myself in that situation all the time! You can’t get a group of photographers together without tech talk. While I like it in moderation, it can be an overload. I stopped attending a local photography group because I didn’t want to spend my evenings comparing cameras or arguing about the latest software!

Interesting insight. Some of my personals issues with the judging also stem from a simple thing. There is no information on the judge or judges. At least if I know and see the work of the people, then it makes it easier to understand. I’ve looked over the other work and my entry is of a par with the Silvers there (as no Golds were awarded). Such is the joy of competition (did I say joy?).

I have judged and yes it’s not really an honour!
Thanks for the post.

True Sean. I think I am now adhering to two rules for any competition I enter. First, I need to be able to see who the jurors are, and see from their own work if I respect their opinion. If they are a photographer, are they known for the style they are supposed to be judging? Do I think their work in that style is any good? If they are a gallerist, do they show what I consider to be quality work?

Second, I need to be able to see who has won the competition in the past, and see if I respect the winners. I’ve looked at some competitions that sounded interesting, but when I saw who won before, I realized that my work would never fit into their idea of a “winner”. It’s all about finding competitions where I’d be proud to be selected.

Hi Daniel,

I found this post to be interesting generally but also pertinent to the fact that I’ve promised to jury a large international show coming up through an artist’s showcase website.

I already felt overwhelmed before I read this post, and I know it will be a feat of endurance. I can only hope that it will end up being smaller than anticipated, so we can retain some rational criteria and judgement in reviewing the works.

Thanks for the post and links!