THE NUMINOUS AND THE KNIFE...CONFRONTING THE JURY PROCESS

by Gary John Gresl saganguy@aol.com

The college professor went “ballistic”. He menacingly picked up his work and stalked out of the museum, angrily declaring that he had not been rejected from a show in 22 years. This anger would boil within him for months to come, and he would likely not again risk being cut from a juried show.

Like so many others that day, he probably felt humiliated, dumbfounded, and deeply hurt. It was extremely difficult for him to accept the fact that his advanced and high quality art had been juried out of this exhibit. Because this elimination would also be a threat to his professional status and general reputation, this experience would probably only be discussed in confidential moments.

He was not in any mood to consider that this same jurying had eliminated more than 800 pieces of art, along with his work . There had been a large number entered, and there had to be a large number eliminated...that process of culling, that blind jurying, was of a nature that had to overlook artist professional achievement, status and history. The jurors could not worry much about the hurt that would be felt by those rejected. Because of the goals of the museum and jurors, in this case at least, the background and professional achievements of the artists could not weigh much as criteria for acceptance. The professor was in broadly mixed company, and among a huge number of those being juried out.

In another case some years ago, an individual artist threatened a law suit to an organization because that organization wanted to allow curators, dealers and art consultants to view all the slides of art work that had been entered into an exhibit, including those which had been juried out. This viewing had been hoped to open opportunities for professionals to view work which they might then use for their own exhibit and sale purposes. At first blush this seemed like a positive opportunity for the artists. However, the artist threatening the law suit believed that the recognition of rejection would besmirch a reputation. The fact that this artist was only one among hundreds that had been juried out did not lessen the potential humiliation and fear.

May it be sufficient and obvious to say that large numbers of artists have experienced similar rejection, resulting in some personal hurt. If one is willing and brave enough to submit to the jurying process, rejection will eventually be experienced by all. If one continues to attempt to get into these juried shows, then one must be resilient. If one is repeatedly juried out of such exhibits, then that resilience should manifest itself as other directions taken to get the work displayed.

THE INSTITUTIONS

Museums and public venues have their individual Missions. Most of these will include goals providing opportunities for the public to see quality art, and to provide opportunities for artists to show their work. But with the very large number of artists vying for the exposure, and with the small number of slots available to show work, there must be some process of selection.

Sometimes this selection process depends upon one or a few individuals who make these choices. Individual persons employed by the institutions can play important roles in both large and small venues, perhaps with a director or curator making all exhibition decisions. At least the very least these personalities play a very persuasive role in any selection process and by establishing the direction an institution might take. With these persons “in power”, we have the situation when artists speak about fears of offending the director/curator, and of the need to pay homage to them, and to kiss rings (or particular some body part). These museum and gallery professionals can guide the direction of exhibits one way or another, sometimes influencing the process for decades. Clearly these personalities can help or hinder reputations by offering or denying opportunities for artists to bolster their resumes. Benign neglect isn’t exactly a stab in the heart, but it is a necessary non-action that institutions must take when arranging their exhibit schedules.

The directions institutions take, with opportunities being created or eliminated, can certainly be seen in Wisconsin museum activities of the past 10 years, including the Milwaukee Art Museum’s elimination of its Wisconsin programs, The Wustum’s proartist stance in Racine and its associated new Racine Art Museum, The West Bend Art Museum’s commitment to Wisconsin artists, the Rahr-West in Manitowoc, the Anderson in Kenosha, and so forth. Some prominent professionals have altered and molded the processes to considerable extent, with good or bad results for Wisconsin artists. Philosophy, point of view, politics and influence, personal preferences...increasing support to enhance the visibility of regional artists, and sometimes the reverse.

If the institution is interested in exhibiting the work of living artists, and then confronts the large number of artists who are looking for exhibit time, the process for selection may come down to some variation on established jurying methods. This is often done in hopes of arriving at a quality exhibit by a means that might best keep the influence of personalities and the intrigues of politics, friendships, antagonisms...the conflicts of interest, out of the selection process as much as possible.

THE JURYING PROCESS

The exhibiting venue will call for entries, usually producing a prospectus with all appropriate information about rules, requirements of size and weight, methods of framing, dates of the exhibition and deadlines, a mention of the jurying procedure with the names and qualifications of jurors, awards, fees, forms to be filled out with artist name, address, media, titles, etc. Artists must read this prospectus very carefully, especially because when a large number of pieces are competing, entrants with errors or which display some incompetence can easily be eliminated to reduce the number that must be viewed.

The actual art entries are either expected to be brought to a site on the appropriate date(s), or slides of the entries must be provided for scrutiny on a deadline. Of course, having the actual work viewed by the jurors is a superior way to judge the entries, but if one has two hundred artists each submitting 2 or 3 works, the amount of work space and storage room required to do the job is huge. Therefore, the slide jurying method is often employed. The submitted slides must be organized, placed in projection trays perhaps with one set for each juror, the jurors must make their selections in a timely fashion, the selections of each juror must be compared with other jurors, and the selected artists must be notified.

Artists must learn to provide the highest quality slides possible. This means that leaning a painting against a tree, or photographing a piece in bad lighting, or otherwise failing to do the best possible slide production, may prompt a piece to be juried out. Remember, one is in some sort of competition with other artists who will do the best job possible, and the jurors will make conscious or unconscious responses to the image as presented...the whole image, errors included. If there are hundreds of slides to look at, judgments are sometimes made quickly, so each entrant must create the best possible chance to survive the jurying process. This might mean learning some simple photographic skills, or persuading or paying someone more skilled to do the photography. The culling of entrants is therefore not purely based upon a recognition of what work is high quality, but also how the work is effectively represented in the slides.

When the jurying is by slides, there is also usually a final viewing of the actual pieces chosen to see if the objects match the slides, and to award prizes from the actual objects. This is a point at which the jurors must actually be present to review the work they had selected. If they find that an actual work grossly fails to meet their expectations, there is a chance that such an object might still be eliminated.

The matter of charging artists fees to enter is a subject of discomfort. Usually there are large costs involved in creating these exhibits, and not every organizing entity has the necessary funds to do this without budget help. Some of the costs that artist fees help to cover are: creation and printing of the prospectus, including its mailing; payment for judges, which will include their travel, lodging and food; printing and mailing of invitations and often a catalog; cash awards for artists; opening costs to include food, drinks, catering, etc. It would not be unusual for organizers to lose money on these exhibitions, even when charging artist fees.

THE JURORS

Qualified persons somehow involved in the arts are usually chosen as jurors. In the end, no matter what the juror background and skills, the selection process is achieved thru a bit less than totally objective means. Every juror carries personal preferences, opinions arrived at independently by personal experience, or they may have notions which are imitative of others. There may be deeply felt philosophical ideas which may be akin to those of a zealot. The judge may see in a work some historical antecedent, similarity of a piece to some style of work currently touted in New York or art publications, and therefore decide to say yes or no as a result. A work or style might appear imitative, outdated, cautious, adventurous, or exciting depending upon whatever prejudices, preferences and preconceptions the juror might have. And of course, there is the personal mood of the day, brought on by a cup of coffee, a sleepless night, or an argument with a lover.

It is only hoped that the experience of these jurors is enough to provide insights that will result in an exhibit that is satisfactory to the greatest number of viewers. No matter who chooses, and no matter what is chosen, there will be differences of opinion and criticism from some expected number of critics. Obviously a large number of the submitting artists will be unhappy.

Why do these jurors agree to do this job? It is true that almost always some monetary reward is offered to potential jurors, and this can range from a couple of hundred dollars to considerably more, depending upon the means of the venue and the qualifications of the jurors. Usually travel and living accommodation expenses are covered as well, with the distances and type of travel greatly affecting costs. However, the money is unlikely to be the greatest motivating factor for well established and experienced jurors. Here are some of the other possibilities they are willing to get involved.

First, there is a prestige aspect. To be asked to pass judgment upon art suggests that the juror has gained respect and recognition in a professional field, and the juror can add this experience to a resume. Secondly, perhaps less consciously than subconsciously, the juror can introduce (impose) personal convictions and professional standards and influences upon some limited body of work, artists and public. Thirdly, there can be the element of altruism, when the juror believes that some public good is being done by participating in the jurying process. Fourthly, the process can be both intellectually challenging and fun, and can expose the juror to what artists are doing at a particular place and time.

Juring, especially by slides, can be tedious, tiring and difficult. Jurors truly earn their money and do expose themselves to some potential criticism. They deserve our respect and thanks.

THE ARTISTS

Working alone in studios artists experience a variety of thoughts and emotions as art is produced. There is the intellectual element, the emotional component, and the physical involvement. Often enough the artists find themselves in a “zone” like the athlete, the writer and the performer who reach a state of emersion that is satisfying and sometime addictive. Perhaps this is the “numinous” moment...a taste of rapture...that place and state of being when one finds a satisfaction in the process of living that most links one with the flow of the Universe. There are no drugs involved...there is only the individual being somehow linked deeply by the creative process to the engine of Life and Energy. What endorphins come into play a scientist must determine.

Now, fast forward to the reality of the jurying process. After stepping from the studio or place of creative endeavor, the artist then faces the practical, tedious and unhappy experiences associated with exhibiting the art. After those hours spent in what may have been the joyful emersion of art production, the artist will have to face the unpleasantries of seeking out venues...dealers, museums, markets and other places for public exposure. One will have to submit to the judgment and criticisms of persons who have not traveled the same paths, who have not thought similar thoughts, who have not worked hard to learn specialized insight and peculiar knowledge. The art may become just another commodity in the overflowing marketplace, being subjected to processes well out of control of the creator of that art.

While in the studio the art object and process was controlled entirely by the artist’s hands and thoughts. It became the child of the artist...the vehicle for idea and physical expression. It was truly an extension of the artists flesh and mind, perhaps created in a near state of bliss. Imagine then the realities of submitting the things created to the jurying process. Not only must the artist follow the necessary procedures of filling in forms, making slides, following directions and delivering work, but the artist must give up control in the selection process to others who have not experienced and thought nearly as much about the individual works as has the artist. The knife of the juror is at hand to slice thru the entries to the exhibition, doing a necessary job, perhaps stabbing the hearts of some artists in the process.

Many artists will decline from entering these jurying attempts for a variety of reasons. There are those for whom the amount and type of effort involved is too unpleasant. There are those who do not believe the particular juror will view their type of work with objective eyes. There are those who do not like the venue or personalities involved. And, there are those very accomplished artists, independently successful, having gallery representation and/or professional status with colleges, who have no need to address these juried shows...and who do not want to be found wanting if someone refuses them entry.

A CONCLUSION?

Whether to attempt or not to attempt...entirely a personal matter, and undoubtedly everyone wavers when considering whether or not to enter the fray. However, experiencing the success of acceptance a few times is a very encouraging persuasion. Likewise, continued rejection is quite a deterrent.

The institutions and organizations that create these juried shows must be praised. What they do, the planning and work involved, is difficult and sometimes unpleasant. However, considering the pros and cons, it does seem that any jurying scheme is better than not having any opportunity at all. And the jurors must be thanked...simply, someone has to do it with as much an accomplished and objective eye as possible. The artists are more than likely to be even less objective in their choices than are the less involved jurors.

Finally, the artists must be considered the most important cog in this wheel, for they are the underlying reason for these exhibits ever being attempted in the first place. They produce the art objects. They are the motivational force, the bedrock, and ground zero for art’s existence and visual expression, and they brave the process of selection.

If someone can find a better way than the juried shows to reach the most artists and the greatest number of viewers, then let those processes take over. Despite hopes for the Internet to help, despite complaints about the jurying methods and potential the flaws in the jurying system, juried exhibits remain an extremely important means and method for art to be shown. At the very least, the juried show will be part of the mix for decades to come.

Eliminate all the juried shows and experience the vacuum.
SUGGESTIONS FOR ENTERING JURIED SHOWS

Having just assisted in preparing and organizing materials from about 200 artists who have entered the Wisconsin Artists Biennial, I humbly offer some advice to those of you who might be interested.

First, I do not here present advice about the quality of your work, the medium, the subject matter, etc. You, the creator, must decide completely by yourself what your work is meant to express and how you express it. And, when you chose the art objects to enter into any juried show, you should chose what you think is the best work available. If the exhibit is important enough to enter, it is important to offer your finest to the jurors.

Now...here are some observations and practical advice.

1. No matter if the jurying is thru presenting the actual work, or thru a slide selection process, READ DIRECTIONS CAREFULLY! If you have dyslexia, vision problems, or are in doubt, have someone else review the directions and check over your presentation materials for accuracy.

2. If there is a prospectus (the printed material usually providing the directions) with application forms and other relevant information, DO A CHECK LIST, and check off each part, each requirement, each element to be included.

IF BY SLIDES:
a. How many slides are required and permitted?
b. Is there more than one slide with identical view asked for? This can be the case when there are multiple jurors reviewing slides.
c. How many different views of the same object are permitted? Usually one view is allowed of 2D work, and often 2 views of 3D.
d. Are the actual slides thin enough to fit a carousel projector tray?
e. Have you applied labels or tape that will gum up a heated tray and possibly thicken the width of the slide? Avoid labels. Write directly on the slide with permanent thin marker when possible. When using editing tape to crop images, apply it sparingly, in one layer, and make sure it is tightly laid down.
f. Is your slide marked with required information, e.g., title, size, medium, artist name, orientation (e.g. dot in lower left corner)?
g. While your slides should have some protection when being mailed, don’t overpack in difficult to remove devices. Usually the plastic slide pages purchased at photographic supply shops will suffice, and these can be cut down to appropriate smaller size.
h. Avoid taping your slides directly down to any surface. The transparent or masking tape can tear cardboard slide surfaces and remain on the slide causing problems in handling and viewing.

QUALITY OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN SLIDES:
a. Does the image reproduce the art to best advantage?
b. Is the color of the slide altered due to improper lighting? Is there any tinting due to the wrong film under incandescent or florescent bulbs? Reflections on glass or surfaces? Too dim? Shadows?
c. Don’t include in the photo any extraneous materials or objects. E.G. no frames unless important to the entire expression; no labels or tags; no disturbing backgrounds (always photograph against a nonobtrusive and neutral wall); no hands holding paintings; no leaning against trees; photograph direct on whenever possible.
c. If multiple views are permitted, use this opportunity to provide the strongest views, but don’t confuse the observer with odd angles.
d. If you are tentative about your own ability to photograph the art to its best advantage, persuade a friend or hire an experienced photographer. If you are willing to invest time and money in the production of your art, you should be willing to invest the same for its best presentation and promotion. READ ALL DIRECTIONS CAREFULLY.
a. Look at the deadlines for entry. This is crucial.
b. Look at number of entries allowed. c. Fill out all labels, blanks, return materials.
d. Is there an SASE required? (Self addressed and stamped envelope, and do you have the proper amount of postage affixed?
e. Have you met the size, weight and any framing restrictions?
f. Keep a copy of what you have sent, or copy the material down where you can easily find it. You may need to know addresses, drop off and pick up dates, phone numbers, directions, etc.
g. Is payment required? Have you included a check in the correct amount? Also note, even if your work is not included in the show, the entry fees are almost always “not” refundable. Your fee is going to go toward production of the exhibit, thereby assisting others.
h. Are there special instructions that must be met due to the handling, moving and display of the items?
i. Must you include packing materials or other photographs of the work for catalog or promotional purposes?
j. Don’t include in your entries any extra materials not asked for. This material will not help in any way.
k. If you have any questions about the exhibit, the entry materials, procedures, etc., contact the exhibit Chair/coordinator, or exhibit venue before sending in your entry forms.

3. When entering the actual work to a juried venue, much of the previous information will apply, but there are some other considerations as well.
a. Make sure you have the time and location down pat. If necessary, get directions before you attempt to deliver the work.
b. Is the work protected sufficiently, and is the protection easily
removed after delivery? Don’t burden the personnel with unnecessary packing material.
c. Will you be required to move or install any work requiring special handling?
d. Make sure you receive information about retrieving work that is not to be included, as well as the dates and times to pick up work at the end of the exhibition.
e. The persons attending to the incoming work are usually not the same persons that will be judging the work, but they are there to assist you and the hosting venue. They may be under pressures of their own on a busy day, so be cognizant of their needs to make the process go as smoothly as possible.
f. If you must return to the site to pick up work that is juried out, remember that we all suffer this seeming indignity, and no good
will come of showing anger or emotions. In all likelihood, the persons assisting in the return of rejected works feel badly too, have sympathy, and otherwise have had no say in the selection of art.
g. Being juried out of shows is commonplace. The same works might get in one show and be eliminated from another. Purpose and tenacity, strength of belief and faith in your work are important characteristics. If no success is found entering juried exhibits, you must find some other way to get the work out to the public.