By Glen Kessler
If you’re an emerging artist, you likely have participated in any number of juried exhibitions. In this type of art show, a professional in your field is chosen to either accept/reject artwork for inclusion in a show and/or select prize-winners. While juried shows are common, there is still much mystery among artists about how jurors make their decisions and how an artist can increase their chances of success. There is also much discussion about the ability of jurors to stay impartial in the face of art or artists they know. In this article, I will shine a light on these topics offering a first-hand account of the process and my own strategy for removing some, if not all, of the mystery.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the accepted belief that art appreciation is subjective. While I agree with this statement in principle, I think that jurors can and should be held to a different standard. Many of you have been to a juror talk where the juror says something along the lines of “… and I like rabbits so that’s why I gave this rabbit painting a prize.” As an artist, there’s nothing more frustrating than hearing that a quirk like this was part of the decision-making process. Let that be their criteria for deciding whether they want a work to hang in their home, but we all want to believe that time, effort, thought, and execution are the most important qualities to a juror.
As an artist myself and a teacher of artists as well, THAT is why I chose years ago to codify five points that I’m looking for when jurying artwork. It is my hope that this rubric may provide guidance and confidence for other jurors to judge work with a minimum of subjectivity and a greater abundance of objective standards. I’ve lectured on this topic and been written up in Professional Artist Magazine as well (June/July 2016 issue). In order of value, the qualities I look for in judging artwork are the following:
1. Technique – how well-executed the piece is.
Whether realistic, abstracted, or completely non-objective there is an observable level of craftsmanship in the execution of the art that is evident. Sophisticated color, confident brushwork, and varied mark-making are just a few of the attributes of technically adept artwork.
2. Concept – the idea that gives purpose to the work of art.
Every work of art has a concept, from the everyday to the sublime—capturing the beauty of a sunset, revealing a sitter’s character, expressing one’s emotional state. The level of profundity of the concept is how I judge this category. Deeper meaning or multiple meanings will always garner higher praise than a simple or singular meaning.
3. Personal relevance – how the art may embody the essence of the artist.
The choice of which Concept and which Technique an artist uses can and should be informed by an artist’s personal life story. We are all products of our era, culture, and experiences. Being open and honest about letting those influences into the creative process makes for a more authentic and in-depth work of art. As a juror, knowing an artist and their work can often assist in understanding their personal story.
4. Innovation – the newness or uniqueness of the work.
Jurors have seen a lot of artwork. And while there is always something to be said for executing work well within a set of established tropes, work that steps outside the box to succeed will often get bonus points. Using a new method, an atypical composition, a unique concept can help to distinguish the work from its company, as long as it is still well-conceived and -executed.
5. Presentation – how well is the work presented.
This includes framing, matting, glass, wet works, proper hanging materials, and even dings and scratches on the artwork’s surface. At the end of the jurying process, a juror has tied his/her name to the show. The professional presentation of the work does in some way reflect back on that juror. Dirty or dinged frames, poor mat color choice, improper hanging wire length, and smudged glass are a few areas that jurors may be sensitive to when making their final judgments. In addition to making the work look less impressive, they serve as warning signs to the juror that the artist did not care enough about their work to care for it properly.
Not only does following this set of criteria help unify exhibitions, but it gives the juror a defense against those who would say their choices might be arbitrary or nepotistic. I have in fact suffered many times the wrath of students and friends when they have not been awarded entry or prizes to exhibitions I’ve juried. It goes with the territory. But it is my sincere hope that all jurors abide by this or some other similar set of criteria spelled out before, during, and after the show so as to engender a level of trust between artist and judge.
Something artists may not realize is that the judge is also being judged. The better the exhibition and the more universal the agreement with the judge’s choices, the more trusted that juror will be. Consequently, they may be hired back by that organization or spoken highly of to other organizations. No juror I am aware of would choose the penny-smart-but-dollar-stupid tack of selecting artists only from their pool of friends, students, or clients.
I hope this may offer a reasoned insight into the juror’s mind and perhaps even assist some emerging jurors out there. No artist likes rejection, but no one who’s achieved anything in the arts has gone without their fair share of it. Understanding though, that amidst all of the other variables present in the success of a work of art, that nepotism or arbitrariness do not have to be additional barriers is hopefully something that can give all artists just a little bit more sleep at night.
Glen Kessler is a local artist and teacher. He has an MFA from New York Academy of Art & BFA from MICA. His work is internationally collected and has garnered top prizes such as a Maryland State Arts Council Grant, two Elizabeth Greenshields Grants, a Prince of Wales Fellowship, and winner of ‘The Artist’s Magazine’ annual international competition. You can find out more about Glen’s art and teaching at his and his school’s website GlenKessler.com & TheCompassAtelier.com.