May 16, 2011

How to win a juried art show.

Now THAT is art.

I co-juried an art show on Saturday, and man... talk about a learning experience. I should have paid them.

My first thought upon reviewing the entries was immediate: "I am so glad I am not competing with these guys." Holy smokes, what a lot of talent our neighbourhood has.

There was also a pleasing assortment of, how shall I put this... not so great art on display.  But you know what? That, too, was impressive. You know why?

They got off their asses and submitted.


So here's what I learned after sifting through roughly 165 entries. If you disagree, please help yourself:

  • Photography has to be really, really good to beat classic media. A photo is relatively easy to take, so there has to be evidence of thought, toil, and a mastery of the craft. No blown highlights, no sharpening edges within an inch of their life and no hack filters. As a photographer, I found it easy to dismiss any photo which was merely "good".
  • Bigger is better. If your art kicks some ass, it might as well wear a big boot. As a juror, it's harder to be dismissive of a large work, because you're forced to take it seriously. (Also, they're harder to move back to the loading dock.) Note: big and crappy is just crappy.
  • Do something difficult. A statue made from the melted-down syringes of your bout with tuberculosis in Cambodia is way more interesting than any watercolour. It shows imagination, and implies depth of character.
  • If you're selling it, price it realistically. Lowballing shows that you're insecure, ridiculously high shows you're not taking it seriously. This effects its evaluation.
  • For the love of Godard, don't try to look sophisticated if you aren't. You like bullfighters on velvet, paint bullfighters on velvet.
  • Choose a political message at your own risk. We're not all hippies, you know.
  • Pick a colour palette, Rainbow Brite. And stick to it.
  • Smudged paint? Ripped print? Like a typo on a resume, that's insta-trash.
  • Pony up for good framing and mattes. Your Zellers frame looks like a Zellers frame.
  • If your signature looks like it was made by Stephen Hawking, get someone else to do it. (This is one of my big weaknesses, by the way—my signature hasn't changed since grade 3.)
  • People know restaurant art when they see it. So do jurors.
  • Keep your style consistent. If you submit a photo-realistic landscape plus a Modigliani rip-off homage, we can't label you. Hmm... maybe that's not a bad thing.
  • Trust your gut, but be able to defend your decisions. Don't try to make a "contest winner", because it shows. Make what you're good at, and don't lie to your audience.
  • You know why nudity works? Because jurors don't want to look like prudes.
  • Above all other advice... Submit more than one entry! It is very difficult for a jury to dismiss two (or three) pieces from the same artist. In my case, I tended to favour the stronger of two good submissions and leave it at that. Fair? Not really.


I could tell—we all could tell—which pieces were taken seriously during their creation and which weren't; which were slapped together, which were lovingly crafted, and which were over-thought, over-worked, and over-brushed.

I'm so glad I got the chance to do this. Being on the 'other side' is a terrific reality-check for evaluating the merit of your own art. 

And, apparently, I still have a lot of work to do.