Reevaluating Juried Exhibitions

THe opening night crowd for The New Now, at Tri-C East Gallery. Photo by and courtesy of Stuart Pearl.

In speaking with any number of local artists both amateur and professional, there is a shared observation that the juried exhibition ecosystem is not serving the artists. 

For the uninitiated, the juried ecosystem is a ‘pay to play’ exhibition model, wherein the non- refundable entrance fees (usually about $15 a painting) are aggregated to pay for juror(s) services, award money, and the various costs associated with hosting and marketing an exhibition. The juror then chooses from submitted works to build the exhibition.  Some of the better known annual juried exhibitions are The May Show at Lakeland Community College, the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve’s The New Now, the Valley Art Center’s Annual Juried Exhibit, BAYarts annual Juried Exhibit, and regionally the Paul and Norma Tikkanen Painting Prize Exhibition at the Ashtabula Art Center, the Butler Midyear at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, and the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. There are certainly many more. 

The most-discussed observation among artists is that these juried exhibitions express the priorities and aesthetics of the jurors (who are paid) over the work of the artists (who pay to play).   It is unlikely that the ‘pay to play’ business model is going away, as it is essential to the hosting venues’ ability to sustain these exhibitions. But can the artists be better served by their participation?

Another concern, particularly among professional artists, is the fundamental question of who is seeing the artwork presented, and whether the cost of entry adds to their exposure (perhaps eventually leading to sales), is a wash, or is an unnecessary expense.  The comment that presence in such shows makes for “another useless line on the bio” is common.

A third, increasingly-shared concern among professional artists is in regard to the selection of works for awards.  In our region, the artwork submitted is qualitatively very competitive and expresses all manner of styles and subject matter.  Why in one exhibit does an artwork receive accolades, while in another it is not accepted at all?  There are those who will say this is one of the virtues of a diverse set of juried opportunities; meanwhile there are those who observe the peculiarities of the jurors’ taste and curatorial aspirations & distinctions and wonder, what do the awards then represent?

Before addressing the above concerns, it should be noted again for the uninitiated how these juried exhibitions are made, and how they are evolving as financial concerns and opportunities — while simultaneously generating constraints. Currently most jurying is performed by looking at submissions on a computer screen, which is time- and cost-effective for the venue, juror, and the submitting artists. But the limitations of computer screens compromise the ability of the juror to experience dimension, scale and the visceral nuance of artistic effort (perhaps less so for photography).  This influences the choices jurors make.  Some venues conduct an initial review online and then bring the jurors and the artwork together for a final selection of both accepted artwork and the awards.  Most artists find the extra time and expense a burden, but agree that physically seeing the art is certainly the best means of evaluation.

Another evolution that has occurred is the employment of jurors from outside the area who are artists, or are affiliated with another arts institution to offer a fresh evaluation of artists’ submissions.  In an effort to move beyond local associations of peers within the art community and the local gallerists and arts leaders who inevitably champion certain artists and subjects and styles they represent, it makes sense for the hosting venues to appear unbiased.  It is indeed an opportunity for artists to be exposed to potentially influential arts leaders outside the area, and is absolutely an opportunity for art venues to expand collaboration and partnership.  The attendant question of course is, what are the biases of any qualified juror?  Most artists admit to looking up the jurors to guess their aesthetics and priorities before submitting their work and paying to do so.  This is an effect of how the ‘pay to play’ system works, and it can be seen in both the accepted artwork and awards.

Another factor is the important distinction between curators and jurors. They are not the same. A juror weighs the visible creative intent and execution in balance and chooses the artwork which best articulates that sum, with no regard to whether they personally like it.  A juried exhibition has no theme but the quality of the artwork presented.  A curator, on the other hand, defines a subject or theme, and then selects artworks which best express those particulars, which may or may not compromise artistic quality.  Curators build an exhibition around an idea.

 So-called “juried” exhibitions have increasingly become calls to artists, which are then curated.  What happens then is that the resulting “juried exhibition” really becomes the expression of the juror, and not of the artists who are paying to submit their work.

There are several ways of addressing this.  One is for the hosting venue to insist the jurors assert objectivity over personal aesthetics and or curatorial aspirations.  On the other hand, hosts can accept the situation and declare calls to artists around curatorial themes.  This is in principle how the CAN Triennial has functioned (submissions have been free, not pay to play).  How and whether artists see an advantage to this is up for debate; but all the participants, artists, the venue and jurors, value honesty, integrity and transparency about what the process is.

One of the principal questions among many artists who are willing to engage with the ‘pay to play’ juried exhibitions is, what is the payoff?  There are many reasons to participate, and certainly the competitive opportunity at cash awards is one of them.  On this front, awards again are often representative of the jurors more than the artwork itself. 

Given that revenue from and for these exhibitions is limited, perhaps prize money would be better spent—and perhaps artists better served—if it were invested in catalogs with images, artist statements and biographies, and jurors’ statements, in lieu of cash awards. Hosting venues could also use the platform of the catalog to highlight their own contributions to community, services and programs. At the end of any jury exhibition any form of permanence serves the artists immediately and further in ways that only time will tell. A few exhibitions—perhaps the the Tikkanen Prize exhibition—may have the financial capacity for both.

The last potential value for artists in the ‘pay to play’ system is not so much the mysterious minor miracle of sales but of being seen–maximizing the number of people who see these juried exhibitions.  Artists want their art to be seen and remembered and discussed.  All artists know that opening night can be a spectacle and celebration of friends and peers.  We all notice who is attending and who isn’t.  Locally it is usually the same people.  Later there is a component of ‘community service for the willing’ as some of the general public will over time engage. Most, however, remain ignorant of the opportunity.  Social media is certainly useful and ubiquitous and inexpensive.   Advertising in arts media publications is time-sensitive and costs money.

When our atrophied non-arts ‘public’ media does report on an exhibition, it typically gives time and place, and perhaps a photo of best in show, and there is rarely any critical evaluation or contextualization.  Generating leadership partnerships among our various institutions and venues could parlay into wider community awareness and participation, creating reasons and curiosity enough for greater public and media awareness.  The recent BIG ASS ART SHOW (not a juried exhibition) was a foray into this territory, with four organizations spread across the region—The Gallery at Lakeland, Valley Art Center, Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and BAYarts—all participating.

These observations and opportunities are not to dismiss the invaluable achievements of the hosting venues and the heroic efforts of the individuals within them.  Many artists and venues may see no need or benefit for evolution in the ‘pay to play’ business model. But after much private dialogue with many artists and arts leaders, it is worth a more public and critical evaluation.

John Sargent is a professional artist whose paintings and portraits are in private and corporate collections locally and nationally since 1990.   He is represented locally by Bonfoey Gallery. He serves on the board of the AAWR and chairs their Exhibition Committee, and serves on the Gallery committee at Valley Art Center.  He often installs exhibitions at the AAWR, VAC, and Lakeland; and teaches painting at the Orange Art Center.  

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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