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The Numinous and the Knife . . . Confronting the Jury Process

by Gary John Gresl

The college professor went ìballisticî. 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 ìin powerî, 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 A particular 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 isnít 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 Museumís elimination of its Wisconsin programs, The Wustumís proartist stance in Racine and its associated forthcoming new Racine Art Museum, The West Bend Museum of Artís commitment to Wisconsin artists, 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, and 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 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. Jurying, 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 ìzoneî like the athlete, the writer and the performer who reaches a state of emersion that is satisfying and sometime addictive. Perhaps this is the ìnuminousî 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 artistís 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, 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 artís 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.

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