I’ve done this, what…five times now? And I still don’t have it figured out. Sometimes I think I do, and then we find jurors such as Kate Wagle and Gregory Sale and any understanding of the jury process I claimed to have is thrown out the window. Most of you understand that getting juried into a show is never a sure thing, no matter how good your track record is. And most of you know the only sure way of not getting in a juried exhibit is to not enter at all. And that’s probably what keeps you coming back for more. You never know what the jurors are looking for. Of course talent is essential, but even if you were to take all the submissions worthy of such a show and put them in the gallery, you’re left with too much. So how do the jurors pare it down to an exhibit? Ah, come with me and enter the mystery and madness that is the juried competition. Well, this year’s anyway.
The first phase of this process is accepting artwork at the host gallery. This is one of my favorite days because I meet hundreds of artists. Everyone is in good spirits and oozes optimism. We usually receive two kinds of work: 1) work we know the jurors won’t like and, 2) work we hope the jurors will like. Work we know the jurors won’t like is typically the stuff you’d spot at Deseret Book or the Quilted Bear. This work has merit and a place, but I’m afraid the Statewide Annual isn’t it. We also (despite our best efforts at explaining the guidelines) still get work that doesn’t fit into the year’s specified category. For example, this year the theme was “Painting and Sculpture.” We plaster those two words all over the call for entry form and, still, artists bring us photographs, prints and works on paper. I understand the line can be blurred. I usually apologize for the confusion and encourage them to enter in the “Crafts and Photography” exhibit next year or the “Mixed Media and Works on Paper” exhibit the year after that.
The second phase is the jury process. This process may seem like a mystery to most people, but, really, it’s not. In fact, you can count on the same thing every year: your chances of getting in are just as good as anyone else’s. I didn’t mean to lead you on there, but there is no secret or trick. If we used the same two jurors every year, I might be able to figure it out, but subjectivity is a major role in any juried competition. Different jurors like different artwork. They come from different backgrounds and are interested in different things. The same two people might even choose different pieces if you brought them back several month’s later; or, in this case, if you brought them back after lunch.
Don’t get me wrong; I genuinely liked our jurors this year. They were smart, funny, interesting and very pleasant to be around. They didn’t change their minds about what they liked or what they thought was good art, but they did change their minds about what they wanted to put in the show. That’s the thing about these exhibits. The jurors are not just choosing outstanding work; they’re choosing work that creates a cohesive exhibit.
During the first two hours, Wagle and Sale chose about twenty to thirty pieces. The work they chose was great, but even in a small gallery such as the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery, it made for a sparse show. After a discussion over lunch, the jurors came up with an idea to bring in more work. I left them alone during this stage, and when I came out I saw most of the pieces they chose originally, plus work they didn’t even give a second glance during the first round of jurying. This puzzled me, but it made sense at the same time. They passed over the work originally not because they didn’t think it held artistic merit, but simply because it didn’t work with their original design for the show. But now it did. Still, they went back and forth between several pieces and searched through stacks of previous rejects to find pieces that would work with their new format. The artists who submitted paintings and sculptures to this show can be assured that each piece was considered carefully and nothing was overlooked. In fact, your piece may have been in the show at one point or another. I remember one painting in particular that would be in the gallery at one point, and when I returned ten minutes later, it was removed. This happened about three times with this same painting, but eventually it was left out.
I smiled as I overheard statements such as “I’m entertained by its simplicity” and “I’d jury it in, but it would be for the wrong reasons.” The word “conversation” was repeated more than any other, “Did we have a conversation about this piece? I need to have a conversation with you about this piece.” The jurors had a conversation about each piece several times over and eventually they placed paintings strategically on the walls so the art could have conversations with each another. This was the first year our jurors took it upon themselves to lay out the show rather than leaving it to the gallery director. But they were fueled by their process, so why not?
The end result is a smaller, but focused exhibit; an interesting (forgive me) “conversation” about what art means to different artists and how different pieces relate to one another. Only 56 pieces out of 360 were included in this exhibit – one of the smallest statewide shows we’ve hosted. But it is definitely one of the most memorable.
This article originally appeared in the March 2005 edition of 15 Bytes