Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In My Opinion: The Jury is Out on Juried Exhibitions

"In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane." -- Oscar Wilde

Have you ever walked through a juried art exhibition and wondered what the jurors were smoking when they awarded the prizes? Let me phrase that another way: Have you ever walked through a juried art exhibition and not wondered what the jurors were smoking when they awarded the prizes? How could that piece of crap win first prize and this other wonderful gem go totally unnoticed? Surely the jurors were pushing their own evil money-making agendas, awarding prizes to artists whose work they personally own to raise the value of their misguided investments.

I recently participated on a jury for the first time and will try to shed some light on the process. The exhibition was a small fund-raiser with artists paying a modest fee to enter their work in the competition. The jurors weren't told the names of the artists unless they had signed their piece on the front, in which case it was obvious. (Note to artists -- consider your reputation before signing your piece for a juried show -- anonymity could work for you or against you!)

My fellow jurors included another art dealer and a well-known art writer. There were about 60 pieces in the show: paintings, drawings, photography, assemblages, and sculpture. The work ranged from amateurish to accomplished, and the subject matter from crying Jesuses to artichokes. Our job was to award first, second and third cash prizes. Where to begin?

We decided to view the show separately and jot down a list of pieces that we liked, marking what we thought were the top five. Once we had made our lists we settled down to discuss our choices. I mentioned up front that my gallery represented two of the artists in the show and recused myself from voting for them (even though they were, of course, my favorites). I didn't mention their names or which pieces they were.

I was asked to go first -- what piece did I think should win first place? As soon as I mentioned my choice, the other two jurors got quizzical looks on their faces and jumped up to look at the piece again. They both came back shaking their heads. My ego was slightly bruised, but I kept my composure and we moved on.

Then the writer revealed his first-place pick and the same thing happened -- the other juror and I got weird looks on our faces, jumped up to look at the piece again, and came back shaking our heads. And then, unbelievably, it happened a third time with the last juror's pick. There was no consensus. So we crossed all three of those pieces off our lists and not one of our individual picks won a prize!

We then tried another approach that worked much better. Was there anything that appeared on each of our top five lists? There was one piece that did, and we decided to award first place to that artist. It was the only piece that all three of us agreed on. After a reasonable amount of time deliberating, the second and third place prizes were each decided by two jurors liking the piece and the third not objecting. And that was that.

The whole process took about an hour and was relaxed and congenial. I didn't pick up on any hidden agendas or aggressive behavior. Quite the contrary, I felt we were all very open about the kinds of work we liked and didn't like -- and no one seemed to take any of it personally. What did I think about the results? Not the three I would have picked, but they all had a certain level of integrity that I was fine with.

So the problem, as I see it, is not juror bias -- everyone has a point of view and it's impossible to put it aside. The challenge of a jury is in building consensus, or rather, resolving many points of view. Wikipedia defines consensus decision-making as a "process that seeks not only the agreement of most participants but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections."

Or as Margaret Thatcher once put it: ". . . consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies . . . it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects."

So the next time you find yourself wondering what the jurors were smoking when they awarded those prizes, the answer might be consensus. Is consensus a bad thing when it comes to art? Or is it a healthy democratizing counterpoint to the commercial gallery system, where one person's vision rules supreme? Let me know what you think.

Currently on view at Offramp Gallery

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz, Opening Reception, Offramp Gallery, Sunday, May 15, 2011


  1. You've nimbly articulated the challenges inherent in a multi-person jury, but often there is only a single juror, in which case personal biases do not necessarily have a check or balance built into the process.
    In my experience, as a participant artist I look carefully at who the juror is before I enter any work in this type of exhibition, both to be aware generally, and to perhaps inure myself pre-emptively against the particular preferences that a certain juror might have.

  2. When we view entries we spend five hours and look at everything together. I think your method of selecting has problems in this case, as the vast majority of works were not even deliberated at all, let alone the handful of top picks, before you tried to reach "consensus." I believe the case discussed here is an exception rather than the norm for a selecting process. At the NEA they spend days looking at works applying for grants. Everything gets looked at by everyone all at the same time.

  3. Hi Rex -- thanks for your input. I think in this case, consensus was what we had to do -- there were no guidelines, such as the artists' entire bodies of work, exhibition history, etc. for judging, as I'm assuming there would be when applying for a grant. We were working blind (ha!).

  4. I, and many art patrons I know, have often had that same thought, while wandering through a gallery exhibit... "What were they smoking?" We just couldn't see what the judges saw in the pieces they awarded. Of course...there's also a bit of bias too...if you are an artist yourself, or a friend of an artist, who has a piece in the show, you want that piece to be aknowledged...to win. Then, I always here..."Well, everyone has their own opinion & taste" (cringe). No matter how many times you try to go back to the winning piece & see it in a different light (open your mind & think outside the box)....the thoughs stay the same. We shrug our shoulders...and move along....thinking...well, this show was a bust.

    Do I think that consensus is a bad thing? When it's difficult to pinpoint a winner...when it isn't unnaimous & obivious to everyone that a certain piece whould win...I think it's the way to go....to be fair. You can't please everyone, all the time. If you put a beautiful piece of art into a few different exhibits, and asked several different individuals to judge...the answers they give will be different every single time. That piece of art may or may not be the lucky winner one or more times...or maybe it wont ever win.....kinda like the lottery. For the longest time, I thought I had a better chance at winning the lottery, myself, than a first place win, in a juried competition. For years I didn't win anything of note...with the exception of an honorable mention once in a while, and a 3rd place win many yrs ago. 4 yrs ago, I got a 2nd place award. I was thrilled.....but it still wasn't 1st. I when back to winning nothing....until just 2 weeks ago, I recieved my first 1st! I felt so honored.

  5. I appreciate your candor, My experience with juror reviewed exhibitions (of the nature that you described) is very similar, especially when each artist has only one work available. Other situations depend on jurors personalities, someone with a strong opinion may overrule the other jurors. My experience with lots of artists" submissions is that the jurors spend only 2 to 3 seconds looking at a projected image and much less time than you described looking at all the submissions in person. So congratulations on spending so much time deliberating and coming to consensus. The next time perhaps you could choose the required awards and then each juror should choose one each of their choice (jurors individual choice) Just an idea. I think the addition of the "Honorable Mentions" is excellent. Thanks again!

  6. they all have become to me, a huge pain in the ass with no apparent good for the artist. the only one i did well with were with had a single juror, it also happened to be a curator of a major museum. the rest are money makers for gallery rent. i've stopped doing them and now spend those hundreds of dollars on materials. and stick to showing and collectors that get my work even though i found my voice with out a school or teacher.
    originality and viewpoints from outside the tight clique of academia are still looked down on in this country as little more than contributions by hobbyists or freaks.

  7. I don't think Rex's idea of spending 5 hours with everyone looking at everything together is realistic in this case--OK for NEA proposals but here we are talking about 3 prizes out of 60 donated works for a fundraiser. I think Jane's experience is pretty representative of the jury process. And at least you were looking at the actual works and not photographic representations which is a whole other issue. Jane's point, or question about consensus is a good one--one artist now knows that all three appreciated their work and the other winners know that 2 of 3 thought their work was worthy. It is a humbling process for all concerned. I'm questioning whether it was right for you to not vote for the two artists you represent if in fact you liked their works more than others? You might have discussed the conflicts with the other jurors to agree on how to deal with this situation. I wonder if your two artists received votes from the other jurors?

  8. I like consensus selection for this situation. The winner was on all three lists and that seems like a valid win. I really enjoyed reading this. All jurors should smoke some consensus! xoxo Paige

  9. Hi Noel -- Yes, one of my artists was mentioned, so at that point I revealed that he or she was represented by Offramp. No prize was awarded to that artist. Have you come across this situation before? How was it handled?

  10. Insightful and honest, thank you. I shared this via twitter so that other artists get a glimpse behind the veil of wonder with the juried shows.

  11. A good essay for all exhibiting artists to read. The jury process is a complex process including bias and debatable opinions. I think both juror and artist look askance at the process but all endure. Thank you for sharing your experience. It helps most of us artists to understand the experience of both acceptance and rejection.

  12. Nancy Goodman LawrenceMay 17, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    Thanks for a perspective on the jurying process that so many
    of us have experienced, either as entrants or jurors. I am the
    current president of Women Painters West, an organization
    of professional women artists. We hire outside jurors to select
    works and awards in each of our 3 yearly shows. This process
    is imperfect, at best, as is any voting process, however
    democratic. I have heard jurors say they would have chosen
    a different show on a different day for different reasons.
    I do believe that having 3 jurors really complicates the issue.
    One juror shapes the show in his/her vision - with 3, that vision
    may get lost.

    Once the decisions are made, if you poll 100 people, each will
    have a different opinion on the selections and awards - a perfect
    definition of Subjectivity. Of course, when we win an award,
    the juror has made the correct decision:) Your blog serves as
    good advice to those who take the risk in competing this way to
    enjoy the competition and take the process with a grain of salt.

  13. I was allowed to sit in on the jury process that included a three person jury and found it to be similar ... not exactly the same but similar.

    I agree that in most cases, it's not a matter of bias or money transfer... simply different people with different ways of seeing... just as every viewer that sees artwork will hold.

    It's not a perfect system but it seems to be the best we've got.

    Thanks for writing this... I always enjoy hearing these kinds of stories.

    In case you'd like to read about MY ancient experience... here is the URL:

  14. Well done article - this is a subject that needs to be carefully and critically addressed and understood. Panel juries create very different exhibitions from those chosen by single jurors. I agree with Nancy Goodman Lawrence about the possible "lost vision" with a panel jury. Also - Artist's fees for entry - a subject that needs to be explored more carefully. Juried for fee exhibitions are an entity onto themselves.

  15. I like your disclosure about consensus Jane. Consensus is sort of reality in the art world. Once upon a time a publisher of a very recognized art magazine told me that an artist become famous by consensus.

  16. From Rene Deloffre:

    "If I was good in math I could understand this whole process as
    statistical probabilities. As an artist, still trying to figure out
    what 6 X 7 gives me, I just submit art and then forget about it. Not
    surprisingly, I've been known to never deliver accepted work because
    it didn't enter my mind to check the results. And yet, artists not
    investing much emotions into this process is, in my ever humble
    opinion, a healthy thing, let the jurors experience the angst! We've
    got art to make!"

  17. I read your comments on being one of a a panel of judges considering artists for a show.

    Certainly this would be less of a tougher choice if the times that we live in where not so chaotic, and we where not caught up in the turmoil.

    I believe that the choices we make are dictated by our inner as well as our outer environments. Emotions, intellect, group participation. . . to name a few are the building blocks of our own defined set of circumstances and to deviate from that makes us uneasy. Yet, it is that unease that can enliven our spirit.

    Being tougher on ourselves doesn't necessarily mean grilling someone else's art work, visual or otherwise. It just places some thorns in the most unlikely of places.

    AS far as I can recall, I've been a visual artist my entire life and have been a contributing member of society by adhering to several principles.

    Paint what your intellect and emotions tell you. Then sift out what is not needed. Analyze situations, find the wave that fits, and ride it as far as you can, and when it comes to submitting your work, see your self as a judge and don't make a ruling before your first cup of coffee.

    Be well. . .


  18. Leopold van de VenJune 11, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    I'm a Dutch artist and this sounds very recognizable.
    It would be good to do a second opinion and view the work later again. The very extraordinary pioneering work falls by the wayside because there will be a chance that it will be not detected at first sight and to compare with the existing mainstream work. What's bad is a topic for thought, as a framework within which it must meet as already considered somewhat predetermined and is a common expectation in the jury is created. So no themes or genres (Sculpture, painting, etc.) because the areas in between are just interesting that renewal can provide. Openness, expertise, independence and after a night sleep, and even then it's not right, unfortunately.

  19. A little late but why didn't you discuss your first choices and justify them to each other, maybe convincing another juror to agree with you. That way at least one first choice would have won instead of agreed upon mediocrity.

  20. The problem I see in the process is the use of artist submission fees as a fundraiser. Juried shows are often used to fill the slow months in the yearly schedule, by organizations that aren't worth artists' trouble. If the fundraising came from a percentage of sales, rather than artist fees, the hosting organization would have more incentive to make the exhibition well-thought and well-publicized.

  21. Hi Jane,

    Great job on this topic and the Blog in general.

    As an artist who has won first place from a juror who in discussing my work demonstrated he missed my point and not winning even an honorable mention because I was told by the juror I was "too good to be in the show", I have learned to take juried shows with a grain of salt and don't enter them much anymore.

    I do listen to and evaluate others opinions on an individual basis and am constantly learning by observation and others wisdom.

    Best regards,

    Gary Raymond

  22. Lord save the artist from juried anything.

  23. I was in a Juried Show last year and of course was curious as to who the winners were. Let me state, before I go any further, that I did not think my piece was the Best Oil or Best in Show so this is not a case of sour grapes. I then searched to find the judges choices and came across the one that had been selected Best Oil. This is my category usually so I am always curious about the competition. This was a 1 judge jury. Bad idea ,in my opinion, for any Show.

    I then began to ask other artists their thoughts in a very constructive way. I pointed out other pieces I thought were far better in every aspect and most agreed with me. I then asked who the juror was, my mistake for not researching her ahead of time. I then told that not only was the woman they pointed out t the Juror but also had a piece in the Show. Extremely unorthodox ,to say the least. Comparing the winner and her work was very eerie since the styles were completely identical. HA....more questions?? Why is she in the Show and is there any possibility that the First Place Oil was a student.....BINGO! In fact she was.

    There goes any credibility to any Show I will ever enter. I just look for the exposure and winning a prize doesn't pay the bills or even for art supplies. Show me a buyer ,before a Blue Ribbon, any day of the month....:-)

    Keep painting and be happy....that's ALL THAT MATTERS!