April 12, 2010

Jurying an International Art Exhibition MAI SAMA

The following is an updated essay on my experience late last year as a juror for an international art exhibition. I had published an article about this and gave an interview somewhat pre-emptively and therefore withdrew it at the time. Several months have passed, and the sorrows of the rejected and the exhilaration of the accepted has been tempered. The Mosaic Arts International Exhibition has been held in Chicago, catalogues purchased, work probably shipped back home or sold by now. Economic and family circumstances prevented me from attending the Society of American Mosaic Artists Conference to see first hand the exhibition that I helped jury. I therefore never was able to discuss the jurying process on hand so I will belatedly discuss it now. I do feel that since it is no longer an emotionally charged matter, a better perspective can be brought to bear on the words that detail this process.
I used two sets of criteria for judging the current SAMA exhibition. One set of criteria was for the individual mosaic works, the other set was for maintaining the integrity of the exhibition as a whole through presenting a diverse body of work representative of the best that the art form has to offer. With regard to the latter, I sought to achieve a balance of abstract, decorative and representational mosaics. I also sought to include mosaics in a wide variety of media so that the viewing audience as well as other artists would be inspired to think creatively and outside the norm. I aspired to be as egalitarian as possible in choosing mosaics that used both high end, expensive materials, and those that incorporated everyday found objects. I hoped to compile an exhibition that would be instrumental in showcasing the art in such a way as to promote the appreciation for and stimulate positive growth of the art of mosaics. For evaluating the mosaics on a case by case basis, I looked first at the craftsmanship of the individual pieces. How well did the artist cut, adhere and blend the individual tesserae? Did their choice of placement reveal careful study and understanding of the art form? If not, was there evidence of a purposeful "bending of the rules," so to speak, to create a highly individualized approach to the andamento of the mosaic? I also sought to answer the question, through scrutinizing individual works, of why the medium of mosaic was used to express the artist’s creative intentions and how well this choice of medium conveyed their ideas. I read every artist’s statement to see how well their written essays dovetailed with their visual interpretations. Would another media have served just as well or better than mosaic to convey the message? Why mosaic?
I chose mosaics on the basis of how well this medium was used to the best of its capacity and in all its glory. I also looked for originality and creativity.
The jurying process itself was fascinating. I was part of a three person panel of judges, one from Great Britain, one from Mexico, and I representing the United States. Our jurying was done online through Juried Arts Services. We all judged about five hundred entries, architectural works, 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional mosaics all included in the same batch. Each entrant was rated on a scale of one to seven, one being the lowest and seven being the highest. All three jurors voted in three rounds with results being tabulated at the end of each round. I had mixed feelings about on-line jurying. On the one hand, it was a great convenience for jurors who may want to work as a team but are in different geographic locations. It saved time and money for entrants as well. In an ideal situation though, jurying would be done from actual art work. But because mosaics are often quite heavy and the jurors were at various places around the globe this was not practical. Perhaps a good compromise would have been to have made selections for the exhibition on line and awards given in person from viewing the actual art work. This would have entailed, of course, flying in the jurors, which may or may not have been practical for a small organization on a strict budget. If some compromise could have been arranged with regard to virtual and real world viewing I would have loved to have seen that happen in the case of mosaics. Mosaics are so dependent on texture and low relief, photography can often not do them justice.
Another possible improvement for future exhibitions would be for the artists to get a numerical score for their submissions. There are few organizations that do this but the ones that do give their artists valuable feedback. When I applied for entry into the Smithsonian exhibition, I did not gain entry, but was told that I had been in the upper 25% of entrants. This was helpful to know so that I didn’t second guess my photography or the subject matter of my submissions. With the jurying process that is in place now through Juried Arts Services there are three rounds of jurying with eliminations made after each round. But an artist will only know that his work either gained entry or did not, and not how far along in the jurying process his work went. An art work eliminated in round one is very different from a mosaic that is eliminated after round three.
In the process of jurying the art work, I would occasionally see familiar faces reflected in the submissions. Although this is an anonymous process, there are certain "signature pieces" that would come up - something I had seen on the cover of a magazine for instance - making the working positively identifiable. When that happened I found myself reflecting on something that I heard from a national juror some time ago. When I was a freshly minted MFA, I attended a seminar at the College Art Association conference in New York hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts. In detailing some of the factors in awarding artists grant money, one of the representatives said "It helps if we know you." I was shocked at this unbridled admission of what appeared to be blatant bias and it rattled my sensibilities as a young aspiring artist hoping for fair and democratic treatment by the art world. Decades later, I understand her words better as simply a candid confession of the way of the art world. In this respect, in any jurying venue, the fame factor comes into play. High profile artists often have highly recognizable art work. Regardless of the professed anonymity it was impossible not to associate a name with a style.. I would like to think that it had not influenced my judgement. As a strict rule, I separate a person from his or her art. This is because no matter the person or his peccadillos, a person making art is a human being at his or her best. Their art is a gift and should be cherished as such - especially when it is excellent. Conversely, no matter how beautiful a person is, if they have been less than stellar in their approach to their art and need to apply themselves to their craft just a little more diligently, it does them or the art no service to promote their creative work before the art of those who have worked harder and sacrificed more.
But having said that, when I looked at some of these mosaics and know just how much some of the makers have contributed towards pushing the art form forward, the words "It helps if we know you," kept coming back to me. But they were all outstanding pieces so there wasn’t a true conflict of interest there - at least I hope not. I have to confess here though, that while I was jurying I realized that my own work would be recognized by select groups of artists. I couldn’t help but think that I certainly hope that I haven’t alienated them!
Having set goals for a cohesive exhibition, set standards for artistic integrity and accounted for the fame and familiarity factor I set to work. Art that did not make the first cut was often eliminated due to poor photography or to the artist not having fully developed his/her skills. Again, it would be helpful for an artist to have had a numerical score so that he/she could seek better training or hire a photographer. A mosaic that didn’t make a second cut were those pieces that were competent but perhaps too formulaic. Someone whose work was eliminated at this point might compare his work to his contemporaries to see if he is presenting something that stands apart from the crowd. He could then review his work to see if he is growing artistically beyond the conventions he has been taught. Any work that went very far in the jurying process but still did not gain entry was a winning mosaic in my estimation. The artist should try again in a different venue with a different juror. Indeed, one of the pieces that I had short listed for a juror’s choice award after round three had been eliminated by the other jurors for the final round!
The process of paring about five hundred mosaics down to a core group that was less than a sixth of that number was very difficult. There were some mosaics that I was sorry to see not make the final round and I hope that they will find their own cherished spots on a gallery or museum wall some day. The jurying process was fascinating, albeit somewhat painful. I mean painful in both the metaphorical way as well as physical for during the process I actually had a dental accident and lost a tooth! It seemed like a macabre parody of the art of chopping bits of stone for a mosaic. So intense was the experience that I began to bodily produce tesserae!
It was exhilarating to be immersed in the world of mosaics for a few days. I was so impressed by the ingenuity of these presentations. And I felt humbled by the time and patience artists must have devoted to completing these. They made me want to return to my studio and a work harder. Some of the accompanying artist’s statements that I read were as well crafted as the mosaics themselves and they, too, were an inspiration. It was indeed a rare privilege to be able to do this.
I took my responsibility seriously and allowed myself ample time to review the mosaics.
While jurying the exhibition, I sometimes revisited my own strengths and weaknesses in various stages of developing as an artist. I could now see reflections of some of my own foibles in statements that were perhaps overly glib or sometimes unnecessarily obfuscating. Or maybe there was a time when I hadn’t presented an art work at its best. I could appreciate how painstaking the process of artistic development is by being on the other side of that looking glass. I even learned a few things about how I might photograph my work differently in the future.
I made many notes about compositions, techniques and materials that I might incorporate into my own work some day. During the jurying process, I borrowed an element of one of my favorite mosaics and painted it on the side of a ceramic ocarina I designed - it had such an elegant charm!
The experience itself shifted with the various stages of the jurying process. The first stage was not difficult because the jurors all seemed to concur on what should move on to stage two. The second round was more difficult because pieces that were quite competent were removed. Yet there seemed for the most part a confluence of selection. By the third stage I believe that some of the jurors’s differences began to emerge as the selection grew more subjective. What was interesting about jurying from a large pool of entries was that some of the images that tended to keep popping out strongly were often those that were simple yet iconic. I acknowledged this while attempting not to be too influenced by what I thought might be a kind of juror’s battle fatigue - losing the ability to concentrate on intricacy - for I love the particular complexity inherent in mosaics. At all stages I was acutely aware of the consequences of my choices. No matter how seasoned an artist is, a rejection still stings on some level. And it was a little sobering to feel that other artists were stung by my choices - which was one reason why I was grateful for these choices being shared among three jurors. I felt confident, though, that the process produced a great exhibition and was sorry I couldn’t see it in person.


Sonia King said...

Brava, Janet. Well written, thoughtful and important. Thank you.

Kelley Knickerbocker said...

Thank you, Janet, for participating in the MAI 2010 jury and for taking the time to let us into your process. I really enjoyed reading your words and understanding what this experience was like for you. I completely concur that it would be immensely helpful to us entrants to receive some sort of rating or comments on our entries; hope that becomes possible at some point.

krakenmosaics.com said...

I found your blog through Mosaic Art Now and felt prompted to comment.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I have often felt that the jurying process is a mysterious one. It helps to get inside the mind of a juror - especially one that has juried a medium that you work in.

You have made it easier to understand the overall process and have brought up some interesting points. I will be sure to review your thoughts before submitting my artwork in the future and I will certainly take better photographs!

Virginia Gardner said...

Janet, thank you for taking this time to create such a thoughtful response to the experience of jurying this show. It was a great pleasure listening to an explanation of your process, your considerations as the juror here and as the juried in other circumstances.

Pam Goode said...

Janet, I really appreciate this! I'm also deeply grateful for the time and effort and angst you took on when you agreed to jury the show -- I know it's a hugely exciting but DIFFICULT task. To go a step further and help illuminate the process for all of us is so generous.

OBJohn said...

I don't read many blogs, but I am glad I read this one.

The one point where I would differ from you is on the issue of whether the overall exhibition should represent all the different strands of contemporary mosaic. I would give little weight to this idea and just judge the works on merit.
I often feel that SAMA judges in the past have "let things in" just to make sure that there is "one of those" in the exhibition.
That point aside, I thank you for insightful comments and a job well done.

Vicki Hanson-Burkhart said...

Thank you Janet for this wonderful passionate account of a very difficult yet rewarding process. I'm sorry you were unable to attend the show, it was fabulous! A number of the pieces are still vivid in memory. Thank you for your commitment to SAMA for so many years and the promotion of mosaic fine art.

Roxana R. Nizza said...

Janet: Thank you so much for your wonderful and insightful blog. I often wondered about the process involved in jurying a mosaic show. I will definitely remember your words next time I submit my artwork to a juried show. I hope SAMA implements your advise and provide the submitting artist with a score or comments from the juror's in the future, it will be very helpful to hear from the experts what our weaknesses and strenghts are.