I’ll be the Judge of That – the Art Competition Minefield

The Table of Fraught Deliberation

A fortnight ago I spent two days closeted in a room with four colleagues, passing judgement on some 400 artworks, trundling before my eyes in the hands of a human conveyor belt. It was the eleventh Welsh Artist of the Year (WAotY) submission.

Now I’ve fought shy of this kind of judgement since I nearly presided over a village Easter egg decoration competition. Luckily then my Health Visitor warned me off and told me of a midwife who’d been drummed out of Dodge by angry villagers after a Bonny Baby competition. Why didn’t I remember that when the very persuasive Ruth Cayford of Saint Davids Hall asked me to be a judge? Luckily I had back up in the shape of Walter Keeler, Christopher Brown and Owen Griffiths and Ruth feeding us biscuits (the closest I’m ever going to get to a rock rider was asking for lemon puffs).

The sugar rushes were definitely necessary as the human conveyor belt ferried the 2D submissions past our eyes and we finally grasped the enormity of the task ahead. There are always so many things to take on board – the space, the audience, the balance of the overall exhibition – but the overwhelming feeling was that all of the judges wanted to ensure that the selected artists would be well represented by their work, and sometimes that involved some tough decisions – all consensual I might add.  But before you get over excited, I’m not going to emit any behind-the-scenes leakages, though I hope, by the power of the blog, to point up some things to think about when attaching cash money to a submission and sending it in, hoping it’ll be picked for exhibition or even to win.

As the submissions rolled past, what left me a bit perplexed was the very variable quality of works submitted, even given that there’s a built in duality to the competition as it’s open to amateur and professional artists. There were a few terrible framing and mounting choices, some effectively killing off the content; photographs that were cockled, badly cropped or that had slipped on the their mounts; works that I was familiar with in the context of the body of work they come from that looked odd as sole images.

The 3D works were also a bit of a challenge: some came with such complex installation instructions that it was clear that the entrants hadn’t considered the space in which they might be shown, others were impossibly fragile. And again the out-of-context nature of single works often fought against their ambition.

Meanwhile the new media category pointed up the problems of showing film or sonic work, originally intended to be embedded in a wider body of work and shown/experienced in a white box gallery space.

So here are my pointers, for what they may be worth, and I hope that with some time elapsed since the arrival of the rejection letters, this advice will help future applicants to sharpen up their submissions and win, win WIN!

  • Consider the context of the exhibition and the constraints of the space where the work will be shown – will it work? Will people be able to see it and understand it (especially if it’s one of a series)?
  • Take a long cool look at your submission: Does it do you justice? Is this the work you would like to represent your practice?
  • Ask a critical friend to have a look and give you honest feedback – what are you not seeing because you’re so familiar with the work? Are there flaws that could be dealt with or other works that would be more appropriate?
  • Consider the ultimate presentation: Are your installation requirements easily achievable? Are mountings/frames/plinths working with or against the work?
  • Does your technology work? Test CDs and DVDs on different computers and platforms and make sure that they open on everything.
  • For moving image work: Is it as crisp and tightly edited as it can be? Do sound and image quality match up?

Of course rejection is tough and we’ve all been there. My toppest of top tips is to go outside, kick something that won’t bleed, then ask for feedback and take it on board for next time. There are so many opportunities for you to send your work out into the world, with a cheque attached, that it’s worth taking a bit of time in considering which of the many open competitions and exhibitions would be the best investment for you.

And if these top tips are preaching to the converted, but you’d still like to get cross about something, have a look at what Maya Ramsay about has to say about pay-as-you-show opportunities in the latest Axis rant  The Art Lottery.

The Welsh Artist of the Year winners will be announced on Sunday05  June

Update: And the winner is… Paul Emmanuel

Congratulations to Paul and to all the category winners, the runner up, Pamela Rawnsley, and all the honourable mentions.

Other open submission shows to check out:

Mostyn Open 2011 21 May – 09 July

National Eisteddfod of Wales, Wrexham 30 July – 06 August


5 thoughts on “I’ll be the Judge of That – the Art Competition Minefield

  1. I symphatize with your ordeal Emma ( having experienced this but on a much smaller scale) and the task in hand must have been so difficult. Your recommendations for artists/exhibitors are invaluable and should perhaps be printed on every competition’s entry form. I am one of the lucky ones to have got the ok letter so that is why I can leave this nice comment.

  2. Well Emma, That sounds like a couple of bonkers days
    I tried this 11 years ago after graduating with no cigar.
    some weeks ago I went up the drive to fetch the post and saw the envelope with St Davids Hall and thought here go’s.
    I completely miss read it, and thought it a rejection and left it on the kitchen table.
    it was not until the next day that my partner said, Thats good news and I reread it ,so thank you to you all.
    I am now making for the jerwood drawing open, any tips. Rachael Whiteread is judging.
    Ps a friends little boy chose my entry

    • Congratulations Rob – it’s always worth having several goes at these things and definitely worth trusting the judgement of small people (I mean your friend’s son, not me).
      My top tips would be to apply for lots of things on a regular basis – even if you get rejected the chances are that someone on the panel will have been out-voted and like your work and will store you for future reference. Judging is so subjective it’s not worth taking the decisions too personally if you’re rejected. I still have all my reject letters from the days when I was still making things, but filed with all the nice letters and reviews, so it all balances out in the end. Best of luck with the Jerwood submission.

  3. Interesting points raised here Emma. It does seem to cost a fortune these days to get into exhibitions. I also read the Axis rant. But what are we all supposed to do. I entered and didn’t get chosen, but I put it down to selectors, trying to create an exhibition as a whole. I remember when I got into College in London, the first thing that was said to welcome us was that it wasn’t the work that got us a place it was our personality, and how well we all fit and work together. I think its the same for exhibition.
    But the downside of this is obviously when only the wealthy enter the opportunities. WAY is at least only £10.00. the Jerwood and the RA Summer shows are near on £50.00 when you factor in the delivery and collection of works..

    • Hi Helen, I know it’s tough deciding where to shell out precious cash and I think there’s still a gap in people’s understanding of how little artists actually earn from their practice, which is also why we should be keeping an eye on rates of pay for artists and exhibition fees as they seem to be lagging behind inflation. WAotY doesn’t actually make any money from the competition, but then for some small galleries this sort of competition with paid entries is a major source of income. I can promise you that personality didn’t play a part in the selection – it was done blind so we didn’t know who a lot of the entries were by.
      While open competitions are a good way of drawing attention to your work, it’s also worth researching galleries and curators who’s exhibition programmes seem in sympathy with your work and approaching them directly. Even if they don’t respond or do anything immediately they’ll be filing you away for future reference. Hope you’re luckier with other submissions in the future.

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