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Notes from the St. Louis Art Fair Mock Jury

Late in 2015, after I'd been rejected again from some of the top shows in the country, I was on a different forum, moaning about my plight. Someone said that the best insights I could have would be to sit in on an open jury. 

A few days later, the mock jury presentation opened in Zapp. I was one of the first 150 who applied, and so I was accepted. I could hit St. Louis with only a slight detour on my route to Arizona to visit my dad and participate in the Tubac Arts Festival. 

I went with some trepidation. I'm self-taught, started painting 10 years ago when I was 50, and so I am relatively new to the art festivals. I have self-doubt from those situations and from a lifetime of self-doubt, and so I was quite nervous about putting my work up for critique in such a public forum, while I was in the room. But this is the year I stop hesitating because I'm afraid, so off I went. 

The event was held in the conference room of a Budweiser distribution company. There was room for probably 50 attendees, but only 15 or 20 attended. About a dozen emerging artists attended, as well. Many of them, interestingly, were in their 50s and above. 

SLAF President and Executive Director Cindy Lerick and Deputy Director Laura Miller organized the presentation, greeted us cheerily and dealt with all the technological particularities (they were doing a webinar for the first time). 

In a typical SLAF jury, there are five jurors. For the mock jury, there were two - Steve Teczar,artist and retired professor of Art at Maryville University in St. Louis; and Peg Fetter, jewelry artist and metal smith. 

Typically, a SLAF jury would receive 1281 applications and choose 150 from them. The waiting list is another 11.7 percent of the total. Missouri applicant make up 8 percent of the total, Lerick said; first-time applicants make up 25 percent of the total. 

The SLAF jury process is three rounds, Lerick said. The first two are yes/no/maybe and it takes a unanimous five "no"s to drop an applicant. In the third round, jurors slow down a little, comment and wrangle. Peg said that when she participated as a juror, the process took 27 hours, and was more than a little contentious at many points. 

The mock jury presentation was set up as the SLAF jury is set up, i.e., five slides - four of work and one of the booth - are shown at the same time. In the regular jury process, they said, the jurors look at the work for about 10 seconds before voting. 

Generally, in my opinion, the work that was submitted was good, though I have to say that I found only a handful of the entries actually exciting. The jewelry category had the best work overall, in my opinion. To my eyes, the sculpture category was the most uneven, with many artists making similar work (small, eccentric, amusing pieces made with reclaimed materials). The sculptors who made different work stood out astonishingly - to me, at least. 

Over the course of the day, several themes emerged. In general, the booth shots were where much of the focus was directed. I was amazed at the many booth shots that were just horrible. EZUps put up crookedly, with the sides open, junk piled in front and a standing fan in the middle. Sagging walls with drooping fabric on them. "Booth shots" that were just tables set up in a gymnasium - or basement, or garage - with chairs and boxes visible in the backgrounds. Booth shots with sunshine slicing across the ground and up the wall, obscuring the work. Booth shots obviously (to the experts' eye) photoshopped. 

Like everyone, I've wondered at the stress that's placed on the booth shot, and now, I understand it a little better. It's incredibly difficult to cut 1281 entries down to 150. I think that the standout work declares itself - at least it did, to my eyes, during the presentation. The truly bad work - and there was some of it, in my opinion, in the presentation - also declares itself.

And then there's the rest of it. If a lot of the work is sort of typical, middling, seen before, this is where the jury shot makes the difference. 

So, people, don't send terrible booth photos to juries. Set up your booth in the back yard, in the driveway, somewhere where you can find even light without bright sunlight or dark shadows. Don't clutter your booth with too much work. That was one of the themes. Again and again and again, the jurors said the booths were cluttered. They wanted to booths to be elegant, spare. "Galleristic" is the word they used. Put up the work then take a third of it down. 

They hated nearly all the booths with brown as the background. Oatmeal-colored backgrounds often got "anemic" comments from the jurors. Peg did not respond well to white or black backgrounds generally, though there were many exceptions; she was not just against white or black, but to her eyes, these colors either washed out the work or were too bleak for the work. A medium gray was what these two jurors suggested repeatedly. A number of times, Steve suggested using a color - not red! - on one wall. 

A few random observations...

  • The jurors - and even the audience, after seeing about 50 entries - could tell professional photography from homemade shots, especially in the jewelry category. 
  • Do not include frames in your images. 
  • Surprisingly, at least to me, the jurors were accepting of some shots I'd not have expected they're like. Jewelers who sent photos with multiple pieces in the same shot, that was OK. One sculptor sent a shot of a couple pieces on the wall, and included the edges of two chairs, to give a sense of scale. That was fine. One box-maker had a photo that showed the box at the top, and a detail of the box at the bottom. And re the recent discussion here about detail shots, these two jurors were OK with several detail shots that artists entered. 
  • Work on your 100- or 200- or 300-character descriptions. The SLAF jury reads these out loud, on the third round (I believe). Just because Zapp implies that you should be giving technical details of the work, that doesn't mean you must. And if you enter two bodies of work, tweak your description. Don't just send in the same one for both bodies of work.
  • If your booth shot is photoshopped, and the jurors realize that, they will toss you out. 

As for my own work, I got no life-changing comments from the jurors, but that was OK. I got a lot of ideas over the course of the day, and understand much better now how to make my entries stand out from the pack. 

The most important thing I took away from this event came from Cindy and Laura, the organizers. They stressed that we, the artists, are the stakeholders, and that they, the show organizers, are happy to help. We should call with questions about our art, our application, our booth, anything. They are there to help us! 

So, thank you, SLAF. You have definitely helped me see my art in a different light. 

Above, the jury looks at work by jeweler Cynthia Battista

Views: 2764

Comment by Connie Mettler on January 25, 2016 at 11:29am

Yes! another great review of the jury process at the SLAF. Some great points worth remembering.

Worth the trip, wasn't it, Carrie? I'd guess your presentation is already pretty good given some of the good shows you've gotten into. To me the bottom line (if  you've got great exceptional work and a pristine booth image) is then you have to beat the competition. But in the best shows great work and good booth are a given (otherwise no way will you get to round two), then you tweak to your best ability, continue to believe in yourself, continue to grow and then cross your fingers! No one, no one gets into all the good shows.

Comment by Barrie Lynn Bryant on January 25, 2016 at 2:15pm

Such a fine review, Carrie. You are a precious gemstone. Thanks so much for the news.

Now you might want to try and jury into the Coors Western Art Show & Sale held in Denver during the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo. It's a January indoor event. I saw their application on Juried Art Services to my surprise. They used to not ask for apps, they just curated it themselves. We did it in 1997.

Good luck, and I look forward to seeing you down the road at some shows. WOOHOO!

Comment by Connie Mettler on January 25, 2016 at 4:39pm

Carrie -- you still painting some farm animals? Then seems Barrie's suggestion might be a great one. I know you are up for adventures ... getting away from the regular string of events sometimes is thrilling and brings good rewards. Happy travels to you.

Comment by Alison Fox on January 25, 2016 at 5:57pm

Thank you thank you Carrie for this. I watched the mock jurying on line. I will being calling them and questioning juror Steve Teczar. He actually was puzzled by my images and actually thought "Decals" might have been on one piece. Decals. He nit-picked my booth image even tho Larry Berman had done it and as we all know, Larry knows what the jurors want.  Peg Fetter got my work and the booth shot, beautifully. I'm so glad you posted this critique. I so love Art Fair Insiders and all it offers.  Sure I know jurying and art is very subjective but to hear what this man said was unconscionable to me. Very 'elitist' and not very artistic IMHO. These individuals have our income in their hands.

Comment by Al Scovern on January 25, 2016 at 8:39pm
Carrie-- thanks for a terrific and incredibly helpful review.
Comment by carrie jacobson on January 25, 2016 at 8:55pm

Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone. I appreciate it.

Connie and Barrie Lynn, yes, I am still happily painting farm animals, and will apply to the the Coors show. I think I applied this year and didn't get in. I applied to some big western show that wasn't on Zapp last year. Think it was that one. 

Alison Fox, I don't recall the "decal" discussion, but I would encourage you to call the SLAF folks and talk to them. They were so open, so receptive, so positive - it was great. 

And Connie, I know no one gets into all the shows, but still, it's just so depressing to get slapped around, whap, whap, whap. It seems there's a particularly depressing string of rejections in January, and I just got another one today... but I felt much stronger, much more resilient. 

Comment by Barrie Lynn Bryant on January 25, 2016 at 10:05pm

Carrie, you might also look into Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale in Cody, Wyoming and the Mountain Oyster Club Art Show in Tucson, Arizona. I probably steered you in this direction last year. You've probably missed the deadline for Buffalo Bill 2016, but it's a tough safe to crack anyway. All three of these western themed shows are high end shows, with the Cody venue topping the list. All sell work in a gallery style setting on a commission basis, but I don't know the split since I've been out of the loop for a while. I visited the Cody venue last August and it was one of the finest shows I've seen there. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is AWESOME! Mountain Oyster Club may be the most accessible for you and anyone doing western themed art. Your longhorn cattle would be great. Think like a rancher, not like a farmer. Paint ranch scenes, not farm scenes. This is the WEST! Now giddy-up! WOOHOO!

Comment by Alison Fox on January 25, 2016 at 10:36pm

Carrie it was not a "discussion" but more of a comment by him.  It was definitely a SLAP.  And his comments about my booth were not warranted.  He was acting in a very elitist way. Did not appreciate that type of jurying in any way as I'm sure any artist would.  I'm also sure you did not remember every convo but as this was my work, I clearly made notes.  I will be contacting them.

Comment by Connie Mettler on January 26, 2016 at 9:32am

Please do that, Alison. As Carrie has said above, Cindy Lerick and Laura Miller, really want to provide services to artists and are open to hearing from you. You are a veteran of this business. It is really interesting to see your work misinterpreted (interesting to me -- much worse for you, I know). 

For those following this discussion, here is a podcast we did a while back about how art fairs choose their juries and what to expect from them: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/artfairs/2012/11/21/how-art-fairs-choo...

Comment by Connie Mettler on January 26, 2016 at 9:53am

I'd like to do a podcast about "I didn't get in" ... something like that soon. Any suggestions for an angle, or people you think would add value to this?

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