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