Constance Mettler

Call for Artists, Making Money at Juried Art Fairs, Craft Shows and Festivals

  I went to the Broad Ripple Art Fair Open Jury in Indianapolis in February. I got to be a "fly on the wall," watching five judges as they decided the fate of 539 artists that had applied for the show.

   Because I am a jewelry artist who participates in juried art shows, and because the jury process has always been dark and mysterious to me, I decided to attend. It was a show to which I had applied, located an hour from my home, and an invitation had been emailed to all applicants.

     When I got there they were finishing up in the photography category. It was in a conference room with a large screen in the front, where the digital images were projected. The five judges sat at two long tables in the front row. Each judge had a laptop in front of them, seeing the same images that were being projected on the large screen. As they viewed the images - all three plus a booth image, the narrator read out loud the artist statement. There is very little interaction between the judges. The images would be up for about 30-40 seconds, the judges would mark their scores, and go on to the next artist.

   I found it fascinating to see the artist entries for photography. They ran the gamut from traditional to contemporary and realism to abstract. Seeing exactly what the judges saw, and in the short time given for each entry, I started to gain an appreciation for the challenge of judging an art show.

    It's all subjective, after all.

     After photography there was a break for lunch and then the jewelry category began. The host briefly showed images from each entry in the category. Then he went back through them, giving 30-40 seconds per artist, while the narrator read the artist statement. Since jewelry is my category, I was especially attentive to the images presented, the booth image, and what the artist said about his or her work. With 128 entries, the highest number of any category, it can all start looking the same after a while.

      "We should score down every time the term 'unique' or 'one of a kind' is used!" one of the judges jokingly said during a break.

    I have done juried art shows for over 20 years, but in the last few years I have totally upgraded and streamlined my booth. I got great direction and advice from fellow artists on Art Fair Insiders. I realized my booth was preventing me from getting accepted to certain shows. Now my booth is simple and uncluttered. So in viewing the jury images I was very interested in seeing other booth shots. What I saw ran the gamut from the cheap craft fair variety of booth to gorgeous hand crafted booths that are the perfect reflection of the jewelry sold. The ones that stood out were those that quite simply, in an aesthetically pleasing way, told customers non-verbally "great jewelry here". A consistent theme I saw was "less is more". No clutter, no signs,  just tastefully designed displays with fabric drops and large images of jewelry pieces. The art reflects the booth and the booth reflects the art. 

    Another element I saw in viewing the artist entries was that the pieces were consistent. It wasn't necessarily similar in color or size, but harmonious one to the next. It was obvious they were made by the same artist and with the same intent. The ones that showed visual harmony between the pieces made the strongest statement and, I'm sure, earned the highest scores.

    I felt that my jury images had the level of harmony from one to the next. I have worked hard to present consistent images of originality and craftsmanship that look harmonious. I also knew that my booth image complements the art and is streamlined and aesthetic. It was gratifying, after all that I have invested, to see my projected images on the big screen. I really thought I had a good shot at acceptance to the show. 

      So it was with a good dose of disappointment that I read the email two days later, thanking me for my entry but regretfully being rejected. This morning I received another email, delineating the scores given to each entry. Mine was a 2.8, out of a possible 7. Ouch! That's not even high enough to get on the wait list! 

     So, it was a great learning for me. I have gained a valuable insight into what was before a dark and nebulous process. What will I take from this? 

  • The jury process is largely subjective. It is subject to the opinion /eye /mood of the individual judges.
  •  Each year the judges are different and therefore the chance to be accepted or rejected change, but the process will still be subjective. 
  • As an artist it is within my power alone to create my best art, represented by great photographs, and described by the most succinct and impactful artist statement. 
  • As an artist it is not within my power to decide what the judges will accept or reject.
  • This is a competition and as artists who compete we push to be the best we can be. 
  • If you don't compete you will never win.

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Comment by Karen Holtkamp on March 23, 2015 at 10:52am

I, too, am on Broad Ripple's humongous wait list with a humiliating score of 3.2.  It's also interesting to note that while their wait list for each category is almost endless, the artists who were rejected in each category were many times just a handful, and their scores might have been just one-tenth below the cut-off line.  This told me that the overall quality of applicants must have been very high.

I was just mildly upset about my Broad Ripple results, though, because I applied BEFORE I had attended Columbus Art Festival's open jury.  What an eye-opener (and I apologize for not getting my report posted in a timely manner).  The highlights:

1. The show director opened by telling the jurors they were NOT there to curate a museum exhibit or even populate an art show; they were there to select art that would be purchased by attendees from the Columbus region.  An interesting and welcome distinction, which hopefully the jurors followed.

2.  The five jurors were ALL from academia and four out of the five seemed to be in their mid twenties-to-early thirties.  The fifth juror was perhaps late forties-to-mid-fifties.  The director said that all jurors were also working artists. (But not full-time working artists I assume, what with their teaching schedules.)

3.  There were over 1,100 applicants for 300+ spots.  An entry consisted of 4 work pics and 1 booth pic.

4.  The jurying was done over two days.  On day one, every entry received a Yes, No or Maybe score.  On day two, the remaining Yes and Maybe entries were scored 1-7 with no 4.

5.  Each category was introduced with the definition of the category and a quick run-through of each entry.  All five shots were projected in unison and taken down in unison. Then the scoring round began.

During the scoring round, when again all five shots go up and down in unison, each entry was projected for THREE SECONDS, then the next entry was immediately projected, and so on until the category was complete.  During each entry's three-second display time, the jurors were to see the pics, evaluate the pics, and enter a score on their laptops.  If looking at the images projected on the wall, a juror would have to literally turn his or her head to the left and right to see all five pics.  If looking at their laptop, they were seeing thumbnail images that were quite small, about the size of the photo images used here next to each person's comment.

Three seconds is an incredibly short period of time to see, digest and evaluate multiple images.  It brought home loud and clear the need for a consistent body of work.  Any image that requires close examination -- such as those that include verbiage or other subtle elements in the work -- will be completely lost in the rush.

In three seconds, there is time for the jurors to get an impression of your work, rather than to see your work in detail.  It must be a single impression, with nothing jarring or disjointed.

The applications for the most part showed very high quality work and professional images.  Many hundreds of artists were not invited who IMHO were absolutely qualified for a spot, but only 25% of the applicants could be accepted.  It was a tough job for the jurors.  And, BTW, a poor booth display trumped good work images.

My take-away?  I spent the next two weeks in my studio producing work strictly for applications. No intention to actually sell any of it.  I now have three sets of five images in three different colorways, with consistent colors and designs chosen strictly for how they translate in photos. 

Let's see if that works.

Comment by Robin Chard on March 21, 2015 at 11:20am

Thanks for the great info. I didn't realize that. I've decided to really beat the bushes and find nice little shows within an hour to fill the spots. You know sometimes you can end up with more profit from a little show with little expenses. And you are not out all that stock that takes so long to make to make up for the bloated booth fee.

Comment by Leo Charette on March 21, 2015 at 9:32am

To Robin Chard, you wrote:

"I was waitlisted at Broad Ripple and was feeling ok about that, then saw how many people were waitlisted. My score was 3.2 and I thought maybe its out of 5! then I saw some had 6.6. Can anyone tell me why their waitlist is so huge? I felt better for about 5 days till I saw how BIG the waitlist was."

There are several large shows on that weekend (May 16-17)

Reston's Northern Virginia Arts Festival, VA
Belleville's Art on the Square, IL
Springfield's Old Capitol, IL
Broadripple Art Fair, IN
Marion Art Festival, IA
East Lansing Art Festival, MI, etc., etc.

Shows recognize that artists will shuffle from one show to another as they are called of the wait list. I think Deb Bailey at Marion Art Festival explains this very well. From their prospectus:

"Special note: our alternate list is of a potentially-distressing size. We'll establish a list that is at least one (and in some instances two or three) artists-deep for each of our 50 spots. By way of example, if our jurors invite 9 ceramicists, we will likely have 15+ alternates (or rather, those who will have us, as being an alternate is nobody's idea of fun).

We do this because we're competing with other top-ranking shows in Belleville, IL and Reston VA our same weekend. As folks from our original slate of invitees inevitably are called up by those shows, we turn to artists who best fill the niche represented/left by that original exhibitor. It works this same way in all media categories: we fill a ceramics booth with another like-minded ceramicist, jewelry with another like-minded jeweler, et al."

Of course, this doesn't help me as an artists, trying to put a season of shows together. Sigh!

Comment by Robin Chard on March 21, 2015 at 1:19am

Robert, I did the Butchertown Fare last year and was stuck at the end of the row and still had about 1300 in sales. And I live here so low expenses. easy in/out and a laid back show. I plan on applying again. I dont know anyone who did Photography or 2 D  at the show so I can just say how I did. I did 4th street last year and it was a good show. Madison,Chautauqua was my bestshow last year. Sorry my laptop is giving me fits and keeps dropping my post

Comment by Robert Wallis on March 20, 2015 at 9:29pm
Robin, there are a bunch of shows I don't get into; Naperville Riverwalk, Bloomington Fourth Street not since 2005, no longer in Cincinatti Summerfair,adison Art on the Square, Belleville, BRAF, and the list goes on. What seems to work are the lesser known shows or the smaller ones that the "big boys and girls" don't bother with. Those smaller ones frequently work by having less competition and lower fees so the end result is just about as profitable with less work to replace. There's one in Louisville, Butchertown Art Fair, that I'm trying to find info on now to see if it's worthwhile or not. So far no answer from my relatives about it.
Comment by Robin Chard on March 20, 2015 at 8:22pm

Thanks for the info Sandy. I was waitlisted at Broad Ripple and was feeling ok about that, then saw how many people were waitlisted. My score was 3.2 and I thought maybe its out of 5! then I saw some had 6.6. Can anyone tell me why their waitlist is so huge? I felt better for about 5 days till I saw how BIG the waitlist was. And Robert , I didnt get into Francisco's Farms this year. I really hope its not going to be one of those years where jurries just dont like me. Ya never know.

Comment by Robert Wallis on March 20, 2015 at 12:57pm

Broad Ripple has been an interesting experience for me, being in the show from 1988 to 2001 and not being able to get back in since. The photo entries have always been intriguing there, with a heavy proportion of what I thought were cliched images albeit well done. One year I felt terribly insulted when my ranking was close to the bottom. Closer inspection, and this was when they were still using 35mm slides, I realized I was checking the slides by direct inspection and not through a projector. After ZAPP, it didn't get a whole lot better. After attending the St. Louis mock juries, I realized what i was doing wrong. I didn't get in this year, but made the wait list. After the scores came in, I was third on the wait list and all three of us had the same score. I'll be doing another show instead that will be more profitable because of lower show expenses, but the need to have a good booth shot and an integrated cohesive body of work is very much in evidence at BRAF.

Comment by Chris Gug on March 20, 2015 at 11:32am

I took advantage of the pre-screening event by the Naples Art Association, and found it to be infinitely insightful.  I couldn't believe that only 6 artists attended - I drove 2 hours from Fort Lauderdale. 

I went to study one specific item - what is so much better about my competition that they (same medium of photography, same general subject matter, but IMHO, have sub-par work and booths) are getting into shows that I am rejected from?  What I discovered, is that I saw absolute complete 100% computer-generated fraudulent booth shots with their art digitally inserted into their booths with fake walls, prints bigger than they print, and with their completely fake booth looking like a million bucks!  I have been an expert in Photoshop for many years, and am regularly called on by international photo competitions to evaluate if finalists have broken digital manipulation rules before being awarded - so I can pick out things that most couldn't.

Anyway, I did explain this to the show, and prove this, not out of sour grapes, but because fair is fair and rules are rules!  I'm getting rejected for playing by the rules, and my competition is getting in with complete fraud (and of course, their booths at shows look nothing like their jury images).  And the Photoshop offenders still got into the show (as did I), but I was just trying to point out how valuable these open juries are - at least now I know WHY.  Makes an honest guy consider working some fraud myself  :)  (just kidding)  (kindof)

Comment by geri a. wegner on March 20, 2015 at 12:08am

I always found that the best art festivals are those that even if you don't care for a particular medium or a style of art, you understand why they were juried into that show or--you don't have to like it to recognize that it is good.

Comment by Sandy Walker on March 19, 2015 at 9:03pm

  Thank you all for the comments and very helpful responses. I do believe that with juried shows that are worth their salt, the jurors are seasoned, educated artists or teachers who can make informed decisions based on their depth of training in the arts. So it is subjective but the subjectivity is well justified.

Connie, I still love to go to the show as a spectator. I have had the pleasure of meeting some artists in person there that I have first met on this forum. It is a great fair and I am just glad to have seen the jury process firsthand.

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