You know all those stupid, persnickety, idiotic, officious entry rules that show organizers dream up just to ruin an artist’s day? And those smug, supercilious (and expensive) suggestions they make regarding your need for better photography, displays, artist statements, etc…?

Uhm… They’re pretty much on target. After pulling together a (very small) juried competition for a local exhibit, I take back everything I’ve ever, ever said about that stuff.

Well, 90 percent of it, anyway. I’ve only walked maybe five feet in a show organizer’s shoes but as usual it’s an invaluable perspective-changer. So while all the more seasoned artfolk roll their eyes at my duh moments, lemme share a few things I’ve learned about entering juried competitions. With two caveats:

  • Don’t get the idea that there weren’t incredible pieces in this competition. There were. I saw some astonishingly cool stuff. This is NOT about bad work. Not at all.
  • Please, PLEASE do not think I’m speaking from vast experience as a successful artist or an expert on the secret to making juries love your work. I’d be delighted if either were true; they’re not. I’m sharing this because I am one of the worst at making these kinds of mistakes and I just got a taste of how badly I’ve damaged my chances in some competitions. Since I’m getting serious about this art stuff, I’m gonna try not to make those mistakes again.

Duh Moment #1: You really SHOULD read the competition rules. And follow them. To the letter. In this recent foray, we asked people to email images, information about the work, an artist statement and contact info. The idea was that I’d stick all the info in a spreadsheet, assign everybody a secret code to conceal their identities, then pull everything into an easy-to-use slideshow for the jurors.

Naturally, more than half the entries were missing at least one required element. For example, we asked for images by email but some gave us links to photo sites instead. Some sites were view-only and couldn’t be added to our slideshow; others required that I download and save the images, which took extra time.

This was a friendly, local exhibit where everybody knows everybody and it was perfectly fine for me to call and say, “Hey, you forgot to…” so I could complete the entry myself. But I spent an entire day doing that, and by 4 pm or so was strongly tempted to shove the rest of the incompletes in the trash.

What happens in a bigger competition?

Duh Moment #2: Take your cue from the criteria. Our exhibit is intended to educate the public on the great variety of glassmaking methods used by northwest artists, so we highlighted that in our list of judges’ criteria. Most of the submitted entries were flat, fused panels. It made for tremendous competition among fusers–your work had to REALLY stand out to be selected.

In contrast, there were relatively few works in other disciplines–casting, blown work, coldwork, torchwork, stained glass, etc.. Artists submitting those things had many fewer competitors and a much better chance of being selected. Most glassists try a variety of techniques, so those who understood the criteria and submitted work that emphasized the “variety of glassmaking methods” bit were far more successful.

Duh Moment #3: Be ready to answer questions. With answers. Nothing like calling someone to ask for missing stuff and hearing, “Oh, just put whatever you think the jurors will like” or “I don’t have time, can’t you make something up?” or “To tell the truth, I don’t know what I sent in. Can you send it back to me so I can see what I entered?”

Or “I DID send it in. It’s in the photo’s EXIF information. Just get it from Photoshop and copy it into your form.” I politely suggested that the artist do that. “Oh, well, if you insist, but it’s a lot more work for me.”

No comment.

Duh Moment #4: The photography makes a HUGE difference. Sometimes I knew the artist, may have even known the particular piece, and absolutely KNEW that it was exquisite…but the bad photo completely killed it, and that was all the jurors would see.

I wanted to add little notes to the jurors: “This piece looks a LOT better than this snapshot. That big white blotch on the left is actually a…” but that wouldn’t have been fair to works I hadn’t seen in person.

This wasn’t a professional competition, and we didn’t say “don’t just send in a snap from your cameraphone.” But it got so I breathed a sigh of relief every time a professionally done photo popped up. Here’s why the pro photos were better:

  • There was nothing else to look at but the art. No blown-out highlights. No distracting patches of grass or rice or tree bark or wrinkled sheets for backdrops or the dog’s nose or your hand or (in one case) the overdue bill notice in the background. My attention was riveted on the work.
  • I didn’t worry about what I wasn’t seeing. When the photo was cropped too tightly around the work (or worse, chopped parts off), I started to wonder. Was there some horrid problem with the part I couldn’t see? I had no idea.
  • I didn’t worry about what I WAS seeing. Nothing out of focus, leading me to wonder if the work was supposed to be like that or it was just the camera. Transparent looked transparent, opaque looked opaque (which is probably the toughest thing to get right when you’re photographing glass).
  • I COULD see it. In one case, the photo was so underexposed I couldn’t tell if the glass was colored or black and white. In another, a white or maybe clear work was photographed on a white background. It might have been a spectacular and technically extremely difficult piece…or an ordinary fused glass panel. I couldn’t tell because it blended so perfectly with its background.
  • It gave me a reference. This one is probably the hardest for even a photographer to get right. Photographing a work head-on, and filling the frame with it, may seem like the best way to present your work, but it can also tend to flatten it. Proper lighting and a slight shift in angles can work wonders. And sometimes giving the piece a little more breathing room gives a better idea of size and how it will look on display. I’m so intuned with my work that I sometimes have trouble doing this; a pro who knows how to shoot art seems to do it almost instinctively.

Duh Moment #5: NEVER apologize. I’m probably the worst offender at this, but after seeing how it looks from the other side, I’ll never do it again. “I’m sorry for the bad photos,” or “I couldn’t decide whether I liked the blue or the green better, so I’m submitting both. Let the jurors decide,” or “This wasn’t finished, but I decided to send it in anyway. When it’s done, it’ll have battuto work on the clear parts and…”

Now, this was a friendly competition, as I’ve said, and I was buddies with many of the entrants, so they probably told me what they wouldn’t have told, say, the Smithsonian. And as a buddy, it was fine. As someone running a competition, though, it was a problem on several levels.

We’re taught to be modest, and the best way to do that is to be the first to criticize our own work. Showing our artwork is one of the purest, nakedest ways to invite public examination, so the temptation to diminish it is immense.

You’ve lived with the work, you know it intimately. Others don’t. If you tell them that what you just submitted isn’t good enough, who are they to disagree? In a couple of cases, the artist so thoroughly trashed his/her own work that I felt embarrassed to find I really liked it.

And unfinished work isn’t fair to anybody. If you tell me what your piece WILL look like, you’re asking me to take a work on faith…when your competitors are already finished.

The most blushingly revelatory of all: Pointing out all the flaws in your work. I can’t count the number of times I’ve jumped in with a defect list and had an admiring viewer stare at me in astonishment. “But that’s what I liked about your work–I thought it was supposed to be that way.”

Hearing others do the same thing, I realized just how damaging it is. First, it puts your work under a magnifying glass far more critical than the one on your competition, where the judges weren’t given such a detailed map of flaws. They might have missed a flaw, or seen it as a charming part of the artistic process. Now they won’t.

Second, it points out what the viewer missed, implying they’re not doing a very good job. Dissing the viewer isn’t a great way to get him on your side.

This competition has taught me to just put out the best work I can, and keep quiet. No apologies, explanations or promises. If it’s good enough to submit, I need to trust that it can stand on its own.

Nothing earthshaking in any of this, I know, but it makes a world of difference to experience it firsthand from the other side. Maybe all serious artists need to manage a juried show at least once, to really get this.

And now I need to go back and revise a couple of my jury submissions…