Besides being a long-time member of the American Academy of Equine Art, I belong to several other national art organizations. I like to associate with other artists, to learn from them, share their experiences and inspire my eyes. Whenever I go to an exhibit or show opening, I return home, my spirits refreshed, determined to renew my efforts.
Last year I was at the conference of one of these organizations. Its annual exhibit displays about 225 pieces each year and, lucky enough to have made it past the jury, I was one of the 225. Getting into a show is always important (to the individual), but here––to achieve the level of Signature Member (when you are permitted to use the initials of the organization after your name on the painting)––the Associate must have his/her work included in three shows within five years. In any given year several thousand entries are judged. Do the math: it ain’t easy. It isn’t meant to be.
While attending the conference, I went to a breakout meeting to hear a speaker, a fine painter whose work I admired. He began his talk with this:
“I am often asked: ‘Who do you have to know to get into this show?’
The knowing audience nodded and chuckled, at one time or another, most sitting there had probably wondered the same thing. But the speaker had this follow up:
“Not me, apparently! I didn’t get into this show…and I didn’t get into the
show before that!”
As intended, this news received a great laugh from his audience––the speaker was the president of the organization!
The quip was a great opener. But it served another purpose: the speaker was assuring his listeners that whatever else could be said about the process, the exhibit was based on the honest opinions of the jury. We were all in the same boat.
And that is the key word: Opinions of the jury. No judge, jury committee, or process is perfect. But in a competitive world, how can an artist stand out among thousands? How can he/she make a successful submission to a show? Here are a few things to consider:
- READ THE PROSPECTUS. I was halfway through my list before I remembered this one, and once I did, I put it at the top.
Nothing is easier for a jury than to exclude work that falls outside the parameters of the show. If your piece is larger than the maximum size allowed, it is out. If you submit a landscape, and the show is specifically for horses, it is out. Ditto: if your entry is late, if your image is in the wrong format, if your work is plagiarism (I’ve seen it). Sometimes rules state a painting is ineligible if it has appeared in a previous show, or was not painted recently. The stakes for the organization are high: they do not want to offend a gallery or collector, or jeopardize a sale or an award.
Requirements and instructions are usually straightforward, and often it requires a simple uploading of an image from your files and forwarding, or mailing a CD.
- LEARN WHAT THE JURY MIGHT CONSIDER “CLICHÉ.” If you have “seen it before,” rest assured the jury has too. Like all of us they want their eyes to light up.
For example: if you enter a portrait piece into a portrait show, and your piece is a typical “head and shoulders” portrait, with bland light, bland brush work (and looking much like a high school yearbook photo), it may struggle to stand out from the other dozen or so that look much the same. Improve your chances by submitting something unique (or at least rare) that depicts your subject in flattering attire, setting, or light.
- DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Look through archived websites, catalogs; look at the work of previous (or current) masters. Look at successful compositions: which paintings win awards? Don’t be discouraged by their success––emulate it. At some point, we artists all begin on the same rung of the ladder.
What are the odds? Find out how many entrees are typical for a particular show, and given the size of the display space, how many are likely to be chosen from among the entrees.
If the show will be in another city, Google the gallery, museum, etc., so you have some idea what the facility is like.
- PAINT TO YOUR STRENGTH. Submit your very best work.
If your brushwork is bold and clever, exhibit that strength. If your landscapes are particularly good, play that up. For us at the AAEA: if your horses are strong, but your (human) figures are weak––show us a beautiful horse.
In entering a show, your aim should be higher than to merely get in the show––it should be to win ‘Best In Show!’ It may be tempting fate to expect this outcome, but it should be your aim.
- DON’T BE DISCOURAGED
Having successfully entered last year’s show is no guarantee you get into this year’s show. It doesn’t work that way. There is not an artist alive who hasn’t been rejected. I know artists in the full stride of successful careers who have “not made the cut.” I can count myself––and quite recently. Like many of you, I have experienced that moment of opening an e-mail notification only to have my jaw drop: “That show? They rejected me?” That show?”
Every artist entering a show wants his/her work accepted as much as you. In that sense, you are in competition with them from the time the prospectus goes out. Perseverance pays off: if they are rejected, they will be back next time with a better piece. Will you?
- EYES OPEN:
Judges are not Gods. In most cases they are idiots. I know of what I speak, having been on both sides of Olympus (see: Point 5). My first time as a judge, the show runner shipped me six carousels of slides, containing 500 entrees. They wanted to hang “about fifty.” My eyes were opened to how difficult the process is.
There has never been a show––not anytime, not anywhere––that has satisfied one hundred percent of its audience or applicants. Hello! Ever hear of the Salon des Refusé––Paris, 1863? The Trojan War? Anyone? The Judgment of Paris?
It is a crapshoot, a gamble; awards go to inferior work all the time, work gets included that shouldn’t be, good work gets left out. Happens all the time, at all levels.
When the exhibit finally opens: Never consider the worst paintings in the show (that show you did not get in) to be your personal hurdle. That painting did not keep you out.
Every show will have a top echelon, those works that were included from the first glance–– often you can spot them yourself. Then comes the middle echelon: those pieces that were judged “Pretty good. Yeah, okay––that one’s in.” After that, the judges’ work is really cut out for them. They may decide they have too many landscapes already, or head studies, or big horse eyeballs––whatever it is, they have too many––and they begin to look for variety.
It becomes more and more subjective.
I hope this gives you some perspective on the process. Work at it. Be your own harshest critic, never settle for “good enough,” and we will see you in the next show.