Earlier this month I had the honor and privilege to be one of 5 jurors of selection for the 2012 American Watercolor Society International Exhibition. AWS is one of the oldest and most prestigious watercolor organizations in the world and every artist who is ever juried into one of their annuals is understandably elated. I’m excited to share with you some of my thoughts about this amazing experience along with some information about the AWS jurying process.
This year’s 5 jurors of selection and the 3 awards jurors were chosen last spring by ballot vote from the signature members of AWS. The jurors of selection met in New York City the first week in January to choose this year’s exhibition and to vote on the submissions of those artists applying for signature membership. We were given electronic devices that contained only a “yes” button for voting. Votes were registered instantly and AWS President Jim McFarlane announced the results immediately with an “In”, “Out”, or “Maybe”. Images receiving 4 or 5 votes were “In”, images receiving 3 votes were “Maybe”, and images receiving 2 or less votes were “Out”.
The first step in the jurying process was a non-voting run through of the 1185 images entered this year. Each image was digitally projected onto a slide screen that was about 10 feet in front of where the jurors sat. The images were shown in the order they were received by AWS and there was no indication of whether the image we were viewing came from a signature member, associate member, or non-member. This initial non-vote viewing of all submitted entries took about an hour.
The next step was jurying the approximately 30 artists applying for signature membership. Each had submitted 2 images that were shown separately and then together. During the process of jurying for signature membership we could discuss the images and ask questions if we desired. 4 out of 5 votes were needed for signature membership, and if an artist received signature status, we then voted on which of his or her image would hang in the exhibition. This year, 19 new signature members were chosen.
After voting in the new signature members, we began the long process of choosing the rest of this year’s exhibition. During this part of the process we could not talk to each other or discuss the viewed images in any way other than to ask the painting’s size, and we did not know how the other jurors voted. Again, entries receiving 4 or 5 “yes” votes from the jurors were announced by the President McFarlane as “In”, those receiving 3 votes from the jurors were announced as “Maybe”, and those receiving less than 2 votes were announced as “Out.” At the end of this stage of the process, we were not told the number of “In” paintings, but I’m guessing it was in the 60 to 70 range. The final part of the procedure was to view and vote again on the images that were in the “Maybe” category, which I’m guessing was in the 60-70 range as well. This time, we could again discuss the images with each other before casting our final votes. When all the votes were tallied, 142 paintings were juried into this year’s AWS exhibition, which will open this April at New York City’s Salmagundi Club.
Being able to discuss when we voted in new signature members and when we voted on the “Maybe’s” was very enlightening for me because I saw that as jurors, each of us brought a different vision and viewpoint to the process. Over the years, I have heard much discussion concerning the multiple juror system versus the single juror system. Some believe that with multiple jurors the resulting exhibition is somewhat diluted because it comes down to a majority vote. However, having participated in both types of systems, I like the multiple juror system exactly because each juror comes with a very different and very personal point of view. These differences become their strengths, and each juror votes from individual and different strengths, which I believe adds “multiple strengths” to the show, perhaps making it more balanced in flavor.
Having had the opportunity to sit on both sides of the table – I’ve been “juried” and I’ve been “juror” – always reminds me of how subjective the whole jurying process really is. Jurors are given no standards or rules to guide them as they cast their votes. Each juror brings his or her own subjective and sometimes “quirky” ideas and opinions to the table, and it is those ideas and opinions – those “strengths” – that set the standards that guide his choices. In jurying an exhibition like AWS, the sheer number of entries alone is mind boggling. Things are happening so quickly during the jurying process that there is no time to analyze or even think about the image before you. There really isn’t time for anything more than a (hopefully well-informed) gut reaction – you like it or you don’t.
Here are some things I took away from this wonderful experience:
– To be accepted into an exhibition of this caliber, paintings need to be well put together and fully resolved.
– Don’t enter images that have been “done to death.” Stay away from the trendy subjects and styles that are featured in the latest watercolor books and magazines. We saw so many of those kinds of images that after awhile I started longing to see something I hadn’t seen (in what felt like a million times) before.
– Don’t paint like someone else. We saw a number of images that reflected who that artist had studied with, and many images similar to the work of popular watercolor workshop instructors.
– Make your work personal. Show your compulsions. Show your passion. It matters!