Democracy or excellence?

Dear Artist, When our kids were small they were regularly stationwagonned over to our local Yamaha School of Music. There, in a well-trodden storefront they became minor masters of piano, guitar and the console of the mighty Yamaha. Before long, with glowing hearts, Carol and I decided it was time for them to appear in the Annual Yamaha Concert Event. In a huge rented venue, 150 kids demonstrated to parents, grandparents and various uncles and aunts the brilliance of the Yamaha method. We’d already filled our home with Yamaha products, so bringing our kids to the concert stage and amortizing our investment seemed the right thing to do.

A simple sanctuary in a tangled garden

After a torturous three hours of Fur Elise, Canon in G Major and Bach Inventions, we were treated to the much anticipated Awards Ceremonies. What blew us away was that every kid got an award–some of them pretty impressive. Even Billy Puffer, our neighbor’s kid, who had murdered Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to the point of audience tittering, found himself in possession of a brass object the size of a Volkswagen. “Most improved student?” I wondered, cautiously. Nope. These kids got awards for merely trying, for merely showing up. I’m writing to you while waiting for an inter-island ferry. My daughter, Sara, and I are returning from giving our first father/daughter workshop–38 marvelously keen students. As is my habit, at the end we gave a few insignificant but useful prizes to what we thought were the best seven paintings of the week. Consequently, most artists left our workshop without a prize, and Sara and I are starting to worry about it.

Pristine subject matter at our feet

These folks had all paid the same fees, worked just as hard and turned out similar numbers of works. Some made remarkable improvement during the event. Sara and I just thought that the work of the few we chose was a bit more successful than the rest of the group. What do you think? Some of our workshoppers had been painting for 30 years, only to be beaten out on the prizes by some upstart whippersnapper. Is there a possibility that we may have discouraged more than we encouraged? Is there a possibility that we gave false hope to some who might need to further mature?

A relaxed, spacious environment of learning

Oh, and another thing — Billy Puffer now pulls the lever on the Sno-Cone machine at the Duke Point ferry terminal. He no longer plays the piano. Best regards, Robert PS: “Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with your performance yesterday.” (Irwin Greenberg)

A time for contemplation and consideration

Esoterica: Our workshop was at a marvelous retreat called Hollyhock on Cortes Island, BC, Canada. Hollyhock offers an alternative lifestyle, vegetarian cuisine, a riot of gardens and pristine beaches with optional bathing in the buff. The whole thing was pretty spiritual. Sara and I maintained a workmanlike focus and brought diversity to the crits and instruction. We made people work hard. We’ll probably do it again — if we’re asked.   Hollyhock (Cortes Island) Workshop with Robert and Sara Genn, 2011

A copacetic location and a free spirit


A bit of clowning around during demos


A quiet spirit passes through in the early morning


New friends in the garden of friendship


A sylvan experience of learning and growing


A quiet corner for painterly meditation


The joy of art in the Northern Gulf Islands, BC


Sara Genn critiques a thirty seven minute sketch

            Something for everyone by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA  

“Peonies and White Cup”
oil painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Gregory Packard

For some your prizes will be the one shining note in their entire painting career. For some, those who didn’t receive a prize, it will be the straw that finally ends the joy in painting for them, and for still yet a small fraction of others who didn’t get a prize they will strive to prove you wrong and perhaps go on to greater things. And, finally, some simply won’t care.     There are 6 comments for Something for everyone by Gregory Packard
From: Dottie Dracos — Aug 11, 2011

Light and shadow dance masterfully in this amazing painting. Thank you so much for sharing it.

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — Aug 12, 2011

Ooh, I love those peonies! Wonderful light effect and feeling!

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — Aug 12, 2011

Oh, and I agree completely with your assessment of the prize idea.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin TX — Aug 12, 2011

The title says too much. Let the viewer figure out what color the cup is! The whole thing is luscious.

From: Michael — Aug 12, 2011

I really like your composition and frankly I am dead jealous of the freedom of your brushwork. It might sound silly, but I also like the way you’ve managed to sign the painting — your signature is ‘there’ without being obtrusive. Sometimes I have to repaint my own signature several times at different sizes and colours before it feels right.

From: Bev Searle-Freeman — Aug 12, 2011

beautiful painting!

  Encouragement before praise by Ann Caudle, Huntsville, AL, USA  

“Road to Tuscany”
oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Ann Caudle

When I attend a workshop, I try to put my way of painting away so I am open to what the instructor has to offer. I allow myself to try new or different ideas presented, even if they might be contrary to my current painting process. I might just learn something. As a result, my works produced in a workshop are seldom anything that I want others to see and critique. How can you grow as an artist if you keep doing the same thing you have always done? As a former teacher, I have learned that encouragement is more important than praise. Praise can limit a person’s willingness to try new things once the bar is set with the praise. What if they can’t do as well the next time they try? For these reasons, I don’t think awards are appropriate at workshops. In competitions, I also don’t feel that everyone should get a prize. It reduces the value of the prize to the point that it no longer recognizes excellence. We only value what we work hard for. Self-esteem is earned, not handed out in a class. There are 3 comments for Encouragement before praise by Ann Caudle
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Aug 12, 2011

Ann, your painting is beautiful and well done. And, I totally agree with your comments. I will not show anyone but family and close friends what I did in a workshop. They are only to remind me what the instructor was trying to tell me. I have never been in a workshop where there were prizes given at the end. It is not what I am there for. And, shows are getting to the point where there are too many prizes and as you said, no longer have any value.

From: Anonymous — Aug 12, 2011

I think prizes at workshops are a bad idea. The point of a workshop (I think) is to learn something and improve. If all the art is there for folks to look at and there are regular critiques, all should be able to see what is working and what not, and which paintings are most successful. A prize is a good way to lift an artist/work out of the common herd where the ordinary artist (or collector) might never see the work. Of course it’s also a way to recognize excellence. Giving prizes at a workshop, however, changes the purpose of the workshop from learning to winning. Bad.

From: David Benjamin — Aug 12, 2011

I think the only prize that should be given at a workshop is a thorough and honest critique by the instructor and helpful comments by fellow students. You are there to learn and both the instructor and other students can help that learning process. I also share my workshop effort with my wife who has a wonderful eye and knows I want a hard-nosed commentary. We talk about the painting and I go from there.

  ‘Teach Your Children Well’ by Dave Greene, Newton, NJ, USA   “Oh, and another thing — Billy Puffer now pulls the lever on the Sno-Cone machine at the Duke Point ferry terminal. He no longer plays the piano.” How often do we ask our children what they really want to do in life? When (or if) that becomes known, how much support and encouragement do we as parents (or as a society) give to them? Is it possible that Billy is happy with his sno-cone machine job? Who would make the sno-cone if Billy didn’t? Wouldn’t it be fair to assume that Billy doesn’t find much reward in playing the piano because it’s something he (1.) has little or no interest in doing or (2.) had no encouragement or support or (3.) has no ability or talent in this area? Should I feel sorry for Billy or feel satisfied that he is a happy sno-cone artist? I have the guilty and conflicted feeling that I look down upon him and his occupation. If we could only believe and promote the idea that the ‘joy is in the pursuit.’ Instead we seem to promote some relatively meaningless and redundant modes of competition, instant celebrity, wealth, and instant gratification. I think we’re all in need of some improved understanding about what matters. In the end, with art as with most other ‘products and services,’ it appears that what really matters is the ‘other guy,’ i.e. the customer – who is potentially ‘Everyman.’ If your work sells, you must be good and you must be pleasing some customers. If you have no interest in creating art, maybe you’ll be happy as a great sno-cone maker… as long as you and I can feel fulfilled somehow, that is important. It’s great that you and your daughter can co-op a workshop! Congratulations! Apparently, you have subscribed to the Crosby Stills and Nash proposition that you should ‘Teach Your Children Well.’   Self-esteem building blocks by Dianne Bersea, Manson’s Landing, BC, Canada  

“Sky Dance”
acrylic painting, 36 x 48 inches
by Dianne Bersea

I do concur that “prizes,” especially in a workshop situation, may do more harm than good. During a ‘gallery session’ (critique) in a recent workshop I facilitated, I became distracted by a participant’s sloppy presentation method making a rough edge to an otherwise very successful piece. I addressed the presentation issue then moved on to the next person’s work. She later told me that my failure to comment on the artwork itself left her with the impression that her work didn’t merit further discussion. Fortunately I was able to correct that message. I’m acutely aware of the sensitivity of tyro creatives, especially in a setting like Hollyhock that emphasizes the spiritual path to growth. In my terms, that means developing self-confidence by positive support for each building block in the process. Regretfully this approach has received something of a battering lately with an attack on ‘self-esteem’ which has been charged with creating insensitive egoists. I am constantly reminding folks that ‘self-esteem’ is ‘respect for self and others.’ This is the foundation of empathy… and self-confidence. And the foundation of creative empowerment… the home of sensitive and accomplished artists, tyros and all. There are 3 comments for Self-esteem building blocks by Dianne Bersea
From: David Benjamin — Aug 12, 2011

Diane, your painting makes me feel free as if I were flying with the birds. It is a colorful wonderfully designed to provide that effect. Thank you.

From: Anonymous — Aug 12, 2011

I had to look up ‘tyros’ as I didn’t know what it meant. If you mean beginner, why not call it beginner. Why use a word that few people will understand.

From: Faye Takeuchi — Aug 12, 2011

How else does one learn new words that might better express what one has to say?

  Getting on with it by Helen Howes, Norfolk, England  

“Lynn’s Lady”
mixed media
by Helen Howes

I teach, and I find many students suffer from extremes of low self-esteem. In order to allow themselves to create, in any medium, they must get over this, at least a little. I don’t give prizes, but I do give praise, and I have never seen a piece of work so bad that I can’t say something reasonably good about it. That’s after all the corrections and critique, of course. I think that much of the problem with any art form is in the ‘getting on with it.’         Critiques more valuable than awards by Kathleen Scott, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada  

“Keen’s Long Eared Bat”
by Kathleen Scott

When I took my art degree, less than ten years ago, I repeatedly got awards. Enough to alienate many of my fellow students. By my third year I realized, it is not talent that got the paintings sold at our student art exhibits, it was the students who also had an inner car salesman. An ‘A+’ often came with the ability to ‘sell’ the teacher on why the painting was painted that way during a critique. I played that game, but not as good as some. I started pin pointing who I thought I would make it in the arts by how they presented themselves and their art. They were convincing, engaging, had an extrovert side in some form, and usually were somewhat eccentric. I was often told by my teachers I had, ‘it.’ It is great to have ‘it,’ but ‘it’ doesn’t make an artist great or successful. Dedication, devotion, and a desire that is above the rest of what life has to offer is what seems to make an artist, an artist of note. I have yet to achieve that in spite of all the awards or the Honours Degrees I have. So far, I have managed to stay employed in the arts. I promote and sell the works of others, and occasionally have the opportunity to promote myself. It is so much easier for me to sell other artists than to sell myself. For them, I make a great car saleswoman. They really appreciate how good I am at hanging their shows and making their work look its best. On top of that, I can convey their personality to potential buyers in their absence. I have a great ‘it,’ but it is not exactly the one that got me awards. In the arts, awards are deceptive. They bolster someone for a moment and paying attention for only a moment is a waste. On the other side of the room may be a person still struggling, just because it is so important to them that their left brain is interfering with the process, but they may be hungry enough to keep at it for a lifetime and get past all that. Who can guess if either of those artists have the ego strength to sell themselves. Critiques are much more of value. If someone tells you, “That effect works wonders, keep working with it,” you know what to focus on. In turn, if they say, “Nice use of colour, but there is no movement or action in this scene, it seems a bit flat,” you know what to work on. I’d take a good critique over an award any day. There are 2 comments for Critiques more valuable than awards by Kathleen Scott
From: Virginia Wieringa — Aug 12, 2011

I totally agree!!

From: Suzette Fram — Aug 12, 2011

…it is not talent that got the paintings sold at our student art exhibits, it was the students who also had an inner car salesman… Wow! I agree with you, but how sad is that. I have heard so many times ‘the work should speak for itself’. It would seem that that’s not enough, the ‘salesman’ is also needed. An artist must not only know how to paint, he must know how to sell. Unfortunately for me, I hate selling. LOL.

  Juror declines all prize-giving by Richard Nelson, Maui, HI, USA  

original painting
by Richard Nelson

I’ve done a few workshops and juried many exhibits, including the Northwest Watercolor Show in Seattle, WA. On that occasion, as with most such shows, we three jurors were asked to pick the prize winners. And as with all the shows I’ve juried, I respectfully declined. Why? Well, I could judge a track meet where there are clear winners in each event. Sprinters ran the 100 yard dash, milers competed for endurance and each of the other events were judged by similar attributes. But how could I justify giving a prize for the best track performance of the day when they’re all competing in different events? Similarly, if all the artists in an exhibit were painting the same subject, according to set guidelines for interpretation, medium, size, composition, etc., selection for “Best in Show” might be possible. For those in need of a trophy for validation, I suggest more than a glance in that mirror. There are 2 comments for Juror declines all prize-giving by Richard Nelson
From: Deb dicker — Aug 12, 2011

Love your painting. Your colors are so beautiful.

From: Terry Rempel-Mroz — Aug 12, 2011

I agree with your stance, Richard. And for that reason, I think that, in general art shows, the only awards to be given should be Viewers’ Choice, from first to third. The art that speaks to the viewer is the most successful.

  Why risk alienating students? by Tom Bailey, MA, USA   I accept your point that ‘awards’ are too often offered as door-prizes rather than as proof of an earned honor. But I think that applies mainly to shows and juried events, not to classes. I’m assuming that your workshop was designed as a learning experience for committed students. I think ‘prizes’ based on the ‘success’ of finished pieces are inherently counterproductive. When I commit to a class or workshop, I deliberately leave my previous ‘comfort zone’ and stow the habits and skills I may have developed previously at the door. I am there to learn NEW things. I force myself to apply what is being taught, even if the exact style or technique is something I will choose to not use later in my own work. My bumbling attempts during class are only tiny first steps. I expect that. I may repeat the same lesson in many ways with none of them reaching full fruition as a finished piece of art. They are probably painful to look at — like the sounds from a first-time trumpet student are difficult to hear… even if, outside of class, that student is a virtuoso pianist. I give up what I know ‘works’ to try something that may or may not improve my art. The results achieved during the workshop itself are rarely pretty… and almost never lead to complete works. But I always learn a boatload of new, useable information that I take home and use. Maybe those new skills will lead to awards, later. But I would not want to receive (or, worse, worry about not receiving) awards during the class. I have seen too many ‘students’ ignore the lessons being offered right in front of them. They spend a week and good money to merely continue doing what they would have done if they’d never attended the class at all. They waste a huge, rare opportunity to learn from renowned artists. Instead, their goal seems to be to show off what they can already do and perhaps get a dollop of praise for their work. (Ironically, the problem seems to be proportional to the fame of the teacher). Awards would only compound the pressure as students ‘study to the test.’ And, on a purely business level: why risk alienating the students, your clients, who don’t get an award? There is 1 comment for Why risk alienating students? by Tom Bailey
From: Dottie Dracos — Aug 12, 2011

Excellent, insightful comments. I wholeheartedly agree.

  Competition builds the wrong kind of character by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Wes Giesbrecht

I am dead against competition within the arts. Actually, I’m against competition anywhere that it can be avoided as it is energy spent moving in a wrong direction. Although I don’t expect it will ever happen, try to imagine a world where we teach children to work together creatively and cooperatively for the good of all, rather than teaching them that competition and winning are what life is all about. Competition in the arts especially, is to me, a complete travesty. What’s the point of creating more opportunities for people to feel like losers? I had been thinking along these lines for many years when I stumbled across Alfi Kohn’s books, No Contest and, Punished by Rewards. I highly recommend them if these sort of thoughts have ever crossed your mind. There’s been plenty of research done on the actual effects of competition. Competition builds character? Yes it does; aggressive character. There’s a better way. There are 6 comments for Competition builds the wrong kind of character by Wes Giesbrecht
From: tikiwheats — Aug 11, 2011

I agree that competition in a workshop environment does not feel right. The challenge is for each person to challenge themselves to learn something new; that’s why they pay the big bucks & bother to go. On the other hand, in our little art organization I belong to we have a couple public shows/year and no one is juried out, and they are categories and $prizes for each. I’ve won a few and it encourages me to keep on going and improve. Recognition from our peers boosts the self-esteem and most of us like that feeling.

From: Anonymous — Aug 12, 2011

What does creating art and beauty have to do with competition? Do we always have to be ‘better’ than our friends? Or, are there not the gifts of beauty, inspiration and joy when a splash of color hits its mark in even the most humble creative attempts? Could we just appreciate one another and our unique gifts?

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Aug 12, 2011

Hi Wes- I so wish I could agree with you. But I don’t. We live in a cultural reality that is based on thousands of years of patriarchal rule, situated in male-dominated competition of the ‘fittest’ for survival of the species. Is it all BS? Absolutly. But it is the current PLAYING FIELD of human existence. Men are taught by everyone and everything to compete. Women in sports now better understand some of the reasons for this being a potentially good thing. But most women? They all want to get along together and cooperate. They want to have a fun experience. The fun experience, where they’ve bonded and no one has really challenged any of their personal belief structures so they don’t feel like they got rejected by ‘daddy’ or ‘mommy’ so they don’t have to deal with any critisism is so utterly dysfunctional that women who think their way is better are as dead wrong as the over-competitive men. Your suggestion that ‘we teach children to work together creatively and cooperatively for the good of all, rather than teaching them that competition and winning are what life is all about’ is a great suggestion, and one day may become far more normal. But like communism, no competiton whatsoever destroys the spirit to achieve. This spirit is necessary to a human being if said human wants to realize a fully meaningful lifetime experience. So- cooperation is necessary, but so is competition, and anyone who thinks one or the other is the WAY shoots all of humanity in the head. What must be achieved is a new balance of both energies, neither male nor female-dominated. Below, Sheila Norgate makes a comment about women’s insecurities and men knowing everything. I commented about it yesterday but then thought further about it. Men don’t know everything, but what they do know is that in order to become successful artists they actually have to create something individual, something unique, extraordinary. Something that is theirs and theirs alone. They have to have a singular vision. Competiton, even if only with the SELF, is a part of the learning experience that gets them there. Women who only want to cooperate ‘for the good of all’ will NEVER get there. What I’ve experienced from more than 30 years of interacting with large groups of women (since I’m a fiber artist) is that cooperating women are afraid of competition because thay can’t handle rejection and they don’t want their poor feelings about themselves to get hurt. Unfortunately, the only way for your emotional body to grow up and become adult is to get your poor feelings hurt. If your feelings never get hurt, if you are afraid of competition, if you can’t handle rejection, in the end you die having never learned some of the most valuable lessons you could have learned while you were here. And that is pathetic.

From: Anonymous — Aug 12, 2011

Actually, the exercise in Bob’s class was to create a complete work of art. I would expect people to be glad for their fellow students who were successful and won an award. But, I guess that isn’t a natural behavior. Jealousy and bitterness are so much more common. I think that stands for men and women, but women are more likely to express it.

From: Bev Searle-Freeman — Aug 12, 2011

I agree with you on this one Bruce.

From: Anonymous — Aug 12, 2011

Bruce, you said it!

  Keep on giving prizes by Jaana Woiceshyn, Calgary, AB, Canada  

acrylic painting
by Jaana Woiceshyn

Meritocracy trumps egalitarianism, always. Giving praise, and prizes, to those who objectively deserve them, benefits all — including those who did not receive them. (By “objectively deserving” I mean that you can justify the prize by explicit criteria — which do not include the recipient’s good looks or hard work). By giving praise/prizes we encourage those who create values (such as good paintings) to create more, and to improve. (And if they stop creating and improving, their art will be less valuable, and they will suffer.) We all stand to benefit from more good — and better — art being created, as viewers, collectors, or students of art. As for those who did not receive praise/prizes: it can be temporarily disappointing, but if they are objective, they will ask: how can I improve? How can I create better art? And then they strive to improve as well. Isn’t that what it is all about, creating good, and better, art? We don’t paint in order to receive prizes — but if we do, it’s a nice bonus, a recognition — if the prize is deserved, that is. Receiving a prize you know you did not deserve is worse than not receiving one: if you are objective, you realize that your painting was not as good as those of some of the other prize recipients. You feel embarrassed because you realize that the giver of the prize was motivated by “fairness,” or worse, by pity — and you lose respect for the giver of the prize. And if you are not objective, you may pretend that your painting is as good — and stop striving to improve. Each semester I give a prize to the top student in each of my courses (I teach competitive strategy in a business school). Most students are motivated by the prize and strive to achieve it. (Last semester, one of the winners was an average student who set her mind to achieving the award — and excelled in my course). But every now and then, I get feedback from a student who says that giving such prizes is discriminatory and unfair, that everyone should get one, or at least the winner shouldn’t be announced publicly. I ignore such feedback. It is based on the destructive philosophy of egalitarianism — which kills motivation and achievement and thus harms us all. So please keep giving prizes to your best students! There is 1 comment for Keep on giving prizes by Jaana Woiceshyn
From: Sarah — Aug 12, 2011

Giving prizes to all students in a class is perhaps a good strategy for children in the lower grades — to encourage them to keep going in their schooling. Egalitarianism has traditionally meant that we are all equal in the eyes of the law — not in ability. Robert is obviously a superb teacher, and it should be up to him and to Sara whether or not they wish to give some students awards. I agree with Jaana that meritocracy always trumps egalitarianism in adult classes.

  ‘Top Ten’ by Yasmeen Strang, Vancouver, BC, Canada   I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye nor thank you. So here it is… thank you for a wonderful workshop. I really enjoyed myself and feel like I’ve come home with a new perspective and some really great insights. I would love to do it again so please keep me in the loop.

Yasmeen Strang in the garden at Hollyhock

Here are my top ten things that I learned at Hollyhock: 10. Look three times. Think twice. Paint once. 9. Humming like a bee is cool. 8. Load your brush. 7. Veggies make me feel good. 6. Life is a gift. Art is a gift. Be grateful. 5. Blue glazes. 4. Stop apologizing. 3. Fathers and daughters can be pals. 2. The greatest gift you can give to the world is to be your most awesome self. 1. Go to your room. (RG note) Thanks, Yasmeen. And thanks to all the others from the Hollyhock Workshop who took the time to write to Sara and me. It seems the weather, the location and the enthusiastic spirit all contrived to make it a truly memorable event. It’s our sincere wish that everyone loaded up, not just their brushes, but with fresh inspiration, new techniques and greater vision toward a stellar future. There is 1 comment for ‘Top Ten’ by Yasmeen Strang
From: Jeanette — Aug 12, 2011

I love this list! Thanks for sharing it. I’m going to hang it in my studio and read it every day.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Democracy or excellence?

From: Michael Ives — Aug 08, 2011

At any class or lecture given to youngsters, I have a ‘Door Prize’ (for whoever has the lucky number given out atnthe beginning of the event). Then after all the kids have looked in envey at the print I have given the winner, I then announce thatmbecause each of them had done such a great job, they all get a small print, each signed to them personally. Their eyes light up every time.

I consider this the ‘Value added’ that makes a nice class turn into a magical one for all who took part.
From: John Ferre — Aug 08, 2011

Dear Robert,

I am dyslexic, a cronic and seemingly incurable condition where numbers and letters don’t sit still. Even sentences can be read backwards if I am not careful. When I was a boy growing up, arts and crafts seemed to be for the privileged ones who could read and write and do math. During this time, I was sent to remedial reading. I was put into a small room with a teacher who put a book in a large glass lid metal box, a ticking reader bar was pushed up. I was forced to read the book before the bar passed over the words. It truly was a horror and anxiety ridden time. It never seemed to end. My parents knew I had an artistic flair, I always asked for art supplies for Christmas and an afternoon let loose in an art supply store with my allowance was like, well, a kid in a candy store. My parents put me into every afternoon, after school and saturday morning art class they could find. It was exhilarating and I never looked up from this wonderful experience. Throughout this time, I never once thought I would ever get an award, reward or any certificate for what I was doing. It was just sheer joy and exhilaration as I was allowed to do the one thing I was good at…create. I wouldn’t change a thing about being dyslexic these days and I am still thrilled to be in an art supply store and making my art. Maybe that is just me..John Ferrie
From: Daniela… Australia — Aug 08, 2011

Such a lovely feel good letter, Robert, just normal and social activity carefully planned and cared about (there is some full on world news going on), it actually brought me back to myself reading it and looking at the photos of the actual event. Perhaps a small token for effort and interest for everyone is a good idea that can bring a smile and more enthusiasm after the workshop is over and done with.

From: Carole MacRury — Aug 08, 2011

While many participants of workshops (my own, poetry) want critical feedback and recognition/reward of a job well done, I’ve found the process can be softened by allowing the class to anonymously pick their favorites, with prizes going to the best of the class votes. It can soften the effects of the instructor’s choices which are often different and teach them to appraise work other than their own.

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Aug 08, 2011

The “Prizes for everyone” idea kills the incentive to improve, regardless of skill level.

From: sittingbytheriver — Aug 08, 2011

it seems these days that everything is a competition. When art becomes competitive, it trivializes the art form.

From: Dena Crain — Aug 08, 2011

Thanks for this story, Robert. As a newly qualified patchwork quilt judge, I now face this issue.

As a teacher, my goal is to encourage everyone who enters my classroom, pushing each to move forward to a level of success consistent with their achievements. As a judge, I must now choose works of (what I believe are of) higher merit. The subjective nature of such a task carries within it the seeds of its own failure. Still, there are those who wish to rise above the rest, earning praise, glory and prizes. Who are we to disappoint? Perhaps someday the human species will outgrow the need for competition and realize that accomplishment is an intensely personal affair, that we never compete against anyone else but only and always against the self we were when we awoke on this day . . . Cheers! Dena
From: Eric A. — Aug 08, 2011

I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would attend a workshop and only at the end find out that prizes would be awarded. The workshops I’m familiar with are a learning environment, and it really has to leave a sour taste in some attendees’ mouths to see others singled out for praise.

Your question: “Is there a possibility that we may have discouraged more than we encouraged?” My answer: Absolutely. I’d say it’s a probability, not merely a possibility. Not only that, but I’d guess that some of the unlucky ones will think twice about attending any other workshops. You’ve been doing this for years and are only now questioning it?
From: violetta — Aug 08, 2011

I am a member of an art group where we can strive alone or have access to an art instructor, we run an annual exhibition at a beautiful boat harbour location over two weekends, in an ancient building that any curious tourists that want to wander over to, cannot resist coming to see what it is open for. With the exhbition, we fund our art workspace over the year, including art supplies, by selling art and raffle tickets for prizes. Each of us is at a very different place in so far as talent and artist development is concerned. Each of us is rewarded by making it a better, more confident affair, year by year, knowing it is our own efforts that rewards us.

From: David, Minneapolis — Aug 09, 2011

I agree with your awards of limited scope. One of my many favorite sayings in, “Never confuse activity with accomplishment.” Life is a Bell curve. Sorry. The folks on the “wrong” end are not losers; they work hard, too. Activity high; accomplishment low. For that day anyway. The demographic on the oo-la-la end are not winners; they strove (is that a word???) too. But they clearly, demonstrably hit the target. Accomplishment high; activity immaterial. Back in the Real World, they are more likely get the commissions, or at least a pat on the back.

From: Ted Duncan — Aug 09, 2011

No prizes in a workshop period. Life may be a bell curve but the workshop is to improve your skills not not to show you where you fit in the curve. Praise in your critique is sufficient.

From: Ann — Aug 09, 2011

I’m very surprised—that you would even consider giving prizes for art produced at a workshop… Why would you?

I have long been mystified by the prevalence of that element of competitiveness there seems to be in the N. Americas. Both within the arts and crafts too. We don’t have it here in the UK. I wouldn’t want to have any workshop art I may have produced to be judged against that of other students. I wouldn’t want any of my art judged against others’ at any time. I don’t make art to win. Ann
From: Deb — Aug 09, 2011

I agree that a workshop is and should be a learning environment. There are those who probably wouldn’t attend if they knew their learning piece were to be judged.

Often in a workshop you are exposed to a technique vastly different from that which you do naturally, which leads me to believe their final product may be judged on the similarity to the teacher’s style and not a true reflection of their own. Are you rewarding them for mimicry? If I were attending a workshop, I’d really rather not have ‘prizes’ given to only a few. The feeling of rejection is one that artists who willingly enter competitions expect and learn to deal with, but I feel it’s unnecessary in a learning environment.
From: Sandy Donn — Aug 09, 2011

I think to be an artist you must be self-disciplined. . .and in that mix I believe we are competetive with and critical of our OWN self. That’s certainly a boatload of inner “talk” without the addition of external factors.

Prizes at a workshop of such varied people and levels just seems wrong. I take heart that you and your daughter are now questioning it. . .that’s a good thing and perhaps something wonderful will come out of that questioning.
From: Nina Allen Freeman — Aug 09, 2011

I have been to a lot of workshops in the USA and have never been expected to exhibit my work at the end for awards. I attend these things with an open mind, ready to learn, ready to experiment and get rid of old bad habits. Sometimes the things I do in a workshop are not worth looking at, I keep them to remind me of the things I learned. Occasionally, I do a painting that is good in a workshop and give it away as a gift or sell it.

While you are painting in a workshop, if you are thinking the whole time you have to exhibit your painting for a prize, you would keep half an ear on the instructor and the other half on your inner voice not to stray not too off to keep your painting good. Unless you just don’t care about the competition and are able to close your ears to the chatter among the other participants about it and just enjoy the workshop. This is hard to do. Even choosing something to exhibit is scary, things may not be finished, some students may be beginners. Especially if they know there is an exhibit at the end there is high anxiety. Having an exhibit at the end is pressure enough – having a competition for awards changes the workshop.
From: Sarah — Aug 09, 2011

I completely agree with the above folks, who have said they don’t like the idea of competition in a workshop, as well as giving out prizes. I teach adults and have taught children, I shudder to think what this kind of competition could do to those who are just starting, those who are working through a process, and some who are finding their own visual voice. I would feel that my influence as a teacher were too much, by saying ” this is better than that”. What would have happened to the VanGogh, or a number of other artists if a teacher had placed their judgment in such a black or white way ?

From: Jackie Knott — Aug 09, 2011

The worst thing a parent or educator can do is heap unearned reward upon a child. They will think casual effort or none at all is good enough. Equally incapacitating is undue criticism to where children think they will never be good enough. Somewhere in the middle road is proportunate praise and criticism for effort and accomplishment.

I hope adults attending art workshops are not “children!” Fragile egos that come to a workshop dismissing instruction are wasting their money and your time. The only reason to attend a workshop is experienced input to improve an artist’s work and no amount of prizes can make up for a disappointing instructor and workshop experience. The real prize is coming away from one with renewed focus, a better understanding of your limitations and strengths, and specific knowledge how to improve weaknesses.
From: Darla — Aug 09, 2011

Robert, why not make some attractive certificates for all the attendees, and just award prizes for a few paintings? Maybe include a “People’s Choice” award that everyone in the workshop can vote for. My daughter’s special ed class gives out end of year awards to all of the students, and there is a good reason for it. It’s nice for grownups to get awards, but if everyone gets the same, you might as well just give out the certificates. BTW, I’ve never been to a workshop where prizes were awarded. I’d rather have a group photo.

From: Irene — Aug 09, 2011

I would have been discouraged. I need time and advice from you at a workshop. Practicing art is a big risk for most folks, one that takes some mental gymnastics to believe that yes this is a good and humane thing to do with ones time. Prizes are for products, workshops are for process, learning, thinking a new, TAKING RISKS. It seems that prizes are out of place.

From: RoseMarie — Aug 09, 2011

If I had paid good money for a workshop and found it turned into some kind of competition in the end I would have picked up one of those pieces of driftwood and beaten you with it. Workshops are for learning new techniques, exchanging ideas, getting answers to questions, and having an “expert” help guide you with skills you’re having trouble with. They are not, and I repeat NOT, a competition. I have come away from workshops with a piece of sheer crap, and that piece of crap has scribbles all over it to refer back to about what I have learned. It’s valuable crap. I can accept the instructor having students put their work up and have everyone look at it, with the instructor pointing out various aspects of lighting, brush stroke, colour, etc. that everyone can benefit from seeing. But PLEASE do not ruin/spoil/sour what should be a fun learning experience by turning it into a competition.

From: Gladys — Aug 09, 2011

Art workshops generally have all levels of experience represented in them. Awarding prizes tend to award whomever has the most experience. None of the workshops I have attended have ever had prizes. As a class and individuals, we were able to appreciate and celebrate each person’s work, allowing us all to leave the workshop empowered to continue the techniques we have learned. Also, I wouldn’t want to suffer under the pressure or anxiety of having to compete with my classmates. I’ll admit it’s sometimes self-inflicted. An understanding instructor, meeting other artists, a new way of making art and taking home some new works are the best prizes from a workshop.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Aug 09, 2011

Prizes at a workshop it just feels yukky, the reason we go to the workshop is to experiment and play. Play should never have prizes attached. Door prizes are different, and a people in the workshop choice prize could be accepted but I face competition daily at the exhibits and galleries I show in for a sale, please not when I am stretching my creative force too!!!

You should call them all up and apologize!
From: Susan Avishai — Aug 09, 2011

That you are asking your readership for advice seems to suggest that you don’t sit well with your “prize” system. I agree with others who have written — workshops are places for experimenting, opening up to new ideas, playing in the sand, taking chances. The best prize is coming home with a new way of seeing.

From: Janet Badger — Aug 09, 2011

I traveled across the country to accept a First Place Award at an Exhibition, only to have the judge say, in effect, that Awards have no meaning. I believe they do have meaning, even though they are basically arbitrary; to be singled out of a crowd is what we are all striving for. But I feel workshops are not the place for this.

From: Fred — Aug 09, 2011

Often inspired but rarely annoyed to the point where I want to write back and tell you off. Your students didn’t sign up for a contest but for a workshop. If it doesn’t feel right don’t do it and obviously by your letter this week you are not feeling right about the prizes. You were the ones giving the performance and obviously they didn’t think to award you with a prize. Thanks for stirring the pot. Fred

From: Tinker Bachant — Aug 09, 2011

Prizes at a workshop?????? Never heard of that before! Prizes at any level are simply the opinion of another person.

Some direction can be given but prizes are no indication of the true value of any work at any level.
From: Linda — Aug 09, 2011

I had a gut reaction to this letter and had to respond. It was a workshop and not a competition. No prizes were expected and none should have been given out. Participants come to your workshops with varying degrees of proficiency but with the expectation that their skills will improve. Some or most of the artists who did not win a prize probably came away feeling like a failure and that’s not a feeling you want your paying clients to remember you by.

Even a vote by participants for the best painting is likely to create an atmosphere of competition and not support and encouragement.
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin TX — Aug 09, 2011

Your people signed up for a workshop, not a contest. Artists are vulnerable enough when working in their right brain. Getting or not getting a prize distorts the whole experience. You set them up in a way. Not a good idea in my opinion.

From: Carolyn WarmSun — Aug 09, 2011

Dear Robert and Sara. I am happy to hear that you are worrying about the prize-giving at a workshop. It seems to go against the grain of your most common advice, which is to set individual markers, paint, read, paint, sense, observe, paint, study, paint, grow. To not paint for the prize. To not paint for the juror. To not paint for a guru’s approval. Especially in a workshop situation where, as you say, everyone paid to learn — not be judged against other students. Thanks for being so incredibly open with your thinking, and for asking what others think. The two of you are really special people. Carolyn

From: Irene — Aug 09, 2011

I am a little surprises that you give prizes after a workshop. To me workshops are to try new approaches and techniques. In the quest for something new we stumble, but that is part of the creative process. When a prize is involved, we become more competitive and go what we know is a winner.

From: Suzette Fram — Aug 09, 2011

Workshops can be quite stressful. You are learning new methods, trying out new techniques, so of course, you never do your best work in a workshop. I certainly don’t. It’s hard enough to try to ignore all the beautiful paintings that everyone else is producing, it’s hard not let yourself feel like you must certainly be the worst painter in the class, then it’s almost painful to put your work up at the end of the day, or week, so everyone can look at it and the instructor struggles to find something nice to say, BUT THEN to have awards given, has to be the rotten cherry on top of of the souring sundae.

For children, I feel there’s a difference. I see nothing wrong with giving every child some kind of ‘participation’ trinket, a ribbon or certificate. The very fact that they get on stage and perform, in spite of unquestioned nervousness, is worth something. But must we turn everything into a competition? Don’t we have enough of that already in every aspect of our lives? Let’s face it, every competition produces a bunch of losers. Is that productive?
From: Barbara — Aug 09, 2011

It was a workshop, not a competition, therefore no prizes should have been given out. Same applies to children.

From: Valorie Rohver — Aug 09, 2011

I have to agree with most that Workshops are for learning. While the idea of handing out awards is usually reserved for competition, handing out certificates of participation would probably be a reward for all.

From: sabina — Aug 09, 2011

Robert, there are two sides to this recognition question. “Everybody gets a prize” comes under the “Encouragement” category. “The best in the show are to be recognized for their special talent and effort,” and this one zeros in on the special few (as seen in the eyes of the judges, I might add.)

Perhaps which of these two categories will be highlighted should be made clear when people enter a show. “Beginner” shows are the ones that are naturals for the Encouragement rewards! Later on in one’s development competing against peers is really what an artist wants. Spoken by a High School Art Teacher!
From: JoRene Newton — Aug 09, 2011

“Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with your performance yesterday.”Irwin Greenberg) I feel that it is the “doing” that is important! Greenberg had it right!

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt-Toronto,Ontario — Aug 09, 2011

What are workshops intended for is it to learn or for awards?I think that awards should not be expected or given at workshops.I don’t think it should be a contest of who did best and worst.While I believe that people have different abilities and interests and would be evaluated accordingly but not in workshops.What I think would be appropriate is for the instructor to evaluate each work and artists individually giving constructive criticisms and praise where it is needed .Let the artists tell about his work and how he feels about it, his or her satisfaction or what can be done to improve his work.The instructor should then give his assessment of the work and give his opinion on how to improve it or in his opinion that the work is good and where to improve it .I think the student would appreciate an honest critique as the instructor sees on the merit of the work according to the principles of what makes a great art.Point out to the student where it may need improvement .Thank you for the newsletter.Edna V.Hildebrandt-Toronto,Ontario

From: John Berry — Aug 09, 2011

I believe in the words of Harvey Dunn; “I believe in discouraging all I can, because if I can discourage them, it will save them from floundering around about ten years of their lives before finding out they are in the wrong profession. THE REAL ONES CAN’T BE DISCOURAGED!”

From: Jan Hansen — Aug 09, 2011

What about offering “negative prizes”? Rather than giving nice gifts for above average work, what about handing out a few simple documents with a lifetime ban from continuing painting.

From: Carol Putman — Aug 09, 2011

It seems to me prizes at a workshop are not really necessary. One is there presumably to learn. My feeling is that the ones who get the prizes go away from the experience with a warm, fuzzy feeling and may take the workshop again, while the ones who didn’t may not feel the experience was worthwhile for whatever reason, and won’t repeat it. You’re then stuck on the horns of a dilemma which is most easily solved by not awarding prizes at all.

From: Carol Worthington-Levy — Aug 09, 2011

The handing out of prizes to young people just for having shown up is kindhearted but misguided. We have a generation of kids showing up in the workplace with a sense of entitlement that will keep many of them from being dedicated employees. Somewhere along the line they have to be taught that showing up is admirable – you can’t win unless you play – but there are some who for some reason or another will be the prize winner. This is an opportunity to also teach kids how to recognize a well-earned prize, and how to have the character to congratulate the winner. It also teaches them that sometimes the ass-kisser gets the award even if they didn’t deserve it – and sometimes life is unfair, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t walk home with an award. I learned in girl scouts that there were mothers who would do the work to get their daughters as many badges as possible – they were the ones who boastfully wore a sash full of badges, but despite the praise they got from the adults, we knew it was bogus and that there was inauthenticity in action. I like the idea of giving a small, inexpensive gift to all participants – a small token to thank them for participating – and then have a first, second and third prize. To this day it makes my heart heavy to not get into a show of paintings, but the lesson that much of art is subjective, and while one judge may not think your work should even BE in a show, another judge could give you best in show. I do wish I could have had a better handle on that concept years ago, because not getting into a show would close me down for weeks or longer, disgusted with myself for thinking I was doing something show-worthy. But I’m gradually learning to just suck it up and take pride in my work even if it didn’t get into a show.

PS – when i don’t get into an art show, I do consider the free ‘show catalog’ as my consolation gift – and it’s always interesting to see what did get in, and who among my peers I can call to congratulate!
From: Kelly Brown — Aug 09, 2011

As a speech therapist, I was taught to use prizes as a way to motivate my students. I did this for a number of years, until I realized that I was setting up a false economy and that the communication has to be rewarding enough. I try to make my sessions so fun that they look forward to the next enough to pull them to me. I do give points for two things: a group that gets to my office without me having to “call” anyone and homework that is returned. It’s coming again and again that improves the speech and language.

I know that I would be hurt if I went to a workshop and didn’t get a prize of some sort when others did. So, either everyone gets a prize (not necessarily a “merit” prize) or no one gets a prize because being there is prize enough.
From: d athey — Aug 09, 2011

I think it wrong to single out one or a dozen and one. Workshops are a learning process both visually and internally. You should not add a competitive element in the learning process. Sorry, I thnk you are definetly wrong.

From: Betsy Glass — Aug 09, 2011

OMG. I’m not just surprised, I’m kinda shocked. All learning is its own reward. Giving children candy for learning, when children (all humans) are programmed to be joyful as they learn, cheapens the experience. Same for adults. Put yourself in your students’ position: minimal-experience and no-win so far. You paid your money and your work doesn’t win. How encouraged/joyful do you feel? (And besides, who the heck are you and your daughter to judge?) A critique in which a trained art educator who knows the recent-technology questions to ask the artist and who presents the critique to the group as a constructive-criticism-only celebration is democratic, encouraging, and produces exciting, innovative, and original art. My wonderful teacher always came up to his adult students at their easel and quietly and gently asked, “What are you working on today?” and a higly respectful and positive conversation ensued. My teacher wanted to know what the student was after so that he could be the best possible guide on his students’ journey…not on the teacher’s journey…nor an art critic or judge who puts the kibosh on someone’s personal quest for expression. Please, just be available for technical advice, give your students exciting projects, show them you are available for technical advice, and get out of the way!!!

From: Norman E Thompson — Aug 09, 2011

I struggled and struggled for the right words and in so doing returned to read more of the existing comments. I then realized that I could not improve on perfection. WELL SAID TO ALL OF YOU!!

From: Walter Hawn — Aug 09, 2011
From: Marilynn Brandenburger — Aug 09, 2011

Awards at a workshop? Oh, Robert, how could you!!! What’s important in a workshop is the “learning experience,” and that is surely different for each student. Yes, for some students it might be artistic improvement that is reflected in a finished “product.” But for others it might be an opening up to new ideas or a boost in confidence or a clearer understanding of creative work habits or any of a dozen “aha” moments they’ll take home with them and build on. All equally valid learning. An award, however well-intentioned, is a judgment on a finished “product,” something that may or may not reflect the real learning that took place within a student. And beyond all that, I just think awards are discouraging to those who didn’t get one. Let ’em go, Robert, let ’em go.

From: Ann Davis — Aug 09, 2011

I wouldn’t go there in my jewelry classes but….there is a delightful custom we found living overseas. Playing bridge with the Japanese Charge de affairs, there would always be a prize for the most points and a prize for the least, so as not to humiliate the loser. I thought it was delightful. I guess if I gave prizes I would give to everyone just for wanting to make art and showing up, that of course is when all the chocolate I provide is not enough.

From: Dale Wolfe — Aug 09, 2011

I struggled with this as my son was growing up. When he was really little, everyone got a prize and they were all so happy with it. A lot of people/parents did not agree with this. They thought that only the best of the best deserved a prize.

In the Olympics, the best of the best get the gold, but it is a competition, for which the people have been working their whole lives. I don’t think a painting class needs to be treated like a big competition. People do enough mental ranking of other students. Each student is also striving for their own personal best. So I feel everyone deserves the same. I think that if someone pays for the opportunity to take a class to learn, each of them deserves the same attention, encouragement and the same rewards. I would rather give everyone the same thing rather than prizes to only a few.
From: Claire Thoen — Aug 09, 2011

Prizes for adults in a workshop change the nature of the interaction. I would not attend a workshop if I knew prizes were to be given. Adult attendees are already motivated to do their best. The words of the instructors are surely reward enough.

From: Carolyn — Aug 09, 2011

Robert, as a student I am looking “up” to you for instruction, guidance and mentoring. Prizes mean my efforts may or may not meet your criteria of excellence. Why attempt to conform to your criteria, when I only want to improve on what I am doing?

From: Cindy Sleeman — Aug 09, 2011

Of course excellence should be encouraged, and I applaud your efforts. Rather than “democracy” I would use the word “diplomacy”. There are diplomatic ways to award for excellence in children – perhaps broadening categories, or finding something special each child did & prepare a small prize for each for their accomplishment. For example… Johnny Smith acknowledged for his colour mixing, and Mary Brown for effective composition. The grand finale could then be given to the three “winners” for their multiple skills/accomplishments. It would then become a learning experience for the children. The last class could be used for the awards (although I’m not a fan of children competing in art as they all have their creative abilities . It is our role as teachers to draw it out.) Perhaps instead of “awards”, the concept of “critique” could be used. It encourages a spirit of cooperation and introduces the children to the process.

From: Christine Kosharek — Aug 09, 2011

I just returned from a Master class workshop and the instructor gave us all small raw umber painted sketch he did for each one of us as we requested, (eg. a guy fishing, people under an umbrella, etc.) He also sold some of the demo pieces he did during the week for a fraction of the price of his original works – almost everyone bought something. They were wonderful mementos of and perhaps worth a more to than receiving a prize for our own work. We did get strict instructions though – not to sell these items on ebay!

Judging people’s work and giving prizes may not really be encouraging because workshops are for fun and one could be intimidated by that process – we get judged when we put our work out there against others.
From: Cathy W — Aug 09, 2011

I cannot imagine giving prizes for art.. to me it is just not even possible. It can only cause problems in both short and long term. Give a raffle instead.

The workshop in my opinion should be between you and your student, a multi-parallel relationship where you workshop with each student individually, not a competition between the students with each other. But, I never went into art teaching for the simple reason that I felt that I could never grade people. One year they do this, next year they do something different. The crit you give them guides them, whether they be useful words or damaging ones. And in the end all the talent is worth nothing without persistence, and who knows which students will persist. I know of students who had been ragged out by their teachers, kicked out of subjects, still working today 20 years later. And others faded into obscurity by a big boost. One woman in particular who was promoted into the teachers pet and it cut her off cold. As a student she never did anything different ever again, just the same thing bigger, and bigger. And most likely she has not persisted, I never heard of her again since. Like an old sculpture teacher said once: “why would you want to get an A in art school!!!” i.e. that to get an A you would be somehow appeasing your teachers, when perhaps you should be challenging them instead. And of course the other meaning, where do you go from here if you already got an A?
From: Brian — Aug 09, 2011

To choose to be encouraged by winning or losing, instead of discouraged is a sign of maturity and is who you are hopefully setting an example for, by choosing a few for prizes. An award or recognition of that kind, loses its “Specific Specialness” if everyone gets one.

I choose excellence. It needs to be recognized. Losing can be easily turned into a window to what one needs to improve. Also, being able to have joy for those that do well, instead of “being beaten by some upstart whippersnapper” is more the “Artists Way”. Upstarts may have something new to teach us……..
From: Sylvia Boulware — Aug 09, 2011

Why worry, the deed is done. Stick with your 7 best….the rest have something to aspire to. We artists compete with ourselves every day. Makes for tougher skins than some.

From: Maureen — Aug 09, 2011

I think such a competition does more harm than good. Making art is not a competitive sport, and judging work is very subjective. Art is about self expression and so it should be self improvement that should be acknowledged and applauded. We need to teach artists how to assess their work and how to receive and give constructive criticism to others. From my perspective, I strive, not for a prize, but for enjoyment through the creative process and results that show improvement over time.

From: Jane Sanford Harrison — Aug 09, 2011

I wouldn’t like it if I didn’t get a prize. I wouldn’t like it if the teachers chose “the best” paintings (I mean, what’s the point of that?). I would like it if the teachers pointed out things that worked in everyone’s paintings. I would like it if everyone got encouraging feedback (which is not to say that you ignore parts that don’t work).

But hey, I just have my PhD in Education (Curriculum & Instruction), so other than my own experience, what do I know.
From: Renate Burns — Aug 09, 2011

One thing that bothered me as a former teacher was seeing colleagues gleefully handing out stickers for everything from good work to breathing. I tried to encourage my students to feel rewarded by knowing they did their best. I mostly rewarded with words of praise.

How would it work if your workshop attendees voted. They could each anonymously write their choice on a ballot. A “people’s choice” award in other words. I personally value words of encouragement, advice as to where I could improve, correct and where I have succeeded. Because I am quite new, this is of most value to me. If I could finish a workshop with seven paintings, that would be an award in itself for me !!!
From: Faye Gordon-Lewis — Aug 09, 2011

Excellence is usually worked for (except for the Mozarts et al) and should be rewarded for what it is. Otherwise, what is the point of striving to improve ourselves?

This is the real world. If you had to give the others something – why not a nice lunch with, maybe, champagne and a thank you for their participation?
From: Diane Arenberg — Aug 09, 2011

I would leave the prizes for juried shows where the artist has willingly put their work up to be judged. Workshops can put seasoned artists out of their comfort zone, and less experienced artists probably left that zone when they got the courage to sign up. The best “prize” I ever got at a workshop came in the form of a whispered compliment, something shared just between the instructor and myself. Or, in one case, a small shell that he found and thought I would appreciate it, again given stealthily. I have it to this day. You can have democracy AND excellence without singling people out, negatively or positively. The two are not mutually exclusive.

From: Linda Archinal — Aug 09, 2011

Your workshop attendees have the prize and win of making it go right to have a master instructor. No other prizes are needed. I noticed that being complimented by Sonia King when I attended her workshop validated me far more as an artist, without antagonism from the other students a prize might have engendered.

From: Patricia Booth Pieterse — Aug 09, 2011

Those with the lowest self-esteem or the biggest egos will covet awards. Honing one’s art abilities need not be a contest. I think competition may actually inhibit budding artists. It may spur some on, but please do realize we are not all made of the same stuff. There is not “one size fits all” when it comes to learning experiences.

I believe improvement trumps handing out awards at workshops. A certificate of completion is generally well received. What about an exhibition of works “before” and “after” for everyone participating? Accomplishment is a personal ladder.
From: Anne Sete — Aug 09, 2011

There is merit to both “everybody gets an award” and “some people get awards” . . . also to “nobody gets an award”.

I am currently studying with a teacher who (during the weekly critiques) points out what you have done well in the painting being critiqued. It works. I feel confident to continue on with the things that worked, and to work on the things that weren’t mentioned.
From: Kris Preslan — Aug 09, 2011

Some would argue that children should all get awards for “showing up for an event”, but that’s not the real, adult world, and at some point kids will become aware that the real world is a very competitive one in which years of learning, practice, and hard work pay off. I was just speaking with the president of the National Watercolor Society and was thrilled to hear the him tell me that my recent submitted painting was “amazing” and that I’d earned my long hoped for signature status. Yes, I paint for myself, but kudos in the form of awards given me by my peers and mentors is part of the reason I work hard and strive to improve with each painting.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Aug 09, 2011

I show dogs and I also paint. In conformation dog shows, dogs are judged according to a “standard” that describes a perfect specimen of the breed, in both looks (conformation) and temperament, and they are judged by how closely they conform to that standard on that day, taking into account the biases and personal proclivities of the judge. The process isn’t much different than the presentation of art: a work is presented for criticism by the audience (or workshoppers). Some get prizes, or are purchased, as the case may be. Perhaps on a different day, in different lighting or in the company of different work, or under the eye of a different critic, another painting (and its artist) might come out on top. Sometimes, there is a zinger that everyone agrees is a “champion”: a work with both style and substance – something that comes close to achieving a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. While there are few barriers to entering a purebred dog in a dog show, over time, it is usually the best dogs that win. The rejects still make wonderful pets.

Art making should be encouraged. Artists should try to make the best work they can. But in the end, just as with dogs, there are going to be some that are simply more excellent examples than others. And as with dogs, there are more than enough examples in the art world that can be taken home and enjoyed.
From: Darlene Young — Aug 09, 2011

One of the things I like most about work shops is that I’m not being graded or judged by my performance.

From: Carolynn Wagler — Aug 09, 2011

I say ‘no’ to prizes. There is usually some thing good you can say about each students painting. Pointing out what you liked and asking the class to do the same. “Work”shop says it all.

Hope Mr. Puffer wasn’t in your class….Carolynn
From: Janet Austin — Aug 09, 2011

I have never seen prizes awarded at a tapestry workshop. As a student I would feel embarrassed to receive one, and perhaps annoyed if I was left out. As a teacher I feel it is unnecessary and sort of beside the point. It’s not a question of Democracy or Excellence: when I teach a workshop it’s a question of Learning. It’s true that some students, for whatever reason, learn much faster. That is its own reward, but does not necessarily mean they will stick with it long enough to achieve excellence. I would hate to discourage the slower learners in the group. If I were to offer some kind of evaluation, I might take a cue from my soccer coaching days, in which I offered every player on the team (privately) one comment about something they were doing well (YES, everyone has one!), and one comment about something that they should work on to improve their game.

From: Karen Quinton — Aug 09, 2011

I teach piano, so this letter is close to my heart.

There is a great trend towards ‘democracy’ in the arts, as you have noted. Some years ago the festival results of outstanding students in the music school where I teach were not allowed to be posted, as the other students would “feel badly”. It was certainly very disappointing to the winners. As well, how can others know what excellence is, if high achievement cannot even be acknowledged? How about the next year – when your name might be there if you work very hard? On the other side of the coin, many years ago I attended a Suzuki recital which included a very little boy, who – frankly – played not very well at all. Dad was in the front row nonetheless, cheering and cheering. This little boy is now almost 30 years old – not a career musician, but loves chamber music, and plays in community and university orchestras with great pleasure. The encouragement obviously did him no harm; and this musical pursuit will always be life-enhancing for him. In the real world, recognition is the means by which people are encouraged and made aware of their talents and strengths, often resulting in career decisions. To quote Huxley, “Some animals are more equal than others” but I think every animal can excel in something. We must relinquish the idea that no one can surpass us. We all become competent or excel in different areas in order to have what is very necessary – a world of experts!
From: cassandra — Aug 09, 2011

Tripped over the self esteem fallacy did we Robert? Educators have been struggling with it since some ‘expert’ invented it and too many got on the bandwagon. Prizes for all are a joke. Prizes for adult competitions are appropriate. In learning situations … not a good idea. For kids … not at all. The element of competition implied by prizes does not belong in every human endeavour. It is especially negative when working with children. Our local art guild got conned into adjudicating a children’s poster competition several years ago. The experience was deadly and after the event a motion was passed to never do that again. See, the winning entries were painted at least partly by the child’s mother. Every child in the school knew that. Someone’s grandchild clued in the guild later. Some guild members had been skilled enough to recognize the adult’s hand in at work in key passages but the rest voted for it regardless. Result? One happy mother, possibly her ‘winning’ child … but no one knows for certain … I suspect she was embarrassed. For the other young participants, what? Some disappointment and cynical laughter at the expense of the many adults so easily gulled. I am certain that in every childrens’ art class the kids know who are the ‘best’ or ‘top of the class’, the most accomplished. They recognize that if there are prizes those in that top group will get them and the rest have to smile and act pleased. They also know that when everyone gets a prize the prize is meaningless. For children, arts competitions of any kind should be discouraged and a sense of the value of life long learning should be inculcated. Teachers should praise personal achievements but avoid comparisons and eschew competitions. Adults can take disappointment it better (maybe) but those of us not in the top rank still get tired of watching the top ranks get yet another trophy for the cabinet … we can all recognize the most accomplished work, so why state the obvious. I suspect that reasonably confident winners get bored with prizes as well. Nope I think prizes for adult competitions are best … you don’t have to join if you don’t want.

From: Rick — Aug 10, 2011

I don’t understand the concept of everyone getting a prize. It degrades the meaning of the award granted. When I grew up there were normaly 3 prizes: 1st prize with 2nd and 3rd runners up. It had some value to win such a prize. Those who failed to win at that time were either stimulated to try harder next time or to find some other interest to excell in. As to those who have practiced the discipline for years losing to a whippersnapper it sounds ludicrous that someone who has enjoyed the making of art for so many years would be in it for the learning and not for the prizes awarded n a one time grouping of amateur and professional. In this case, art, should uplift and not induce a sense of bitterness. I am not for awarding everyone something. The chance to work and learn amongst a group of like minded participants should be enough. And with that group the encouragement through prizes should be a welcome appreciation of this one moment together.

From: Celeste Varley — Aug 10, 2011
From: Anonymous — Aug 10, 2011
From: Debby Holly Bryan — Aug 10, 2011

“Mediocrity or Excellence?” should have been the title of this article. I thought a democracy meant that everyone gets a vote, not everyone gets a prize!

From: Tatjana — Aug 10, 2011

For me, curiosity prevails and I really like to see which work the teacher sees as most successful – I find it educational. I have no problem with prizes – seeing others get them or myself getting them. I don’t see what’s the big deal. Roberts usually does these things in style.

From: Elizabeth Greenlee — Aug 10, 2011

It really surprised me that you would give prizes in a workshop! In my opinion, workshops should promote risk taking and experimentation, with the idea that you will return to your studio and make better paintings in the future with what you’ve learned — not that your workshop efforts will be judged as finished paintings (or judged at all, beyond a candid but constructive critique). Second, giving prizes encourages an emphasis on product over process, which is the surest way I know of to discourage the kind of risk taking that is required to develop one’s own authentic voice. This is not to say that awards are never appropriate — in a juried exhibition, say — but even then it’s hard to deny the erosion of creativity and, potentially, integrity that can happen when striving to win becomes more important than striving to grow.

From: Moiya Wright — Aug 10, 2011

Being one of seven founders of a small art gallery – two of us were asked to judge the paintings of first graders in our local school. The children were very excited to see their art up on the schoolroom wall. I could not judge them. In their own way – they were all wonderful. I told them that and they were happy.

I have refused to be a judge since then. I look forward to your letters.
From: Carmen Beecher — Aug 10, 2011

We artists are pretty insecure already; I would hate to attend a workshop and feel that I just didn’t learn enough to turn out a painting worthy of an award. In fact, I’ve never attended one where there was a prize given. It’s a nice thought, but it does have its drawbacks.

I do love the Billy Puffer story.
From: Bruce Morrison — Aug 10, 2011

I’ve never even considered that I might receive a prize at a workshop. In the workshops I’ve attended there is usually a critique and students as well as the instructor look for something that works in everyone’s painting. It is about what you have going on in your painting and not a comparison of your painting with everyone else’s. The non competitive aspect seems to foster a spirit of generosity during the workshop sessions. Participants are often generally supportive of each other. I doubt that would be the case if workshop was featured a competition which involved prizes.

From: Regine Kutzner — Aug 10, 2011

I have gone to several art workshops. A couple of the instructors drew numbers at the end for their demo works (which we students prized) — I happened to be a fortunate draw. And I never would have won anything otherwise! All instructors had an art ‘show’ of the student works and commented on each piece with positive as well as ways to improve a work….all this is much appreciated by a person who loves the painting process but not her finished work!! Prizes might be somewhat painful for me even though I am aware of my limitations. I always enjoy your letters so thank you for taking the time and energy !

From: Beverly Bird — Aug 10, 2011

I appreciated this piece and the thinking behind it. As an attendee or many art workshops, I find that the pieces I produce during the workshop do not reflect what I am learning from my participation. The value of the workshop learning comes later as it gets synthesized into my intellect and skill set. During the workshop I am trying on new approaches and suggestions – just like the first time I make a new recipe. So I don’t think folks should feel disappointed if their efforts during the week aren’t that successful – it’s what happens afterward that’s really important. I also think those who don’t get awards learn critical analysis skills by seeing what you have chosen to reward.

From: Corrine Hull — Aug 10, 2011

I think the Greenburg quote says it all. I don’t participate in workshops to compete with the other participants but to improve my own skills and knowledge. I think giving prizes defeats the purpose of taking the workshop.

From: Mark Davis — Aug 10, 2011

Prizes become meaningless if everyone gets one for simply showing up. Well meaning parents have been giving these sort of awards to kids for years now in fear of otherwise damaging some one’s self-esteem. What they don’t realize is that self-esteem is built by having real successes, not fake ones. Meaningless awards become an unconscious insult to our intelligence and we all know it on some level. You are doing the right thing by rewarding real achievement. The best real consolation is to the one’s who didn’t win is to say something like, “I’m sure you’ll do better with more practice”. This is an encouragement to work harder to be better, instead of coddling failure.

From: Eloise Lovell — Aug 10, 2011

Do you feel like a winner if everyone gets a prize? I really don’t. What I like is for the judge/teacher of an art event to do is to make a comment. It makes every artists feel good [and this is what it is about, isn’t it?]to receive some personal attention. Make some kind of positive comment…why does this look good, I like this part, or some statement to address each student’s art. Really have you had your student’s add to the comments with some input? At the end of the event, of course. YOU can see which ones are better and which ones could be better with encouragement. They all go there for a reason.

From: Priscilla Baldwin — Aug 10, 2011

Why in the world do you give prizes? Words of praise from you would be enough and encourage me to try even harder. They, the words, also would not discourage the other folk in the workshop. When I go to a workshop I go to learn not to have a competition. And to be, sort of, ambushed by a competition would stop me from taking that workshop again. It will be interesting to see who signs up for your next one in that area. My guess is that the folk who got a prize will be there, front and center, and maybe not too many of the others who did not come for a grade, but for a learning experience. I look forward to seeing what other folk have to say on the subject.

In other words, I believe that prizes are irrelevant and out of place in a workshop environment.
From: Karen McClelland — Aug 10, 2011

I have taken many workshops in the past, and am now going to be teaching some. You are so astute on so many levels, but my opinion on the prizes is “man you are way off”. It really came as a surprise to me that you would be doing so, given all your other comments over the years — it just seems out of character somehow.

I have never been to a workshop that gave out prizes (and would have hated it), nor would I ever consider doing so at a workshop I teach. This sounds immodest, but I would probably have received prizes in the workshops I’ve been in, and I still thinks it is a bad idea. I think it would lead to hurt feelings and disappointment. Ending the workshop on a sour note, and giving a blot on the memory of it. We are not in high school anymore. I assume like most workshops you have an evaluation sheet at the end, for ideas, tweaks, etc. If you give this out after the prize giving, have you had anyone make comments about the prizes? I know I would have suggested not doing so, even if I had just won one. You are correct when you state that everyone paid the same amount to be there, juggled their schedules, made sacrifices, in some cases traveled farther, and worked just as hard. Who would want to end on such a down note — if you are not a winner, or even if you are, but maybe the friend you came with isn’t.
From: D. Sholes — Aug 10, 2011

I really am tired of the whole judging ethic. Just hang the dang paintings and let people enjoy. It’s just one person’s opinion on a certain day, or if a panel of judges, a compromise. If a teacher or mentor could privately give a note of encouragement to an artist who’s painting they think is particularly successful, that should be enough.

From: C. D. Powell — Aug 10, 2011

In a competitive world, giving everyone a ‘blue ribbon’ causes the ribbon to devalue for those who are competing. That being said, I think everyone deserves a prize for just Being There and for Working Hard. It never hurts to reward and encourage that. What was learned by many will take months, maybe years to absorb. As you already know, because you share of your knowledge so generously to all of us, teaching rewards are long term. We may never know how much we actually influenced another person, but they will never forget what we gave them. Joe Abreccia told us all, at a Pro-Art Workshop in Montana, “the most important thing you can do when you paint is to BE there!” I have never forgotten that and he probably has never known how much he influenced me, with one comment, for the 25 years since he said it that day. That is the REAL prize!

From: Joan Millette — Aug 10, 2011

After years of being judged and being a judge I have, in my late years, come to the conclusion that judging is a disservice to the participants in the show, and most of all, to the public. Rather than picking and choosing (mostly what the judge likes best) wouldn’t it be far more educational to have a comment sheet for each piece? We pay judges a good stipend…let them work for it. I curated an art show for four years three of which I discouraged judging. Last year the committee hired a judge who, I am not lying, spent less than 30 minutes to choose the awards. I resigned from the venue.

From: Marge Drew — Aug 10, 2011

People do not go to workshops to receive awards for efforts in workshops. If workshop instructors decide to give awards making a workshop “a competition” Instructors will lose ground and students. People come to be taught what they do not know already or in hopes that they will learn something new. Some are already intimidated and often do not do much painting while in the workshop so if you introduce prizes, give undue attention to individual student you will definitely be doing a major dis service to your students. If you do not give each student individual attention and only favor a few with your personal time you are also doing a major disservice to your student. So you either need to give attention to all students or give attention to none and just teach.

I am horrified that you would even consider giving prizes for works done in a workshop. Workshops are not and should not become competitions.
From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Aug 10, 2011

Robert, I think you blew it this time.

In my experience workshops can present many frustrations as one struggles to master a new approach. I’ve seldom done anything worth keeping or displaying after a workshop, yet have always felt positive about the experience. By awarding prizes you are asking students to compare their work to others. This can engender negative feelings of inferiority, and I feel should not be done. One wants to leave a workshop feeling positive, not feeling that your work just doesn’t measure up. I did attend a workshop where the instructor had some little treats for us. She had us each pick a number and the one closest to the number she had in mind won the prize. This added an element of fun without the idea of competition.
From: Sharon Hart — Aug 10, 2011

If we consider this, using a different analogy, awarding every participant would mean that every professional football player would be awarded a “Super Bowl” ring, and every journalist would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and every radio or TV show and announcer would be recipients of the Edward R. Murrow Award.There would be no need to keep track of team stats, and standings could be abolished.

The purpose of any competition is to measure one’s self, not only against others, but against your earlier progress and as a guide to facilitate appropriate future training. The purpose of training, however, is to learn and to grow. Awards have little meaning if everyone receives one, and they shouldn’t be given based upon “longevity” but “excellence and accomplishment.”
From: Bonnie Westrom — Aug 10, 2011
From: Natalie Fleming — Aug 10, 2011

Prizes at workshops in my opinion is a very bad idea. To me the purpose of a workshop is to feel free to try new things, to see with new eyes without the fear of failure hanging inhibiting creativity. Giving out prizes implies that the most successful workshop participants are those who produced the “best” paintings not the ones who learned the most or had new experiences.You are telling your workshop participants that a few people succeeded and most failed. If I had gone to your workshop where you gave prizes, I would not come back for another even if I had gotten the blue ribbon.

From: Cheryl Braganza — Aug 10, 2011

I believe (as I am sure you do too) that there is something magical in every artwork, be it a line, a smudge or an accident. I learned this from a group of seniors 80+ women whom I taught at a Seniors Home. They all started off by saying that they could not draw and had no talent in art. At the end of the session, they were proud to show their self-portraits to the others in the home. Each of the paintings displayed a particular style either because their hands were shaking, their fingers curled or their vision was not perfect, something like Van Gogh, Lautrec and Monet. There was no good, better, best. For me, it was another lesson in life.

From: Michele — Aug 10, 2011

I do believe in prizes for achievement. I don’t believe in awarding everyone regardless of quality or ability. In life, we all have a niche to fill. When we practice and work hard, we are often rewarded with a quality product which others will pay to receive or acquire. Mediocrity should not be rewarded.

From: Lori Fontaine — Aug 10, 2011

Thank you so much for your letters! I began my artwork later in life, and it’s wonderful to be guided by a gentle hand through the sometimes tangled paths of creativity.

In regards to prizes, I think you must understand that you are giving your students another opportunity that you may not have realized: in giving out the prizes, you give those who won the opportunity to be graceful about it, and those who didn’t win the chance to applaud those who did. The winners of the prizes are on the right track, and those who didn’t win THIS TIME simply have to knuckle down and work harder. Not winning can sometimes be an INSPIRATION. Life is hard. Period. A prize at one time doesn’t define an entire body of work. Sometimes, you have the best intentions, and your work that particular day just SUCKS. Oh well. Turn that canvas to the wall, and the next day, start another canvas. On a “good” day, turn the “bad” canvas around, look at it, and make it WONDERFUL. My Artist’s Statement includes the following, which I started at a “challenging” workshop (meaning the level of ability was WAY above where I was, but I went anyway!) “Just tell me I CAN’T do something, then get out of the way!”
From: Ernst Lurker — Aug 10, 2011

“…most artists left our workshop without a prize, and Sara and I are starting to worry about it.” – I consider this an astute statement on your part. It shows that you are looking at this situation and its cultural significance with an open mind. You also gave the Yamaha School’s approach of awarding every student as a counter example, in particular Billy Puff’s surprising award.

In my opinion, Billy was way ahead of so many couch potatoes who languish without any creative outlets, and for that alone he deserves an award. If music is not his strong suit, perhaps he should try painting. What would you do with him in your workshop? Unfortunately, our society has not recognized that virtually any kind of creative activity lifts us out of the brutish existence and simple survival grind of making a living. The human mind wants to be creatively active. It is part of a fulfilling, dignified life, it is part of being human. There was a time when most people did not read. We have advanced significantly since then, reading has become a common facility and has immensely enriched our lives. Society has recognized the merits of this important progress and fosters it in our school system. In terms of everyone being creatively and culturally active, we still have a long way to go. It is true, there are numerous individuals who have gone beyond the norm; Einstein and Churchill come to mind, but they are very much exceptions to the rule. In their case, is excellence a factor? Were the Impressionists considered excellent in their time?
From: Susie Field — Aug 10, 2011

I feel strongly that you should give no prizes. Why did you feel that you and your daughter had to make a judgement? It takes the thrill out of creativity for everyone, even the winners once they get over the temporary egoic thrill.

From: Cathy Harville — Aug 10, 2011

While giving awards at a workshop may be great for those that get them, I think it could be demoralizing for the have nots. In a workshop environment, and speaking from personal experience, artists are very vulnerable. While some artists enroll to have fun, or explore a new venue to paint, most artists want to learn. Learning increases vulnerability. And not winning an award can increase feelings of inadequacy.

A workshop needs to be a safe place to fail, to make a mess, and only by exposing our weaknesses can we learn. I look to workshops to increase my confidence, not to be judged. Everyone pays the same tuition fee, and should get the same non-judgmental critiques from the instructor.
From: Carole Arnston — Aug 10, 2011

Why do you two feel compelled to give awards?

The experience of painting in your workshop is its own reward. Any competition present is between the painters own “personal best”, and so the only true judge is the painter! Also, I believe these workshops are valuable as personal explorations, and not as performances where you strut your stuff.
From: Peggy Odgers — Aug 10, 2011

I would not like to feel that competition was involved in a workshop. No matter how insignificant the prize, it is the public “judgement” that bothers me. I find workshops difficult enough and my best work is not done there because I am trying to learn new concepts and getting them executed in a short period of time. I often leave a workshop exhausted and feeling confused until I can practice the concepts and techniques later. The best prizes are encouraging words from the teacher.

From: Sylvia Hicks — Aug 10, 2011

As a fervent “taker of workshops” and have given a few myself, I’m not all sure that awards /or re-wards are the way to go. A workshop is a stimulating, friendly, and rewarding experience in itself. When awards are given out, the prize becomes the “reward” and not the experience or enrichment. As with children a little “stroke” goes a long way to excellence!

From: Suzanne Frazier — Aug 10, 2011

As Manet wrote: “Competitions are for horses, not artists!”

I have never heard of giving awards at the end of the workshop! Why would you create a hierarchy among your students? Sounds like a really republican thing to do, not very democratic! But then men, always like to compete, that’s why they watch sports. Women like to network and support. You might want to take a more nurturing point of view.
From: Erica Hollander — Aug 10, 2011

I doubt that you will make or break anyone with your prizes for the best of the week. I think we all know that we have some more successful days and paintings and some less. In concept at a minimum we are all adult. But it might be more of a challenge to you and Sara to find the things you want to say you find remarkable, memorable, or commendable or worth honoring in each student. That way you let each go home with something to think about and treasure from the week in addition to the substance taught. When I have taken the time and trouble to do that for students of mine, some have been truly touched by the notice given their individuality. I don’t think the choice is democracy or excellence, in other words. If you cast the question that way, you already have your answer, when you are talking to artists, at least.

From: Susan Kamps — Aug 10, 2011

I have been active with a county wide arts organization for almost 15 years. I think prizes are fine as long as the criteria are clearly spelled out in advance. For juried shows, we make sure that everyone understands that the juror’s own criterion determine the choices, not the quality or “worthiness” of the art. For one of our annual shows, we allow “Viewers’ Choice” awards. Most people realize that the viewers in this particular venue (an arboretum) will chose the “best”, most realistic artwork. Those that do fabulous abstract know that they won’t win in this show. As for classes, that’s a bit trickier. I’d say, that unless you announce ahead of time what you are doing and why, it may leave a bad taste in the art mouths of those who felt that they really worked hard and excelled in what they did.

From: Nancy Doolan — Aug 10, 2011

I don’t think awards are a good thing in workshops whatever. When artists are in the learning process, one of the things they should strive to discover is the inner ingredient of individuality that makes their marks their own, unlike any other. It seems that having awards puts them all into the same boat, the boat of sameness, when in reality we are uniquely separate. To discover that inner individuality is the point of doing art.

From: Herb Kelly — Aug 10, 2011

No matter how old one gets it is nice to be rewarded but excellence must trump democracy. As a teacher for more than three decades I have seen too many awards given for mediocrity. That leads to an awards systems that is meaningless. It was drummed into us to be certain to compliment students on a continual basis. One person said the only thing he could think of for a young lad I’ll call Billy was to tell him he did an excellent job of punching Bob’s face. Also, by giving awards to average work it builds esteem that is not later rewarded in the so-called real world. When Billy tries to get a job but his best skill is pugilism neither he nor society will benefit.

From: Leslie K — Aug 10, 2011

These were GROWN UPS you were teaching, right?

In my estimation I have to agree with John Redmond (a syndicated child development columnist) that giving prizes to EVERYONE is likely to be the downfall of our civilization. Okay, he’s not that dramatic and I suppose I shouldn’t be, but . . . When do we learn that everyone is not deserving? How do we get motivated to improve ourselves if we don’t have that carrot – or bright shiny statue or pretty ribbon dangling in front of us. Any serious artist not only has to learn to withstand criticism, they also have to learn that when you enter a show you may not get a prize. If any one was permanently damaged by your giving a prize to the few and not the many, well I suggest they pursue something other than art.
From: Wendy Hale — Aug 10, 2011

I feel an award is not what you should be taking home from a workshop.

I generally take a workshop every year, some years more than one. I take them to get ideas from others, to pick brains, to jump start my engine. I certainly don’t take them to create my best work. I do my best work at home in my studio by myself, where I can think clearly without the interruption of others, when I’m not testing a new technique or new materials. I might come to the workshop as an accomplished artist, but I work best back on home ground, and what I take home with me I use best there.
From: Beverly Bunker — Aug 10, 2011

I’ve done some teaching myself and I have been blown away by some of what has turned out in class time to be some pretty incredible work. And as a participant in workshops, I’ve been one of those people who on occasion turned out some very nice pieces myself. However, that being said, I would never have expected any prize, nor as an instructor would I consider giving any. My reason is this: everyone shows up to gain more knowledge and experience for improving what they are currently doing. Most people are in a learning curve in a workshop where there is new technique, tools, etc. and their best work usually comes later. That is generally my experience and that of many others I know. I need time to assimilate what I’ve just learned and then put it into practice. The reward in class is in the doing and the best ‘prize’ I can receive is the instructor being able to help my process with good comments and visual examples while I’m there. That also goes for me when I am instructing and I try to reciprocate that experience for them.

From: Len Skerker — Aug 10, 2011

Re: your painting workshop at the “alternative lifestyle” Hollyhock resort, were any of the classes in the buff, too? of course reminded of the old cartoon where the model poses fully clad before a bevy of naked artists.

From: Dorise Ford — Aug 10, 2011

The incredible place where time stops and with pen in hand, a sheet paper and a model before you are all that exists. A vision that immerses one in another dimension. A timeless creative space is the “reward” and no physical prize compares.

From: Mary Pinké Neck — Aug 10, 2011

Giving everyone a prize isn’t democracy it’s more like socialism. Don’t worry about those that didn’t receive a trophy, they know it’s just your opinion. How valid can that be if you didn’t select their work?

p.s. One of the hidden benefits of digital gaming is a very valuable life lesson – If you don’t explode all the piggies, you can’t go to the next level. Take that – social promotion and everyone gets a prize!
From: Ruth Rodgers — Aug 10, 2011

Hate to disagree, but I don’t think workshops are the place for prizes of any sort. Workshop sessions are times/places for trying something new, for risking (and failing, and risking again). They are not about competition or achievement. Introducing such a level of self consciousness and competition undermines the point of the exercise. There are plenty of opportunities to be judged against your peers — keep workshops as safe spaces for exploration and play, without criteria or expectations. Otherwise, you limit the potential for growth because people stick to their tried-and-true methods of doing “good work” in order to shine for the teacher.

From: Mary Catherine Jorgensen — Aug 10, 2011

I very much think that everyone should have gotten some sort of award, be it in letter form or something tangible, OR, the option of no awards at all. At the end of the only class I’ve every taken where I spent a week painting (it was in a very simple country setting in France with a very perceptive teacher – there were only 8 of us, I think), there were no awards, only what we carried home with us as memories of comments and help, and, of course, our paintings. There was a 30+ minute comments time at the end of each day where we displayed what we had done, and the teacher spoke to us all about each of our efforts. By the way, there were many levels of proficiency in painting but that only added to what I learned. My output after that class doubled, thrived, thanks to the teacher’s involvement. I did not feel that anyone was singled out as better than the others. In fact, we ended up encouraging each other as the days went on. Oh I wish there were more classes like that! As to you and your daughter, do not feel bad. You’ll work it out the next time you do a class together and I’m sure everyone learned a lot, award or no award.

From: Mary Sanchez — Aug 10, 2011

I’m sure the workshop was a valuable one, but I don’t think any prizes should have been given, for the reasons you mentioned and more.

I, too, suffered through the Yamaha experience, and later Royal Conservatory, where no free prizes are given. Criticism is sharp, and prizes are earned through hard work, if not talent. However, an art workshop is completely different in that the increments of improvement, unlike Royal Conservatory, are not as objectively, meticulously and accurately measured. Furthermore, in my opinion artistic expression (painting) is highly personal and tied in with one’s individual identity and sense of personal expression. The purpose of an art workshop is to be part of that journey, while serving as a true aid to advancement and improvement. I would have liked to attend the workshop, but I would much more have appreciated an individual conference where a constructive critique was mixed with concrete suggestions than to have my work compared with the work of others. That, I can do my self.
From: Barbara Bush — Aug 10, 2011

What happened to “at ta boy?” I think anyone going to your workshop, would have glowed in the praise of a job well done from a respected teacher. I remember reading an article about John Carlson going to a summer art program in Woodstock New York for the Art Students League. Everyday there was a critique and the “best” painting got the prized spot front and center on the wall. Everyone tried to get that spot the next day, or the following day. I think you are better off not giving any awards. Sure you made the week for everyone who received them, but slammed everyone who didn’t. And for what purpose?

From: Lori Snider — Aug 10, 2011

I agree with what you and your daughter did. Why? Because we have enough quantity in this world what we really need is quality. You need to let the people who did outstanding work know they did. If you gifted everyone equally how would they really know they were any better?

I see it in the schools all the time and do not agree with it there either. What ever gives anyone incentive to excel if the reward is the same for those that don’t have the skill, incentive, passion?
From: Chrissy Harfleet — Aug 10, 2011

I think individual sincere creative positive words of encouragement for their achievements and targets for their improvement to every single student is so much better than picking out some for prizes. This is how we as teachers write our reports and each student glows with the praise as it is obviously personal to them and (some) follow up with tackling their targets so it sets them on the right track. It does take longer and I do spend hours ensuring I am saying the right things but if you keep a notebook with a page for each student you can always pick out pertinent and memorable things to say to each of them. it means so much to each one. love your letters – every one has something good to think about.

From: Susie Cipolla — Aug 10, 2011

I would hope that when an artist takes a workshop they are not expecting to be told only wonderful things about their work. In the real world not everyone wins an award. The last time I got a blue “participation” ribbon I was in kindergarten. Since then the cold hard world has dealt blows to my ego on a regular basis. Just this week a renowned Canadian artist, that we all know and love, looked at three pieces of my work and said, “one and three are rather wonderful (that’s nice thank-you), the shack a bit garish and amateur. “(ouch).

Message received loud and clear…. suck it up Princess, take the lessons you’ve learned and work a bit harder.
From: Kathleen Crane — Aug 11, 2011

Absolutely no prizes at a workshop.

From: Judith B Jones — Aug 11, 2011

I think that giving prizes to everyone makes the prize meaningless! If you want to give everyone a small gift, go for it, but don’t call it a prize.

I had to think about individual prizes presented at a workshop, most improved etc. I have been painting for years plus years. If I attended a workshop and a young kid who had just picked up a brush for the first time won a prize, I would take a look at his work then I would look at mine. Ask myself, am I getting stale? What can I learn. Or is this just the personal taste of the prize giver. It is like entering work in a show, some get accepted some don’t. Don’t take it personally. However, perhaps the prize given to all was the workshop itself?
From: Jeanne Strater — Aug 11, 2011

While teaching I learned this; often awards are given in the real world for the “best” and if those are the parameters that are set ahead of time then great. However, in a class where everyone comes with different skills and levels, its hard to pick the best. Someone who started at 80% and finished at 95% made a 15% gain, however someone who arrived at 20% and finished at 60% made a 40% gain. Who is taking the most home from the class? When I taught, I always concentrated on what the student did right and rewarded his improvement. There is a time and place for competition, but only when the playing field is even, and everyone comes in with the same skill set.

P.S. I taught Special Education, those students had already been told many, many times they weren’t good enough. Thanks, you always make me think ! ! ! !
From: Auke van Holst — Aug 11, 2011

I spent my working life as a physical educator where the issue of prizes always raised its rather unattractive head. Trophies tend to lose their initial glitter with time. Perhaps the relationship between the terms “a trophy” and “atrophy” is not coincidental. It seems to me that workshops are not intended to be competitions, although some participants undoubtedly see them as such. Given that workshops are learning experiences that should involve mutual sharing rather than besting others it seems to me that prizes are not only unnecessary but inappropriate. The “names-in-hat-lucky-draw” system can add a bit of fun to an already enjoyable experience. I suspect that somewhere there is an anti-gambling individual who is opposed to even that. In the final analysis it will be the kind words, pat on the back and constructive feedback that will be remembered long after that large tube of Titanium White trophy has been used up.

From: Miriam Shapiro — Aug 11, 2011

At workshops, if I were the teacher, I wouldn’t give out prizes at all. People can see quality without prizes telling them which are “better” than others. People who need a prize would probably be better off getting some private help with insecurity issues….I say that with compassion. People who don’t get prizes learn nothing from the ‘rejection’ experience….they are painting out of love….think of yourself being rated as a husband by your wife! People who get the prizes learn nothing either. They know who they are. If a teacher feels he wants to tell someone they are destined for glory and wants to share his enthusiasm for the workshopper’s work, he can always speak privately. The ‘market’ or a person’s family and friends can be the arbiters. What I want from a teacher is specific guidance on how to do things I don’t already know, and a kind word of encouragement now and then! That’s all!

PS I love your letters! You get a prize in my eyes!
From: Linda Anderson — Aug 11, 2011

Why diminish the hard work of some. The stats are that more of our teenagers and young adults suffer from depression. Could it be because our education systems cut out any competition and our young people do not learn how to handle failure and have nothing to gauge their progress, in learning, against.

Depression sets in when they get into the real world where they must quickly adjust and be able to recognize that they may need to learn on their own, work harder and faster. Earning rewards (or not) is how they learn to handle the fact that anything they may want will not be automatically given to them.
From: Patricia Carroll — Aug 11, 2011

I had a rewarding experience a couple of months ago after a week-long workshop with Gerald Brommer. After the workshop, he had every one of us place our works at our tables and, as a group, we went around to each table. He is truly a master. He found something valuable with every person’s work and then found areas of growth for every person’s work. Each one of us could easily recognize and celebrate the outstanding works, but never felt diminished by their excellence, because we truly felt that we are on a journey and we’re each at different stages of development. Gerald had emphasized this fact continuously during the week. As a result, the “critique” was not only painless, but affirming to every single person there. I had never been so impressed, and this critique occurred from 3:00 – 5:00 on the Friday. No one felt the urge to leave early. I need to emphasize that he was not just being kind. The comments were valid.

When we place ourselves in a juried situation, we’re expecting the “prizes” of getting in and whatever follows. However, in a learning situation, the environment must be safe and this is no place for comparative evaluation among students. Giving prizes compares the students’ works rather than allowing each individual to appreciate personal growth towards potential. From your letter I had a sense that you might be feeling somewhat uncomfortable with your decision to give prizes. I appreciate your continued desire to think things through.
From: Laurie Sain — Aug 11, 2011

Prizes and awards are always a matter of opinion — but when it comes from the “teacher,” the person in power, they have more force. The non-recipients may be thinking, “Well, that was the opinion of someone who should know — he’s the teacher! He/she must be right!”

Have you thought of asking the group to vote on specific awards, such as “Most Improved” or “Best Use of Colors” or “Best Composition”? And ask those who voted for a specific piece which won an award to describe what made them vote for it. (You could even have others describe what they liked about the “losers” as well.) Then the awards become a learning point for everyone, and the recipients (and non-recipients) can say to themselves, “Well, that was the opinion of that group of people.” All awards can be positioned as what they are: the opinion of that group of people. That opinion doesn’t constitute “truth” or “reality”; it’s just an opinion, and valuable for what it is: a data point from an audience of artists.
From: Bill Dillon — Aug 11, 2011

I only want a prize when there are few given. If I was to get an award or a prize where everyone gets one it wouldn’t mean anything. Anyway, I think rejection is good every now and then, it helps me focus and like the saying goes, “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

From: Brenda Estill — Aug 11, 2011

I am going to have to disagree with you on this one. I do not think it is appropriate to give prizes to the students unless they were aware that there would be a competition before they entered the workshop. I understand wanting to reward hard work and talent but it is subjective isn’t it? I go to workshops to improve and learn and not to be in competition with other artists. We compete with ourselves enough as it is.

From: Bobbe Nolan — Aug 11, 2011

I don’t care for prize awards at a workshop. Participants pay to gain knowledge, benefit from critiques, and the like. They are, in effect, buying a service/product. Unless the workshop is advertised as a contest or competition (“The best/most improved artists get into our juried show!”), I think it’s off-putting. When I attend a workshop or artist retreat, I want to concentrate on my process and incorporate what the instructors advise. I don’t want to compete. And since one of my own challenges is dealing with fear of failure, I would not appreciate sitting through an awards program while internally sinking into the mud. My reward isn’t being told that I’m the best (or one of the best). It’s the support and encouragement I received from colleagues and teachers, and the satisfaction of knowing that my work has improved. The prize thing just seems to cheapen that.

From: Joan Polishook — Aug 11, 2011

Everyone likes to receive recognition for their work whether it be a grand first prize or just a simple certificate or small token that they were there and participated.

To start the 14th season of my plein air program Come Paint With Me (a FREE offering), I was able to provide each of the 30 artists who attended day one in June, with a mini journal, courtesy of The Grey Towers Heritage Assn. who hosted the event with me at Grey Towers National Historic Site in Milford, PA. The artists were thrilled to receive such a useful gift. Certainly it made them feel an important part of the group as they went on to spend the day painting at this beautiful venue.
From: Marilyn Pease — Aug 11, 2011

If it is true that what you have said many times about the glut of less than spectacular art on the market in any given location, I think you did the right thing in giving out awards to those you felt were most deserving of them.

Mediocrity should never be rewarded. It is one thing to let your own child down easily if they have not done the “spectacular” in a concert performance or in creating art, etc., but being rewarded for creating yet another boring piece, gives the impression that anything goes. Doing such untruthful things in the name of not hurting anyone’s feelings has brought much of western civilization into its current state, and not just in art or music. Everyone expects a certificate for being marginally acceptable these days, and they are offended if you tell them the truth. Please do not break your own rule in the name of not being “cruel.” Stay strong and honest, Robert. You and your daughter, Sara,did the right thing.
From: Susan Crouse — Aug 11, 2011

Many now believe that child rearing has gotten completely out of hand with over-rewarding.The basis of this was to build positive self esteem. The backlash is that we may have a generation of kids that have no skills in their bag for accepting criticism. As artists accepting criticism is a major part of our job, albeit hard to accept sometimes, it can also help us grow. As an artist we can completely ignore the advise as a subjective opinion as our own armor to keep us painting, but we all know it creeps in anyway and we mull it over with hopefully positive long term results.

That said, I think prizes in classes are probably inappropriate. I do believe you are correct, everyone showed up and worked hard, and deep inside they all hope they won some level of appreciation from their teacher. To compare them against each other probably leaves a bad taste in their mouths.
From: Connie Herberg — Aug 11, 2011

Having come from a hard working farm family, where from childhood we were enrolled in the school of work hard and earn your reward, I think that contemporary thought, which touts handing out the kudos to everyone regardless of merit, borders on criminal. Participating in this practice has robbed folks of the development of work ethic, critical thinking skills, development of craft and pride in achievement. This may also contribute to the hugely inflated egos freely floating around these days. Quite honestly, I would rather feel that I had done my best and earned the recognition than to feel that I had been pandered to in any way, shape, or form.

From: Marlene Jackson — Aug 11, 2011

I don’t understand what is wrong in praising those who excel. This constant “build their self esteem” of the last 20 or so years hasn’t produced greater achievement but people who have been taught that they are wonderfully creative and intelligent even though they are quite ordinary. There’s nothing wrong with being ordinary and just having fun creating art. In the latter years of my teaching (art and English) when I announced who received the highest marks on a project , test or exam, and said words to the effect of “let’s give them a big hand” some students said that I wasn’t being nice because it made the rest of them feel bad. I did praise individuals when they were doing well in certain areas, ie. choice of colours.

I believe that all the way through elementary school, everyone did well whether she/he was lazy, lacked talent or was less intelligent. I asked them who got the cup in the football finals or who got the red ribbon in a race? To them that was different. Somehow, it is okay to have winners in sports and the rest manage not to be crushed, at least not for very long, and they understand that they have to practice more, try harder, or simply, that they don’t have the same natural ability as others. Why is it only acceptable in sports to have winners and losers? Doesn’t this apply to all of life? This anti-intellectualism and anti-excellence isn’t making people better and happier; it’s creating the opposite; the ‘dumbing down’ of society.
From: LA Colbeck — Aug 11, 2011

Competition is a tricky thing.

But clarification at the outset of a workshop as to its purpose typically ensures that learning/appreciation rather than competitiveness is understood by all. The painting’s “success” (composition, values, color, etc.) and how it was achieved should be fully explained to all participants. Daily “successes” are probably better than at the end of a four or five day workshop.
From: Anne Mullin — Aug 11, 2011

I’m on the side of No Awards for workshop participation. At the poetry writing workshops I’ve attended, there are no awards handed out or expected. The group and the instructor make plenty of comments during the workshop sessions, so the feedback is ours to cherish (or ignore). Everyone gets to participate in a reading — sometimes a collection of one poem from each participant is printed as a memento. There are usually plenty of take-home handouts for everyone — so our rewards are great, but a-wards none. At local art association workshop I’ve gone to there were no awards, either — same rich and helpful comments from instructor and group — one-on-one comments with instructor are really precious — sometimes we each received a helpful little “tool” — a gum eraser, a spongy “brush”, a spray/mister or such. So — democracy during the workshop, pursuit of excellence afterward, with sharper skills for a competitive edge. Just thought — a no-prize demonstration of how you and Sara WOULD judge 2 or 3 of the participants’ paintings IF this were a juried show, might be very useful for everyone to show something about what judges are looking for, are not likely to be impressed by, how personal or objective the process can be, etc., etc.,

From: Linda Anderson Stewart — Aug 11, 2011

NO…you should no be worried. Prizes are meant to acknowledge achievements and both the recipient , and non, should take away whatever message was intended. If we, as painters can’t see the value in critical thinking we will never improve. Coddling anyone for the wrong reason is a big mistake.

There used to be something my mom handed out to the lousiest of the competitors in whatever event she planned for us as kids…called the Booby Prize? It’s intent, and we always understood it, was to acknowledge the last place finish…and by osmosis all those who didn’t make top honours….but did do their best and “showed up”. It was a great idea, worth considering again.
From: Hannah — Aug 11, 2011

When I first retired back home to my birthplace, I had resolved to spend my time polishing my watercolor painting skills. I signed up for a workshop with a very talented Boston watercolorist who summered in Maine. I had a wonderful time, meeting new people, learning new skills – such as bringing pliers to open the screws on my Heilman box, which had swelled up during the foggy night, making it impossible to open.

At the banquet the closing night, there was much foolish frivolity, causing diners in the next room to request we PLEASE tone it down! Our enthusiastic leader then proceeded to present awards, but it seemed to me, the awards went to the people who had taken several other workshops with him, or had purchased several of his paintings. I did not feel put down in anyway from the experience, though I did not take further classes from him. After many other workshops with many other well-known, accomplished artists in various other media, no other awards were offered, and I think that was a good thing. We all learn from listening, and participating in, thoughtful critiques of each others work. We can learn to listen, and then accept or reject suggestions, gaining self-confidence in the process.
From: Rick Rotante — Aug 11, 2011

Firstly, prizes are bogus and not worth the material it takes to make them much less receive them. I, like many others, have a drawer full of them. Secondly, your angst is misplaced since you know that not everyone in life gets “rewarded” for their efforts. It’s one of the quirks of nature. This point should be very clear to a seasoned artist as yourself. Thirdly; and I say this with all due respect and kindness; the amount of years you paint teaches you many things but does not necessarily make you a good artist. “The lessons in losing are probably more valuable than those of winning.” If not getting an award shows anything to anyone who is worth his/her salt, its that you must keep trying to get better. This too Robert you should know if you’ve ever entered any shows (which I believe from a past clickback, you stated you haven’t) – Remember the adage -“On another day, with another judge, your winning work today will likely go unnoticed tomorrow.” This has happened to many before and will again. So, relax, Robert/ Sara, don’t beat yourselves up too badly and remember tomorrow there is another show with it infinite possibilities.

From: Sheila Norgate — Aug 11, 2011

The suitability of the prize thing is that it depends on what you are trying to foster in your students. Process or product. Seems to me that prizes go more with product and personally, I believe that most of us need help getting out of our own way which is more about process.

Also, I went to your photos from Hollyhock and was struck (though never surprised) by the fact that there didn’t seem to be one man in the class. It would seem that male artists know everything there is to know and women flock to instruction like moths to a flame. It speaks to a deep insecurity in the female psyche I think. You don’t want to get an old pre-post-feminist going….
From: Jan — Aug 11, 2011

You were absolutely right to award few awards. The idea of seven awards was great, since it amounts to one a day, even though there might have been two or three chosen from the same day. At any rate, I have a strong belief that, when every child given an award, the idea of excellence is lost. This leads to mediocracy I think, and is not a favor to any of the children. Don’t cave in to those who want a totally homogenous, boring society.

From: Dan Streeter — Aug 11, 2011

First, thanks for your column. As a wannabe artist who never seems able to gin up the time or enthusiasm to properly study, your columns provide a wealth of information that I hope to one day put to good use.

Regarding whether or not everyone should receive a prize for just showing up, the answer is most definitely not. The point of awarding 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes is that someone created — in the opinion of whoever judges the work — a piece of art that was the best of the group. Another artist created a piece that was good, but not as good as 1st place. And so on. To simply award a prize to anyone who paid the entry fee is to dilute the idea behind competition. I suggest it would be better to provide “thank you” gifts to the folk whose work did not win an award, along with a personal critique of their painting.
From: Peggy Guichu — Aug 11, 2011

I love this line of questioning. I was writing in my journal just yesterday about this exact subject. I understand being competitive with oneself, but being competitive with another seems trivial and unproductive. Ego is what brings us the ‘want’ to receive awards and ribbons. But what that does to those that don’t receive them as you pointed out in your article is complicated.

Our industry has set us all up to need these trophies. Unfortunately, not having these awards and ribbons makes us look unaccomplished in the art world. But history has proven that not to be true. Some of the great artists of all time didn’t sell one painting and I doubt they earned a ribbon either. I would have to lean on the side of no awards given. If gifts are what you want to give, then give to all that attended as gratitude for their patronage. As you said they all paid the same for the workshop. It wasn’t a forum of competition, but for learning and growing as an artist. Bringing in competitiveness with each other seems to me a low point in the gathering.
From: Martha Price — Aug 11, 2011

Having been to Hollyhock (and I concur with your description), I must say that I went there to paint and not to win prizes (it didn’t even occur to me as I was very early in my attempts to do watercolor). Dianne Bersea was the instructor (a Cortes resident and wonderful artist), and the prize I “won” was a friendship and communication with her that has lasted 10+ years. I made friends – I basked in the beauty of that island – and I learned not to be afraid of the paper or the pigment. And the food was terrific, too!

Recognition in group classes (in my opinion) is best done with gentle humor as well as an opportunity to learn why the instructors thought a painting had merit. The verbal “prize” is long remembered and packs so easily for the return trip home.
From: Loraine Wellman — Aug 11, 2011

Sorry, I completely disagree with giving out any kind of prize. Workshops are for learning and taking away what you learned, mulling it over and growing from it. Not getting a prize would negate all that that and leave a person feeling that, no matter what, they didn’t quite measure up. If you want to give out something, I’d suggest something like a print to everyone or all names in a hat for a random draw of demo pieces. The whole point of art is that it is a journey and we are always students. Prizes and workshops don’t belong together.

From: Sue Martin — Aug 11, 2011

I don’t think I’ve ever attended a workshop in which the instructor gave prizes, though during critiques it wasn’t hard to tell which paintings were his/her favorites. Since workshops are meant for stretching, learning, and practice, I don’t believe it’s the time and place for awards. However, I do think positive (or encouraging) comments from the instructor can make a huge difference in a student’s motivation and resolve.

From: Shari Jones — Aug 11, 2011

Ah yes, winning and losing, life’s difficult lessons! We all would like to be winners of course but one may just as well get used to facing rejection – especially as an artist! For me the problem comes when I don’t know why one painting was judged over another. Perhaps, and you may have done this, if there is an explanation of the strengths of the winner it would help the other contenders see and learn. Another approach might be awards based on best composition, color, spirit, brushwork etc. Losing out has just made me want to try harder. I do appreciate that you care about your students feelings. At the same time, I resent a pat on the head and an instructor just saying “that’s nice”. I would prefer to go home in tears with determination to do better.

From: Alice Wofford — Aug 11, 2011

Unless there is a competition where you give everyone the exact same subject… say a model standing in front of them or a plein – air scene then I don’t see how one can judge that this artist is better than that one.

It is my opinion that each individual artist should be judged against him/herself not against every Joe Blow in the room. To make this easier the artist should submit examples of how the piece was designed and perhaps photos (jpgs) of the developing stages. It also is a way of making certain the artist is copying from another source. In your case of judging the workshoppers, it should also have been easier since you and your daughter were the teachers and could see the progress of each participant. If the upstart beat out someone who had been working for 30 years perhaps it would encourage the veteran to take a look at his/her work to see if they have gotten into a rut and are needing a fresh approach.
From: Ken Campbell — Aug 11, 2011

Prizes can be useful in competitions. But, in a workshop, by awarding prizes to ‘winners’ you automatically creating ‘loosers’. Assuming you want all participants to leave on an elevated note, in my workshops I have found this to be dangerous technique.

Every student ‘knows’ what they have learned (even if not right away) and practically all of them leave with a few more tricks up their sleeve or vindication of how they are thinking and practicing. This is what they came for and most leave happy. I find prizes stratify and conditionalize this experience. I don’t like the Romper Room ‘everyone-is-a-winner’ approach either, unless of course, your students are between 8 and 12. Alternatively I deliver the best experience and critique I can and may offer the entire group illustrated notes and sometimes a small stash of supplies as part of the workshop. No prizes for merit or achievement. These are adults after all who are having a blast pursuing their passion. It’s not a competition.
From: Annie Cicale — Aug 11, 2011

I used to teach classes for credit at an art college, and my dad was also a college professor. Early on, I said to him, “My students are all so good, how can I grade on a curve? I think I’ll be giving them all A’s and B’s.” He said, “Be thankful that you can. When you need to give out lower grades, you’ll know.” So grading is a kind of awards systems that helps young students work harder than they think they can, but after they graduate there are no grades. So we just have to nurture them on their own individual path.

From: Stephanie Martin — Aug 11, 2011

Forty years ago as a fresh, young art school graduate I taught art in Jamaica. The students were young adults at a teacher training college. Depending on their secondary school education some of these students had never, ever had any exposure to art.

At the end of term everyone’s work had to be graded. I was taken to task by a couple of technically very competent young artists because I had given a young woman whose work they considered not good, an A. That young woman had taught me, while I ‘taught’ her, about observing the beauty in everything, about the joy of creating that which is around you as you SEE it. She would be labeled now an ‘intuitive’ by art historians. She was to me a joyful person who despite whatever her circumstance in life had been, when given the opportunity to create, delighted in it and saw like no one else in that class. Her fellow students did not think her work was as ‘good’ as theirs. The opposite of good being what…bad? Her art made my heart sing and proved to me how subjective ‘marks’ and prizes are. Human nature being what it is, how do you ensure that those who do not get a prize, don’t leave thinking they are not ‘good’ enough?
From: Murray Van Halem — Aug 11, 2011

An interesting read. It sounds as if you are seeking redemption from an error in judgement.

We always have to remember why the students are at the workshop. They are there to improve their skills and you are running a business to help them do that. The difference between a Robert Genn workshop and a Yamaha Music School recital is that the recitals are a voluntary submission to a competitive agenda. The workshop isn’t.
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Aug 11, 2011

Oh Sheila Norgate, thanks so much for your comment! Nothing like a deep insecurity, is there!

Robert announced weeks ago that there were NO MEN taking his workshop. I commented on it then. Sorry Robert- but the men making art for a living are busy. They are supporting first, themselves- and it’s likely that they are also working hard to support their families. Ask those worshop participants if their art making is supporting both themselves and their families. If the women answer NO- you’ll have your answer. Then ask the women if they are taking a workshop because they don’t really have to support their families- and you’ll know what the future of your workshops will look like. Middle-aged married women whose husbands are supporting them- so thay can afford to take your workshop. I can’t. So, do you get it? The men are busy working. They don’t KNOW EVERYTHING, they’re just really busy trying to support everyone. I entered a juried show that opened today (my 58th birthday) and runs for the next 3 weeks (Spark Gallery, 9th and Santa Fe Drive, Denver) that was an open show hung salon style in order to show as much work as possible, juried only for space. I didn’t care as I knew I’d get my fiber piece in. Oddly, mine is the ONLY fiber piece in the show. Where are all the other fiber artists, who are NOT urtilizing this opportunity to hang art in an art gallery? Beats me. They must all be taking (women only) workshops, hoping to get an award. Screw democracy. Go for excellence or go home.
From: JenLacoste — Aug 11, 2011

Just a little comment on prizes – what a lovely idea, especially if they don’t happen at each and every workshop, or for the same reasons as the first time. The trend here in South Africa seems to be tending towards the politically correct ; ie a prize for everyone. Well, while this may keep the masses happy, it does render the prize rather worthless. More importantly though, it effectively kills off the need to compete, and the inspiration of maybe doing a better job than the next guy. So we end up with a bunch of mediocre painters, lauded for the least of their efforts.

Being part of this artist community has made me realize how many of us there are out here. If no awards were ever given out, what a sad place. The occasional pat on the head (in whatever form) does the ego no end of good. It might just let the individual know that he has been noticed. It might just be the helping hand needed on a difficult day. And in reply to those who say that attending the workshop should be reward enough…. workshops aren’t free…. a prize or two might let participants know that the artist giving the workshop appreciates their support. Thanks Robert, for a great letter. Cape Town
From: Audi Stanton — Aug 11, 2011

Giving everyone a ribbon or trophy renders the prize meaningless. I have been to art shows where ribbons have been given to undeserving artists just because the organization has purchased too many ribbons!!! The fewer the ribbons the more enticement to work harder to try for a coveted ribbon next time. At least that’s my point of view.

From: Dana Richards — Aug 11, 2011

I read & enjoy every letter you produce & enjoy them all. My thinking on prizes? DO NOT GIVE PRIZES TO ANYONE – It demeans the whole experience. We paint for ourselves. The prize is participating in the workshop – the place, the time, the instructors & the fellow painters!

Best regards to you!
From: Mark Haglund — Aug 11, 2011
From: Tom Jones — Aug 11, 2011

You bring up a very interesting point in your last newsletter re. handing out of prizes just for “showing up”. Some years ago, my friend Wayne Arthur, a well-known Winnipeg sculptor, and myself were asked to jury a woodcarving competition. We dutifully awarded prizes to the best, second and third and of course the remainder would receive nothing. This bothered me somewhat for some of the entries were by youngsters of high school age and quite good. I imagined that not being recognized would discourage them. I decided to write short notes to all non-winners explaining what could be improved upon and why the winners’ work was deemed best.

I think that these little notes encouraged many to continue and more importantly, a feeling that their efforts were really worthy of comment.
From: H Margret — Aug 11, 2011
From: Jim Pallas — Aug 11, 2011

When my students complained about my frank opinion of their efforts, I replied, “Shall I hurt your feelings or your future. You choose.”

From: Ed Pointer — Aug 11, 2011

While I admire your guilty conscience because some of your workmates didn’t merit awards I wouldn’t be too concerned; I’d be more concerned about creeping political correctness upsetting your pineal gland and would do all I possibly could to thwart that invasion. Pineal upset can cause the formation of beta-amyloid plaques which cause Alzheimer’s, poorly functioning kidneys, reduction in melatonin leading to sleepless nights (GCS, guilty conscience syndrome); reduction of lipid and purkinje cells and, worse of all HUTB, Hide Under The Bed syndrome, which usually takes place around 2am. Such things as these will definitely upset your circadian rhythm, reducing you to seek membership in a Reggie band in the Caribbean. If you enjoy Reggie and the breezes of the Caribbean islands I would advise you to nurture your PC conscience and thus enjoy a peaceful life painting the natives and tropic topics of those environs. Meantime I wish you the best of luck and sincerely hope you are able to control those abhorrent urges to give everyone a prize. If you are unable to overcome I would be most pleased if you would put me at the top of your list of award recipients as artists need recognition now and again, as you know, to keep us standing at the easel, or sitting at the easel as the case may be. Thank you for your consideration,

From: Craig Campbell — Aug 11, 2011
From: Janet Murray — Aug 11, 2011

Your concern about prizes is shared by artists in all disciplines. Before giving up playing professionally in a symphony orchestra I also did a lot of teaching and had the same dilemma. I think if I were to do it over again, I would either give nothing but a friendly smile, or perhaps give out ‘tokens of recognition’ instead of ‘prizes’, and perhaps try to find enough categories to acknowledge everyone, from something like ‘most inspirational to other attendees’ to ‘most improved’, ‘most creative’, etc., but with nothing ever in PRINT — just SAY what the prize is being awarded for to the person who receives it, and then everyone goes home with the feeling that you were at least aware of them being there and were paying attention to what they produced, but give them a small and useful prize that doesn’t hang on the wall, need to be dusted, can’t be pasted in a scrapbook, and does not have any engraving at the base. Maybe even give prizes that suit the wording — a scrubbing brush for the most improved, a roll of plastic wrap or small bottle of irredescent fluid to the most creative, etc. so you can have some fun thinking up what the prizes would be. I loved your analogy — a brass object the size of a Volkswagen, indeed! I am hoping that this business of handing out prizes/grades/recognition to all entrants so they can go home feeling good about themselves is grinding to a halt. Attitudes promoted in education are responsible for a large part of that to the point where kids are encouraged even in areas where they have absolutely no interest or talent, because of a) ‘no child left behind’ and b) we no longer teach children, we teach Standards of Learning. When a student came to me and wanted to play the violin, the first thing I did was give them a pitch discrimination test. If they couldn’t tell me which of two sounds was higher in pitch than the other, there was no way they could ever learn to play it. Many times I just ‘said no’ and for most of them, it seemed to be the first time in their little lives that someone said they weren’t born with the skills to be successful at it. I often suggested they try piano or a ‘fixed pitch’ instrument, where such a form of hearing was not a requirement, but that also usually earned me a blank stare at best, and one that was less than blank but not full of warm fuzzies either, at worst. . . I never said they were failures as human beings — but the look on their faces and also their parents, told me that such reality checks were not often given elsewhere. If little underweight Tony wanted to go out for football, why then he should be encouraged to do so, never mind that he could have made a terrific soccer player but was more likely to become the football than be a valued member of such a team. I had a reputation for turning out good students, but a large part of that was because I weeded them out before I accepted them. You don’t have that luxury when you give workshops, and these people aren’t all trying to become professional artists, they just want to improve. For that reason, giving little tokens of appreciation for attending seems appropriate.

From: Russell Henshall — Aug 11, 2011

Actually it does raise a whole number of issues really doesn’t it?

I have seen so much as an ex-teacher in regard to ‘points systems’ in schools. Then there are silver and golden cups and other ways of complimenting young and old alike on the successes they may or may not have had. But I tell you what, now I am well into my seventies, I look back at the rare moments in my life when I have been awarded a prize and I am still surprised to find that the best award I have ever had was from my old English master. Well, the one I still treasure anyway. His name was Mr Davies and I was leaving school in my late teens to go on to University to study science. Mr Davies was a strict disciplinarian and we all held him in awe. We had taken our last English exam that term and although I was to be a scientist, I had always loved creative writing. Imagine my feelings when on the last day of that term, Mr Davies came up to me and quietly said ‘Your essay, Russell, was excellent. I did not know you had it in you. Maybe you should be going on to read English in university’. That simple comment has stayed with me all these years. It warms the cockles of my heart even now, as it did that last schoolday. Unexpected, really genuine gifts are surely worth more than any contrived prizes? I am a lousy scientist – I should have written bad stories instead! Trunch, Norfolk, England.
From: Michael Bye — Aug 11, 2011

On the subject of Prizes, I usually repeat my favourite anecdote.

Scene: Inter-Navy Rowing Competition a little before World-War One. British Naval Officer: “Do you give Prizes?” German Naval Officer: “Ja!, Naturlich, ve gif Prizes!” British Naval Officer: ” What do you give as Prizes?” German Naval Officer: “First Prize….Nothing…..Second Prize…Black Mark”. Thanks for the letter – much appreciated.
From: Becki Hesedahl — Aug 11, 2011

I am a faithful reader but have not written before now. I just returned from a week-long workshop with an excellent instructor and all levels of watercolor participants. For what it is worth, words from the instructor are much more important than prizes in the workshop setting. It isn’t a competition. Every one of us wants that one special message from the instructor to praise and encourage. If I ever get to take a workshop from you, that is what I prefer. When I teach small beginning classes, I try to give individual attention equally to each person. I know that is hard with 30+ students. But five minutes of your undivided attention is worth more than a prize!

Thanks for sharing. Ketchikan, Alaska
From: Rich Mason — Aug 11, 2011

Billy Puffer might have gained more insight into his ability with a musical instrument had he been told sorry Billy no award this time. Study, practice and work harder and maybe next summer you will achieve an award. I personally don’t believe that treating everyone as if they have equal talent or ability does not help them but instead leads folks to expect that they sometimes deserve more than they really do. We should pursue a craft not based on an award that isn’t deserved but rather because of love of the craft, whatever it happens to be. Encouragement in the form of corrective criticism is worth far more than a useless piece of paper given for showing up. I think your way of ending the workshop is correct. If someone is discouraged that easily than they probably shouldn’t be painting anyway.

From: Beverly Grice — Aug 11, 2011

I remember one workshop I attended and the final “acknowledgment and gifting”. The leader passed the hat for us to add our names for a draw for some of her demo sketches she had done during the week we spent together. She also had a small “art gift (3 water soluble wax crayons + eraser or brush and pencil sharpener)” that she gave each one of us and mentioned at the same time what she valued from our contributions to the total group experience. I think all of us felt appreciated and encouraged to continue with our learning.

What I valued most about this experience was the acknowledgment that we all made progress and each one of us is at various stages of our life’s journey.
From: Holly Quan — Aug 11, 2011

Why give prizes at all? Verbal praise and constructive criticism are more valuable and beneficial. I would suggest either dispensing with prizes altogether — or take the Yamaha approach and give something to everyone, which is a nice gesture but perhaps renders all the prizes a bit meaningless.

My two cents — thanks for asking Holly Quan, Turner Valley, AB
From: Ron Wilson — Aug 11, 2011


Your question raises a concern. I live in a community where the plein air artists know each other well. When I was awarded First Prize at a local competition last year I was dismayed afterwards to find that my colleagues (usually stronger than me) were somewhat miffed, and some felt that they ‘wuz robbed…’ Although I loved the accolade and the prize itself, their dismay affected me more than the honour of winning, I’ll think twice about entering this annual event again because my fellows mean more to me than the prize – in fact, they ARE the prize. Relentless Ron
From: Kris Nail — Aug 11, 2011

I can’t tell you for sure (now that I’m older I don’t know anything for sure) but I think prizes are situational. There is a place for prizes…and a place for learning. I think workshops should be non-prizes. If your painting looks really bad, you’re probably trying to learn, is.e. do something outside your comfort zone. If you are thinking, even subconsciously, that you’re going for a prize, you’ll revert to the thing that’s gotten your awards, kudos, even kind words in the past. Looking back, the workshops where I’ve really learned, I’ve turned out some really marginal (ok, maybe awful) work, but then I think on it and work on it and I’d incorporate the new stuff with my own stuff and improve. Obviously, when you’re in a show, you’re working to be ‘the best.’ You’ll put nothing out there that’s even a little marginal.

But, as I say, the older I get the less I’m impressed with my own opinion.
From: Rita Dianni-Kaleel — Aug 11, 2011
From: John Fitzsimmons — Aug 11, 2011

I have done a few critiques for art groups. About 3 years ago I was doing one for maybe 15 people at a local art center and decided ahead of time that I was going to be forthright and honest but as positive as possible at the same time. Each one of those artists had their own level of experience and their own approach and I looked at each piece presented for what it was and the artists intent, tried to look at what they were trying to do and gave specific advice on solving problems. All except for one, which I saved for last. One glance told me that this was an insincere effort intended to what? Impress me, impress the group? I did not know and I said that. The artist admitted that she did not really know what was going on etc. and was embarrassed. Two years later I was asked back for another critique and pretty much the same group was there. The woman who had the insincere effort came back with a very much improved piece and was rightly proud of it. I think my honesty benefited her. If I had gone too far to find positive things to say and did not point out my concerns then I don’t think she would of made the progress that she had.

From: Bill Stephenson — Aug 11, 2011

All people need encouragement, especially at artistic endeavors. Everyone in a class would benefit from encouragement. If you are going to give something the students may prize – consider a certificate of recognition for completing the class, or a 8-10 print of one of your works which may continue to inspire the student.

PS – My accumulations of certificates, over the years, adorn my studio walls. A good reminder as to where and when I learned a technique that I use.
From: Bill Skrips — Aug 11, 2011

Short and Sweet – prizes spur a competitive spirit, which can sometimes be a useful goad, but at other times turn things quite ugly. You need to define the goals of your workshop more clearly – even for the adult, putting “eyes on the prize” can lead to some very healthy competition – but isn’t that besides the fact of what you are trying to teach?

From: Cheryl Bakke Martin — Aug 11, 2011

I think that you and Sara are feeling the way you are for a reason….there is something uncomfortable about the prizes that is speaking to be done differently or at least reflected upon. This is why we have emotion – it’s another source of information. The trouble with prizes are that they potentially move the motivation to paint from intrinsic to extrinsic and if the prize distribution is inequitable it also introduces an element of competition, and in the more vulnerable perhaps a sense of “not good enough”. As a facilitator I have trouble figuring out what value is added by these kinds of rewards to the overall experience of such a workshop to all the participants. In this type of environment I would expect that the reason for choosing to participate is purely for the joy of the activity and the learning inherent therein. Personally, I wouldn’t risk losing that as the main focus by putting the attention on outcome.

Hope this offers some insight to ruminate on further…just my perspective.
From: Colleen — Aug 11, 2011

Why make your workshop into a contest?….isn’t what you have to give and what they gave back enough?

From: Paul deMarrais — Aug 11, 2011

I think those of us who gravitate towards teaching want to reach and inspire EVERY student. To do so is not possible, however. Each person is a unique individual who must be approached in a unique way in order to find the key to helping that person improve. Great teachers are magicians of intuition. In a small class perhaps you can perform this feat and send everyone home glowing and happy. As the class size increases, that likelihood decreases exponentially. The pace becomes too fast. Intuition is surpassed by survival mode. I’m not a big fan of over the top ‘esteem building’ myself. It places way too much emphasis on the rewards coming from the outside rather than the inside of a person. Too many artists and would be artists paint for the approval of others entirely. There will never be enough awards or trophies for this person to fill that gaping hole they need to fill. THey become sad and depressed in the end. At the other extreme, those without any esteem who have been given no encouragement, end up in the same place. As with many endeavors in life, balance is the key. Balance is impossible to quantity. It’s intuitive and mysterious….just like painting.

From: Rodrica Tilley — Aug 11, 2011

I think you’ve answered you own question. Awards at a workshop seem inappropriate to me. Learning is the goal and the prize in all the workshops I’ve attended. It should be a period of intense growth and no competition. Artists have enough competition in their lives the other 51 weeks of the year. If the teacher has worked as hard as I have during the week, I leave happy and rewarded with my new-found skills and inspiration.

From: Ronda Fear-Fulkerson — Aug 11, 2011

I don’t pay tuition to win a prize. I pay an instructor to teach me something new!

From: Marisa Petersen — Aug 11, 2011

Fifteen years ago I was teaching in a small elementary school attached to an agricultural school / working farm in the heart of India’s Deccan Plateau. Most of my students were children of the staff who worked at the school; a few children came from the village adjacent to the farm.

Despite laws officially outlawing the caste system, old patterns were pretty tenacious. For example, the children of staff with formal education were referred to by their first name while the children of a laborer would be referred to as “the tractor driver’s daughter”. I called each of my precious students by her or his own name. Before the end of the school year the teachers planned an awards ceremony. They chose the obvious standouts in math and other subjects. But what about the “most improved” student? Or the most humorous? The most creative? The most compassionate? After consulting with the other teachers about recognizing students for non-academic talents and behaviours we expanded the awards ceremony to honor every student for some achievement, talent or character trait. Each student received a little box of eight colored pencils for summertime creative projects. The ceremony was a great success. The students beamed and their parents expressed both amazement and gratitude that all of the children were recognized as being special.
From: Nolly Gelsinger — Aug 11, 2011

Somehow, awarding prizes to everyone seems to downgrade the value of the prizes that should have had some worth. What’s wrong with setting a standard of excellence and providing the framework to help those willing to strive to meet that standard?

From: Maggie Parker — Aug 11, 2011

This is an on-going situation constantly discussed by academics in the field of art education.

What do we do when we have poor performing students who have ambitions to work for Pixar and Dreamworks and we know their work is not even up to the standard of a child of 7. They will never in a million years get a job of character artist for Disney, for example, much less even sweep the floors of the big studios. We cannot, however, disregard these low-achievers, as many mature at different ages and many have matured and gone on to successful careers and indeed made millions. Sometimes just to prove their teachers wrong. In my opinion, as artists and educators, we have to have constantly in the back of our minds ‘Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.’ Anyone can learn to draw, it is perception and practice that make the great ones. No-one can always have a prize, there are always disappointments in life, which if you work through and work harder can be overcome. Is constantly receiving prizes making them think they do not have to do anything else to improve?
From: Joseph Jahn — Aug 11, 2011

Excellence always Robert. You and your daughter did the right thing. Most adults are willing to honestly evaluate themselves and see through the lie of egalitarianism in art. You gain more respect

for being truthful about quality and ability, even from those that go away empty handed. Art requires a strong personality so those that may disagree with your choices of award winners will simply continue to produce their art regardless of setbacks. Those receiving the praise will not necessarily go on to be a good artist simply because of their lack of drive. Winners and losers in art are never chosen by others, it is a self generated lifestyle, a choice made in the heart of the individual.
From: Judy Nelson — Aug 11, 2011

I don’t think prizes are appropriate in a workshop setting – save them for competitions. They are at the workshop to LEARN, not compete .

From: Patricia Giraud — Aug 11, 2011

I have enjoyed your newsletters for the past few years. I have written some of your words of advice in my sketchbook to reflect on when times get difficult. I have never written before but I do have an opinion about prizes at workshops. I have studied in studio classes and workshops for the past 8 years. What has always meant the most to me are written comments gifted by my instructor. That personal communication is the prize/reward for my opening up to the point of vulnerability and for taking chances with new techniques. I understand that the number of participants in your workshops might not make that sort of written critique possible. A quiet personal conversation about my work would be the next best thing.

I am sure that most of your workshop participants have a pretty good idea of whose work is the strongest in the group without being told. It has always amazed me how quickly the order of things gets sorted out in studio classes. While more mature students probably have a sense of whether they have challenged themselves under your instruction and will walk away with a sense of accomplishment, others might be negatively affected by the concept of prizes being awarded. I am sure you gave a wonderful workshop. The photographs definitely reflected the rare beauty of the location, hard work and a lot of fun.
From: Carrie Johanna Thomas — Aug 11, 2011

I am an early elementary educator in Brooklyn. A painter friend, Susan Shoemaker, recommended your newsletter several years ago to me. I am also a writer and photographer and so enjoy getting your newsletter, keeps me inspired about my own creativity.

In regards to group awards…I agree ALL participants should not get the same awards. This diminishes the value of the award. Why not instead give awards to everyone with specific praise (best use of shadow, best use of oil medium, most improved in watercolor, nice use of scale, etc.) This way, painters are being recognized for something specific — it’s valuable, precise praise that will encourage students to reflect on what they are doing well…and sustain the practice of repeating their successful techniques.
From: Ken Paul — Aug 11, 2011

Robert: I offer a small tale with some parallels to yours.

After a few years out in the world, pursuing my dual profession of artist and art teacher, I was invited to judge the art entries in the county fair back in my home town in Wyoming. It was fairly early in my career, so you may not be too surprised to hear me confess that I was still a bit full of myself (Local boy makes good, and all that). The displays were the usual county fair fare—patriotic portraits of politicians whether dead or alive (copied from photographs), purple unicorns, fairies, lots of wildlife art and pictures of Native Americans (hardly any by Native Americans, probably). There was a small scattering of decorative abstracts, some cowboy/horse images, paintings of the Tetons, garish bathing beauties, even some paint-by-numbers pieces. It wasn’t hard to pick out the more successful examples and give ribbons where deserved (in my humble opine), but the whole time there was this nagging reminder that I was back in the place of my own creative roots—ergo, a palpably uneasy feeling went with the job. The hardest part was giving ribbons for the children’s division, largely organized according to particular schools around the county, with prominent mention of the art teachers at each. Some of the kids’ efforts were delightfully free and imaginative, carrying the customary variations in skill. You could see them starting to tighten up at about grade 4. In some cases, you could actually sense the controlling oversight of the teacher. Possibly the most depressing entries were from one school in a small outlying town—all of them on mimeographed pages bearing the same outline drawing done by the teacher (evidently traced from some existing source), to be filled in by the kids with colored crayolas. Ouch. What was the teacher thinking? But to be charitable, she probably had no background in art herself. It was the best she could manage when told to present some art lessons to her class. Paying no particular attention to signatures, I made the rounds, distributing some white or red or blue ribbons here and there, imagining that I was bringing in some sort of educational service regarding “quality.” The thought of giving all the entries some sort of tangible recognition didn’t even occur to me. I found out later that I overlooked all three sons of my mother’s best friend (coincidentally, the wife of the mayor). I got a small stipend for doing this jurying, but still left with a rather sour taste. In retrospect, I cannot really imagine that I was a better exemplar of creative sensibility than that poor untrained elementary teacher who assigned her pupils to use her tracings like a coloring book. In subsequent years, the task of assigning letter grades to people’s artistic efforts became the least favorite part of my job. Happy to be retired from that, Ken P, Eugene, Oregon
From: Diane Meacher — Aug 11, 2011

Art awards in a working course – no way. What I remember from any course are comments spoken to me quietly while I was working. Not patronizing ones but good critical but positive reinforcement. Those 7 people would have enjoyed that just as much and the others wouldn’t have to feel or think they didn’t make the grade. The classes are small so why not a framed photo of them working such as you’ve put on the clickback.

Diane Meacher, retired teacher and potential artist
From: Carole Dwinell — Aug 11, 2011
From: Bernard Fierro — Aug 11, 2011

Forget the prizes.

From: Sue Zelko — Aug 11, 2011

I’ve attended many workshops and none awarded any kind of prizes. Learning was the goal, and the critique at the end helped us to understand how much we still had to learn even after all our hard work. I always come away having learned some new approach or having conquered some obstacle I was having difficulty with – but always feeling I’ve moved forward with my art. This in itself has been reward enough for me.

At the kind of workshop you gave, I can see an award for most improved having value: the one who gets it feels duly encouraged to keep going, while the others feel that maybe they were a notch above when they started and didn’t have so far to improve. At least they shouldn’t feel discouraged. If you want to include awards for most congenial, most diligent, best sport, etc., it could add to the fun of the experience without casting aspersions on the abilities of the attendees. As you discovered with the Yamaha recital, an award given to everyone participating loses its value as an award. Some people who paint will never be artists – even those who have been painting for 30 years – but don’t realize that they just don’t have “it”, whatever “it” may be. It would be a disservice to art to encourage such painters to think they are artists. I have seen cases where mediocre, or even just totally awful painters, are given awards, and suddenly they begin to think they are really GOOD. I doubt this is your intention. Sugar Land, Texas, USA
From: Anita Hunt — Aug 11, 2011

While teaching high school art, I pushed every one of my students to enter a piece in the annual Congressional art competition. I told them they had as much chance of winning the show as they had of winning the lottery, so don’t shoot for prizes ( sounds mean but there was method to this madness); enter your work so that it can be seen by people who you will never meet but will wonder who you are. It takes a lot of courage for a delicate ego to face rejection, but most of my kids stepped up with their best works and in they went. My secret was that the Congressman’s office would issue beautiful certificates of participation to each student who entered. When the certificates were delivered at the close of the show, I would see looks of surprise and pride. Parents would call, in shock, they never knew their children had “talent”.

Recognition for facing the firing squad! Winning the prizes no longer mattered because now they were ready to try again. Confidence levels shot up and the rest of the year, my job was easier. Curiously, those of my students that placed from first to third over the years did not produce the works that I thought might win.
From: Jo Ann Allebach — Aug 11, 2011
From: Tri-Unity — Aug 11, 2011

Maybe awards, voted on by students themselves?

Our a public gallery type display and a peoples choice awards… at the end? Removing your judgment aside altogether, staying in the role of teachers and motivators! A friendly reminding to the students, that we all reap what we sow and if we do not sow, we do not reap! I purchase painted river rocks for my garden paths, just to motivate a budding artist at the age of 8 around the block… Motivate and encouragement all the way! Some remarks by gardening friends, they do not do my gardens justice…I reply the a building stones of a future artist…enjoy! Artfully yours, G
From: Kate Van Dyke — Aug 11, 2011

Children aren’t stupid and neither are adults. Receiving the same “prize” that everyone else gets is just frustrating or meaningless. I deplore the educational philosophy that children’s egos can’t bear the rejection involved in competition and will never develop self-esteem unless competition is eliminated. On the contrary, they will never develop self-esteem if all they ever experience is high praise and rewards for everything they do, regardless of its merit compared to their own demonstrated abilities and efforts or compared to anyone else’s. Phony rewards are not a worthy substitute for thoughtful encouragement.

On the other hand, I do not see the point in giving prizes for work done over the course of a workshop. I would rather participate in group critiques — I would learn more and work smarter. I like to use workshops as a place to freely experiment and fail with an instructor who can help me evaluate my attempts. If I knew I was in a competition with every piece, I would be inhibited — because I am competitve! For my money, save the awards for competitions I choose to enter with the best I can do.
From: Cindy Michaud — Aug 11, 2011
From: Kati — Aug 11, 2011

Give everyone a certificate of completion – and let the workshop participants vote for the “prizes”.

From: Bunny — Aug 11, 2011

I assume most of your attendees were older than 10…probably can handle the lack of award for a great week of work & inspiration…

From: Pat Morgan — Aug 11, 2011

Dear Robert, I’ve been conducting workshops for several years with the number of students ranging from 8 up to 18. I give prizes too but mine are just for fun and not for excellence. I have students pick numbers out of a hat and there are usually three prizes each class day. They are simple inexpensive art related gifts and meant to add some fun to the day. The students who don’t get one don’t seem to mind at all – it’s all the luck of the draw.

Your dilemma truly can go in either direction. Some students may feel badly; however, the prizes would be a fun way to encourage students to take their work seriously. I’m looking forward to hearing what others say.
From: Margaret Ferraro — Aug 11, 2011

As a workshop instructor, I find it quite hard to praise anyones’ work, without distracting everyone else away from their own journey.

Well intentioned as it may have been, it’s a fine line between trying to encourage students towards excellence, and discouraging those that don’t get the accolades. Underneath many a “mature” and “generous” armour worn by many workshop participants, lies doubt and anxiety. My theory is that through our education system, our culture has become so much about acheivement and performance. The sad thing about that is it disallows the real focus where it should be: on enjoying, with passion for what we do, our artistic practise. Shouldn’t it all be about love?,…and satisfying our curiousity about just what we all, individually see as beautiful? Of course many, including myself want to continually improve. Seeing others’ work, particularily excellent work, is what got me into this mess in the first place. I was inspired by award winning work. Sorry, I have no conclusive answers for you.
From: Loretta Puckrin — Aug 11, 2011

It sounds as if you gave a prize to those paintings you liked best – you might find that just telling people you thought their paintings were in the top 10 would work just as well. However your other stated option of giving prizes to everyone diminishes the whole experience. It all depends on your objective (encourage everyone, weed out the faint of heart, promote more painting in a style you prefer, stimulate more painting, give anyone who has a ‘yearn to learn’ the support and tools to progress). Once you have that clearly in mind you can judge how best to accomplish that goal.

In my opinion the purpose of a class is to learn – perhaps those who learned the most did the poorest as they were experimenting outside their comfort zone. I don’t think that prizes (and I have won a few in situations like this in the past so it isn’t sour grapes) belong in a learning environment. Our prize from taking the class is the expansion of our skills or knowledge. BTW Billy could just as easily ended up as PM or CEO of Microsoft but getting a prize for poor performance isn’t a way to encourage excellence. It’s like our current school system which refuses to fail a poor performer because it would have a negative impact on a person’s self esteem. We need to give realistic input and let the person determine the direction they will take it without judgment on their decision – too much judgment in the art world. Let them have fun without competition. Encourage them to grow in their own unique directions.
From: Linda Karp — Aug 11, 2011

I think the way Yamaha school acknowledged each child’s efforts, is the way to go. At your workshop, why is it necessary to judge an end product? Why not just revel in the joy of creation? We are such a goal-oriented, thing-oriented society!! Those who “win” may feel validated, but those who don’t might be discouraged. Why not have each participant evaluate their own work? Because in the end, it’s what we know about ourselves that counts. Unless this art is being produced solely to be sold, which in itself would be sad, the focus ought to be on struggling with one’s own talents, struggling to get that picture out. Awards? Who needs them? I don’t need someone elses opinion – I just want the joy of creating. This is what we do to kids in school with grades. Who knows how many Picassos we stifle????

From: Mary Lou McCollum — Aug 11, 2011

I’ve taken many, wonderful workshops and have never yet had any prizes awarded at the end. I’m a little taken back that someone who knows that art is in the eye of the beholder, and the painter, would give prizes in this case.

Workshops, in my estimation, often bring out the worst in a person’s art because we are trying something new or putting ourselves out on a limb. To find out that that kind of risk taking is being judged would be counter to the experience itself. Thanks for your many useful thoughts.
From: t. gilecki — Aug 11, 2011

Well, I’ve never attended a workshop and I probably never will but if I did… I would want a refund if I didn’t get one of those prizes.

From: Dottie Dracos — Aug 12, 2011

For John Ferrie. First of all, your parents sound like winners! What wonderful parents to provide you such support and encouragement. My daughter is severely dyxlexic, too, and she’s never regretted it, either. She, too, is a talented artist.

From: fellow artist — Aug 12, 2011

A note to Brigitte Nowak: Hi, I saw that you were a premium member, decided to look at your artwork, and found that your website “has expired.” Thought you might want to know in case you didn’t realize it : )

From: Cate Lind — Aug 12, 2011

The first statement is not always true. I work for the U.S. Courts and have taken copyright law classes, and I believe that if you hire a photographer to do a job specifically for you, the resulting photographs then fit the category of “work for hire” and YOU hold the copyright to the resulting images — unless you sign paperwork giving your rights to the photographer. Many photographers may require you to give them your rights to the images as a condition of doing the job, or they may demand some arrangement in which they are free to use the photos you ordered to promote their photography business, but that is a matter of contract law, not copyright law. Now, if a photographer FIRST takes a photo, and then someone offers to buy the photo, the photographer holds the copyright (unless the photographer merely duplicates another work that is already copyrighted to someone else). The key issue is whether the whole process of taking the photo originates with the photographer or the customer.

From: Judy — Aug 12, 2011

To judge was not your ultimate role, you are the teacher. You are there to teach skills, encourage, suggest and direct. The biggest down fall I see of workshops and classes, is where the students walk out of the class and all their work looks just like the teachers ! Ugh, that’s really not successful teaching.

From: Ray — Aug 12, 2011

I “shoot” my wife’s paintings with a good quality point & shoot camera at the highest possible resolution. I download them into Picasa, make sure they are square and then crop. I can send them as Jpegs and I use them to print good quality greeting cards. You must have a very good quality printer and use good card stock for the cards.

From: Patty — Aug 12, 2011

When I go to a workshop it is to learn a new technique or for experimentation with a different media, not to be praised, or feel like I am in a competition trying to make better art than those around me. I am a somewhat experienced artist and I sell a lot of my art. I often do ‘better’ work or catch on quickly to something introduced by the instructor at the workshops. I feel its distracting and uncomfortable to be praised above other attendees, especially since we are not trying to doing our ‘best’ work there. That happens mostly alone in the studio or onsite. Its really nice to be encouraged but all workshop attendees should be equally encouraged to do their own thing. Let the learning be the reward. No prizes.

From: Don Tiffin — Aug 12, 2011

I remember running home from third grade with a certificate I received from my favorite teacher, Mrs Craigo. I was so overjoyed that I was included in receiving a coveted paper when awards were given out. My Mom framed the certificate and was just as overjoyed as I was. It didn’t matter that the certificate read “Participant” but rather that I was made to feel special. Although I have diploma’s and degrees, I still feel the joy of that special certificate so long ago. The spirit of the giver does much to fuel the development of the learner.

From: Mira Kamada — Aug 12, 2011

I am staunchly against awarding prizes of any sort to students. Here is why: prizes are irrelevant. The real reward comes from interacting with your mentor and experiencing your progress. Prizes are demoralizing for those who do not receive them, and redundant for those who do. Prizes reflect the taste of the award-giver, although I’m sure you and Sara rise above “taste”. I once ‘judged’ a show of amateur work where I was instructed by the sponsor to give everyone a prize. What’s the point? Keep your ribbons and give your students the most sought after prize of all — your rapt attention.

From: Patti Edmon — Aug 12, 2011

Award is inextricably linked to judgment. Unless there are financial or prizes included, I believe in your case a detailed individual critique may be more helpful. Not because you’d miss the opportunity to recognize a new painter with a great future, but because of the possibility, no matter how slight, that the overarching subjectivity attached to evaluating the creative process might deter those with enormous potential.

I am a mixed media artist and unless I’m judged on my backgrounds, painter’s awards would be scarce. But I have attended enough workshops to know that it really is about stimulating the process and connection to like-minded creatives than it is about the gold star.
From: Joanne McSporran — Aug 12, 2011

Prizes? why bother with any? Who needs another bit of ribbon in the junk drawer anyway?

If you really feel one student is so fantastic maybe you should offer to trade one of your works for one of theirs. If the reason for the prize is to point out how great the student is to the others then do it with words. If you must give prizes then how about a random draw. “Everyone worked hard and learned something”. That was the point of this course. The students who take the biggest risks to learn something new usually make the biggest messes while learning, so maybe the best student made the worst paintings. Therefore, rather than judge you by the outcome of your willingness to take a risk, we offer a prize that reflects your chances of getting it right the first time. All names in the hat! We will draw for the prize.” Of course, that might not be the issue. I see so many artist’s bio’s that say “prize winning artist” so maybe that’s what the prizes are all about.
From: Sedona — Aug 12, 2011

OK people, so you are saying that you would rather get a warm and fuzzy comment from a collector than have your work purchased? You can have your egalitarian private world, but once you are out of your studio you are in the real world, which is about competition, which is not a dirty word. Competition did well for humans indeed, it pushes progress and an award is a symbol of it. Those who don’t win an award are still rewarded by learning about the winning process. Don’t hide from it, but learn to embrace it. The bitter feeling of losing is meant to instill a desire to do better, so embrace that as well. According to the responses, this medicine is widely needed. Do a research about Nobel prize winners – the few that rejected it were mostly extreme leftist politicals. Awards have a valuable purpose that should be noted and recognized in all walks of life including the classroom. When you pay for a learning experience, you get it the way your chosen teacher intended. If you think that you know better, why bother take the class?

From: Diana Rutherford — Aug 12, 2011

Art is one of the few pursuits where you can only be in competition with yourself. Who else knows how to paint with your vision (insight)? To be better at finding your own true way of seeing than anyone else might be possible, but it’s never done by trying to paint like someone else, nor holding up a comparison.

From: Anon — Aug 12, 2011

For professional artists, comparison is important. For other, not so much. It all depends on what is one’s ambition in the art world. Robert’s startegy is excellent for people who aspire to be professional artists.

From: bobdrake — Aug 12, 2011

A competition or awarding of prizes seems to me to seriously inhibit the learning process of a workshop. A workshop should be about trying new ideas, new ways of seeing, composing, and technically managing the medium, not trying to make the “best” product, whatever that may mean. I know, no one wants to be embarrassed at critique, but if you’re just going to paint the same old picture,the same old way, you can do that at home.

From: Tetley — Aug 15, 2011

So experiment all you wish in a workshop – no one stops you except a childish grudge if someone else wins a prize. An adult should be mature enough not to be like that. Most of these comments say – if I don’t win, I don’t want anyone else to win. It’s shocking how many people have this stance.

From: Workshop student — Aug 15, 2011

As a student in Robert and Sara’s workshop, the small prizes that they gave for a few of their personal favorites was a complete surprise to me and I think everyone else. What harm can a bottle of wine, a tube of paint, or an extra panel to paint on be? It was just a lighthearted point, it seems to me, that added to all the other lighthearted and serious points that made this such an amazing workshop and different than others I’ve taken. I did not receive one of these little prizes, but it did not bother me (too much).

From: Pat Meier — Aug 15, 2011

Love you, your paintings and your letters. Constructively speaking, and since you asked, I would recommend that you don’t continue to offer prizes or awards at workshops. While it is great for the recipients of prizes, it is very discouraging for those who don’t receive one. There is such a great learning curve with painting and, wonderfully so, there is always so much more to learn. But it’s also easy to just give up when a painting isn’t turning out well and then to not receive a prize – well that just confirms the feeling like a failure part. I think a demo plus one-to-one attention works best. Constructive criticism is always where the most learning occurs and even if there is only one small positive comment about a great reference photo, a brush stroke or colour that worked well, coming from you – that is a prize in itself, therefore everyone wins.

From: Maureen Twig — Aug 25, 2011

A memento given at the end of a workshop to all participants is probably a good thing. Prizes, I think are not. There are complete amateurs and budding professionals at workshops, so there is no level playing field, as far as experience goes. In many cases, if not most, prizes would be awarded to those who have already done the heavy lifting, and thus it would not be much of an encouragement to the rest. It would be honoring previous success, in a sense. For a workshop experience, I would think that the ability to be present, to paint and to learn, should be all the reward anyone needs. Laurels can be distributed in a different venue, if at all.

From: Ig Hanks, metalwork — Sep 25, 2011

It’s unlikely that I would enrol in a workshop that advertised prizes. If I did not know the instructors I would tend to assume that they were silly people who have little to offer in terms of real teaching. (Robert, I know this is not true of you.)

In order to be creative (i.e. to resolve an artistic problem) I need to be able to daydream and to make decisions without distractions. I expect to make a mess as I experiment with new ideas and techniques. I am there to learn, to take risks, to feel uncomfortable. I am NOT there to please my ego, or to impress the instructor or my fellow studentss . Some of my best work has developed from workshops I disliked at the time. For me a course is all about process, not the product. When I taught in art in elementary school, experimentation was encouraged. At the end of a lesson everyone’s work, unsigned, and finished or not, was put up for the class to study. Students were asked to find something interesting or unusual about each piece. They were to look for ideas that they would like to try in their own work. 35 pieces allowed us to celebrate 35 different ways to illustrate an idea or to solve an artistic problem. In working with young children for 33 years I found that every child loves to do art and that judging their work is not particularly helpful. Great teaching leads to excitement and a willingness to take risks. Prizes are not a motivator unless you want the students to colour within the lines. They love to learn about art history and about the lives of the great masters. Some adults thrive on competition while others are hindered by it. The latter are not weaklings, just people with a different temperment. They are able to achieve top quality work without the noise of prizes, aka Art Without Benefits.
     Featured Workshop: Evelyn Dunphy
081211_robert-genn Evelyn Dunphy workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.


mixed media, 22 x 15 inches by Carolyn WarmSun, CA, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “I’m not sure that prizes are necessary. Of course if you wanted to give me one of your paintings just for being on the planet I would never refuse.” And also Debby Bryan of Nashville, TN, USA, who wrote, “Yes, Robert, I definitely think that you should equally distribute the awards. This would, however, punish those who have excelled in their efforts, but, those who have excelled should definitely be taught that it’s pointless to excel and terribly selfish and unfair to those who don’t. Also, while you’re at it, I’d like for you to share half of your galleries and financial profits with me because my artwork is inferior to yours and, of course, that’s not fair. I really appreciate your generosity. Now, I don’t have to try so hard to improve, much less excel! And also Steve Mahovolic of Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Honest competition and honest prizes make everyone better. Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses will guide us on our individual paths. Life choices based on delusion will only lead to failure.”    

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