Last Monday a museum curator, a watercolourist and I met in a community centre to jury a show for the local arts council. While most entries were paintings, others included sculptures, pastels, drawings, ceramics, fiber arts, papier mache and works in collage, printmaking, woodworking, metalwork and batik. There was silver- and goldsmithing, felting, glass, quilts and mediums called “joining compound” and “scratch art.” And there were photos: digital and film, composites and painted, with prints on metal, plastic, fabric, canvas and watercolour paper. Everything had been made within the last two years — a miracle of productivity. We had but one day to cull eleven hundred entries to a third.
As a first-time juror and out-of-towner, what I lacked in experience I hoped to make up for in new eyes and neutrality. With smooth efficiency, a surge of silent volunteers ran paintings to and fro while we discreetly gave scores to an assigned scribe. The following morning was reserved for discussion of works on the edge, plagiarism issues and pieces with a wide variance in scoring — each of us went to bat for what we felt deserved inclusion. I noticed myself being most tough on paintings — especially abstracts — and wondered about this until I detected the watercolourist also holding the works in her medium to extra lofty technical standards. The curator gave a wider berth to narrative, cultural context, quirk, politics, originality, innovation, history and his own personal response. I worried at times if I was putting too much or too little weight on finishing and details, then whimsy, then ineffable magic. I noticed that while the whole system is flawed, hope and trust still reign.
At night I pushed my head into the hotel pillow when an old tinge of outrage spidered across the inside of my chest. “I have spread my dreams beneath your feet,” wrote William Butler Yeats. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” “Remember that all is opinion,” said Emperor Marcus Aurelius. “Be your own worst critic,” wrote Paul Arden. And yet, when struck with the quality of the prize-winners, we three and our volunteers — most of them artists — puffed with a kind of pride that can only come from a love for something bigger than ourselves. “The universe is unfolding as it should,” a helper quietly offered after all was said and done. With our art tribe triumphant, we score a collective victory.
PS: “Excellence encourages one about life generally; it shows the spiritual wealth of the world.” (George Eliot)
“Criticism is easy, and art is difficult.” (Philippe Néricault Destouches)
Esoterica: Arts councils can provide exhibition opportunities and the chance for enthusiasts and collectors to see new work they may not otherwise find. With standards high, shows can generate significant fundraising with sales commissions and entry and public admission fees. Profits are often fed directly back into the production costs for next year’s show. With steady growth in popularity and reputation, organizers have had to cap the number of entries for this one. Soon they’ll need a bigger hall.
“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” (Stephen King)