Peer’s process


Dear Artist,

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.


Last year’s Best in Show:
Wood Bike and Trailer by Brian Poletz

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.


Last year’s Best Work on Canvas or Board:
Wall of Eggs by Catherine Moffat

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)


Last year’s Juror’s Choice:
Bearing Memories by Waelti-Walters

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)



  1. Jury duty with other’s art is indeed scary. I’ve done it a number of times both alone and with others as you did. I’m never sure which is the better way. Both have positives and negatives, of course. Anyway, congrats for getting in on a jury and feeling good about the outcome. I might add that an art group I belong to has a monthly critique, in the friendliest and positive way, and there is an understanding, even there, that what you’re looking at is somebody else’s soul. Be honest and be careful.

    • did critiques in grad school, and judged recently for a citywide entry of about 100 entries. it was what I hope to be a deeper insight into the lives of some very talented, and some not, simple, authentic, and honest art lovers. isn’t that what it really is about?

  2. Great letter. I’ve always been adamantly opposed to art competition, choosing to let the marketplace decide the value of my work. But of course , this is the biggest competition of all and the rules don’t always make sense. So as part of a local arts festival, I’ve put together a kids competition, making Selfies, and I’ll take it seriously by putting together a list of criteria for the judges to use. I can also talk about it in the workshop, helping the kids to think about the choices they’re going to make in materials. Kids art doesn’t have to be fluff.

  3. Jane Chesebrough on

    Tough job! In art school I used to hear”use these colours -he’ll like your work” or other stories of people trying to bend toward’s the judge’s biases. Yeats’ quotes speak to me. but important for artists to stay away from trying to please others and important for judges to do so as well, I like the idea of stating criteria for the show , for both the artist’s sake and the judges.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your process, Sara.Last year’s choices are most interesting, outside the box.

  4. So beautifully expressed!
    I’ve called and coordinated jurors for local exhibits of our artists guild, and have seen and heard the expressions of thoughtfulness and concern on the part of the jurors. Not one has been unaware of the responsibility they face in making their decisions. In my experience, I find artists to be a very nurturing lot!

  5. It’s always nice to get the jurors’ perspective on these shows. I’ve been a juror myself and know how challenging it can be. As artists we submit to the jurors’ opinions and decisions, developing thick skins in the process. Trying the guess what a specific juror will like is impossible, and as you have experienced, a juror who is competent in your field will probably be the harshest critic of that type of work. As a submitting artist I always put my best work forward, regardless of who is on the jury, and hope for the best.

  6. As to the helper’s quote:
    Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
    Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
    Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
    Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
    Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
    Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
    Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
    Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
    And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
    And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

    Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”

    • Glad to see Desiderata properly attributed to Max Ehrmann! The person who said it was “found in a Baltimore church” was probably hoping people would think s/he was the author. It circulaed that way for a very long time in the 70s, maybe even 60s.

  7. Terrifying, exhilarating, no matter which side of the easel you are on, creating or judging must stay on the sidelines while the act of art occurs.

  8. I enjoyed this article. There is always angst when we must measure something that has no true measure, when we venture to compare apples to oranges, and put value on things that cannot be valued in a deterministic way. I agree that buyers determine the value – but only when the right buyer comes across the right piece of art and can afford it. Competitions are good for the sake of gathering the art community, although I’ve always wondered why we need the awards. There are so many ifs in the art world. Only two things truly make sense to me – moving paint on the canvas with my brush , and that wonderful jolt of joy the art lover gets from seeing it.

  9. Those are large numbers for a show. If the judges are happy there is a good chance many other people are too. A good show is worth entering for the professional or might-be-professional artist. Good judges make the next show more worth while and competitive. I hope the show was well hung. That is a different yet related art. Thanks.

  10. What burns me is that the entry fees of all the artists, especially those that aren’t selected, goes toward prizes for a few. Some of the choices for awards are pretty questionable, at least in quite a few of the shows.

    • Wendy, I believe that the entry fees also go to the costs of renting the exhibition space which can be considerable. I also understand that artists are often paid for the work of jurying. Then there are the rack cards, insurance, reception expenses. Prizes are usually sponsored in my experience. Prize values are given but in the fine print it is more often a ‘value’ in service or merchandise. If I don’t gain entry to the exhibition, I consider my entry fee a contribution to the process which is necessary to enable exhibitions to be held

      • I like your attitude, Cheryl, when you say that you consider your entry fee a contribution to the process. I like feeling that I’ve contributed to something rather than feeling like my money just got gobbled up.

  11. Thanks for a thoughtful letter Sara. I am a painter who is relatively new to art exhibitions but I have been achieving entry to quite a few juried shows over the last few years. What I find difficult is when so called ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’ are in the same exhibition. As a painter, but having become a proficient photographer from the age of 13, I find it difficult to justify combining painted art in the same ‘competition’ as photographic art. I suppose I would have to say the same about other mediums as well. And unless the jurors are well versed in a medium, should they really be jurying that medium?

    • I so agree! As a painter I sometimes use photography as a reference. Then there is a photo. Everyone at the show says, “it looks like a photo!”. It is. The juror’s then feel they must pick the best of all media and a photo gets an award. I think photography is a very skilled and artful pursuit but not comparable to a handmade painting or sculpture. It is more technical. It should be compared to other photos. It belongs in a photography show. I am in no way saying photography is not an art. To me fine art is original and hand made.

  12. The comment by Philippe Nericoult Destouches is the catalyst in this article. I found it very insightful, having done adjudication and assisting with adjudication in the past. It seems to say it all, and Sara ended up being cognizant of that fact…”Criticism is easy and art is difficult!” Sara’s criticism went from easy to difficult and much thought must be given to the task! Not many people create or paint “just for fun.”

    • I have been painting almost all my life,plein air in particular. Have enjoyed most all of it except rejections in art shows when you see the people who get in and you wonder why. I sometimes wonder if it is former students. But now I paint simply for the pleasure of it without a thought of what will become of the finished product. What a blessing.

      • I agree with Cheryl and Donna with regards to paintings vs. photos. I, too, do both watercolors and photography but do not consider them to be equal in value, workmanship or category. Very interesting comments from all on jurying.

  13. Thank you Sara for walking us through that experience and giving the response you felt about your jurying. I think any jurist who has an expertise in a medium they know so well will look for excellence. It may be more difficult with some of the areas outside your own creative venue, but jurists still will look for the excellence and creativity of the artist whatever the medium. I particularly liked the quotes you put in your closing, and one I think so important when giving feedbackare the words, tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

    Thanks for an excellent post!

    Paul Harman

  14. mary easaw thomas on

    great piece of writing sara.
    thank you.

    the only way to enjoy participating in a competition is to do it and keep the joy of painting and producing excellence your main goal . let it be part of your experience – and allow it to improve your work .

    what a blessing.

  15. I am confused as to why pastels are listed separate from paintings. “While most entries were paintings, others included sculptures, pastels, drawings,……”

    Pastels can be either paintings or drawings or a combination of the two. Those of us who paint in pastel struggle with the bias of those who continue to ignore the fact that we are painters in our own right just as a watercolor or oil painter.

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