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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Two regionals: Selection vs. inclusion

There are two major regional exhibitions having their opening receptions this week and, while they have many similarities (and include some of the same artists), they also couldn't be more different.

The Fence Show (its reception, part of Troy Night Out, is on Friday from 5 to 9) is an annual staple of the Arts Center of the Capital Region that began more than 40 years ago (when the organization was known as the RCCA and actually had a fence), and is the most democratic of affairs. Quite simply, all paid-up members of the organization are invited to deliver up to three works, and everything that comes in is hung salon-style in the Center's capacious gallery for all the world to see. Later, a juried portion is rehung as Fence Select, and a few prizes are awarded; the choices typically are made by a locally-based juror. This year's juror, Sarah Cunningham of The College of New Jersey, has a strong local connection: she ran Albany Center Gallery for a number of years, guiding its move into the Albany Public Library's main branch.

The Mohawk-Hudson Regional (this year's venue is Albany's University Art Museum and the reception is this evening - Thursday - from 5 to 8) first ran in 1936, and is traditionally considered the high-water mark in our annual pantheon of juried shows, with big cash prizes, purchase awards, and a glossy catalog. This year's juror, Matthew Higgs of White Columns Gallery in New York City, has the art-world profile of the typical Regional juror - the better to attract a lot of good entries and form a prestigious exhibition.

I have entered both shows a number of times over the years, with pretty good success at each - so I don't claim to be objective, but I can claim balance. This year, my work was rejected from the Regional, which gave me greater impetus to enter the Fence Show, where I know at least it will be seen before it gets too stale. (In a related situation, this year's Photography Regional was by invitation only, so I couldn't enter that, as I usually do.)

So, which is better - inclusion or selection?

As an artist, I have great arguments for both. It's nice to have work included, even if there are no criteria to overcome (as in the Fence), because you want the work to be seen. Even without criteria, you feel good to be included, and that gives the Fence Show its obvious appeal. Everybody gets to show, everybody gets to feel good. But, with no standards, what's to feel good about?

It's also nice to have work selected by a juror, both for the prestige value and to be in a better-looking show. But when there are selections, the stakes are higher. No one likes to be rejected, even though running that risk is a fact of life. Still, I'd bet that every artist involved in any juried show, no matter how terrific and successful they may already be, agonizes over the decision of the judge the same as if it were a high-school popularity contest. Is it worth it?

I also have some arguments as an audience member (because these are public shows, after all, and the point is for people to go see them).

The all-inclusive show can be a bit messy, but it affords the opportunity to see everything that was submitted without the filter of some snooty judge. I often agree with a judge's choices, but I also gain by seeing the work that would have been rejected. In a mature scene such as this one, there is so much good work being produced that there are always very good works of art that don't make the cut - that's why salons des refus├ęs are often of high quality. So it's better to show it all and let the audience make their own selections.

Then again, the selected show, if it's done right, guarantees a very high-quality experience for the viewer. You achieve the illusion of seeing only the best of the best, and you feel edified, even enlightened. The cleaner installation is almost always an improvement, but it is in the quality of the installation, where a juror has made choices that work together, that you get the biggest advantage - a sum-of-its-parts gain. So juried shows are better.

And what about those jurors? I have observed a pattern in the many Mohawk-Hudson Regionals I've seen, in which the feel of the show varies a lot from year to year but has some consistency at each venue - more minimalist at the University, more populist at the Institute - and that's entirely due to each site's tendencies in choice of juror. Is that a fair representation of the art of our region?

As for the Fence, it's a salon and it's juried - the best (or worst) of both worlds.

How do you see it?

P.S. Insights into both juror's processes can be had by the following: See the Fence Show, and note the pieces with a green dot - those were chosen by the juror for Fence Select; and, go to this link to read an interview with Matthew Higgs by Times Union intern Bethany Bump.


forgingahead said...

Being new to the art scene (never studied art, never knew the ins and outs of galleries and shows), a couple of years ago I naively entered the Photo Regional thinking of the four pieces I submitted that surely at least one would make the cut. It was an eye opening experience for me as I went to jurist talk and selection announcement. I knew as soon as I heard her begin to speak that I had not submitted a thing she would care for...and she didn't.

I have subsequently shown a few pieces in the more inclusive shows put on by the Photo Center. It is fun to see my work on the wall; but as you suggest, beyond that thrill, what have I really accomplished?

So when I think about doing my photographs for shows, it really fundamentally changes the way I see the world. I have become less satisfied with my work; I have become intensely self-critical about subject matter, composition, printing technique, etc. ... all things that tend to stretch me away from the "lazy photographer" I really am in my heart. That can be a good thing, and perhaps that is one value of juried shows that is lacking in the inclusive type of show. As an artist we are challenged to be more explicit in finding a voice and making a visual/visceral impact with our work.

Arthur Bruso said...

I knew a colleague who was asked to jury a show. She went through all of the submissions (there were hundreds) and chose 3 she believed were of a quality to show. The galley balked at her minimal selection and insisted that she take a fresh look and select enough work to fill the gallery. She protested that the 3 she chose were the only works that were good enough to exhibit and refused to reconsider. The gallery staff then went ahead and chose enough work to fill the gallery. The juror, however, would not allow her name to be associated with this new selection, which then caused a big problem with publicity and printed materials.