We Wish You Knew: What Juried Exhibition Organizers Wish They Could Tell Artists
by: Keisha Roberts http://www.keisharoberts.com
This is an excerpt from Keisha Roberts’ 3-hour seminar
Professionals in our field have been slow to develop professional standards to provide consistent guidance to those who organize and enter juried art quilt exhibitions. One show asks you to label slides one way, while another sets out a totally different procedure. Another show wants digital files named like this, while yet another wants them named like that. Despite the wide variance from exhibition to exhibition, there are problematic issues that arise time and time again.
As someone who has worked professionally as an artist who has exhibited her work widely--and as a curator, exhibition developer and designer--I have the benefit of seeing exhibition experiences from both sides of the fence, and have an appreciation of organizers’ and artists’ frustrations. You’re probably well acquainted with artists’ frustrations, so I won’t belabor those here. I will, however, be your proverbial fly on the wall and share what drives exhibition organizers to the point of distraction.
No matter the size or stature of the exhibition, exhibition organizers and curators have similar lists of what they wish we could tell--beg, implore, threaten, or bribe--professional artists to do!
1. Tell us what we ask.
In the absence of professional standards that unify juried exhibition entry processes, organizers have all rebuilt their own little wheels and have developed a system that will help them manage the several hundred entries they expect to receive. Please read the prospectus and entry form carefully and with your full attention. DO WHAT THEY ASK.
We ask precisely what we need artists to tell us. Answer every question on the form, especially if the organizer asks you if your quilt can travel. Few things are worse for an organizer than trying to select a traveling exhibition, without knowing what artwork is actually available to them.
If you are asked for a statement to accompany each entry, write it. If the word limit is 50, don’t write 51 or 77. If the statement is to be provided in the space on the entry form, don’t attach it on a separate sheet.
Above all else, please write legibly. Many an organizer has sacrificed time trying to communicate with an artist via email, only to find that the provided email address is not valid.
2. Don’t tell us what we don’t ask.
It seems few artists understand the additional burden they place on the under-appreciated entry coordinator when they send additional materials. It’s a tough task to keep track of hundreds of entry forms and corresponding images without the added challenge of being saddled with extra “stuff”. It’s wonderful that you’ve invested in your career and have prepared business cards, promotional postcards, a curriculum vita, a press kit, and artistic statement. Congratulations for putting forth that effort. But it’s a waste of your money and time to send unsolicited support materials the jurors will never see.
Only send supporting materials if the entry form or prospectus explicitly note that the organizers welcome additional materials. Else, the materials go in the round file, if you aren’t disqualified for not following directions. Or, your materials could land in that great paper purgatory--known to many as a file cabinet--because the poor entry coordinator felt too guilty to throw your money away.
Let’s fast-forward a bit. Your artwork has been juried into the exhibition. Congratulations! Now please don’t bombard the coordinators with requests. Wait for them to send you necessary delivery and exhibition instructions. If they do not give clear guidance in their communication about supporting materials, then most likely, they don’t need it. However, it is appropriate to ask them if it would be helpful for you to send them your promotional materials to support their media campaign. There may also be an opportunity to display your materials at the exhibition to help viewers become more knowledgeable about your work and the quilt medium. But please, ask first. Don’t just include your materials with your quilt otherwise if you have not been instructed to do so.
3. Only send the best images of your work.
If you were to apply for a position in polished surroundings, where deadlines are tight, great pains are taken to make sure everything is just so, and the current managers only want to hire professionals they believe they can depend on to be reliable, you wouldn’t arrive at the interview wearing your shirt backwards, chewing bubblegum and twirling your hair! You would dress and act appropriately for the environment.
Fiber artist Mary Horton said it best when she remarked that images of your work are like the suit you wear to an interview. If you are applying to a professional exhibition or wish to present yourself as a professional artist, present your work in a professional manner.
I see bad photography all the time and I’m continually befuddled. Often artists photograph their work in poor light, so the image of the quilt appears washed out. Or the image is over exposed and the quilt looks nearly neon. Some photograph quilts laying on the floor or lawn, so the quilts appear to have a distorted, trapezoidal shape. And then there’s my personal favorite: hands in the upper corners of the quilt and legs and feet poking from the bottom.
The area around your quilt should be completely free of all competing visual information. Nothing should distract your juror’s eye from your work. I once was very surprised to see entry slides submitted by a widely respected and exhibited award-winning artist. I could clearly see the fold lines in the fabric she used as a backdrop. I’ve seen several other artists submit work surrounded by so much furniture, it was difficult to tell where the quilt ended.
Because it's such a touchy subject and organizers are weary of artists' negative reactions, they rarely feel safe telling the artist they were disqualified because of poor image quality for fear of bad publicity.
As a working artist I fully appreciate the financial constraints that make it difficult for artists to afford professional quality photography. I know photography is expensive, but consider what you waste when you pay an entry fee and the juror never even sees your work because your slide was eliminated due to poor image quality. Your wasted entry fees are better spent on professional quality photography.
Every year when I plan my studio schedule and budget, I call my photographer and schedule tentative dates for quarterly photo sessions. It hurts, but I know my success is dependent upon how I present myself and my work. When a museum curator calls and asks me for images of my work, I only want the curator to see my work at its best.
Remember, jurors can only make judgments based on what artists show them. If you present an image of a quilt that looks blah, we can only believe that the quilt is blah.
Professional image quality is especially important to exhibitions that document their exhibition checklist in a catalogue or brochure. Just think of the poor designer who is working at 3 am to resolve issues presented by poor image quality. Sometimes, it’s even hard to remember why we're investing so much time in work that the artist isn't investing more effort in. It's really challenging. It's difficult to make a commitment to curate the best exhibition you can, then be saddled with further difficulties when you try to document the exhibition (also for the artist's benefit!) when artists haven’t provided you with clear images.
I think people who are artists and curators tend to be more lenient when considering work that isn't presented clearly because we understand the money issue and are committed to using our position to advocate for artists. But, I will admit... it's difficult to spend well over an hour editing an image, or invest the time and expense to re-photograph the work. Though we have the best of intentions of helping artists, it is difficult to invest extra time making up for the artist’s shortcomings. We're already sleep deprived and working so hard to conceptualize, plan, implement, and publicize projects. It is easy for an organizer to feel as if the artist is taking advantage of them.
It seems that some artists can only see their inconvenience and sacrifice, and that perhaps they don't understand the sacrifices the curator or organizer is making. We're doing the best we can and investing everything we have within ourselves to develop meaningful projects and exhibitions. It's tough to pull up the slack for artists who photograph their work in dim light with furniture in the way or on top of sheets with visible fold lines.
Tips for Professional Photography
Here are a few things to consider when having your work professionally photographed:
1. If you cannot make your own professional quality images of your work. Hire a professional. Never circulate poor images of your work.
2. When looking for a photographer, ask other artists or arts organizations for recommendations. Ask to make a brief visit to the photographer’s studio and review examples of photographs they have made of fiber art.
3. Lighting is very important. Use light appropriate for your film. Be certain that your quilt is photographed with proper lighting and appropriate exposure. Use a light meter to guide you and be sure to bracket the shots (make the image with the exposure setting that are best guess, then make images one setting higher and lower than your guess).
4. Use a tripod and cable release to avoid shaking the camera. Shaking results in blurred image quality.
5. Bear in mind that camera lenses reflect back 18% of the light that is bounced into them from the surface of an object. If you photograph artwork against a “neutral-density gray” or “18% gray” background, the chances that the camera will interpret light and color well are improved.
6. If an 18% gray background is not available, a white background is usually preferable over a black one. Use your best judgment for white quilts. You may need to use a darker background to make your quilt’s edges obvious. Black backgrounds then to dull the colors in artwork.
7. Though it is not yet standard practice in art quilt work, in art world objects are routinely photographed with a color scale in the image field. This help’s the juror’s know they are seeing your quilt in true color (or not!). This will also give you a clear indication of how well your slides are aging and whether or not you have a good slide. Do not put the scale on the quilt.
8. Make sure the quilt occupies the maximum amount of space in the slide as possible.
9. If you submit slides, consider using metalized slide masking tape inside the slide mount to crop your quilt, IF the exhibition permits this practice. (Do not use gummed paper from envelopes or any tape not explicitly manufactured for this purpose. Such tapes can melt or separate from the slide in the carousel and damage the organizer’s projector.)
10. If you are submitting a digital image or a slide made from a digital image, leave a thin border of “white space” around your image and use “black space” to block out the rest of the empty space. Why? Excess white space is projected as pure light. When excess white space is projected, the screen becomes very bright. In this situation, the juror is essentially trying to view an image pasted in the middle of a flashlight.
It’s Okay to Ask Questions
Remember, it’s okay to ask the organizers any questions you have BEFORE you apply. If you’re unsure about anything, ask the coordinators in a succinct, polite email that clearly states your reason for contacting them. It’s better to resolve any issues, before creating extra work for the exhibition team. It enhances your image to present yourself and your work professionally. And remember to always present yourself as a professional artist. Curators and organizers want to work with artists who take their careers seriously, and with whom they can have easy working relationships.
Good luck with your juried exhibition adventures!
About Keisha Roberts
Keisha Roberts draws inspiration from African and African American history and culture, and the striking graphic composition of African textiles. Roberts forges passions for art, history, and culture into fine art, exhibition experiences, research projects, lectures, workshops, and works of non-fiction.
Roberts’s current abstract and photographic quilt art is a synthesis between figurative and conceptual elements. Roberts infuses personal, familial, and cultural memory into each contemporary quilt, while incorporating the continuity and tradition of generations of quiltmaking. She also creates quilted installations and sculptures, and integrates glass, acrylic, water color, oil and chalk pastels, ceramics, and encaustic in her work to create quilted, mixed media works of art.
She is actively engaged on several museum boards and committees. She has curated and exhibited in solo, group, and traveling exhibitions across the country. Her work is included in Textural Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Tradition, a national and international touring exhibition curated by Carolyn Mazloomi and organized by the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio, and published in a book of the same name. Her work is held in private and public collections in the United States and South Africa.
Roberts holds degrees in African and African American Studies, History, and Women’s Studies, and a certificate in Communications from Duke University. She co-edited the award-winning book Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South and contributed research to several NPR documentaries. She is currently studying non-profit management at Duke University and collections management and preventive conservation in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program in Collection Care at George Washington University.