My Experience as a Craft and Art Fair Juror
This past weekend I had the privilege of sitting on a jury for a local craft and art fair. The experience was both fun and extremely educational. Giving me a vital inside look at the process of selecting artists to be represented in this competitive show.
I didn’t realize how unusual it was that they asked me, a budding craft show artist, to sit on the jury. Jurying is normally an honor reserved for accomplished and mid to late career craftspeople. The festival director’s thinking was that it would be helpful for them to have a younger voice in the room, and equally beneficial to me. It truly was eye opening for me and I’m know any early stage artist would benefit from this kind of experience. They realized that unless they can start connecting to younger artists and visitors, this format will die and I think that’s a good impulse. Among my generation, potential visitors often think that art fairs and fine craft shows have dated, unaffordable work and don’t even go to look. In fact there are many younger artists who are exhibiting in recent years–largely thanks to some shows emerging artist programs in which a booth is offered at a discounted rate with mentorships and other support included. There are often affordable items in may media categories and I think with a little work on public perception, younger people–who definitely care about handmade work–can be encouraged to visit art fairs.
One of the more interesting aspects of being a juror was trying to uncover what are known as buy/sell "artists". I was shocked to learn that some people will buy work, usually from Asia, and try to pass it off as their own. There was also discussion of people who have gotten so big that they mostly have employees making their designs in their own workshop. That is a totally different issue, and I think is acceptable but not everyone agreed. There is a little bit of balancing the show and accepting people who have lower price point works, like wooden utensils, even if they’re not fine art, because the public needs some things they can walk away with.
There was a lot of discussion of new techniques and mediums, and whether they have a place in a handmade art fair. We spent a lot of time discussing digital photography, and artists who make giclee (or inkjet) prints of their photos or paintings on paper, canvas or metal. Some people felt that there was a difference between an artist who has their own printer and one who sends work out to be printed. There was discussion about whether it’s acceptable to take orders for prints or allow the public to take them home right away. In the categories of ceramics, wood and jewelry we are starting to see 3-D printed and laser cut pieces. Different jurors had differing opinions on these new processes. Personally, being a 20-something artist who went to art school and saw these processes used in interesting and original ways, I don’t have a problem with artists employing new techniques in their work. The issues more often were when that was the only process and no hand skill was needed. As someone who makes all my work entirely by hand, I don’t want to have to compete in price with work that’s made by a machine, no matter on how small a scale, but that’s always been the challenge of new tools in craft. I think if an artist is using modern tools to make original, interesting, and skilled work, they do have a place at a craft show, and that seemed to be the consensus among all the jurors.
Many of my questions were answered, but some I still struggle with. For example, is it better to show a range of your work by price and style? Or just show your strongest most expensive pieces? Because of what I noticed about the balancing of price points, I thought it would be better to include some of my lower priced items in the jury photos so that people know I have a range of works. My fellow jurors felt that a good booth shot would be enough to show that I offer a range, and I should stick to the high ticket items for jury slides.
I also learned that the booth shot is sometimes the make or break element. In this case, the jury was using it not only to see that you have a clean presentation, but also to see what kind of work you actually bring to the show. Jurors are keen on seeing work from the actual slides in the booth shot, or at least similar representational work. For example, if your slides are all black and white jewelry, and the booth shot has lots of color, That either indicates you’re applying with outdated images, you may be showing someone else’s work (buy/sell), or you are bringing a lot of work to shows that you weren’t juried in on. Also remember that any identifying information, like your signage, name and you yourself, should not be present in a booth shot. It shouldn’t be an afterthought, shot with your phone with a bunch of customers inside, it should be as carefully photographed and edited as the rest of your application.
If you have more than one distinct body of work, the proper way to apply is with two separate applications, if one body of work is juried in and the other is not, you’re not supposed to bring the other work to show. This is always a point with jewelry. For example, I make ceramic jewelry, to offer as a low price point item and sell it at some shows. But many of these juried fairs insist that if you’re going to have jewelry, you also apply in the jewelry category. Jewelry is already such a strong and oversaturated category that it makes sense that every artist shouldn’t be able to bring cheap earrings to add to the mix of very carefully selected jewelers.
If you’re applying in a popular category, like ceramics, jewelry, or furniture, you need to have very tight slides. Before this process, I was under the impression that even a sub-par slide would show that my work was intricate and well designed, and a discerning jury would still accept me. Instead, imagine that a group of three to six people – who may or may not be familiar with your medium, and almost certainly aren’t familiar with your work – are sitting all day long looking at hundreds or thousands of slides of some of the best craftspeople in the region. They are seeing sometimes 100 applicants in a category where there’s only space for 12. If the work is strong, and the body is cohesive, and the booth shot is clean and presentable, you owe it to yourself to have excellent slides. They should be color corrected, well lit, sharp, and each slide should have the same background. If that means getting professional photographs of your work, DO IT, otherwise you’re throwing away application fees every time you apply with weak slides. It is also helpful to know how the work is going to be viewed by the jurors. Some shows won’t specify, but if your application says ejury, then people are probably going to see your work on their individual computer screen, probably as icons and only enlarged if it piques their interest. If they are viewing it as a projection in a dark room, then a bright white background may be distracting, whereas the ubiquitous black/white gradient or a darker background will fall away into the negative space and your work has a chance to stand out.
Think carefully about the order of your slides. The group should look balanced and cohesive, but representational of all the work you plan to show. Keep in mind that both as an ejury and a projection jury, your work is usually all viewed at the same time, not one image at a time.
Take time to write clear, informative statements about each piece, and about the work as a whole. For some categories, like photography, we spent a lot of time reading descriptions to see which the processes were used, and what makes these travel photos stand out from those. Avoid using cliches like “I’m inspired by nature” and stick to information that will actually help the jury make a decision. If you have a source of inspiration that’s unique and interesting, share it, but also let us know what your process is, what materials you use, etc. It’s ok and perhaps better to use first person pronouns in your descriptions. With the buy/sell issue on everyone’s minds, vague statements like “these pieces are turned on the lathe” may mean that you’re buying turned blanks and painting them. It’s my opinion that it would be better to explicitly state, “I turn these pieces on the lathe, using wood from my own woodlot” or something like that. Personally, I went back through and changed all my statements so that all the hard work I do wouldn’t be overlooked or mis-attributed.
Finally, if you don’t get into a show, don’t take it as a sign that you aren’t talented. Jurors are fallible, and tastes vary wildly. Many times one juror would score someone's work a 7 (highest) and another would score the same work a 1 (lowest). Every juror has a different idea of what belongs in a show. Sometimes the jurors are just burnt out and can’t spend the mental energy on all the applicants, or your strong work came after a chain of very strong work and the score suffered for it. Almost all shows change the jurors every year, and if you make original work that you’re proud of, apply again! Just make sure to carefully consider all aspects of the application, including; the slides individually and as a whole, the booth shot, the item descriptions, and the artist statement. This can be an intimidating process, but it is so worth it when you are accepted and you have a chance to have your work represented alongside the best skilled artisans in your field.