Asked for his definition of a good poem, Howard Moss, longtime poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine, replied, “One I like.”
Artists who submit their work to any of the four Ann Arbor art fairs are likely to encounter the same kind of subjectivity. How can they not? “De gustibus non disputandum est,” as the Latin maxim states: there is no arguing about taste, which implies that aesthetic disagreements cannot be objectively resolved.
Yet despite the obvious importance of personal taste in deciding who is admitted to the fairs, each one tries to make the process as fair and objective as possible. Some artists are admitted to the fairs, and some are turned away, so the matters of taste are eventually resolved. And, of course, being fair and objective is not the primary goal of the fairs. They want to have the highest quality of work possible, and they want to have work that fairgoers will buy.
The four fairs that constitute the Ann Arbor Art Fair total just over 1,000 booths. Some spots are not open to the jurying process because the artists have received an automatic invitation back because of the quality of their work, or, in the Guild of Artists and Artisans’ Summer Art Fair, by virtue of seniority. Although in the past the fairs would disclose the number of re-invites and applicants for each fair, in 2011 the directors were unwilling to do so. Daniel Cherrin, spokesperson for the fairs, says that this year they’re branding themselves as a single Ann Arbor Art Fair and so don’t want to discuss their differences.
Fiber artist Jill Ault, a juror for the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, says that her fair, centered around Burton Tower on Ingalls Mall, has 180 booths, with thirty to forty taken by re-iinvitations. The Original typically might get 900 applicants for its 140 to 150 open spots.
Until four years ago, artists would submit physical slides of their work, and jurors would sit in a room with projectors to evaluate them. But now submissions at all four fairs are digital. Artists are asked to provide slides of both their art and their booth, Guild director Max Clayton explains, “because art is subjective. We want to capture that subjectivity–how it looks to fairgoers on the street.”
Digital submissions allow jurors to study thumbnails of an entire category and adjust their scores accordingly. And though the digital requirement may have made it difficult for the non-digitally inclined to apply, the computer made for higher quality images and easy access to information about how the work was made. Plus, says Ault, working five carousels made for “a lot of slide wrangling.”
Jurors for the Guild and South University fairs review submissions online, working at their own time and pace. Clayton says that process does not allow for direct conversation and persuasion, but jurors do email one another with questions about technique.
At the Original fair, says Ault, disagreement “happens a lot.” Zdzislaw Sikora, a veteran of the Original’s Art Fair jury advisory board, adds that occasionally there is “a particularly sparky jury” with frequent disagreements–“for example, an artist who does very cutting-edge 3-D work in performance or video might not be comfortable with the more object-based aesthetic that is more of the norm in the better fairs … We actually like differing points of view; it often leads to interesting conversation, but, as in the normal population of non-art folks, there can be people that like to push their opinions along with extra fireworks.”
The State Street Area Art Fair’s jurors meet for one day in a room at the Campus Inn. “It’s a long day,” according to director Kathy Krick, though not as long as it used to be. She estimates that ten years ago there were 1,200 applicants, a number that dropped to 350 when applications went digital four years ago, though it has been rising since. A higher entry fee, currently $40 to $50, may also have discouraged some applicants. The trade-off, says Krick, is that “the quality [of submissions] is higher than it used to be.”
All of the fairs try to balance consistency and freshness in the selection of jurors. The Original has the most complex system. Each medium has its own jury of three or four specialists, plus one member from the jury advisory board–six long-serving people who, as Sikora says, “give memory to the fair.” Each of the five or so juries sits down together, goes through all the slides for an overall look, and then goes back to score them. Ault says there is often some discussion, and jurors can be persuaded to change their scores. The media juries’ decisions are then reviewed by the jury advisory board, which may tweak them further to balance the artists in different media when the scores are identical. Similarly, artists are ranked on the wait list in a way that ensures a desired mix of, say, potters, sculptors, and painters.
Clayton says Guild jurors generally serve for three years “in order to balance consistency and fresh eyes.” The Original does not repeat media jurors from year to year. The Guild uses ten jurors from a variety of media, the State Street Fair nine, and all judge in all categories. “They don’t just juror their specialty,” Clayton says, “in order to create a parallel with the experience on the street.”
Jurors receive an honorarium for their service, usually between $100 and $200–not much money for what Ault describes as “a grueling couple of days–and it takes a couple of days.”
One way that the fairs work to be fair is by using a numerical scoring system. Jurors rate the work they see on a scale–the Guild and Original a seven-point scale, State Street and Ann Arbor’s South University Art Fair a ten-point scale. The numbers lead to an overall score that may appear objective but is in reality a sum of subjective ratings.
Another way to make fair and objective decisions is to evaluate according to explicit criteria. “Artists are not in competition with each other,” Clayton says. “They are in competition with a standard.”
Clayton says Guild jurors are informally directed to evaluate creativity and originality; technique and technical quality; and presentation–how the body of art will work on the street. State Street’s criteria, says Krick, are similar: “skill, creativity, and presentation.” But, she concludes realistically, “It is subjective.”
All four Ann Arbor Art Fairs use “blind jurying” to minimize favoritism, so that friendships and reputations do not factor into decisions. To some extent, of course, this attempt at objectivity is a well-intended illusion. The world of top artists applying to shows the caliber of Ann Arbor is small. A joyful and childlike fabric collage by Chris Roberts-Antieu is unmistakably hers–and in fact, the unmistakable quality is a hallmark of good art. So jurors frequently know whose work they are evaluating–even though a staff member may blur the signature in an effort to preserve anonymity.
Perhaps the most important way that the fairs achieve fairness is through the expertise of their jurors. The fairs assemble their juries in different ways, but they all draw from a pool of academics, gallery owners, knowledgeable collectors, and practicing artists.
Within that circle of experts the fairs assemble an array of specialists, the number of jurors nudging Moss’s “one I like” criterion toward “one we like.” And they may like something because they understand the technique involved (and if they don’t, they may ask a fellow jury member)–and they have seen, studied, and evaluated a broad enough range of art to know what is truly original and what is an imitation of another artist’s creation.
Does Sikora see jury decisions as subjective? “It’s not subjective,” he states, and then adds, “It is to some extent.” He goes on to explain: “There is a presumption that the jury will be reasonable” in evaluating objectively in terms of originality and technical mastery. But there is also something “instinctual” in the way a work of art “grabs you.” He describes how the way the form of a pot closes on top “feels just right.” He elaborates: “It’s like that cute puppy in the window who looks you in the eye and wiggles its butt. We respond to something in the [art] work that wiggles its butt.”
Artists who are regulars in the Art Fair appear sanguine about the somewhat arbitrary and subjective nature of the jurying process, even though their livelihood depends on their getting into shows like Ann Arbor.
Sculptor Chris Rom applies to eight to ten shows per year and is accepted into six to eight of them. “You develop a skin,” she says. “That [rejection] is just part of it. But at first it hurt–it’s a rejection.” She’s been rejected by the same show that accepted her the previous year.
She says that apparent inconsistency is not that unusual, but she takes it in stride. “You realize that it’s better [for the art fairs] if you keep things fresh,” Rom says. “Otherwise you see the same old people showing the same old things. It can get stale, and patrons won’t keep coming back.”
But change for the sake of freshness, however, is not an explicit criterion in the selection of artists. And according to spokesperson Cherrin, the blind jurying “is definitely not done with the intent (or direction) of bringing in new artists or favoring past artists.” Artists often create new work to be juried, and that, along with the competition and the tastes of the different jurors, may mean an artist is not readmitted.
As to the subjectivity of the judging, Rom explains that as a juror “you develop a sense of what you like and don’t like” but also an understanding of what is technically very good or different. Her years of experience as an artist, with art school behind her, give her “a sense of what inspires us by its originality.”
Sculptor James Eaton, a veteran of the Original since the early eighties, echoes Rom’s view. He applies to six or eight shows a year and estimates he’s accepted about three-quarters of the time. Of being rejected, he says, “It was devastating–in the early days. But I understand the system now.”
Eaton’s experience as a juror outside of Ann Arbor has given him his understanding of the system. “When you are looking at 1,000 to 2,000 applicants, it becomes kind of a blur. You make very quick judgments.” He accepts the fact that “subjectivity is just inherent, and I don’t see an alternative.” He argues that the point of the process is to weed people out–at the art fairs he juries, he says, often only one out of ten applicants is accepted.
The Ann Arbor fairs all take steps to minimize that “blur.” The directors insist that their jurors are very careful, often slowing the process to examine details or get clarification on technical issues.
Eaton further acknowledges that even with blind jurying he sometimes can recognize whose work he is looking at, but he insists it doesn’t cloud his judgment. In fact, he laughs that some artists are his good friends, but he does not care for their work. In these cases it helps to be an anonymous juror because he can blame other voters.
Like Rom, Eaton has been accepted into a show one year and rejected the next–he says it happens all the time. Once, his work was on the cover of a show’s brochure–but he wasn’t in the show, because the jury rejected him. The jurors and the marketers were working independently–an indication, he says, “that the system is basically on the up and up. Generally the jurying process weeds out the right people.”
Printmaker Sikora describes how, back in the eighties, a print of his won a $5,000 prize in an important show. He entered the same print in a small local and less prestigious show, but he was not accepted. He does not, however, see this as an indication that the process is whimsical or arbitrary, but rather that some artwork is simply a better fit for one show than another, and artists should learn where to apply. Sikora describes a stereotypical retired military officer who makes beautiful wooden toys. While the toys might sell well at a craft fair, they wouldn’t be a good fit for the Original fair. Even if they can wiggle their butts.
Butt-wiggling aside, art fair jurying is a serious business. “This is our sole income,” Eaton says. “It’s not a hobby. If we lose a major show, it’s extremely serious.”
The four fairs that make up the Ann Arbor Art Fair, each jurying independently with a different process, try to make the essentially subjective art of evaluating artwork fair and consistent. While their decisions are not objective, neither are they arbitrary. And artists who have chosen to make their living at art fairs have made their peace with jurying.
“De gustibus non disputandum est“? Hardly. There is plenty to dispute about taste, and what’s more, the dispute is a healthy one. Fairgoers participate in the discussion every time we walk by a booth and ask, “What is that doing in the fair?”