Friday, July 11, 2014

Art for jurors, art for artists: Juror transparency vs. Gaming selection bias

By Joe Nalven and David Lenhert

Anecdotes abound that tell of prize winning images not getting into county fairs. Or about a juror’s selection truncating the broad vibrancy of contemporary art.

The frequent answer to the resulting selection is, ‘well, it’s the juror’s preference and that cannot be questioned.’

Enter the satirist.

Honoré Daumier, 1864 This Year, Venuses Again

But is it just the bourgeois audience of the 19th century that is being satirized? Why not the artist obsessed with content or the juror who picked what he or she thought would make for an unsual group (when in fact they may turn out to be the same)?

And let's not forget the experts (the painting is worth a close look).

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Les experts,1837 (edited for this article)
Somehow the discussion – whether serious or satirical – seems incomplete, unsatisfactory and worthy of a closer look at juror bias in selecting art for an exhibition as well as how artists often react by way of anticipation. (There is also the problem of the competition being seen as a business scam. That issue is beyond the scope of this article.)

There are no good solutions to the issue of juror selection bias, nor the attempts by artists to game the system; a more open discussion might reduce the pretense and anxiety that participants experience.

Understanding Juror Bias

One might recall the sculptor who had his plinth (the base of the sculpture) accepted into a prestigious summer festival while the actual sculpture languished with the rejects. Somehow the sculpture and its plinth got separated and the jurors, not knowing of the accident, selected the (assumed) conceptually avant-garde plinth. The snobbery of the juror-knows-best attitude prevailed, but as we know, sometimes the Emperor (and the juror) does in fact have no clothes on. Instead of admitting to the silliness of picking art (the base), the venue quite naturally defended its selection.

The artist had a good laugh. (Artist laughs his head off at the RA, David Hensel and the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, London 2006)

On the other side of the jurying process, a seasoned juror offers his perspective about figuring the end results of juried competitions:

“A friend of mine keeps paintings on the fireplace mantel in his studio that he has entered in several contests. On the backs side of the frames, he records the results from each submission. One painting was rejected from three competitions and won prizes in four others (including “Best of Show”), and the other paintings have similar track records. “I keep the paintings on display so I remind myself that art contests are based on completely subjective reviews,” he explains. That story is worth keeping in mind the next time your work is rejected from an art contest o[r] it wins the Best of Show award.” How Art Exhibition Jurors Make Decisions by M. Stephen Doherty

This juror suggests that some of the considerations for entering a juried competition are: seek advice from a teacher, not from one’s mother; enter the maximum number allowed and only the best (avoid mixing weaker pieces in); enter pieces that are unusual, not safe; enter pieces that can be easily understood; don’t push the limits of good taste, scale or presentation; don’t assume the juror will only pick the work that is in the juror’s own experience; consider entering into less competitive categories; and, of course, as stated above, don’t take the results too seriously.

While one can argue this advice, the larger point is that art jurying is subjective.

But subjectivity is really not the problem; after all, one goes to a doctor to get an opinion and, if one doesn’t care for that opinion, there is always a second doctor with a second opinion.

There is the assumption that a doctor’s subjectivity – with the informed opinion – rests on science as well as on craft. The art juror’s opinion? Craft is involved, yes; but is there any objectivity, any science, anything that can be turned into an app?

Doctors are now getting help from artificial intelligence apps; could the same apply to art jurors?  Artificial Intelligence Is Now Telling Doctors How to Treat You, Daniela Hernandes

One telling example about the inability of art judges to agree on the ‘goodness’ of an artwork is from a Royal Academy Art exhibit. 15 jurors picked work from among 13,000 visual and sculptural works. Not one artwork received a unanimous vote; decisions were made simply the tallying the most points. This is not to say the selected works weren’t ‘good’ or ‘strong’ or ‘worthy’ art, but simply that opinions are not grounded in a science of aesthetics (despite the many rules for composition, presentation, and the like. Perhaps, what counts is the novel way in which such rules are broken.)

Before suggesting an approach to fostering more juror responsibility in relation to selection bias, let’s consider some tests and reflections about juror bias.

Detecting Bias: Contextualized vs. Decontextualized Tests (Joe Nalven)

I recently gave a talk about art at the county fair versus art at a gallery. In preparation for the talk, I selected two images from the county fair photography exhibit and compared them with one from a popular photographer who has a series of galleries across the country and another from an art gallery in Berlin. One pair of images was contextualized (looking as if both were in a fine art gallery with a person standing next to the image and looking at it); the other pair of images were decontextualized – the images were stripped of framing and other clues about where the art was actually located.

In both cases, the more frequent response was the ‘wrong’ answer. Most persons questioned thought the county fair example was in a fine art gallery and the one in a fine art gallery was in the county fair exhibit. This response was the same regardless of whether the person had been a juror or was an artist or just a random person. (This was a pilot study and before any final conclusions, a fuller representative survey would be needed.)

The contextualized example had a few more individuals picking the ‘correct’ answer since they knew the size of the images that were allowed at the county fair.

The take-away from this survey was that all had an opinion of where they thought the art was exhibited. More often than not, the more iconic, the more brilliant and more ‘typical’ the image, the more the respondent thought the image was at the county fair. By contrast, the more offbeat and/or softer image was thought to be at a fine art gallery.

Those responses signify stereotypes or biases, part of our cultural baggage, whether we are artists, random folks or even jurors.

But, that’s only one survey – and a pilot study for that matter. How pervasive such stereotypes are and the extent to which they intrude on juror decisions for selecting art is still very much an open issue. What is important to recognize is that there is, in fact, an issue to be discussed, especially if one wants to go beyond the opaque thinking of ‘the juror decides what gets into the show, no questions asked.’

The better practice might well be to have jurors state their bias beforehand and to share their observations on what they selected to get into an exhibit. That kind of transparency might well lead into a broader, more robust, conversation about the variety of perspectives in viewing and, perhaps, understanding contemporary art. (Parenthetically, one might acknowledge the practice of having juror talks at the Art of Photography Shows, which were both helpful about the juror selecting some 100 images out 12,000 or so AND unhelpful when hearing about the narrow range of what was considered to be ‘good’ or ‘strong’ photography. One honest comment provided the exclamation point to juror bias – with words to the effect that ‘I don’t really know why I picked this image but it had a Heinz 57 bottle on the table and it recalled my own youth.’)

An alternative to transparency among art jurors is to game the art jurying system.

Gaming the System (David Lenhert)

David Lenhert provides a personal account of how he channels his art into different photographic frameworks (art shows, saleable to individual purchasers, stock photography, and photojournalistic). His example is intended to solicit the reflections of other artists and jurors in working towards a model to increase juror responsibility in minimizing selection bias and opening the juror’s mindset to the variation in contemporary art that often gets selected out.

Know Thy Categories:  For whom are you shooting?

I was recently asked: "What are your thoughts about what people like about photos that they buy? What seems to be the continual money makers even though they may be clichéd or just regular shots?"

You'd probably get a lot of different answers from different photographers. There are different schools of thought supported with real world results. For example, many would say ‘shoot local.’ People buy locally familiar images as well as visitors wanting to remember their trip. Good advice I think; but for me, I'm not really motivated or impressed by what is in my local area. My inspiration comes from traveling to other places and seeing new things.

That brings me to my world view on selling my photography (that is, my art): photographing what I love, regardless of how sellable it might be. There are buyers for every genre of art. If you like to take candid shots of locals in Costa Rica, then by all means do so. And, if you do it well, there'll be someone to buy it. 

As for my practical experience . . . I mostly like to shoot landscapes and nature. Next to that, I like to shoot travel and architecture. So, this is what I sell. If it's good, and it resonates with a buyer, it will sell. Actually, from monitoring other photographer's sales (at the same shows I'm selling at) I'd say that ‘resonates’ is even more important than how good it is. There is a connection with the potential buyer. A lot of my sales happened because my buyer visited that place and connected with my image (which was better than images they took, if they took any at all). Of course they also had to love that place in the first place.

So what makes it good and resonate? I find the image needs to be both familiar and Iconic. I know that sounds clichéd, but that's what sells. There's a reason that postcards seem to have the same kinds of images. They're iconic. I like iconic! That doesn't mean you can't try and also make it yours by changing a few things. All of this applies equally with nature and other kinds of images.

I've also discovered that although iconic sells well, it often doesn't win photo contests. Judges don't seem to care much about iconic or familiar. In fact, they're bored with the same old stuff, so they look for a completely different set of metrics, such as breaking ubiquitous art rules (the rule of thirds, for example). Something that makes it ‘novel.’ Novel sometimes sells, but it doesn't outsell familiar and iconic ─ at least not from what I've observed. Then there are stock (licensed images for specific uses) and photojournalistic (news related) images.

When I take my shots of something that really interests me I like to mix things up a little. I'll first shoot for art, then contest potential, then stock potential, and lastly blog or journalistic potential. I say 'potential' because I seldom get around to doing all of it, but I can go back later to an archive to pull from. This method forces me to view the subject in different ways. What's good for one use isn't necessarily good for the other. This also forces you to have a variety of images and avoid ‘similars’ which can become a licensing conflict or stock submission problem.

A short answer: Since I print images that represent familiar, iconic, landscape/nature, and representative of my best work, then a subset of that is what sells best for me. Which as it so happens, the more familiar and iconic it is, the better it sells. Kind of circular isn't it? Specifically, I seem to sell landscape and nature images of the southwest and Hawaii; but that is also what I like to shoot.

People like pretty images. I like pretty images too. They want to hang it on the walls of their home. If you were to buy art, what would you like to hang in your home? I ask it this way because a few other things will determine what actually sells. Will the colors go with their decor? Will the frame tie it all together?    

Two views of the falls: Iconic versus Artsy

Here are two versions of Multnomah Falls in Oregon. The first is a familiar one, an iconic view. This image is reminiscent of what many others have taken. This version will sell well, but unlikely to win any prizes in an art show. Perhaps this is the photographic version of the cliché that familiarity breeds contempt, that it is not unusual, but prosaic. 

David Lenhert / Multnomah Falls / The Iconic Look
Compare the familiar image above with one that is less so, and therefore less iconic. This second perspective lends itself being selected for art shows and contests. 

David Lenhert / Middle Earth / Third Place 
There are objective differences in point of view, what is shown and what is obscured. But we label one 'prosaic' (the familiar which becomes iconic) and the other more 'artful' (the more unusual).  Would these differences be the same in all cultures?  

A former director of a museum told an interesting story (to Nalven) - that he had taken a magnificent photograph of a walkway in Kyoto. When he showed it to his staff, several said they had taken the same photograph and proved it by bringing in their photographs of that walkway the following day. The conclusion is that the Japanese had arranged for a 'Kodak moment' for visitors, but simply didn't label the place as such; the individual was allowed his illusion that their photograph was unique and not the familiar shot.

Variations upon a theme
Here are three images of the same place, taken from the same location. The most photo-realistic version was taken the preceding day. The following day, there was no wind and the reflections were better.    

The vertical shot (that is mostly reflection and breaks the Rule of Thirds) won 1st place last year (2013) at the SD Co. Fair in the Fall Color Scenic category. When I submitted it, I had a feeling it might appeal to the judges as it was a bit 'weird' looking. For contests, 'weird' can be a good thing.
David Lenhert / West Fork Reflections / First Place Fall Color Scenic

Two other images I submitted that year were, in my opinion, much better images. 

One of those won an Honorable Mention & Sponsor Award (Fall Reflections), the other one that year got no ribbon despite being one of my best sellers at art shows (Autumn Glow).

David Lenhert / Fall Reflections / Honorable Mention

David Lenhert / Autumn Glow / No prize, but artsy look
The important point is to recognize that photographic variations can be more than just another point of view - that the something more can be what appeals to a juror, to the tourist, to the commercial stock image. 

For a juror to say, 'I like what is unusual' or 'show me something different' should be something more than the end of a conversation about the juror selection; it should be the opening point in a larger conversation about the contours of contemporary photography from a multi-faceted perspective. 

The Nalven-Lenhert Model to Promote Juror Accountability

This suggestion is intended as a non-coercive model: 

•    Present a juror with 8 to 10 images that have been previously selected for the competition or institution that represent a range of styles and media. 
•    Have a conversation with the juror about why he or she would select that image. The idea is to foster a positive attitude to the range of contemporary art and that there is an expectation that the juror ought not to get lost in contemplating his or her own attitudes. 
•    Have the juror give a show-and-tell talk with images selected for the exhibit and,, if a themed exhibit, with specifics on how the juror saw key images illuminating the show concept. 

And what about the viewers?

Artists and jurors may live in a bubble, especially when one considers the pyramid with billionaire art collectors moving the needle on the commercial value of art.  Artists may aspire to be collected; jurors help weed out the less than fashionable. Museums pick the trophies.  The IRS gives tax donations for the imputed dollar worth of an art work.  

Wiley / Non-Sequitur / 2003

Does the world of art leave the average viewer perplexed and unsure about the role of art in society?  Is the average viewer left to retreat to the familiarity of the bargains at Target and Costco? 

Or would there be greater appreciation for contemporary art if jurors would engage in a more transparent conversation about why they pick this and that art for an exhibit and artists, by way of default, were not encouraged to game the jurying system? 

An Alternative and a Supplement

There are two obvious ways to alter the juror-artist dilemma described here (and likely other ways as well).

First, the Visual Fringe.  Here, the art show is unjuried. The artist places whatever he or she wants into the exhibit. This would rely on self-monitoring. This system draws on the popular success of The Fringe. 

Second, artists groups, such as the PhotoArtsGroup, can pursue a self-learning model with lightly curated exhibits. The PhotoArtsGroup has numerous art exhibits that have a variety of venues (Escondido Arts Partnership, the Wellness Center, etc.)  The absence of a juror, but rather meaningful dialogue among members who know each other, can be a meaningful supplement to an artist's growth while still acknowledging the opportunity's of a juried competition. 

Note:  Both authors are members of the PhotoArtsGroup.

Recommended reading:

Subjective art fails to unite show's hanging judges: Fifteen Royal Academy experts cannot reach unanimity on one work / David Lister

When Do You Stop Entering Juried Shows? Joanne Mattera

Crowd-Curated or Crowd-Juried? / Kevin Stayton, Brooklyn Museum of Art

Thoughts on Juried Exhibitions / Kirsten Hoving

Navigating the Art World: An Introduction /

Decisions & Dilemmas: Day in the Life of a Juror / Miriam Romais

Juried Shows for Artists, From the Inside Out / Matthew Daub


  1. Good comments. Transparency in the judging process is part of the reason for the Judges Round- table and the Judges Critique held every year at the San Diego County Fair Photography Show. Unfortunatly the number of judges at these events often exceeds the number of other participants. It seems that for many it is easier to complain about something than to learn about it.
    Keep up the good work with this help keep us informed on many issues important to the art world.
    Gene Wiid

  2. I was having a hard time sleeping tonight so I thought I would finally read the article! What academic hog wash! Really, a juried art show is subjective! All this time I thought I should take this stuff seriously and consider the opinion like a word from heaven. On the other hand all this stuff keeps the economy going so I guess people will keep on entering and others will keep on writing. Now I can get back to sleep.

  3. A friend sent me a link to this article. After I replied to him he suggested I post my thoughts here. So, this is what I wrote:

    Enjoyed reading it. Still boils down to "Is it a picture of a cool thing or a cool picture?"

    Having spent many years in juried arts and crafts shows I am not surprised by the lack of information/education that jurors have. (I've got stories.) But the question must always be, who is the art for? And, who do the jurors think the art is for?

    In craft shows the art is for the public. The jurors want to be sure that it was not manufactured and that there is a good balance in the show (not too many jewelers, for example). Likewise, the exhibitors want to make sales.

    In county fairs and photography clubs (and other competitions) the jurors may be mostly worried about their own reputations. What others might think of them and the organization must take precedence as good reputation is the only reward.

    When it comes to museums, galleries and shops we're looking at what will "sell"...what the public will think is interesting, unusual and worthy of paying for...whether by way of admission or purchases. Again, a problem of reputation but with the added pecuniary implications.

    I think what gets lost in these discussions is what art really is...a form of communication.

    To me, there is no problem with a juror thinking an image is good solely because he or she relates to a Heinz 57 bottle. (Hooray! Someone saw and remembered and felt. They related to the work!) Nor, conversely, is there anything wrong with an image that seems to repulse the viewers. (Yippee! The artist has succeeded in challenging the viewers' assumptions and violated their comfort levels!) And, further, there is nothing wrong with a person trying to compliment the colors of their interior decor and create a setting that is pleasing to them and their guests. (Mission accomplished!)

    Why? Because, in and of themselves, there is no "wrong" view of art. It is only when "Art" becomes limited that a problem arises. It is when only pictures with Heinz 57 bottles, or only repulsive imagery, or only decorative, 2-dimensional, broadly popular images are accepted in the conversation that the conversation itself becomes not worth having.

    So, do jurors have a place in the conversation? Absolutely! But we should not forget that they are only a part of what is being said. We should also remember that we do not extract ourselves or our work from the conversation when we hand it over to judging. The work is the work. Photography (or any other medium) is a product of what has come before and all that will come after it. Our own experiences, the experiences of other makers and judges, the experiences of any who might encounter the work...all of that makes the image "speak." As our friend Ansel Adams said, "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." (Personally, I think he undersold it a bit, but then I tend to try to take the longer view of things.)

    Karen D.

  4. I happen to see those pictures taken by David and they intrigued me to mention about Dudh sagar falls here in India. Have a look at the link below:
    The railway line is built just below the falls and is considered to be a civil engineering marvel here in India.

  5. For me, it's a completely subjective process. Do I like the photograph and how will it look where I'm considering placing it? What I like for one place I have in mind, probably wouldn't interest me at all for another location.

  6. "Second, artists groups, such as the PhotoArtsGroup, can pursue a self-learning model with lightly curated exhibits. The PhotoArtsGroup has numerous art exhibits that have a variety of venues (Escondido Arts Partnership, the Wellness Center, etc.) The absence of a juror, but rather meaningful dialogue among members who know each other, can be a meaningful supplement to an artist's growth while still acknowledging the opportunity's of a juried competition."

    I don't see this as any less subjective, and sometimes more subjective, than any other method of juried or unburied curation. Do I care if the "average viewer" likes my work? Not ion the least. (Thankfully at that, as they rarely do!) Do I care whether curators do? Yes, very much. But have I played the game? Yup, frequently I will research the juror and their previous selections before spending money I really can't afford on entrance fees. At one point, when I was very diligent about doing so, I had a 9:1 acceptance to turn down rate. That reminds me I need to go back to that level of diligence.