Over the 35 years I have lived in Jamaica, I have been the lead curator of more than 45 exhibitions and I have been involved in many others, as a juror, as a supervisor or mentor of other curators, as curatorial and organizational support staff, as a contributing writer, and also as an observer and critic. Most of my curatorial work has been in the Caribbean and, specifically, for the National Gallery of Jamaica. I also lecture at the Edna Manley College, in Curatorial Studies among other subjects, and I have been involved in a number of exhibitions there too, for the CAG[e] gallery as well as the final year show. While these experiences have been mostly positive, I have also seen and heard it all, so to speak, and this has convinced me of the need for greater professionalization for artists, in terms of being more informed about what is involved in participating in exhibitions and working with galleries, cultural institutions and curators. Not being aware of how to navigate this terrain effectively can sabotage artists’ careers, causing them to miss out on important opportunities, not to be represented in the best possible way, and, even, to become involved in needless contentions.
Artists may participate in many types of exhibitions, commercial and non-commercial, group and solo, and thematic or not, and each requires its own approach and preparations, but I thought it would be useful, to focus on submission-based, juried exhibitions, as this seems to be a process many artists struggle with. While fairly lengthy and detailed, this post is not meant to be a “handbook” or to be complete or definitive in any way, and merely consists on notes and thoughts based on my own experiences and observations and it is presented as work in progress. I invite feedback and further discussion and questions, and I may add further notes to this post in response. This post is meant primarily for young and emerging artists but I hope that others will also find them useful and perhaps even thought-provoking.
Many cultural organizations, galleries and museums organize regular juried exhibitions, which are usually recurrent and held on an annual, biennial or other schedule. Some have a theme or are restricted according to a particular medium or genre (for instance, painting or photography), while others are open to a broad scope of work. There are usually eligibility restrictions, for instance regarding nationality, country or city of residence, and even age. Usually, there is a limit on the date of production of the work as most submission-based exhibitions accommodate recent or new work only, and there are often also limits on size and weight. It is important for artists to be fully aware of these requirements, and to adhere to them, and of course also for these to be clearly articulated and communicated by the exhibition organizers.
There is usually a call for submissions, which is published well ahead of the submission deadline, and the exhibition is selected from the submissions by a panel of jurors. Today, these calls are often circulated mainly via social media and it is therefore important to follow those cultural organizations that may have relevant exhibition opportunities. While the published call for submission may consist of a simple notice, there are normally more detailed documents with rules and regulations, submission guidelines, and submission forms that can be downloaded, collected or requested – make sure to receive, peruse and understand these documents and to adhere to the instructions. There is normally also a contact number, email or online platform for additional information or queries.
For submission-based exhibitions, production and delivery costs are normally the responsibility of the artist but in some instances financial and other support are offered, although usually only once the work is accepted (I wish this could be the norm but most Caribbean cultural organizations work with very limited resources and staging exhibitions is, as such, an expensive undertaking). If such support is provided, this ought to be clearly communicated; artists should never assume that such support is in place. Request clarification on this count if needed. Submission deadlines are normally non-negotiable. As part of the submission package, artists are usually required to submit a short bio and/or CV, and, increasingly also, a publishable artist statement about the proposed work(s), as well as photographs of the work(s), with details if possible and allowed. Such texts will help to inform the decisions of jurors and curators, and may be used in the catalogue and exhibition text panels and, while this will involve editing, they should be prepared with care (handout on artist bios and statements) Photographs should, wherever possible be of reproduction quality and may also be used in the catalogue and exhibition promotion and reviews, and the submission and acceptance process implies that permission to do so is given (this should, in fact, be specified in the guidelines).
The submission process in the past typically involved the delivery of the actual, completed and framed or mounted art work (although these standards are changing quickly, and it is increasingly acceptable, for instance, to submit and exhibit unframed works on paper, using magnets or clips). Physical submissions can pose challenges for large or heavy works or for artists who live far away or who do not have the resources to support delivery without assurances that the work will actually be exhibited. Increasingly, submissions are done online via email or another submission platform. While online submissions make submitting easier, faster and less costly, and reduce the storage burdens for the host organization, the main disadvantage is that jurors may have a less wholesome understanding of the work when they see only a digital image on screen instead of its actual, physical incarnation.
Using online submissions only may also result in the exclusion of artists who have no access to such technologies or who are not comfortable using them. This is an important consideration in socio-economically diverse environments such as those of the Caribbean. The best approach may therefore be for a combination of physical and online submissions, and some amount of curatorial outreach may be needed to ensure that the widest possible range of eligible artists is reached.
Increasingly, submission-based exhibitions also accept proposals for site-specific installations, performances, community interventions, and live online projects, among others. Submission guidelines should outline what is expected from the artist in such instances but such proposals should normally consist of more than just a concept note and should include detailed space and technical requirements, with diagrams and sketches (and budgets, where financial support is offered or needed), so that a clear assessment can be made of feasibility. The demonstrated capacity of the artist to execute such projects will usually be taken into consideration by the jurors, so it is important that this be documented in the submitted biographical information. Proposals are sometimes accepted conditionally, subject to further feasibility assessments and possible adjustments to be made in consultation with the curators; most of these will pertain to the availability of space, equipment and technical support, and the available timelines and funding resources.
Any technical and support needs, such as AV equipment, the fabrication of props and exhibition devices, or technical support for the installation must be clearly communicated by the artist as part of the submission. Most cultural organizations have some AV equipment and technical support capabilities, but special note needs to be made when specialist equipment or services are needed, with sufficient details about the technical specs, and there needs to be clarity as to who will be responsible for procurement and cost, as this may be the artist. And, of course, such specialist equipment and services will also have to be reasonably available. It is important for artists to think through the details and implications of their submissions, and should seek technical help where this is needed, and to ascertain that they are indeed able to deliver on what they submit or propose.
For digital work that needs to be printed, there needs to be a clear understanding as to who will be responsible for printing, and to what specifications, especially media, size and quality this is to be done (printing photographs or digital images on canvas, while quite popular in the Caribbean for the moment, is rarely recommended for exhibition purposes and does no justice to the specific qualities of digital images.) Being allowed to submit digitally does not mean that the artist is not responsible for the full production of the work. There may be special requests from the jurors or curators with regards to size and format, in which case special arrangements may have to be negotiated, including financial support if the resulting production costs exceed what the artist had planned and proposed.
For installation proposals, likewise, there needs to be a clear understanding about timelines, and construction and technical support needs, as well as, again, who will be financially and organizationally responsible for what. In most instances the artist will have to be present for all or part of the install period for the exhibition and it is important that this be arranged by mutual consultation and agreement, with clarity about financial, travel and other arrangements. Some installations may have to be executed in the absence of the artist. In such instances it is particularly important to have clear instructions and understandings about technical requirements and mutual responsibilities, and for the artist to be available by phone or online during the install, in case urgent consultation is necessary. The artist will often also be responsible for dismantling the install and may have to be present for that purpose.
There can be significant mishaps between the acceptance of a digital submissions and project proposals and the actual production and delivery of the work, such as artists not delivering the selected work on the agreed timeline, terms or technical specifications, or the actual work being far less resolved and impressive than it appeared on screen or in the proposal. Financial constraints and technical feasibility issues often contribute, which is why it is so important to sort these out beforehand. Accepting such a work in a juried exhibition represents a risk, however, and artists and organizers need to be prepared for modifications, alternatives and, even, cancellations. Alternative submissions or significant modifications may have to go back to the jury, depending on what was agreed between jurors and curators. In some instances, conversely, (digital) submissions under-represent the submitted or proposed work, which is why good photography and supporting documentation are crucially important so that the work can be appropriately assessed.
Most submission-based exhibitions are selected by a specially appointed panel of jurors that may include the curators, and may consist of persons directly associated with the host organization; specially invited guest jurors; or a combination thereof. It is expected that organizers will take care to appoint a panel that is appropriately qualified and diverse, and the organizers should be able to account for their decisions on these appointments. Panels for recurrent exhibitions often have a set composition which may for instance include representatives of artists’ associations and other professional groups or organizations. The exhibition organizers are responsible to ensure that any conflict of interest and other potential integrity issues are anticipated, identified and appropriately dealt with, and this is particularly important in small societies such as those of the Caribbean, where such conflicts are more likely to occur. It is expected that jurors will conduct themselves with care and impeccable integrity.
While the names of the jurors are not always disclosed at the time the call for submissions is issued, often because the panel has not yet been finalized, artists who wish to submit have a right to know who will assess their work as well as what kind of jury process will be used. Artists also have a right to know who will have curatorial oversight of the exhibition. Exhibition organizers should be prepared to disclose such information if requested and it is recommended that this be published as soon as available.
The jury process normally takes places behind closed doors and is usually confidential but deliberations are recorded by a member of the jury, curator or other designated secretary for the sake of proper record-keeping and accountability, should there be any disputes. Judges are to be briefed by the exhibition organizers on the objectives of the exhibition and on guidelines, eligibility and standards. Limitations that may affect the exhibition, such as budgetary and space constraints and applicable organizational policies should also be communicated. A rubric is often used, so that there is clarity and consistency about how each work is assessed, and decisions are normally made by means of a voting process, based on considerations of quality, relevance, eligibility and feasibility. Commonly there is a second review to allow judges to make a final decision about submissions on which there was no initial consensus. Judging art is not an “objective’ process (although some standards are more measurable, such as academic drawing and painting skills) but is based on informed opinion, which is why decisions about submissions are only rarely made by a single person.
Judging may be done individually by each juror or collectively as a group, but final decisions are usually made collectively. Judges’ comments may be recorded and made available to the artist but this is not always the case, especially for exhibitions where a large number of submissions has to be processed. Detailed reports on why a particular work was accepted or not are not usually produced, as this would not be feasible, but there is often a general judges’ report on the submissions and jury process and this may be published in the catalogue and/or presented at the exhibition opening or in another forum.
Judges’ decisions are almost always final, without opportunity for appeals, and accepting these decisions is part of the terms and conditions associated with the submission. It is not the norm for judges to be individually accountable or available to artists for such feedback, as a the decisions of a jury panel are a collective responsibility and for a judge to provide individual feedback would amount to speaking out of terms. There is no “it wasn’t me” when it comes to a jury panel. Any direct feedback to artists, and any request for such feedback, should be channeled through the exhibition organizers. Individual judges should never be seen to second-guess jury panel decisions, for which they are collectively responsible, unless major disagreements occurred or gross irregularities took place, in which case judges should document and communicate their concerns to the organizers in a professional manner. If there is no appropriate response to these, more public actions such as disassociation with the exhibition may be justified but such instances are very rare and should only be used as a last resort.
Jurors should understand that by agreeing to serve in this capacity, they have lent their name and professional reputation to the exhibition and the host organization, and what these stand for, and have accepted the applicable standards, guidelines and policies. Likewise, the organizers have associated their reputation with the jurors and they should conduct themselves in similar fashion, taking organizational responsibility for the outcome of the jury process and using the applicable corporate communications protocols. Any controversy or contestation about the jury process should be directed and responded to by the organizers, not the jurors.
Some exhibition organizers are available for meetings and conversations with artists about rejected submissions and some will stage portfolio reviews and workshops as part of the exhibition programming, at which more detailed feedback is given. This may involve the jurors and curators but such presentations should always be made by qualified professionals. Do keep in mind that exhibition organizers are, because of their high workload in the months and weeks leading up to exhibition openings, often not available for individual consultations until after the exhibition has opened.
Submissions are sometimes reviewed anonymously in an effort to foster greater objectivity, but this can be quite redundant in small societies where there is close familiarity within the art world and where most artists’ work is easily identified. Anonymous submissions also deprive judges from access to information about the artist and his/her work that may be beneficial to the judging process, as this allows for a better understanding of the work submitted.
Outcomes of the judging process are to be communicated in writing by the organizers with priority given to the accepted art works, and with a clear indication is to what is expected with regards to the delivery and/or execution of the work. In most instances emailed form letters are used and, while the tone and wording should be respectful and professional, it is not reasonable to expect a personal letter or call from the jury panel or curator(s), especially for exhibitions with large numbers of submissions. An acknowledgement of receipt from the artists is expected, and in the case of acceptance, artists and curators should communicate promptly about arrangements, for instance for delivery or the install schedule, if the artist or specialist technical support is needed. Large exhibitions are often very stressful for all involved, and clear, timely, and level-headed communications can preclude a lot of problems.
Once selected, the exhibition is in the hands of the curators who will make the decisions about layout, installation, and interpretation, and where necessary, production, and who will collaborate and consult with the artists as needed and appropriate. Works that were physically submitted but not selected should be collected by (or returned to) the artist, as per what was agreed to in the submission agreement, and this should normally done by a specified deadline before the exhibition opens. It creates major storage and organizational problems when such deadlines and collection arrangements are not adhered to and in many instances, the organizers are no longer responsible for the submission after a certain date (look for this in the submission guidelines or rules and regulations of the exhibition). It is thus in the best interests of the artists to ensure that works are collected before these deadlines.
Juried exhibition regulations often have a clause that the organizers are not obliged to exhibit work selected by the jurors. While to be avoided if there are other solutions, the omission of a particular work may be necessary for several reasons, including legality, ethics and feasibility, condition and conservation issues, or because eligibility constraints were overlooked during the judging process. A selected work may, for instance, turn out to be in violation of another artist’s copyright or there may be public health and safety concerns, it may have defamatory or hate speech content, or it may have conservation issues that preclude its exhibition. It may also not be technically feasible for reasons that were unanticipated or not duly communicated by the artist, or because the artist did not meet the terms and conditions or timelines for delivery and execution.
Such decisions are at the discretion of curators, of course in consultation with the artist involved, and should not be made lightly, but a guiding principle is that the curators and host organization are legally and ethically liable once the work is accepted for exhibition and are expected to defend it accordingly should there be any legal challenges or controversies. Curators should not be forced to exhibit work that they cannot legally or ethically defend, or insure (if insurance is indeed provided), as there may be serious consequences for all involved. In clear instances where the exhibition organizers fail to honor their agreed obligations, conversely, there may also be circumstances whereby artists can legitimately withdraw their work, but such instances are rare and can usually be otherwise resolved.
It is anticipated that once accepted and mounted, an artist’s work will be available for the duration of the exhibition, with reasonable additional time added to accommodate for dismantling and, sometimes, short extensions of the exhibition. If the work is not owned by the artist, it is normally the artist’s responsibility to ensure that the work is available to the exhibition as agreed. It is not acceptable for the work to be withdrawn early because of a sale or because it has been committed to another exhibition or event (unless a clear arrangement to this effect was duly communicated and agreed upon beforehand with the exhibition organizers).
Most submission guidelines also speak to the responsibilities for the return or disposal of accepted work after the closure of the exhibition and there needs to be a clear understanding about mutual responsibilities and timelines, including (once again) the financial responsibilities. In many instances, collection is the responsibility of the artist, who may also need to be present for dismantling in the case of installations. It creates major storage and other problems when works are not collected or returned by the appointed deadline and in most instances the organizers will not be liable after that time and may then dispose of the work as they see fit, which may involve its sale. Such requirements are to be specified in the rules and regulations and submission guidelines for the exhibition.
Where digital works were printed for the purpose of the exhibition, there needs to be a clear prior understanding as to who owns the prints, especially in case these were paid for by the organizers, and what is to be done with them. In some instances, artists require that these be destroyed and such instructions must be communicated clearly and scrupulously followed and, where needed, documented photographically. The same may apply to found or fabricated objects used in installations, or to video and sound files. In some instances the artist may be responsible for disposal cost, for instance where environmental requirements require specialist disposal.
There is a perception, finally, that going through a jury process is for “entry level” artists only and beneath the dignity of established artists. Many such exhibitions indeed target young and emerging artists who would otherwise escape the attention of curators and cultural organizations. However, there is no reason why well-established artists should not also participate in appropriate juried exhibitions, which are targeted in diverse ways and can be quite worthwhile, especially when major awards are involved. It all depends on the exhibition, where it is held and who curates it, and whether it is a good match to an artist’s work. Going through competitive, merit-based selection process provides important checks and balances throughout an artist’s career, as it provides the artist with critical feedback and counters complacency and entitlement, and allows for new dialogues with other artists’ work. Artistic achievement is most credible when it is transparently earned and sustained. Such exhibitions, when well organized and supported, not only reflect the state-of-the-art in the artistic community in which they are held, and for eligible artists, but can have a powerful energizing and community-building effect for all involved.
Studio Practice and Exhibitions
It is necessary to take stock from time to time, as an artist, and to have a general sense of how your practice is evolving, and where it could or should be going. Planning for exhibitions and professional development opportunities such as residencies and workshops is an important part of that and to do so, you must be aware of those opportunities for which you may be eligible and, more importantly, which may be productive to your artistic development and career. Subscribe to art news sites on social media as many post such opportunities.
Not having enough exhibition opportunities is obviously a major challenge, but having too many or not picking the right ones is another. Give some thought to how often and where you can and need to exhibit, and how this fits in with your general professional development plans, your pace and methods of work, and your work load capabilities. Not every exhibition opportunity is beneficial or appropriate to every artist, at a particular point in time, and before applying or committing to an exhibition opportunity, you should consider what participating will achieve for you. If you cannot submit work that is of an adequate and representative standard or that is suitable for that particular exhibition, or if the exhibition itself is not of an appropriate standard, it may be better not to submit and participate at all, as doing so may affect your professional reputation and trajectory negatively.
There is a lot of naivety about international exhibition opportunities and artists make sure to be well-informed about the exhibition, curators and host organization in question before submitting. Avoid vanity exhibitions where you are required to pay to participate. Usually these have no real professional benefit and participating in them can in fact be damaging to your professional reputation. Some are, plainly, nothing more than scams, despite the sometimes glamorous names and locations. Do your research, as such scams are often well-known and -documented, and consult with a trusted art professional if you are not certain whether a particular exhibition or organization is of good repute.
Most of the exhibitions discussed here are organized by reputable cultural organizations, such as national museums and cultural organizations, and cultural centers. When you exhibit with a particular organization and in a particular exhibition you associate your name and reputation with that organization. And, vice versa, the exhibition organizers attach their names and reputation to your work — it is always two-way traffic. But in an age where cultural institutions are under increasing scrutiny over how they are funded and governed, and over their acknowledged and unacknowledged politics, it is important to consider whether you are comfortable being so associated and what the longer-term consequences may be. Your personal and professional politics and integrity are very important.
And while I have your attention, please show some restraint with the placement and size of your signature on the work. I have been too many works recently where giant, “brand-like” signatures were placed in a prominent part of the composition, in a way which was distracting and disruptive of the actual work. If you wish to sign your work, it is recommended to sign less prominently and in the lower right or left hand corner, or on the back of the work. Placing a digital signature on a digital work is generally not recommended.
Be professional, courteous, and reasonable at all times. A successful exhibition project ought to be a mutually respectful, cordial collaboration between professional equals, between colleagues, and artists should conduct themselves accordingly in their communications with curators and host organizations (and the same is of course expected from curators and other personnel.) Your work means a lot to you, yes, but curating an exhibition is challenging, stressful work, especially when multiple artists or large exhibitions are involved. Most curators are strongly invested in their work too and aim to produce exhibitions that do justice to all the art and artists represented in them. There is no professional benefit in fostering a needlessly oppositional “us versus them” attitude, or in behaving like a diva or bully. Artistic careers may in fact be damaged by such behavior. Whether or not you were selected and included, curators and cultural organizations can become important allies and advocates for your work. They may for instance be able to write letters of recommendation and refer you for valuable professional opportunities, such as other exhibitions and residencies.
In this spirit of collegiality, it is good practice to give the organizers a heads-up if you are submitting work that is technically challenging or with particularly provocative or controversial content, as such content may not be immediately obvious. And it is also necessary for artists to be available for discussion and consultation, should any controversies or technical problems occur. As indicated before, curators should stand by their artists and the art works they have accepted in their exhibitions, but they also have a right to know what they are getting into.
Always follow the submission instructions to the letter and ensure that submission forms, receipts, condition reports, and exhibition agreements etcetera, are properly completed, signed and submitted. And, of course, always keep a copy. Be very clear on what it is you are agreeing to and before you submit you do so: for instance whether the work will be insured by the organizers and on what terms, for what risks, and to what value (which should be its fair market value), so that you can make informed decisions about participation. Ask questions and ask for help when needed and appropriate, and stand up for your rights if the situation calls for it, but do not expect or demand any special accommodation or favors beyond what is provided as per the published submission guidelines and regulations. Do not create extra work or needless challenges for those who have to process your submission by not including up-to-date contact information, or by not providing biographical information if requested. “Please see your files” is not an acceptable thing to put on a submission form. Unless otherwise instructed, please submit all text files, such as bios and statements, in an editable format, such as MS Word, and not as a PDF file.
Always use the required email or delivery address. Directing your submission elsewhere, for instance to an individual you know within the organization, no matter how senior in the ranks, only causes confusion, as it may be overlooked by those who administer the submissions, and it may also suggest that you inappropriately expect preferential treatment. For a jury process to be transparent and accountable, it is important that all artists are treated equally and are held to the same standard.
Be consistent with your demands and expectations, and make every effort to honor your commitments. For instance, do not disclose at the last moment that you cannot afford to print a photograph to the agreed size, or to ship and deliver the selected work, if that was your responsibility. Importantly, do not ever move the goal posts by trying to renegotiate or renege on previously agreed terms of an exhibition agreement (this applies to all exhibitions). Asking for (more) money or other special concessions, at the eleventh hour and beyond what was agreed, is just simply not on and will only damage your professional reputation.
Do not cancel previously confirmed exhibition-related travel arrangements, especially when these are funded by the exhibition organizers, unless there are unexpected and compelling reasons such as illness or a family emergency. If such happens, make sure to communicate your cancellation and the reasons clearly and promptly with the organizers, so that they can manage the situation and appropriately account for the expenditure (which they are always required to do for such projects).
Do not impose yourself by seeking to be present for the install, unless you have been invited or authorized to do so. Gallery spaces are usually closed to the public during the install, for reasons of safety and security, for the privacy and welfare of staff, and, of course, because the exhibition is not yet ready for public viewing. Do not bring assistants or other visitors (family or friends) to the install, unless you have express permission to do so from the organizers. Decisions about placement and exhibition design are made by the curators, and involve planning for the entire exhibition and not just your own work. There may not always be scope for consultation or for you to get that exact spot you had wanted, depending on the type of exhibition and the particulars of accepted works, but do make sure to communicate any special space or context requirements you may have at the time the work is submitted. In the event that you would feel compelled to request a change, please remember that any change in such an exhibition layout will affect other artists, as all needs and demands have to be balanced.
Dealing with Rejection and Criticism
Rejection is hard, and so is criticism, but dealing this is part and parcel of many professional fields, especially the arts where the stakes are raised because of the personal investment involved. Even the most successful and acclaimed artists have had to deal with it, and often far more frequently than one would expect. In many instances, the decision of a jury panel not to select a particular work has less to do with the inherent quality of the work, or the overall standing and value of the artist, than with whether it is an appropriate and feasible choice for that particular exhibition. It represents the opinion of that particular jury panel, in a particular moment and context and for a particular purpose, and not necessarily an overall or definitive judgement.
But sometimes the work was indeed unresolved, technically deficient or not feasible, and simply not your best, or the exhibition may not have been a good match to where you are at – make some time for critical review and introspection, if any of that may be the case. Whatever the reason may be, it is important to deal with rejection professionally, and to learn and grow from the experience, so that you are not demoralized for life but better prepared for the next opportunity. Making use of any development opportunities associated with the exhibition, such as portfolio reviews and workshops, may be very helpful with that and is highly recommended.
No matter how upset you are, however, do not try to retaliate by questioning the abilities, qualifications or integrity of the jurors and/or curators. You had a choice when you decided to submit and if you were not comfortable with who would judge and curate your work, you had the option to abstain. Instances of unfair, corrupt or incompetent judging are very rare, and most jurors and curators genuinely try their best to make the right decisions. In those rare instances where irregularities may have occurred, and are duly substantiated, please direct your complaints through the appropriate professional channels and in a professional manner, using the various levels of legitimate recourse that are available to you. Go public only if and when other avenues are exhausted and when you are absolutely certain of your position, as you may face defamation charges if that is not the case.
Finally, respect the rights and privacy of jurors and curators. It is not acceptable to call them at home or at inappropriate times, to email them relentlessly, to troll or lambast them online, or to accost them in supermarkets or at public events to rant about your concerns. Making a scene is a never a good idea and usually achieves nothing productive.