In My Opinion: The Jury Is Out on Juried Exhibitions

05/17/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 17, 2011

"In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane." -- Oscar Wilde

Have you ever walked through a juried art exhibition and wondered what the jurors were smoking when they awarded the prizes?

Let me phrase that another way: Have you ever walked through a juried art exhibition and not wondered what the jurors were smoking when they awarded the prizes?

How could that piece of crap win first prize and this other wonderful gem go totally unnoticed? Surely the jurors were pushing their own evil money-making agendas and awarding prizes to artists whose work they personally own to raise the value of their misguided investments.

I recently participated on a jury for the first time and will try to shed some light on the process. The exhibition was a small fund-raiser with artists paying a modest fee to enter their work in the competition. The jurors weren't told the names of the artists unless they had signed their piece on the front, in which case it was obvious. (Note to artists: consider your reputation before signing your piece for a juried show -- anonymity could work for you or against you!)

My fellow jurors included another art dealer and a well-known art writer. There were about 60 pieces in the show: paintings, drawings, photography, assemblages, and sculpture. The work ranged from amateurish to accomplished, and the subject matter from crying Jesuses to artichokes. Our job was to award first, second and third cash prizes. Where to begin?

We decided to view the show separately and jot down a list of pieces that we liked, marking what we thought were the top five. Once we had made our lists, we settled down to discuss our choices. I mentioned up front that my gallery represented two of the artists in the show and recused myself from voting for them (even though they were, of course, my favorites). I didn't mention their names or which pieces they were.

I was asked to go first -- what piece did I think should win first place? As soon as I mentioned my choice, the other two jurors got quizzical looks on their faces and jumped up to look at the piece again. They both came back shaking their heads. My ego was slightly bruised, but I kept my composure and we moved on.

Then the writer revealed his first-place pick and the same thing happened -- the other juror and I got weird looks on our faces, jumped up to look at the piece again, and came back shaking our heads. And then, unbelievably, it happened a third time with the last juror's pick. There was no consensus. So we crossed all three of those pieces off our lists and not one of our individual picks won a prize!

We then tried another approach that worked much better. Was there anything that appeared on each of our top five lists? There was one piece that did, and we decided to award first place to that artist. It was the only piece that all three of us agreed on. After a reasonable amount of time deliberating, the second and third place prizes were each decided by two jurors liking the piece and the third not objecting. And that was that.

The whole process took about an hour and was relaxed and congenial. I didn't pick up on any hidden agendas or aggressive behavior. Quite the contrary, I felt we were all very open about the kinds of work we liked and didn't like, and no one seemed to take any of it personally. What did I think about the results? Not the three I would have picked, but they all had a certain level of integrity that I was fine with.

So the problem, as I see it, is not juror bias -- everyone has a point of view and it's impossible to put it aside. The challenge of a jury is in building consensus, or rather, resolving many points of view. Wikipedia defines consensus decision-making as a "process that seeks not only the agreement of most participants but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections."

Or as Margaret Thatcher once put it: "... consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies... it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects."

So the next time you find yourself wondering what the jurors were smoking when they awarded those prizes, the answer might be consensus. Is consensus a bad thing when it comes to art? Or is it a healthy, democratizing counterpoint to the commercial gallery system, where one person's vision rules supreme? Let me know what you think.

Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog