Meta-Practice

Unsolicited Artists’ Advice: Tips from a Juror

Suggestions for making art competition applications more competitive.

Recently, I was invited to serve as a juror for a residency program. I was able to review submissions at my own pace, so I started taking notes for my own reference in future applications. Then I realized I should post my tips here, because it’s a win-win situation: better applications helps artists put their best foot forward, and helps jurors be more focused and efficient.

Context: Jurying’s a tough job!

It takes a lot of time and offers little to no pay. I spent ~16 hours just looking at artist’s proposals and work samples (65 submissions at 5 to 15 minutes each), and rating and submitting scores. I am not receiving a stipend.

Yet if jurors only get through, say, 12 or less submissions per hour, you can see how quickly they can get crabby, find minor inconveniences disproportionately annoying, and start looking for reasons to eliminate applications from consideration. The lists below include many prohibitions. Don’t be discouraged. Accept that before your application can be seen as competitive, it first has to be free of major flaws. Then get to work!

WORK SAMPLES

Work samples should convey rigor in concept and craft.

There’s an art to making art, and then another art to presenting it. Get good at presenting your art—photographing, color correcting, selecting, sequencing, and contextualizing. Doing so conveys that you’re a professional, and furthermore, that you’re motivated, responsible, and committed—the qualities of someone who will make the most of an opportunity.

Follow directions.

Unfortunately, the obvious must be stated and repeated: never disregard work sample requirements.

Heed limits on work samples!

If you must link to long videos, indicate which segments jurors should watch. Segments should total less than the limit.

If you have the option to link to images, link to them, not to HTML pages with several images or projects on them.

Don’t underestimate how much bending the rules will hurt your application. Your submittal may be screened out in the first pass before jurors even see it. If it isn’t, your score may be diminished, because it’s disrespectful to jurors’ time and unfair to other applicants. It’s taxing for jurors to police when applicants over-submit materials. (See above for the number of hours I invested—and that is just to view the capped samples!)

Make it accessible.

The more time people spend looking for your work samples, the less time and focus they will have for your actual work.

Don’t assume anyone will “tidy up” your submissions, such as download your large files, locate specific images in a link, or cue your videos and cut them off at the 10-minute mark. Jurors may have to navigate this themselves, and if it is an inconvenient process, they will be looking at your work samples in an agitated state. Here are some specific tips:

  • Avoid Flickr. It’s free because ads can appear between slides. Find a different service. If you don’t have a website, get one—it’s never been easier or cheaper—or get a Tumblr, blog, or Google Drive account.
  • If you use Vimeo or YouTube, post brief contextualizing information. Specify if it’s finished work or documentation. And make sure it’s not password-protected.
  • On your own website, if you want jurors to view specific images, link to them directly. Don’t send a link to a portfolio page and then instruct them to scroll to the Nth image. (Unless your site is flash-based, JPGs are assets with their own URLs—on Macs, control-click on an image and select “open image in new tab”. Right-click on PCs for similar options. If you can’t manage that, then try Google Drive.) Do not let your domain registration slip up. Make sure links aren’t broken—load the page in your browser, and then copy the URL from your address window.

Work samples weigh heavily in your scores. Not being able to access them will be a deal-breaker. It’s a waste of everyone’s time—artists’ included.

Use captions intelligently.

Contextualize your work concisely and consistently. This is the first time jurors are viewing your work, so give it a proper introduction.

Don’t assume we can tell what we’re looking at, whether details, installation views, process documentation, photo-documentation of artworks, or fine art photography. Spell it out. Help us construe your role within a collaborative project. Notions of authorship aside, jurors need to know what we are looking at, and what parts you did.

If you’re a visual artist using your work samples to submit a lengthy (100+ words) text or webpage, provide a brief summary (2-3 sentences) in the image caption. If you are a project-based or performance artist, give context and explain what’s going on. What is process, what is product?

WRITING

Be clear, concise, and coherent. 

Articulate and organized applications suggest responsible artists who won’t fritter away an award. Jurors are not tasked with finding decent artists with OK work ethics; we want to award the ones who are ready and eager for primetime.

Sometimes artists take slack, too-cool-for-school attitudes because of a philistine sentiment that “the art can speak for itself.” That makes for texts that are neither competitive or memorable. It seems lazy and can be off-putting in its disregard. Jurors are ethically obligated to take the time to read your words, even the ones written (or copied and pasted) with minimal effort.

Proof-read and edit. Exercise attention to detail in your texts, just as you would in the display of your art.

If your writing could use improvement, ask friends or mentors, take a class, or get reference books. You’ll probably have to write for the rest of your professional life, so you might as well improve those skills—and your chances of making your applications more competitive—sooner rather than later.

Craft a superb artist’s statement.

The best statements outline a unique, specific position, and coheres with the work samples submitted. If you tailor your work samples to a particular application, you may need to modify your statement, too. If you describe a certain media or theme, make sure it’s represented in the work samples. It feels schizophrenic to read about works we don’t see, and see works that don’t jibe with what’s stated.

Take the time to write and re-write. Do not simply list random thoughts about your practice in a paragraph form. Make it compelling. Help jurors understand your work, and get interested in you, your practice, and what you might do.

I often find myself asking one of two questions when reading statements, and neither is positive. The first is “How?” How does the art support or reflect the statement? When those two don’t mesh, it suggests that the artist is unclear about what he or she is doing. Luckily, what reads as a fairly major artistic problem can usually be resolved with the power of re-writing. Also, jurors may be practitioners in different artistic disciplines than your own. Help us understand how you do what you do.

The second question is “Why?” If you state that an idea or media is important to you, explain why. It’s fine to be arbitrary in your own creative process, but help other people care about your work by letting them know about what motivates you.

Write proposals that are specific.

When possible, list specific outcomes and benefits. How will the experience benefit your practice, or advance your work? Why are you interested in this particular program? Link your goals to the program’s unique qualities.

Many other applicants can and will list generalizations (such as about time, day jobs, a change of scenery, their passion from a young age, etc.). Those are off-the-cuff responses and they’re a dime a dozen. Plenty of deserving artists need support; stand out from the crowd. Convince us that you’re a fantastic fit. Make accepting you irresistible.

 —

If this advice sounds persnickety, that’s because it is. Consider accomplished athletes: experts in the rules of their sport, they would never ask for exceptions like more time or another do-over. In practice, they tirelessly hone their abilities and tactics so that in competition, they can execute with precision to score and win. They get that the competitive edge is very thin.

Artists’ applications are our proxies for scrutiny. By attending to every detail, artists can advance further in competitions.

Resilient athletes also set a variety of goals to evaluate improvement. They do not look solely—as so many artists (myself included) do—to the crushing, all-or-nothing, external validation of winning or losing. Break down competition goals into smaller, more manageable parts, such as completing applications, finding appropriate competitions, and getting feedback to improve work sample sets and statements.

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