Judging an Art Festival / by Jeannine Cook

It has been a rather crazy week, first delivering silverpoint drawings to a forthcoming show, "Lasting Impressions", in Jacksonville, FL, at the Women's Center on Colcord Avenue. Then I hung a solo show, "At the Edge of the Marsh", at the McIntosh County Art Association gallery at the Old Jail in Darien, GA, on Friday. Rain storms on both days made art delivery interesting.

Now the sun has reappeared in time for the big weekend in Darien - the Blessing of the Fleet, to celebrate the shrimping tradition and start of the new season.

As part of the activities, in Vernon Square, one of the gracious oak-shaded squares laid out in 1736 by Georgia's founder, General James Oglethorpe, there is an art festival, Art in the Park. (The photo of the Park is courtesy of the City of Darien while the photo of the 2009 Blessing of the Shrimp boat Fleet is courtesy of Gateway to the Golden Isles.) This year, as in on previous occasions, I have been asked to judge the entrants to the festival.

This started me reflecting on all the aspects of judging. As an artist, I have frequently been on the other side of the equation, with my entries to juried art exhibitions and the occasional festival being considered by one or more jurors or judges. Very soon, as one goes along in life, every artist learns that, given a level of competency and proficiency, the outcome of such judging is very much a matter of luck. Considerations of an overall exhibit's theme, space requirements and other aspects play a role in the final outcome, and being passed over is not necessarily any reflection on the quality of one's own work. Nonetheless, I always wish more judges would give more specific feedback on work submitted. I suppose, realistically, that now there is such a large number of submissions to most art competitions that feed back would be too onerous. Such information would, however, help one grow and improve as an artist.

For artists who teach, there is another aspect to judging art competitions and festivals. Katie Lee, a wonderful botanical artist, teacher and judge (as well as being Kenya-born as I was!), writes eloquently about her desire for her students to succeed and be recognised. Her concern for their well-being is a very real consideration of any juror/judge; crushing talent and aspirations is always a great tragedy and waste.

Once an artist has been given the honour of judging his or her peers' work, it is a serious matter, where competency, fairness and clarity are all very necessary. Since each artist, no matter what the medium, has invested time, passion and money, in creating a work, it is only fitting that a judge/juror treat the work with respect and attention. I am, in truth, often left wondering when one reads of some shows where there are thousands and thousands of entries, and perhaps three seconds are accorded to each piece, usually now in digital image form. Need must... I recognise, that that is hardly a way to select work that might be magnificent, but done in a low key, subtle fashion which has trouble competing with the "high voltage", "hit-you-in-the-eye" works.

Judging an art show is frequently a little different from judging an art festival, insofar as the festival usually has many media. The line between fine art and crafts is also frequently blurred. For an art show, grosso modo, the judge is assessing visual design, technical competence and, above all, the highly personal consideration: does this work convey a clear, powerful message and does the work stop me in my tracks? Details of value (organisation of darks and lights into a good composition), colour (its use for harmony, feeling, repetition and pattern), shapes (their variation or repetition for interest, harmony and content), line (variation and use of lines) and organisation of a focal point all contribute to the unity and success of a work of art. Does the piece hold together and work to convey content and feeling?

Assessing the diverse work exhibited in booths in an art festival is perhaps more complex in some senses. I have found that scoring the artists' presentations according to a set of criteria, on paper, is helpful. It also means that the artists can later see how the judge scored things, which could perhaps provide some useful feedback. Since, de facto, a judge is working with apples and oranges, so as to speak - two and three dimensional work, crafts of different types, etc. - there has to be some coherence in the judging approach.

I tend to divide the score card into two sections - artistic merit and booth presentation. Under artistic merit, I score creativity and originality, quality of composition and design, clarity of theme/communication, technique and skill of creation and, finally, overall impression. Booth presentation looks at professional presentation, is the booth inviting to enter and does the booth set-up enhance/compliment/complement the work?

Suffice to say that if there are a large number of entrants in the Art in the Park festival tomorrow, I shall be busy for a while! I just hope that the award winners are happy and that everyone else has a really good festival!