Visual art juries are esoteric gatherings. Select adepts meet in a dimly lit room, are sworn to secrecy, follow strict rituals, and attempt to shape the future. Huddled in Plato’s cave, sometimes for days, jurors review a procession of projected images of absent things, rank them and their makers’ written statements according to quality and likely future success. They award cash prizes, then disperse. They are forbidden from speaking about their experience in that chamber. The winners’ names are made public; rationale for selection, rejection or ranking are not. It’s a strange craft. As arts funding shifts to address equity more assertively, it’s time to examine how myths of quality function as barriers to access and drag the peer jury system into the light.
Years ago, I saw a film of Clement Greenberg evaluating paintings. His judgements arrived by intuition rather than reasoned argument. They were confident, final, and shared by the other men in the room. At university in the 80s, I met his heirs; modernist men who knew what was good or not in their bones. They could recognize quality at a glance. They had taste. It was soon evident, however, that their tastes were not universal but tutored and embodied, gendered, raced, classed, historically, and geographically situated.
"…tastes were not universal but tutored and embodied, gendered, raced, classed, historically, and geographically situated."
The modernist peer jury system rests on a metaphysical foundation. It assumes that there is an attribute variously called artistic merit, quality, and excellence that exceeds subjective and collective taste, fashion, and politics; that works of art have this essence in varying degrees and can be ranked accordingly; and that the most perceptive and fairest jurors are artists who are somehow able to suspend their personal preferences, interests and rivalries when evaluating the work of their peers. There is little room in such a belief system to question axiomatic claims. There is no argument, for example, about what is or is not art. The nature of artistic quality and its supposed ontological hierarchy are never described let alone proven. The system does not, for example, test its assumptions by running applications through multiple, differently composed juries to see if the rankings change, to see if ‘quality’ is really just conformation bias. Such a jury is a secret chamber into which images and explanatory texts enter, are sorted, and a ranked list emerges without explanation. The system is less interested in reasons than results.
"…The system is less interested in reasons than results."
"…many arts funders have refigured themselves as not only judges of aesthetic quality but also as agents of social justice."
I have two suggestions. That funding agencies be transparent about their equity goals and create methods and measurements that ensure those targets are met, and, in some circumstances, that artists be recognized rather than apply for recognition.
I have been on numerous local, regional, and national juries, and am amazed at how often the organization’s modest equity goals are met. It was far from assured, in earlier times, that jury deliberations would result in gender balance and representation across regions. That at least these goals are reached is not a miracle but the result of selecting jurors for their agreement with the institutional agenda and gentle persuasion by program officers. These outcomes and more need to be an explicit part of the evaluation criteria. In addition, prior to evaluating work, juries ought to have training in non-dominant creative practices, aesthetics, and ethics. If the organization’s goal is equity, spell out how the jury and process are composed and conducted to meet those ends without resorting to chance, or polite but subtly forced agreement. If equity extends beyond bodies to works of art, the onus is on the reformed system to create new categories rather than pit the familiar against the unfamiliar.
"…juries ought to have training in non-dominant creative practices, aesthetics, and ethics."
Years ago, I was on an all-Indigenous board, and we were selecting officers. I knew the fellow next to me would be perfect for one of the roles but was not volunteering. I looked at him with concern. There was a sudden recognition; call it a Metis-to-Metis intersubjective communication. I put his name forward. He let it stand. I explained to the group why he was a good match. He was elected. Discussing it later, he explained what we both knew but was incongruent with the system. Humility is an essential teaching in Indigenous society. It is unbecoming to put your hand up, to brag. Indigenous folks, at least on the Plains, prefer to be recognized, to be invited.
In some cases, for example, when an artist is engaged in community-minded work, or making customary culture work, or is unwilling or unable to submit grant applications—arts funders should consider an invitation rather than an application model. Applications from folks who do not conform to dominant culture assumptions are often illegible, or, in order to meet the actual and implied requirements of the forms, they distort their practices, needs and desires in order to qualify. Inuk curator Heather Igloliorte once explained that many Inuit did not apply for grants because they were intimidated by the forms and by the large amount of money involved—often more than their neighbours earned in a year. And what made them so special that they should be entitled to this money and not their cousin? A recognition model has senior artists and curators, or community members select artists for recognition and awards. The process would be transparent. All involved would provide explanations for their selections according to criteria they value. Their selections and reasons would express their tastes and the community needs at that moment and place, rather than claim a universal quality. The next set of art Elders may have different ideas. They might choose to reward progress, to encourage an early practice, recognize community engagement or any number of other-than-aesthetic quality alone measures.
"…Their selections and reasons would express their tastes and the community needs at that moment and place, rather than claim a universal quality."