Jury Duty

Eric Fleischauer

Sometimes I’m asked to serve as a juror to award artist prizes, grant money, and nominate and select artists for exhibitions. Juries, panels and committees are formed as an alternative to shadowy curatorial processes, dealer politics and critical biases. Instead of top-down conferment, it is hoped that panels parcel out praise in a fair and balanced way, and yet they are not often reported on.

Most recently I served on a daylong panel with four other visual-arts professionals in a large boardroom on the top floor of the Cultural Center. Each year the city of Chicago solicits applications from new and emerging artists in the city and awards small (under $1,000) grants. The artist names their price, submits a project proposal and gives examples of their work. The art is debated among the panelists, like a studio critique. We ask ourselves, is the project feasible? Will it help the artist advance their career?

The Community Arts Assistance Program (CAAP) is one of the few ways that an individual, unaffiliated artist in Chicago can receive funding for whatever project they choose, and even though the CAAP program was victim to significant cuts this year, and its application form looks daunting to fill out, it’s still pretty amazing that government-issued monies exist for artists. The panelists did not decide how much money each artist should receive. Instead, we scored each artist’s work, and the money will be distributed based on how those scores shake out.

Excitingly, the CAAP deliberations were open to the public. Several artists trickled in during the day to hear the panel debate their work. They sat silently, and we discussed their work as if they weren’t present. Although the CAAP grant panel attempts to be inclusive, and all serious applications are considered, the grant does not fund hobbyists and people who make art recreationally. This brought up an interesting problem, as one applicant’s project proposal involved the production of comic-book art. The panel had no trouble seeing the artistic merit of comics, but what if hundreds of comic-book artists, not just one, had applied? What about tattoo artists, and car customizers? In these cases the jurors must judge the work but also their assumptions about art. Such art’s inclusion in the granting process reflects the ever-shifting cultural ground that rises up to meet art.

I also recently served on the Three Walls Solo exhibition committee, which meets twice a year to decide which artists will receive a one-person show at Three Walls’ gallery in the West Loop. The applications are open to Midwestern emerging artists. The jurors, including all variety of art professionals and artists, viewed each application at home, emailed a shortlist of favorites to the committee administrator, and met on a Sunday afternoon to debate the shortlist.

The Three Walls committee, unlike the CAAP panel, is not open to the public. We congregate in a small, dark room (to better see the slides) and open some beers as the day progresses. Whereas at the CAAP panel we provide critique in a way that encourages artists, at Three Walls we expect the artists to have their shit together. It’s a competition for the three open slots, and we voice all opinions. Most artists are familiar to the committee because some are encouraged to apply, some are re-applicants, and among us, the community of emerging visual art in Chicago is pretty well represented. If a proposal is vague, we may be able to judge them on other, off-application criteria. But there are often surprises. An artist comes through with a new body of work ripe for exhibition, or a quiet artist resurfaces. At the end of the day, the votes are tallied, the winners announced, and the next season is set.

Sometimes I am both the judge and the jury. I’ve judged a few art exhibitions of student work, which are commonplace in universities and colleges. For the College of DuPage I selected the roster of artists and also first-, second- and third-place awards. All of this was done, funnily, from a Powerpoint presentation. Recently I decided awards for a student show at Dominican University, deciding the best genres, the cover art for an annual literary publication, and best in show. For this I was given a small stipend, which exceeded the prize money for some of the categories.

By exposing some of these systems, I’m not criticizing their faults or biases. Many artists interface with these systems, and it is to their benefit to know how they work. These systems exist for the artists. Even if some of the artists don’t receive grant money or cash prizes, and the majority aren’t granted an exhibition opportunity, I often see work by new artists that I’d like to promote in the future or trends that are emerging in the community, and so, for me, they are highly rewarding experiences.

Published in Newcity (March 29, 2010)