Back in the 1970s, when the field of Fiber Art began to sweep the country, there were very few exhibition opportunities. In those days, “fiber” generally meant only weaving, and quilts as an art form were just beginning to be recognized by the museum and gallery establishment. Today, just a few short decades later, because of all the work done by the pioneers in our field, there are more opportunities than ever before. I’m sure it must be almost be overwhelming for those of you who may just be starting out. As an artist and writer in the field for over two and half decades, I have stood where you are. As an exhibition juror and curator, I also have a view from the other side of the projector. Let me give you some tips, as you decide how to dip your toes in the water.
(Photo: Above: Fabric Artist Susan Shie (Susie) and Gayle Pritchard at Kenyon College where they were both asked to lecture. Gayle also did a book-signing. Below: 'Kenyon Me,' her artwork at an invitational exhibition at Kenyon College, Innovation and Tradition: Contemporary Art Quilting in
Are you really ready to enter an art exhibition?
This is a question only you can answer, and there is no right answer. Creating artwork for the sheer pleasure of it is perfectly fine. So, what are you hoping to accomplish by exhibiting your work? What are your personal goals? Do you want to build a professional resume, lecture or teach? Do you want to sell your work, or compete for artist grants or commissions? Are you prepared to compete in the art world? If so, at what level?
When I first began to exhibit my work several decades ago, I had already been working and teaching quilt classes locally for a number of years. I enjoyed it, and knew I wanted to teach more, but I also wanted to exhibit, so that my work could be seen by a larger audience. I knew that would never happen if I didn’t put my work out there.
If you want to compete in the jury process with other artists, it is important to do a thorough self-critique. Most crucially, ask yourself this: Have I developed my own style? Nowadays, everyone and her sister take a workshop or class and pronounce to the world that they are now an Artist…with a capital “A.” I am all for studying, learning techniques, and being mentored. That is not the same thing, however, as years of study, training and practice. If you aren’t quite there yet, that is alright. Keep working on it.
It is my firm belief that you should not be exhibiting your work professionally until you have figured out who you are as an artist, and what you have to say. Almost every artist has been influenced by someone else. Developing your own style simply entails working through that stage until you emerge with your own voice, something new to say on the subject. Settle down, focus, and look through all of the artwork you have created to date. Pick one idea from your existing body of work that interests you, then spend the next year working at it. See where it takes you. You will be amazed at the strides you will make in the process.
What type of exhibit do you want to enter? When you are starting out, local and regional exhibitions are a good place to begin. Just remember, if you made a piece in a workshop or as a result of a workshop, you need to credit your instructor. In addition to local, regional, national, or international opportunities, there are types of exhibitions, often categorized by the range of art media the organizers plan to exhibit.
The type of exhibition you want to consider will often determine where you will find listings of opportunities. Are you planning to enter only juried art quilt exhibitions, or do you also want your work shown alongside other media, such as painting, sculpture and photography? If so, you are competing against all genres of art during the jury process. Your work must stand up to all media in terms of technique, composition, use of color, etc.
Part of deciding the type of exhibitions to show in will depend, in part, on what goals you have for yourself, and how difficult it is to transport the artwork you create. I’ll give you several examples to explain what I mean.
In my case, when I began exhibiting my work, I started in my region, gained confidence through acceptance into those juried shows, and then began to enter national and international shows. After a period of years, with much success and so many opportunities available, I began to be more selective, focusing on invitational exhibitions along with juried exhibitions that included some sort of benefit: a catalog or an award of some sort.
My path, however, is not the only one you can choose. John Lefelhocz lives in Athens, Ohio, and decided to go see a Quilt National exhibition. He was so inspired by the artwork he saw that he was determined to create an entry for the next exhibit. Did I say he had never made a quilt before? His style is so engaging and unique that his work was, indeed, juried into the next Quilt National, and has been several times since.
(Photos: Gayle hanging an entry at Artist as Quilt Maker (AQM) XII; and Gayle lecturing at AQM 2006)
Some artists create work that is difficult and very expensive to ship. Linda Fowler, co-founder of the Quilt Surface Design Symposium in Columbus, is one of the early pioneers in our field. She has created very large, shaped work since the very beginning of her career. Early on, with the help of an artist friend, she figured out how to create a hanging system to support the large, heavy shaped tops of her quilts. Since her work is very difficult and expensive to ship, she decided very early on to limit the geographic region of where she exhibits her work.
Finding Calls to Entry and Preparing Your Entry
Many of the publications you already read probably have a Call to Entry section, both in the magazine and on the web. Often the website listings are more comprehensive and more current, so remember to check both. Here are just a few of the websites that have regular postings:
Fiber Art Calls
American Craft Magazine
Artist Help Network
Before you submit your entry, there are a couple of things you will need to do. Most importantly, get good photographs of your work. When the exhibition postcard is printed, and publications request PR material from the curator, you will want to make it easy for your work to be selected. If you are not a photographer, or do not have a professional-grade camera, ask around for referrals for good photographers in your area. Nowadays, most entries have gone digital, and slides have gone the way of 8-track recordings. You will need an overall view of your artwork on a neutral background (no fences, painted walls, garage doors, etc.), well cropped. You will also need at least one detail shot representing approximately 6” square. Some exhibitions allow you to submit more than one detail. If you have several detail images, you can select the one you like best.
Secondly, if you are planning to enter shows frequently, it’s time to start a calendar to keep track of which shows you want to enter, when the deadlines are, and so forth. Keep track of which artwork you are entering where, and make sure the deadlines and exhibit dates do not overlap. Let me give you an example of what can happen when you do not keep track of which artworks are where.
For over a decade, I have curated The Artist as Quiltmaker exhibition, one of the oldest, continuously-running art quilt exhibitions in the world. For the first time during the jury process for the 2008 exhibition, I encountered difficulties with the availability of artwork submitted at several key times. Two artists whose work survived the initial image jury did not have their work available for the onsite object jury and award selection. One of the artists pulled her work after it was accepted. The other had entered three artworks, which had been selected by the juror as a grouping. The artist, however, had sold two of the pieces she had entered, and had not made arrangements with the purchaser to have them available for the exhibition.
Why does this matter? Exhibition spaces are limited in size. When a juror is viewing entries for an exhibition, they are selecting work based on quality, yes, but also in consideration of the available exhibition space. So, the artist who was juried in, but then pulled her work prior to the exhibition, robbed another artist of an opportunity to show work in the exhibition.
When May 2008 rolled around, and it was time to hang the show, four other artists failed to send work that had been selected. In two cases, the artists had again sold their work, and had not made arrangements for hanging it in the exhibition. In two other cases, the artists had entered the same piece in two different shows which had overlapping time frames.
(Photos: Artist and gallery volunteer Kathleen Van Meter and Gayle (above) and both with gallery director Kyle Michalak hanging exhibit entries.)
Read Carefully and Be Prepared For Success
When you prepare your entry, follow the rules specified in the Call to Entry form. Are there age guidelines? Don’t fudge and say your work was made later just to beat the deadline. Does the form indicate that no copies of other work, or work made in a classroom are eligible? Is there a limit to how large the artwork can be, or does it have to be of a certain size? Are entries required to be available for sale? Read the entry form carefully, and make sure you provide all the information it asks for. If you have questions, call the curator for clarification.
Be professional, and be prepared. Put your best foot forward by submitting only excellent images, in the format required. The best artwork poorly photographed will pale on screen when it is viewed against hundreds of other, well photographed entries. Remember, all the juror has to go by are the images you submit.
Don’t ask for exceptions to the rules, or special favors. Most of all, try not to be dejected if your work is not accepted for the exhibition. In all of the arts, not being chosen is part of the territory. Yes, it’s true that your work may not have stood up to the other entries. That is not always the case, however. Sometimes, there are so many great entries, there simply is not enough space to show them all. Sometimes, after the first ten or so pieces are selected by the juror, the exhibition begins to take on a theme of its own, and the subsequent pieces selected seem to fit with the tone set by the strongest pieces.
All of us have had this experience. Friend and fellow artist David Walker wrote a wonderful article years ago about rejection. You can read the article on his website.
If you ever have the opportunity, volunteer to assist during an exhibition jury. You will gain tremendous insight into how the process works.
Finally, be prepared for success, the day the letter comes in the mail to tell you your work was selected. Maybe you even won an award! Congratulations! Immediately mark the dates you need to remember on your calendar, and gather your professional materials. Find out if the exhibition sends out press releases related to the show. If not, send your own.
In your acceptance letter, the curator may have requested Viewbook materials. If so, you will have another opportunity to present your work. A Viewbook in the gallery is usually a notebook containing more information about the artists and the artwork. These materials are also used to provide additional information about the exhibitors when requested by magazines and newspapers for publicity purposes. Make your information easy to include by providing it in advance.
For your Viewbook pages, send your artist biography, a short resume, an artist statement, and a statement about the artwork you will be showing. If you have important reviews or press clippings, send copies of those, as well. Make sure everything you send has been carefully proofread.
These and many more challenges await the professional artist. There are also many rewards for your bravery and dedication to your work. The public awaits! Now, go into your studio and get busy. It’s show season.
Gayle Pritchard made her first quilt in 1973. In addition to her numerous magazine articles, she is the author of Uncommon Threads: Ohio’s Art Quilt Revolution, which was featured on NPR’s The Diane Rehm show. The interview is available as a podcast. She is currently finishing a biography of artist Susan Shie. Visit her blog or Etsy site.
NOTE: Other current articles about entering juried exhibitions: SAQA Journal, Spring 2007; The Professional Quilter, Winter 2009.