Julia Kirt: you mentioned to me remembering people’s work that you did not pick. How do you distinguish that work that gets into the show versus not?
heather ahtone: Picking work for a show is a complex process because aesthetics are a profound aspect but don’t always get to drive the decision. When I look through a juried show – this is different than curating work into a show, though not completely unrelated – there are often pieces that i think are wonderful for qualities like creativity with materials or conceptually brilliant or simply wonderful just the way they are… but the choices that a juror has to make are often driven by practical concerns. for instance, there was a very large photograph of a lonely child sitting against a building that genuinely touched my heart. but in the consideration of space and lighting (these things can’t be negotiated so easily) we chose to eliminate that photograph to keep four other pieces for the same space. it was eliminated because of its scale – not quality or concept or subject – but because of practical concerns. Momentum doesn’t have the capacity for negotiation because of the limited time between the jurying process and the opening. i also believe that artist had another image that was included and that matters, too. When you have to whittle down from consistently great work, great work gets eliminated there were quite a few pieces that weren’t selected but were great. I have to believe that artists work from some kind of creative well that will not be capped because the work didn’t get into one show or another…. and good work will usually get seen – no show is an end in itself.
JK: What are the main things you would tell artists whose work didn’t get picked? Any general suggestions?
ha: Any artist who is entering into competitions or juried opportunities needs to understand that decisions of being accepted or receiving awards is not personally based – at least in my experience – and shouldn’t be taken as such. i resist sports analogies – but there’s a football phrase “on any given Sunday” that qualifies that whoever wins the game isn’t always based on who’s prepared the longest or worked the hardest or sacrificed the most. I think that applies to art in that I cannot say with certainty that the same pieces would have been selected or received the awards if we had to do it today. Likely we’d have gotten to that last round of elimination with the same body, but would we have chosen the same pieces to cut? I’m not sure. and the awards… there are pieces that have stuck with me that I still think about but I know we didn’t give them an award. the experience of jurying and awarding are based on ephemeral transitory moments. What all that is to say is that the act of making art is part of someone’s personal process (spiritual, mental, physical, etc.) and creative flow. It should be done regardless of shows or awards.
However, if someone is wondering about their work quality or needs more of a response, I encourage all artists to develop relationships with people whom they value their artistic “eye” and who can speak truthfully. being told something is “nice” or “good” because it feels good is useless most of the time. Critical feedback is crucial to anyone’s artistic development.
JK: Other comments about jurying and/or how artists can approach rejection?
ha: There are two points of advice i can give about rejection, both as an artist and as a curator. Sometimes work doesn’t get accepted because it is just not competitive with the qualities of the other work submitted. This can include technical handling, use of materials, image subject matter or concept. the first point is that if the artist really wants to get into a particular show – do your homework! Go see the show and see what has been accepted. Even if the curator is different from year to year, as in Momentum, the competition will likely not be – go see what your peers are doing and how they’re addressing all those various qualities in their work. experiencing good work is necessary to improving one’s own work – I believe this to be part of how one feeds that creative flow.
The second point is to embrace critical commentary. This is more difficult because often young artists bind their personal vision up with the finished product. But to really improve, these emotional investments have to be put aside. do the work, put your soul into it, then step back and put your ego in your back pocket and have someone take a good look at your work and listen to what they say. No artist should just do what others tell you, but it often takes a fresh look to see the weaknesses and strengths. I think it’s difficult for artists to do this on their own because they confuse their artistic vision for what their eyes see. Embracing critical conversation is a common factor among many of the artists we herald as vanguards in contemporary art… This is a healthy part of working as an artist.
A final note –don’t give up, don’t be afraid to take risks and keep working, keep working, keep working.