Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Thoughts on judging

Earlier this month we attended the finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which occurs every four years in Fort Worth TX.  By the time we arrived, the field of 30 contestants, all aged 18-30, had been narrowed to six, and we got to hear each of them twice, once in a long piano quintet (piano plus string quartet) and once in a concerto with full orchestra.

From left: third-place Daniel Hsu, second-place Kenneth Broberg, first-place Yekwon Sunwoo

It was a great week for music but I've also been thinking about the scoring system.  During the whole three weeks of the competition the nine jurors were forbidden to talk to one another about the competitors or anything they played.  When it was time to cut the field of 30 down to 20, each juror was given a piece of paper with 20 blank lines, and wrote down the names of the 20 people he or she wanted to hear again.  A computer program digested the submissions and came up with the results.  At the very end, the jurors chose from among the six finalists by each writing down one name for first place (again, the computer digested the votes), then after the winner was decided, writing down one name for second, and finally one name for third.

The voting method was the subject of much discussion during the week, by spectators and by the jurors themselves.  Several of them, in a panel discussion, echoed the sentiments of the guy who runs the Cliburn, who said he was determined to have a competition without subjective decision-making.  He said too often competition juries make their choices by consensus, and thus the results can easily be swayed by the juror with the biggest reputation, the most forceful personality and/or the most articulate powers of persuasion.

This made me think about jurying in the visual art world.  I've participated in juried quilt, fiber and all-medium shows, both as an entrant and as a juror, and as far as I know, the prevalent model is for the jurors to confer among themselves.  Sometimes jurors look at the submissions independently to begin with, and might even winnow down the field with secret ballot voting in the early rounds, but the usual approach is for a lot of discussion and horse-trading towards the end, both in terms of selecting the entrants and awarding the prizes.

Often when there's a jurors' statement included in the show catalog, they will make a big point of how they talked it over for such a long time before they finally came to decision, or how there was much disagreement in choosing the winners.  I know from being a juror in several shows that the end-stage discussion can be heated and even testy.

And I wonder what would happen if art shows adopted the Cliburn method of scoring.  You might get shows with a little less cohesiveness (for instance, the Quilt National '13 that had hardly any pieced quilts!) but more variety, with more quirky outliers.  You might get shows with fewer of the usual suspects, those prominent artists whose work is easily identifiable and whom jurors sometimes seem embarrassed to leave out.  People who aren't on that usual-suspect short list might feel they have a better shot at getting into the show; people who are on the list might be a bit less complacent, a bit more likely to try something different and push themselves into new territory.

Would this make any difference in the world of juried shows?  Would it be better or worse than what we have now?  What do you think?


  1. I like this thought provoking post and am going to stick my head up over the parapet!

    I am mystified sometimes at the winning quilts in shows. I think jurors are too often swayed by workmanship and do not give enough regard to originality in design and concept. I know from experience that it is difficult to mark or come up with a short list for further consideration when time is so limited. I would much prefer if the habit used in the world of fine art were adopted of using one curator or judge the awards are allocated. This gives so much more variety. Irene in Northern Ireland.

  2. Have no idea if would make a difference but I think it is novel enough to TRY. How about two or three shows committing to 5 years of this type of judging and see what happens????

  3. Hmm.. My experience of judged shows is that the judges, given mere seconds for each quilt, do not seem to recognise what or how these are made.. And yes, recognisable seems to win every time.. To say nothing of Big..

  4. Hi Kathleen,
    I'm usually a lurker, enjoying receiving your posts via email and never venturing over here to actually comment - so hi!
    I came on over because there are a couple of ideas here that I'd like to comment on.

    First off, you talk about cohesiveness of shows, but I think we need to define whether it is a show or an exhibition. I expect an exhibition to have a general theme and to be a cohesive work in itself, and that is a job of a curator.
    But I think a show can have a theme or not and be cohesive or not.
    I wonder if Quilt National has actually defined itself as a show or an exhibition? If there is winner and prizes for 'best of', then I think it should be a show - and not need cohesiveness. The cohesiveness comes from the the fact that they are all quilts.

    As for jurors conferring between themselves for entries and winners. Yes and no. I agree that if you have a big, forceful personality in the mix, the end result can be less of a consensus and more of a test of will. So perhaps It would be worth trying the completely independent method.
    But, doesn't conferring with your respected colleagues lead to developing your ideas about pieces of art? When I am at shows and discuss quilts with my friends I gain a wider view of the work by combining what they see with what I see. I never discount what I saw originally, the discussion just adds to my view. Maybe it adds positively or maybe negatively, but I always get more out of a show by attending with a friend prepared to sit and consider.

    I wonder how you could test your ideas?

    Thanks for the continually interesting and thought provoking writing that you provide here.