Becoming an Artist

Exhibiting Your Work Publicly.

by Sherry Camhy | September 17, 2014

What does “becoming an artist” mean? Some people simply have an impulse to create. They are artists by nature. Some strive to become skilled artists and enjoy that quest for its own sake. Then there are artists who also want to share something they have created by exhibiting their work. Open juried exhibitions are a way to get started exhibiting your work publicly.

Sherry Camhy, Peter Upside Down, 2013. Graphite on paper, 20 x 30 in.
Sherry Camhy, Peter Upside Down, 2013. Graphite on paper, 20 x 30 in.

Open juried exhibits are exactly what they say they are. They are open to any and all artists—no résumé required. Every effort is made to prevent the exhibition committee and judges from knowing artists’ names, so jurying can be impartial. The process creates a level playing field. Unknown talented artists have an opportunity to exhibit their work alongside that of recognized artists.

The focus here is on established open juried exhibition organized by recognized associations of artists such as Allied Artists of America[1], the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Association, the National Association of Women Artists, the Pastel Society of America, and the American Watercolor Society[2]. They are held in prestigious locations and designed for artists as an alternative to the world of commercial galleries.

Unlike the gallery system, where a dealer will take fifty percent or more of a sale, many artists’ associations take a much smaller commission from sales, or they suggest the artist make a voluntary contribution to the organization. (Exhibited work, however, need not be for sale to be included in an open juried show.) Some organizations ask for an entrance fee to offset the expense of the exhibition and awards; others do not. 

Cash awards given to selected exhibiting artists are often substantial, which, of course, is very nice. Nicer still is the opportunity to exhibit, receive an award, and keep your work. 

Arlene Lieberman, Centered, 2014. Pencil drawing on paper, 20 x 17 in.
Arlene Lieberman, Centered, 2014. Pencil drawing on paper, 20 x 17 in.

The admission committees and jurors selected by the exhibition associations are individuals who have a significant standing in the art world. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be impossible to get this caliber of tastemaker to look at unknown artists’ work. Frequently, collectors, gallery owners, and curators attend open juried exhibitions in search of new talent. Miracles happen.  

I had never heard of open juried exhibitions until, by chance, I noticed a section in the back of an artists’ magazine that listed several of them. I took, what seemed to me at the time, a huge leap of faith. I sent for the information, filled out the entry forms, and mailed them. I did not tell any one what I had done because I was sure my impulsive venture would end in total failure. I waited nervously expecting rejection notices. Instead, acceptances arrived! 

I will never forget the thrill of seeing people stop to look at my drawing hanging on the wall in an exhibition of the Hudson Valley Art Association held in the elegant Gramercy Park brownstone of the National Arts Club.

Over the years, I have received as many rejections as acceptances. Sometimes a work rejected from one exhibition received a first prize in another. One of my drawings rejected many times from several exhibitions is now part of the permanent collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art. 

Helen Stutz, Dawn I, 2013. Watercolor, 30 x 22 in.
Helen Stutz, Dawn I, 2013. Watercolor, 30 x 22 in.

After the thrill of my first acceptance and exhibition in an open juried show, a crucial shift in my attitude toward my own work occurred. Now, when people asked me if my work had ever been exhibited, I could say,  “Yes.” I was no longer regarded by people close to me as a perpetual art student – someone with a pleasant, ladylike hobby. 

Although I continued to enjoy and am still addicted to the process of doing countless random studies, I started to think seriously about what I wanted to say with my skills and how to create completed images of those ideas that would be worthy of exhibition. I began to think of myself truly as an exhibiting artist— a concept I still find a bit scary. 

After having exhibited in dozens of open juried exhibitions, I am now asked to serve as a juror. The position has afforded me new insights into the process.  

Recently, I and two co-jurors selected 195 works from the 540 entries received by the Hudson Valley Art Association. Needless to say, the decision-making process was mind-boggling.

Here are some suggestions to consider when applying for an open juried exhibition:

Read each association’s guide or “prospectus” carefully to understand its goals and the exact requirements for submissions. It was painful to see many excellent pieces of artwork disqualified simply because of application errors.

Submit digital image files that meet the specified requirements for resolution and dimensions. Judges usually rely on digital images to initially cull submissions. During this stage, they rapidly review digital photographs of the works on computer monitors. Some are eliminated simply due to poor image quality.

Sherry Camhy, Peter Upside Down, 2013. Graphite on paper, 20 x 30 in.
Wendy Shalen, Mom at 101, 2013. Charcoal on paper, 19 x 26 in.

Since each of us knows our own work intimately, it is easy to assume that a viewer will see and understand the image the same way we do. Send in an image that is properly cropped, lighted, color-corrected, and most importantly, sharp.

Though it might be tempting to enhance your image with digital tools, it is not a good strategy. If the real work appears very different when it is delivered, it will probably be rejected. A better approach is to correct the actual work to make it closer to what you really wish it were. Looking at your work in a digital format can often help you to see what is needed to push your work to a higher level. Submit your best work with the best possible digital image of it for the best chance of acceptance.

One of the primary tasks of a selection committee is to decide whether the submitted artwork meets with the exhibition’s goals. If you are a representational artist, it makes no sense to submit work to an abstract, conceptual, installation, or performance-based exhibition or vice versa.

Some wonderful work had to be rejected because it did not meet the Hudson Valley Art Association’s exhibition criteria. Some competent work was turned down because it was too similar to other work. Many excellent images of typical subject matter — winding roads, boats docked at sunset, vases, flowers, fruit, grapes, and portraits — ended up competing against each other for the exhibition’s limited wall space.

It was often obvious which artists had studied with the same teachers, and those images also began to compete against each other. The goal of the exhibition was to find from among the submissions the freshest and most personal approaches to traditional concepts.

For me, it was disheartening to see how many submitted images were painstakingly detailed copies of photographs. The use of photo reference is an unfortunate necessity to be handled with discretion as a starting place for inspiration but not as an end in its self. To me, an image that “looks just like a photograph” is not a work of art. It is just an excellent copy of a photograph. I felt work done from life sparkled alongside those images too closely rendered from photo reference. 

If you are thinking about submitting your work to an open juried exhibition, it is a good idea to see what work was accepted for past exhibitions, and, if possible, to attend some of their receptions, which are usually free and open to the public. These can be eye-opening. Artists who attend these events are often happy to answer your questions whether about their work or their experiences exhibiting. 

The images reproduced in this post are by Art Students League artists, both students and instructors, who will be exhibiting in the Hudson Valley Art Association’s Eighty-second Annual Juried Exhibition at the Salmagundi Club[3]. The show opens September 20 with a closing reception on September 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. An online gallery[4] of the show is now up on the association’s website.

Comprehensive listings of exhibition opportunities are available on Art Times[5],[6], and[7], to name a few.

It is not easy to put yourself out there, but it is not as hard as you might think. The rewards are well worth the risks. Give it a try!

  1. Allied Artists of America:
  2. American Watercolor Society:
  3. Salmagundi Club:
  4. online gallery:!exhibitions/cee5
  5. Art Times: