Caleb Bell is the Curator of the Tyler Museum of Art. When he and I (Christina Rees) compared notes not long before the pandemic started, we realized that we’re both often asked to jury large, annual, open-call group shows across the state. Two of these group shows we’ve recently juried are about to open in DFW: Artspace111’s 8th Annual Texas Juried Exhibition (Caleb), and Craighead Green Gallery’s 28th Annual New Texas Talent (me).
This conversation unfurled over the previous few weeks. Edited slightly for length and clarity.
Christina Rees: Hey there, Caleb.
It seems you and I both exist in a weird sweet spot of a demographic in the collective Texas art scene: People who get asked to jury big, open-call group shows.
Outside of Covid times, I seem to get asked to jury this type of show about once, or even twice, a year. When I say “big” I mean that a lot of software is involved because the number of entries is huge — seeing all the work in person as part of the jurying process seems to be a thing of the past. We jury shows from our screens — often hundreds and hundreds (if not 1000+) of entries per show.
After you’ve done a few, you get into a routine with it. We can get into that in a bit. But let’s tackle this first: why are you asked, why am I asked, and what do the organizers hope a juror will bring to the table?
Caleb Bell: A sweet spot it is! I don’t know about you, but I love to jury shows. For me, it is a great opportunity to see a lot of art that I might not get to see otherwise — even if sometimes it is only on screen.
One reason I believe you and I are selected is because we’re both very passionate about art. We’re both constantly looking at art, as well as writing and reading about it. I also think organizers know we are both dedicated to the cause, so to speak, and truly want to select what we feel is the best work for each show. I say this humbly… I think we are known as “doers,” too. You and I are continually making content available in some form or fashion to the public, which I can see as being a potential draw for applicants.
In my opinion, organizers are ultimately looking for two things: 1. a big turnout, and 2. a good-looking show. I have a feeling they hope jurors will entice a wide range of applicants to apply. I also feel like they hope a juror will bring their network along with them (i.e. artists, collectors, acquaintances, etc.). And organizers select jurors for their critical eye and expertise. I think they ultimately want to have a dynamic exhibition on their hands.
Would you agree?
CR: I agree. I want to circle back to your point about a “good-looking show.” You are a curator, and at your museum, you organize and present very good-looking shows. Once upon a time, I ran a commercial space, then a non-profit space, and I am very into “good looking shows” and I think one can put together a tremendous show with incredibly disparate work.
So when I jury an open-call show, I sometimes make extra trips to get to the space, and spot the show. All these reasons for that: I picked too much work. I get attached to work in the selection stage. I feel guilty because I left the organizers with too much work to contend with. I want to see the work in person. I want the show to look amazing and for the artists to be pleased about that. I want to show the artwork some respect.
I think that organizers can get a sense of who’s jurying nice-looking shows, made up of the best or even most unexpected work, and taking the process pretty seriously.
You’ve managed in a very short time to rack up a reputation as a man who gets around. Again, barring Covid, for your job you’re on the road all the time, all over the state, looking at work and visiting artists. I get around, too.
But what’s your favorite part of the process of jurying an open-call show?
CB: I have to admit that my favorite part of jurying is probably scanning through all of the submissions. As soon as I get that email saying it is ready for review, I basically drop everything and start looking. I like the review process the most because it’s when you get to see the most work.
I normally try to negotiate with the organizers for as much time as possible to review and make selections. I will look, look again, look again, and then start to take notes. I can’t tell you how many different times I review every single entry. But I want to get it right, you know?
As I’m making selections, I can start to see the exhibition form in my head. I also spot the show in person for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. I normally even craft a preliminary layout with the work before I even arrive on site. It is the curator in me. Arrangement can make or break a show.
When you’re making your selections, what all are you thinking about?
CR: I tend to have very immediate and visceral reactions to artwork, even when I’m looking at the work in jpeg form. And I can get more attached to an artwork, or the idea of it (it is the idea of it, rather than the thing itself since I’m rarely seeing work in person first) as I circle back through the selections again and again. At some point I become almost irrationally attached to certain works. I tend to have gathered from the organizers information about how many works will fit comfortably in the space, and I always overshoot and pick too much, and generally it’s because I want more rather than less work, because I selfishly want to see all this work in person. And that can create enough of a problem to where, again, I feel guilty enough to go spot the show, so that the organizers don’t feel like if the show looks crowded or crazy; it’s not their fault there’s more work than usual. But I feel like the shows always look fantastic.
As you know, video or purely digital works are the only ones that you can get the most accurate sense of when jurying a show virtually. Paintings and sculpture — if you don’t already know the artist’s work, you may really not be able to tell how they’ll play in person. You keep your fingers crossed and hope the work looks as good, or preferably better, as it did in reproduction.
At this point in my jurying experience, it usually does. Like learning a new vernacular or handy cheat, the more artwork you look at online and then compare to the real thing (when you see it in person), the better you are at reading the work accurately online in the first place. These days I am rarely disappointed when unwrapping an artwork I’ve gotten attached to through the screen-only jurying process.
And also, there are a number of artists, certainly here in Texas, who tend to apply to open-call shows. You see their work again and again. Some artists know certain jurors tend to choose their work. That may play out for a couple of seasons.
What are you thinking about when you have to nail down the final selections for the show?
CB: I typically pick one or two less than the “desired” number of selections. While I am all about giving more artists a platform, I want to show (in my opinion) the best of the best. I also lean toward giving the viewer a little more visual rest.
When I’m making final selections, I’m thinking (in no particular order): Is it strong work? Is it fresh? What is the work conveying? How’s the finish? How did it make me feel upon first glance? How do I feel about it now that I have looked at it again? What’s the size? Is it going to visually dominant the space? Why do I feel enthusiasm for this piece?
That list could just go on. But echoing your sentiment, I have instant reactions to artwork, too, and the good pieces just hit a certain way.
On this final pass, I usually want to make sure that there’s a variety of subjects and media represented, but I also want the exhibition to be visually pleasing and cohesive. I think the latter can be accomplished through placement, though.
Speaking of placement, which we have touched on a little bit, what does that process like for you? How do you go about making those decisions?
CR: I like the placement process a lot. As long as it’s not rushed. Once the work is in the space, I start carrying it around (carefully!; been doing this for years), and try them out in lot of spots, and generally I situate the largest pieces in places in the room that feel right for them in terms of flow and light, my idea of what people traffic/approach will be, the right amount of wall space, etc., and then they anchor the whole. I can work out from those points. The big ones are not getting more attention from me because they’re large. They are an almost arbitrary starting point: almost. Size is bit of a marvelous bully in that way.
I’m looking for really subtle visual sympathies between works to find good-neighbor rapport: there will something about color, texture, mood, maybe subject, often even just sort of the shapes or movement of things that are on the picture plane or sculpture (or screen)… . There will be, generally, visible throughlines between works that are surprising, and surprising juxtapositions — visual or topical — can really energize the work in ways even the artists may have not predicted. It’s unconscious, I think, for most people who come to see the show, but it creates a kind of composition, a visual and possibly thematic harmony and flow in which everything gets to sing and it all feels right. It can take a while. I may think I’m done and then get stuck in one area of the show and start over. Until it is right.
What about you and your placement strategy?
CB: I love the placement process, too. I also agree that it can’t be rushed. As a curator, I constantly think about how works are going to interact with one another and how the slightest placement change will affect a show.
The placement process is very fluid to me. I always start by walking a space and figuring out how (at least in my mind) most viewers will flow through. I determine natural focal points/stops and start to work from there. Like you mentioned, I tend to start with larger works too, unless I have some other idea to springboard from. That isn’t to say they are going in those focal points. Logistically speaking, I just find it easier to place them in the space first and build around them.
I think placement helps set the mood and tone for an exhibition. I’m always looking for subtle threads to help connect works to other works for a smooth transition. However, I often try to incorporate at least one visual surprise for viewers. Typically, it is an unexpected punch on the backside of a wall waiting as one rounds the corner.
I like work to have room to breathe and don’t want to overwhelm viewers. I think space also allows, in some cases, the opportunity for deeper connections. But once you have the placement right, it all clicks.
Once the show is up, what are your thoughts about the reception? Do you normally give talk?
CR: I’m almost always asked to say a few words, yes. Sometimes this is my favorite part of having my job, period. It gets me back in touch with why I do what I do, and why I love what I love. I have some stage fright, but I can surprise myself with how emotional or sentimental I feel about the work in the show by that time, and I’m often meeting the artists for the first time, and I extend that appreciation to them. I so appreciate them putting themselves out there.
It’s so much tougher for them; artists are brave — much more brave to fire the first shot (put the original work out into the world with no idea of how it will be received) than to be just a person responding to it (me, a critic; a viewer). I tell artists because it’s true. Art, creative output in all its forms, is the thing that makes our lives endurable. Art and nature. Artists are heroes. Our souls would perish without their work. Go hug an artist! It’s been a hell of a year and their stuff was key to surviving it without completely losing our minds.
What kinds of things do you talk about when you’re asked to say something at the reception?
CB: I couldn’t agree more with those sentiments! I also acknowledge the fact that you and I couldn’t do what we do without artists creating art.
When I’m asked to speak, I try to convey — in a concise manner — my thoughts on [that] show. I also try to offer as much encouragement and “insider tips” as I can to the artists.
I love the receptions. Like you said, they are often when I meet most of the artists for the first time. I like hearing their thoughts on their works. I also like seeing everyone interact with the work and each other.
For the show I’m jurying now, I am trying out something new. I’m personally very interested in interdisciplinary programming. I am putting together a “Juror’s Jams” playlist in response to the exhibition and included works. It’s my hope viewers listen to it on the way to or from the reception. We’ll see.
After the reception is over, what are some major takeaways for you?
CR: A sense that I have a better idea of what’s going on out there among emerging artists, or artists who don’t have or maybe even seek gallery representation. These (often overlapping) demographics are important. They can give you a sense of the overall health and liveliness of the expanded scene. I’m always cheered by what I can surmise. I often come into my first contact with artists I go on to follow for years as they develop their careers. Alejandro Macias, Gao Hang, Bumin Kim… just off the top of my head, who I juried into shows only a few years ago and… look at them go! They are turning into art stars now. They didn’t need me to jury them into shows to get noticed, but I got an early look compared a lot of their followers.
But even the quieter artists who never even try to level up: I’m so happy to get to know their work. An art world doesn’t even exist unless there are artists working at many levels of exposure and experience. It’s this kind of thing — this is, again, really in some ways the best part of my role in this state. It is certainly the biggest anti-depressant aspect of this job. It’s the reason we’re here… both of us. Because artists make art, and put it out there.
CB: I leave jurying exhibitions (and these types of projects) with several things in mind. The biggest one is the introduction of new artists on my radar. Like you, I try to see as much as possible all the time by traveling, but there is never enough time. These opportunities grant me the ability to see a lot. With that, I usually get to actually meet a lot of these artists and hear more about them and their practices.
Trying to make the Texas art scene better is what drives me. And when I think about juried exhibitions, I think they’re good opportunities for all involved.