Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Art of Hosting a National Art Show

Last fall, I joined the Board of the Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda.   As a non-artist, it is great fun to have the chance to be up close and personal with so much talent.  One of my first jobs has been helping out with the inaugural Faces and Figures National Exhibition.  I had absolutely no idea how much is involved in putting together a show like this, and I thought it might be interesting for other outsiders to get a peek into the process as well.  Happily, Kathy Grey, editor of Florida Weekly, agreed, and a version of this article will appear in the February 7th edition of the paper.  If you are in the Punta Gorda area between now and March 8th, make it a priority to stop by to see the show.  It will knock your socks off!

The Art of Hosting a National Art Exhibit 

Mother's Boy by James Fetter
Fifteen years ago, the Visual Arts Center (VAC) in Punta Gorda held its first national art show.  It was an ambitious and ground-breaking endeavor for what was then a small art center with no paid staff.   No other art center in Southwest Florida had undertaken putting on a show with entries from across the country.  The aptly named National Art Show was born, and the biennial exhibit has become one of the VAC’s signature events. 

The VAC of course has also been home to many other exhibits throughout the years.  One of the most popular has been the Faces and Figures show featuring two dimensional art celebrating the human form.  As Faces and Figures became a staple of the VAC’s exhibit schedule, the idea of elevating the exhibit to a second national show began to get some legs.    One year the VAC could host the National Art Show which has no restriction on subject matter; the next year would be the thematic Faces and Figures National Exhibition.   In the summer of 2012, a decision was made to take the plunge, and February 2, 2013 was set as opening date for the new national show.       

Ninety Two by Denny Bond
Mounting any type of art exhibit is a big job.  The amount of work is multiplied, however, with a juried national show, and the devil is in the details.   The VAC took us inside the process, from finding a juror to announcing the award winners.

One of the first steps in organizing a national art show is finding the juror.  The role of the juror is two-fold.  First, he selects which entries will be accepted into the show.  Second, once the selected paintings are on site, he views the works and chooses the prize winners.   Ideally, this individual will have sufficient name recognition to attract artists outside of the community, recognized talent as an artist, and a good track record as a juror.  After extensive research, the VAC invited Allan Banks to serve as juror for the inaugural Faces and Figures National Exhibition.   Banks is internationally known for his plein air portraits, figure paintings and garden paintings.  He is listed in Who’s Who in American Art and has numerous works in private and public collections.   And he has acted as a juror for a number of portraiture exhibits.   He was clearly a good fit for this show.   

Katherine by Adra Brown
One of the most difficult and time-consuming elements of hosting a national show is managing the entry process.  Historically, artists would mail in their applications with slides of their paintings.  Carousels of slides would be put together and sent to the juror for review.  In today’s online world, this approach no longer makes sense.  Michele Valencourt, executive director of the VAC, had begun work on an online entry program early in 2012 when she got a surprise call from the National Endowment for the Arts.  The NEA had come upon the VAC’s website and was interested in learning more about what goes on there.   Long story short, the NEA awarded the VAC a grant to build a software program to manage the entry process.   This allowed submissions for the Faces and Figures show to be made digitally.  Although both the VAC and the artists experienced some growing pains as they transitioned to the new system, the process ultimately worked well and facilitated the selection process for the juror.     

 Needless to say, the receiving process is a delicate task.   The paintings arrive in heavy duty packing materials, and it is the responsibility of the receiving committee to store the materials by entry so that they can be repacked and returned after the show closes.  Two of the Faces and Figures works suffered minor damage in the shipping process.   The glass in one frame was broken—the painting was unharmed—and the frame of another work was damaged.  Receiving veteran Cathy Lindenauer quickly coordinated repairs in time for the works to be included in the judging process.

Juror Allan Banks 
When Banks first arrived at the VAC, the 129 paintings that made the cut for the show were displayed throughout First Federal Gallery.  Banks was tasked with selecting eight prize winners.   The awards include “Best of Show” (the winner of which will take home $2,000) , a portraiture prize funded by the William and Sally Bowles Endowment for Portrait Excellence, and a figure painting prize funded by the VAC’s life drawing class.   

Banks said he was immediately impressed with the quality of the paintings and explained that he had three criteria in mind when judging the show:  Composition, Drawing, and Originality/Personal Style.   He elaborated that, “Composition is the strength, the springboard, of the piece.  Drawing is the design.  And originality/personal style is the artist’s fingerprint.”   The winners were selected and Ingrid Carroll, chairperson of the event, contacted the artists with the good news that they had been awarded an undisclosed prize in the show.                 

Sleeping Reader by Margaret Bayalis
The importance of hanging a show properly cannot be underestimated.  Valencourt says, “Hanging the show is an art form in and of itself.  Each wall has to have a certain rhythm and flow.”   Sally Tappy heads up the hanging committee and says that her goal is to “showcase every painting.”  Once she has a rough idea of which paintings should go on which wall, the works are handed over to a committee member who then organizes them.  Considerations include the frames, the matting, the color, and the size of the works.  The subject matter is generally secondary, and in no event does the identity of the artist dictate where a painting will hang.  The walls are reorganized throughout the day, and there is often competition for a particular painting that the hangers think would be just right in the pattern that they are creating.   

Finally, the doors to the exhibit are thrown open to welcome the public.  The work doesn’t stop then, however.  Volunteer docents stand by to help guests get the most out of their visit.  A champagne reception is in the works for February 7th at which the prize winners will be announced.  And voting for the People’s Choice Award is on-going throughout the five week show.   Each vote costs $1.00, with the proceeds being shared equally by the winning artist and the VAC.  In the history of the People’s Choice Award, the public has never bestowed this prize on the same work selected as “Best of Show.”   The winner of this coveted award will be announced once the show closes.   

Putting together a national art exhibition is not for the faint-hearted.    All the hard work is worth it, though, when a show comes together.   Without a doubt, the Faces and Figures National Exhibition is a show that will make everyone associated with it proud.   

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