Friday, 8 May 2015

Open Competitions

You know me, always one for banging on about the possibilities for quilts and the fact that quilt shows, whilst fun and enjoyable, can actually hold the progress of quilts back. Well, I'm off on one again.
I wondered if you may have considered the alternatives that are open to us all?  It's easy to think that quilts and the quilt world are the only places to show your work which is of course, not true.  They are delightful and a reasonably easy way to exhibit, but definitely not the be-all and end-all of opportunity!

As we all know, from an arts perspective, quilt shows are bound by rules and regulations for marking and judging that have nothing to do with fine art. Mostly the judges come from within the quilt world and are taught all the values surrounding technique that we're familiar with.  They cannot help but judge others by those same values. Quilt judging hides under the mask of needing some kind of measure to pit one submission against another, and have tick sheets for often banal criteria.  But are they important values in the wider world?  Of course not. Many of the judges are well informed, and really try to do a good job, but the standards they judge by are partly at fault because the thinking behind them is limited and archaic when applied to an art competition. No doubt they work well for many categories in a quilt show, but not for all!

 It seems the criteria the judges use grow in number to cope with the idea of objectifying the judging process and taking out the element of what an individual judge might favour for whatever reason.  This might work for a sponge cake, but has the opposite effect when talking about emotional responses to work. Emotional response is really important in any form of art, and adds strength and thought to a piece but is sometimes unquantifiable by it's nature. 

But, back to the quantifiable. Look at the back of Mitochondrial Roots: I always try technically to do my best because of personal pride and the challenges involved, but looking beyond that, is this technical ability important? I also  haven't chosen a nice pretty piece of fabric for the back. I decided quite purposefully that the backing cloth wasn't important, and the fact that the paint seeped through wasn't important either.  I genuinely believe this. But, would a quilt show accept it?   Probably not, which makes the two irreconcilable.

Different art submitted to a quilt show will never be recognized and appreciated properly without fundamental changes to the way things are organized and handled.  A prize of £5,000 for the Fine Art Quilt Masters for example, is astonishingly wonderful, but so far has been incredibly limiting in it's view of what art is, and we are ending up with a homogenized and continually enforced narrow way of looking at things, because the same principals and views are maintained by the same people.  A lot of looking outside the box is needed before progress can be made - but perhaps that's the problem, not enough people want change in the end. It's comfortable the way things are. Let's face it you probably need to be quite brave to decide a winner that doesn't conform to the established norm. The solution to that I feel is to remove all quilting and sewing experts from the judging process and use known people from the lists of curators, our arts school teachers and academics. There are plenty of them willing to judge.

So, what's left? How about looking outside the quilt world now and then, and trying an Open Competition? If you've never done it, you'll probably find your local Council art gallery and museum hold one every couple of years. Here's what my local gallery has to say which explains what they're looking for and who qualifies: 

Open exhibitions have been held at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum since the 1930s, and have always been incredibly popular with both audiences and entrants. The upcoming OPEN 2015 is likely to be no exception. Submissions are welcome from those working or studying in the West Midlands region which includes, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and the Metropolitan Districts of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

The OPEN is held on a biennial basis and is open to all professional artists based in the West Midlands. This year’s exhibition will take place from Friday 15 May to Sunday 12 July 2015 and will showcase the work of local artists. 

Entries are welcome from a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, photography, digital media and craft. Works will be selected for the exhibition by a panel of judges. The judges are Wendy Law, Director for Turning Point West Midlands, Fiona Venables, Deputy Curator for the Mead Gallery and Peter McCarthy, artist and critic. There will be one overall prize winner who will receive the OPEN 2015 award of £1,000. Visitors to the exhibition will also be given the chance to vote for their favourite artwork. The work of art which receives the highest public votes will be presented with the People’s Choice Award of £500. All exhibited works will be for sale.

 Life 15 - Mitochondrial Roots, part of Leamington Open from 15th May to 12th July 2015.

No explanations about choice are given and no sheets purporting to offer a critique are given (btw what on earth is that one about?  Since when has the job of judging a piece of work been an excuse for a bit of off-the-cuff teaching? Quite often the comments are so awful and unconnected with the piece submitted that they cause offence.)

Ultimately you may not agree with the Open Competition judges choices either, just as in a quilt show, but at least you feel assured they've been judged by a group of people from the arts world, with a wide knowledge and experience of all disciplines and by their nature, able by training, to look beyond the confines of established thought, and the bravery to stand by their judgements.


  1. Well said! While I think there is a place for the technically well made quilt, personally I find them depressing. Have you ever been to the Festival of Quilts and looked at which quilt categories get the most attention? I observe that the traditional quilt section is often almost empty. I want to look at work that comments, challenges or uses a technique in an innovative or interesting manner. Judging to the criteria, is much the same as teaching to the syllabus! Therefore the Open competition and its non-statement of criteria appears to be much more encouraging of independent creativity.

    Keep up the intelligent thought and consequent rants! I love it!

  2. Which is why we're doing an Open Studio with the Buckinghamshire Visual Arts group!! And who knows where that may lead!