General 8-27-2007

Judgment Day at the State Fair

Been wondering why the Fair judges at the State Fair made those choices? Last year, Thomas O'Sullivan investigated the mysterious process; we’re reprising his piece from 2006 on the judging of that year’s show.


The Minnesota State Fair’s 95th Annual Fine Arts Exhibition was judged twice. The official judging took place on July 31, when eight jurors selected 349 artworks for the show. The second judging began in earnest at the exhibit preview three weeks later, as visitors to the exhibit weighed in with their own opinions about the show and those who chose it. The comment book in the Fine Arts Center records the critical voice of the people:

“A vast improvement over previous years.”

“Who is the judge? He/she should be sent back to school!”

“Insipid, mundane, corporate, not provocative, not art, where’s the art?”

“Art you nuts? The Judge is blind.”

“How in the world do you know how to judge all this Beautiful Art?”

The consensus of jurors contacted about this year’s show is: Judge it with your eye, your heart, your gut, and expect to be judged in turn.

The Fine Arts Exhibition is a sprawling, eccentric celebration of mainstream Minnesota. It is also a competition, one of almost 5,000 at the Fair, where citizens showing chickens or pickles or watercolors lays their hearts on the line with every entry. It’s not a tee-ball game where everyone who shows up gets a most-valuable-player award. It’s also not really hardball, like a tough art-class critique. Think of it as Minnesota art’s annual aesthetic softball tournament, open to all and featuring some of the best players. Mounted for decades in a warren of galleries beneath the grandstand, the art exhibit has since 1980 occupied the high-ceilinged handsomely restored early 20th century dairy building. In a typical year over 1,500 artists enter a work in one of eight categories:

Oil, acrylic and mixed media
Watercolor, gouache, casein and tempera
Drawings and pastel

Ceramics and glass
Textiles and fiber [no first place winner in 2007]

Each category has a single juror who has customarily been a practicing artist (and often also a teacher) recognized for proficiency in that medium. In recent years jurors have increasingly been chosen from the ranks of arts professionals: curators, museum and art center administrators, and artistic directors. Jurying of all entries is done in one day, with jurors receiving an honorarium of about $100.00 to $500.00, depending on the number of entries in their categories. The basic requirements for jurors are a keen eye and a thick skin, for second-guessing their selections is a popular spectator sport.

Despite the annual grumbling, the Fair exhibit boasts an unusually transparent process. All entrants follow the same rules (posted online at, submit an actual work of art (rather than a slide or digital file), and receive notice within a week of the jurors’ decision. The jurors’ names are publicized; artists have been known to pre-register a generic entry like “Untitled Photograph,” and then decide which picture to enter after they learn who their juror will be. Rules on framing and presentation tend to reinforce the show’s overall traditional look. Certain art forms with strong Minnesota advocates, like book arts, are not well represented here. Some artists either tailor the presentation of their work to the Fair’s protocols or forgo entering the exhibit. But they also tend to keep track of the exhibit each year.

Minneapolis artist Dani Roach has entered two- and three-dimensional works since about 1990 and keeps close tabs on yearly statistics. Her findings record that in 1990 jurors accepted 393 works from 1,770 entries (22.2%); in 2000, 324 out of 1,641 (19.7%); in 2005, 369 out of 1,833 (20.1%). Her work has often been chosen for the show, but has also been rejected. “There’s no way you can walk in with total confidence,” Roach says, “and you can’t walk out feeling bad if you don’t get in.” She enters competitive exhibitions regionally but has a soft spot for the Minnesota fair. “I have a much lighter heart about the Fair exhibit. It’s so egalitarian—and they actually look at your work, despite the sheer volume of what people bring in.”

Superintendent of Fine Arts Robert Meyer observes that jurors take on the assignment from a sense of service to the artist community, rather than for money or glory. On judgment day, Meyer lays out the exhibit guidelines. The State Fair defines its fine arts exhibit as an educational program, intended to showcase the best of the state’s artistic accomplishments. Artistic quality, as each juror defines it, is the fundamental criterion for selection. Diversity of artistic expression is desirable within each category, to show what can be done in the medium. Space limitations restrict the selections to an acceptance rate of about one of five entries. And each juror can award or withhold first, second and third place awards (with cash prizes) and honorable mentions, at his or her discretion. “I think the art speaks for itself,” Meyer says in a characteristically equivocal statement.

The jurors, on the other hand, rarely have a public forum to articulate their approach to their tasks. A series of telephone and e-mail exchanges with some jurors of the 2006 show lifts the curtain on the qualifications and viewpoints of those who selected 349 works from the 1,758 entered last summer:

Cheng-Khee Chee of Duluth brought to the watercolor and related media category his background as both exhibitor and juror in hundreds of competitions. Chee outlined a philosophy based on his “four Cs:” craftsmanship, composition, content and creativity. He considers the first two, based on drawing and design skills, to be objective and essential: “If you can’t draw, you don’t belong in a big show.” Content (whether abstract or illustrational) and creativity in expression and use of the medium leave wider latitude for a juror’s taste. “All judgment is subjective,” he noted, “and that’s why every judge would select a different show.” That lesson came early to Chee as an artist new to America in the 1960s: the same painting that was rejected by a local juror received a gold medal in a national exhibition shortly afterward. Chee found the Fair entries to be “quite selective for a state-level show,” a perspective based on his regular service as juror to national watercolor shows which accept just one in twenty entries.

Sue Canterbury, Associate Curator of Paintings and Modern Sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, juried the 2006 oil/acrylic/mixed media entries. A specialist in 20th-century modernism (but admittedly not much of a Fairgoer), Canterbury watches for “quality, inventiveness, someone breaking the mold” as she views contemporary work. For her, too, quality of execution in terms of composition, color palette, and an understanding of anatomy in figural work is a fundamental criterion. She made her first run through almost 500 paintings on the morning of “the hottest day of the year” in the non-air-conditioned building, returning after lunch for a fresh look. Canterbury observed that the entries ranged from “some great things on the academic side to some great things on the abstract and surrealist side—though you’re often comparing apples to oranges.” Like other jurors, she takes the responsibility to heart: “There’s always a bit of angst for a viewer in that position.”

Printmaker Larry Welo judged the 2006 print entries. He knows the Minnesota fair well, having been accepted for the show half a dozen times before moving to Wisconsin in 1994. Welo frequently enters print exhibits nationwide and judges exhibits yearly. His procedure is to look through all the entries on a first pass, following his gut reactions; then on a second pass he pays special attention to those that didn’t catch his eye earlier. Some prints move from batch to batch, especially as he handles the works—an important advantage for Minnesota jurors, he noted, who don’t have to guess at size and technical quality from slides. Technical skill is an important criterion for Welo, as a working printmaker, though he also watches for intangibles like a sense of humor in an image. He admits that his technical bias makes him less amenable to digitally-produced prints, and feels that a re-thinking of the print category may be in order in this digital age. Like the other artist-jurors Welo has his share of rejection stories, but encourages artists to keep submitting to shows: “Not every judge will resonate with the work one artist does, but another judge will respond to you.”

Textiles and fiber art is a small but unwieldy category for artworks made of varied materials, in many techniques, and in two or three dimensions; entries ranged from woven wall hangings to paper constructions to free-standing sculptures. Textile historian Linda McShannock, collections curator at the Minnesota Historical Society and past president of the Textile Center of Minnesota, sought works that would illustrate the range of textile arts practiced in the state today. Her criteria also included technical skill and visual complexity; keenly aware of her personal color sense after her first round of viewing, she tried to balance it out in her next pass. Of the jurors interviewed, McShannock was explicit in visualizing how her selections would work together as a group (an approach made possible, or at least less daunting, by the relatively small number of entries). She found the jurying experience “energizing,” and followed up with an online search for information about entrants whose work was new to her. Despite the space crunch, McShannock felt there should have been more art quilts, beadwork, and basketry entered to make the show fully representative of the genre. She plans to encourage more textile artists to enter Fair exhibit: “If we want textiles to be viewed as art, they have to be exhibited, have to be seen. My mission is to see 150 pieces.”

Photography juror for 2006 George Slade brought to the task of judging the exhibit’s largest category not just his qualifications as artistic director of the Minnesota Center for Photography, but previous Fair experience as juror of photography ten years ago. The category has grown in numbers and often in size of individual entries, to the concern of some artists. This year there were over 700 photographs to evaluate, and Slade found that he could cull a large percentage on the first viewing. At the same time he, like other jurors, listened to well-honed instinct: “You’ve got to keep the ones that poke at you a bit, that don’t provide all the answers at the first glimpse, that make you want to pull a fish out of this river of images. Then it gets more interesting.”

Slade is also attuned to what he calls “best of type” photographs, which he feels most successfully interpret a familiar and popular theme like best baby picture or best animal photograph. While Slade is not concerned about the ever-increasing quantity of digital photography in the competition, he feels the blanket category of “photograph” might be more fairly represented by asking entrants to specify more specific terms on their entries, such as gelatin silver print or color inkjet print. Similarly, typical subject matter such as nature, fine art, or industrial photography might offer entrants the option of self-selecting a peer group of photographers, with judges drawn from relevant photographic circles, such as camera clubs or art galleries. Slade’s last word on his category reflects the zest for art that all the jurors shared: “700 pieces is not enough—my appetite is too big!”

The jurying process is not the whole story of the exhibit that an estimated quarter of a million Fair visitors see. Rejected (or, as juror Chee prefers to say, non-selected) artworks must be picked up the weekend following the jury’s deliberations, after which the Fair’s art staff hangs the show. This key aspect of the final exhibit’s character is out of jurors’ hands altogether. They choose the works in the exhibit, but have no say in how or where their selections are installed. Bob Crump, a Wayzata artist who with his wife Pat Kennedy Crump ran the fine art exhibit for six years, designs the installation with fellow artist Jean Allan-Ales.

Faced with the challenge of hanging the accepted two-dimensional works, Crump takes a broadly thematic approach. Thus photographs will hang among paintings, and a drawing’s subject matter may be echoed in a nearby sculpture. Juxtapositions of similar subject matter might surprise both jurors and viewers. Allan-Ales places three-dimensional work on pedestals and in cases throughout the show, intermixing media in ways that highlight both similarities and differences in materials and surfaces. A catalog documents all accepted entries for posterity. The Fine Art Department’s staff of 15 monitors the exhibit through the run of the Fair, and encourages visitors to write their opinions and suggestions in the comment book.

The attitudes of the Fine Art jurors were markedly different from that of the hog-competition judge who told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “I select the best and let the chips fall where they may.” The art jurors were unanimous in recognizing the subjective nature of their task, and in encouraging rejected artists to submit their work next year to a fresh set of jurors. The wisdom of the carnies on the Midway applies equally to the Fine Arts Competition: “Ya can’t win if ya don’t play.”