How to stop an open exhibition becoming a closed shop

Mon, Nov 5, 2007, 00:00

The Arts:Are open submission exhibitions fair, or have curators become too powerful in selecting and rejecting work? One artist's open letter addresses the issues, writes Aidan Dunne.

One can readily sympathise with Cork artist John Kelly, who recently penned an open letter to Peter Murray, Director of Cork's Crawford Gallery. The subject of the letter was this year's Crawford Open Exhibition, an annual open submission exhibition run by the gallery, and due to open on November 30th. Kelly points out that, of 750 entries, a mere 15 artists survived the rather brutal cull effected by the show's selectors. He argues, apparently with some justification, that the selectors tended to choose work with which they were to some extent familiar. He did allow that a number of younger artists, whose work would be unknown to the selectors, are also included in the show, and accepted that, in submitting work, artists commit themselves to a process that is inherently unfair in the sense that it is dependent on the artistic priorities of the selectors.

His letter touches on a number of pertinent issues. Open submission is a common enough way of organising exhibitions. It has worked very successfully for Limerick's EV+A over the years, though not without occasional controversy. The method employed there is that a "vertical invader", a curator from abroad, is invited to select the show. But EV+A has refined the concept in a way that, every second year, gives greater latitude to the selector to actively shape the event by incorporating Open EV+A - selected from open submission - and Invited EV+A - in which the curator invites artists of his or her choice to exhibit.

The results have been predictably varied but usually stimulating. An influx of artists from abroad is generally a good thing, not least in opening up dialogue and debate. EV+A has been instrumental in encouraging Irish artists to see themselves and their work in diverse international contexts. A certain sensitivity is involved here, because there is an underlying implication that Irish art needed such prompting and, frankly, it did. Go back a few decades, and it seemed that, left to itself, contemporary Irish art was at risk of settling into a rather complacent, conservative insularity.

DIFFERENT CURATORS HAVEgiven successive EV+As different characters and emphases: that's part of the deal. Yet it is interesting to note that a number of Irish artists have enjoyed a higher-than-average chance of being selected from open submission, sometimes dramatically so, and hence clearly appeal to a wide range of curatorial temperaments. The artists Susan MacWilliam and Ronnie Hughes come to mind, and the fact that their approaches are radically different is in itself interesting.

In contrast to EV+A's formula of an individual selector, the RHA Annual Exhibition, which is a hugely popular event, relies on the input of a substantial panel who vet and vote on every submitted piece. Apart from a standing arrangement whereby Academicians have the right to exhibit a number of works in the show, the RHA Annual also incorporates an Invited category. All of which is contentious because the attrition rate for openly submitted work is high, and the decisions of the selection committee, for all that it does reflect a breadth of age and views, can come across as being unfair.

Not matter what the context or the curatorial structure, it's obvious that the choice of selectors can work for or against artists.

In a sense, it comes down to accepting the innate inequity of the process for the sake of the overall good, on the supposition that things will average out. Yet underpinning the whole idea of open submission - and the term submission is all too apposite - is the exceptionally authoritative role of the selector or selectors. And that relates to the exceptional power and authority of the curator in the art world. As the contemporary art world has evolved, it would be difficult to overstate the influence of the curator.

Furthermore, one could stretch the term curator to include the formidable administrative apparatus that has developed in contemporary art. Writing recently about the Istanbul Biennial, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl noted the phenomenon of "biennialism" as something created by and apparently for the benefit of a worldwide network of "publicly funded art administrators and curators". Within biennialism, sweeping claims are often made for the political and sociological significance of the events, while the wider world remains blissfully - or tolerantly - oblivious and indifferent, though feeling, no doubt, that cultural obligations are being attended to.

THAT 'PUBLICLY FUNDED'is a sore point. Pretty much everyone involved in the art world is for arts funding but, arguably, as it is structured, it could be seen as providing a deadening protectionist layer. So that everything is there in biennialism, for example, every cultural requirement is met, except perhaps contact with the real world. Yet oddly enough, Schjeldahl's is a rare voice in actually looking at the constitution of biennialism rather than accepting it at face value and on its own terms.

There is a tendency among those who feel disenfranchised within it to view the art world as a giant conspiracy and contemporary art as a kind of confidence trick. That is unfair and inaccurate. For one thing, it's clear that the art world, as it currently functions, is exceptionally open and responsive to initiatives. Then, by its nature it has a limitless hunger for novelty. And there are many brilliant artists thriving within it - or, its critics might say, despite it. On the other hand, like any other relatively self-contained system, it is self-reinforcing and conformist. The only odd thing about this is that it is largely made up of people who pride themselves on being non-conformists.

Generally speaking, art critics criticise work made by artists. Yet the balance of power in the art world has shifted to the extent that curators play a prescriptive and constitutive role in what artists do and how their work is framed and presented, to the extent that artists are crucially dependant on curatorial approval. So Kelly is making a good point in his open letter in shifting attention onto the role of the curatorial selectors in deciding on what we see when we go into a gallery. The thing about open submission shows, of course, is that we see what the curators want, but nothing else.

Then again, the French Impressionist revolution in art began with a response to curatorial rejection, when Napoleon III and subsequently the artists themselves showed work rejected by the Salon de Paris in the Salon des Refusés. And Damien Hirst's Freeze, the enormously influential British equivalent a little more than a century later, was an artist-inspired initiative that simply bypassed the administrative establishment.

• The Crawford Open 07 is at the Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork, Nov 30-Feb 9 Tel: 021-4907855.