How to Put Together a Standout Submission for Open Calls, Awards and Juried Reviews

August 3, 2017

By PDN Staff

Submitting to open calls, grant competitions and juried portfolio reviews is an effective way for artists to advance their careers. These opportunities provide artists a chance to present their work to curators, editors and publishers, and to get a foot in the door with galleries, museums and nonprofit arts organizations that don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Making a submission stand out amidst hundreds of others, however, can be challenging. Jurors almost never look at physical prints, so artists have to rely on digital images and an artist statement to represent their work. PDN recently spoke with curators at nonprofit photography organizations to find out how artists can make a bigger impact when they submit work for exhibitions and other opportunities.

© Allyson Huntsman

Ashlyn Davis. © Allyson Huntsman

Pay Attention to the Organization and Jury

It’s important for artists to understand the values and interests of the organization they’re submitting to and to think about who will be reviewing a submission.

Ashlyn Davis, the director of Houston Center for Photography (HCP), says artists thinking of submitting to HCP’s open call should “look through our exhibition history, which is all on our website, just to understand who we are and what our mission is and the kind of work we like to show.” HCP shows emerging and midcareer artists, she says.

© Gabriella Marks

Laura Pressley. © Gabriella Marks

The selection committee for CENTER’s juried portfolio reviews is a combination of curators, editors and publishers representing “all different facets of the industry,” says Laura Pressley, CENTER’s director. It’s a sophisticated group, in other words. The work that is consistently rated the highest by the committee “moves beyond the personal to the universal,” Pressley says, meaning it engages with themes that a wide audience may relate to. “Not to say that the work that’s political or environmental is best,” Pressley qualifies. “But…the work that has done the best is relevant and timely, as well as having technical finesse and artistic individuality.”

Know What Others Have Done

Too often, artists submit work that is “going through the same tropes” and “telling the same stories,” Pressley says, because they don’t know about similar work that preceded theirs. Standout projects tell “a story in a new, imaginative way.”

Jurors often see work “and immediately compartmentalize it,” Pressley says, because they’ve seen similar images already. For instance, she says, work about family loss, small towns gone bankrupt, or showing empty parking lots, will all be familiar to judges. Pressley advises artists submit work that is “riskier,” that takes “a new approach” to a theme or uses “a new esthetic.”

South African photographer Johnny Miller, for example, recently won CENTER’s Project Launch Award with drone photographs that showed inequality by looking at the segregation of neighborhoods from above. “Inequality is not a new subject. However, this approach is very relevant to our time and age—using drones,” says Pressley.

© Johnny Miller/Millefoto

“Kya Sands/Bloubosrand,” from South African photographer Johnny Miller’s series “Unequal Scenes,” which recently won CENTER’s Project Launch Award. © Johnny Miller/Millefoto

Think About the Format of an Exhibition

Artists submitting to exhibition open calls should pay attention to the format of the show, and organize their submissions accordingly. For instance Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) has an open call for a solo exhibition. They want to see cohesive bodies of work.

Darren Ching.

Read the  Submission Guidelines

This may seem obvious, but we’re reiterating it here because, “more often than one would expect,” artists don’t read the submission instructions, says Darren Ching of Klompching Gallery. HCP’s Davis agrees. “A lot of times people are just blasting [submissions]—it’s like getting a resume that’s not tailored to you.”

Think About Timing

Work that reflects the cultural zeitgeist has a better chance of grabbing jurors’ attention, and timing can make a big difference in people’s interest in a body of work. “If your work seems particularly relevant to what’s trending, then that’s a good year to submit your work to awards and grants,” Pressley suggests.

Sarah Stolfa.

Represent the Work Properly

It’s the artist’s responsibility to make sure a digital submission properly represents their physical work. PPAC artistic director Sarah Stolfa says that occasionally work selected from an open call “doesn’t look right” when the physical prints come into the gallery, “because of how it’s printed, or what it’s printed on, the way it’s finished. It’s important to really communicate about the size of the physical work and what the work looks like.”

CENTER suggests that artists include an image that helps jurors understand the finished work, such as “an installation shot, or a detail of a really big panoramic, so you can see the quality of the work,” Pressley says. This is particularly important if the finished work is something other than a standard, framed print.

If you’ve never exhibited your work, Davis suggests, “perhaps mock up how it should look [in an exhibition], especially if the work is in any way sculptural.” Artists can also use an artist statement to explain the form of the work, Davis adds, or to describe “the experience of encountering the work.” It’s not necessary to talk about framing or material, though, unless it contributes to the concept of the work, she says. “It’s important when you get down to explaining all those choices you made to understand why you made those choices,” Davis says. “And it helps the juror to understand: It’s not just printed on cloth because it’s pretty, but because the cloth ties into the content of the work.”

© Kimberly Witham/Courtesy of Klompching Gallery

“Lamb’s Ear and Vines,” 2016, by Kimberly Witham. Klompching Gallery first discovered Witham’s work in an open call for a juried exhibition, and now represents her. © Kimberly Witham/Courtesy of Klompching Gallery

Pay Attention to Sequencing

If an organization’s online platform allows you to sequence the images in your submission, the order of your presentation can help a submission stand out. Stolfa says that a juror “will notice” a good sequence. “It feels together, right? That helps communicate the intentionality of the artist. They’re aware of what they’re doing.”

Davis agrees. “If you’re working on a book and an exhibition proposal at the same time, then think about submitting [the exhibition sequence] the way you would present it in a book, the thought being you’ve thoughtfully sequenced it so either a narrative, or formal or conceptual elements are leading you from one image to another. You’ve established a rhythm and a flow.”

“Being conscious of the experience of the viewer is important.”

Ching believes sequencing is less important for open calls or competitions. Some competition platforms don’t allow artists to sequence their submissions, he points out, so artists should concentrate on editing their submission down “to photographs that best represent the scope and intent of a project.”

Artist Statements: Be Clear, Be Brief

Artist statements are difficult to write but they might help, and can definitely hurt, a submission.

PPAC’s last open-call exhibition featured work by Hannah Price and Hrvoje Slovenc, both of whom submitted “really well written artist statements that talked about the nuances of their work,” Stolfa says. In Slovenc’s case, his statement helped Stolfa see the connections between images that were stylistically different. “Because of what he articulated in his artist’s statement, you could understand why they were together,” she recalls.

Statements for submissions should be brief, though. Jurors are often reviewing hundreds of entries, which means they don’t want to read long texts. “Shorter is always better, because [jurors are] looking for clarity of concepts,” Pressley notes.

“Artist statements need to be succinct,” Ching agrees, suggesting that 200-300 words is generally enough. “A poorly written statement can hurt a project significantly, more than the absence of one,” he adds. “I respond most to statements that are direct and informative about the photographs I’m looking at. Statements are useful to reference where the project is coming from on a conceptual level, and to gauge an artist’s engagement and understanding of what they’re doing.”

A common mistake artists make in their statements is writing things that don’t clearly relate to their work. “If you just slap a highly conceptual artist’s statement onto photographs that don’t seem to be doing what you’re saying, for me, that’s an easy pass,” Davis says.

© Charles Guice

Hannah Frieser. © Charles Guice

Follow Up

Following up with jurors after you’ve submitted to an open call, award or other opportunity is never a bad idea. Hannah Frieser, the Executive Director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock, advises that artists follow up with jurors by sending a note, even if they aren’t chosen for an exhibition or award. “If they selected you, then it’s, ‘Thank you for selecting my portfolio…If you would like an extended selection of the series, here’s my website.’ And if they didn’t select you, then: ‘Thank you so much for taking the time to consider my portfolio.’ And then whatever that next step is. You have to have some kind of strategy. You can’t expect the curator to follow up. If you’re waiting for a response, it might never come. If you have a strategy, you can say OK, ‘This was my first thank you note. In three months or so, I’ll send something else,’ if you have permission [to keep emailing the person].”

Connecting on social media can also help an artist keep the conversation open with jurors who’ve reviewed their work. After a recent round of portfolio reviews, Frieser says, only three of the artists she met with asked to connect with her on Facebook. Even if she doesn’t have an opportunity to work with an artist at CPW, “It’s absolutely mandatory [for the artist to ask]: ‘Do you have any suggestions where I could take this?’ If I like the work, I’ll volunteer to make the introduction.”

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