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Judging an Artists’ Book Exhibition

Setting up an artists' book exhibition
Setting up an artists’ book exhibition

 

Starting with a summer professional internship project in 2011, Smithsonian Libraries has been working to share its collection of artists’ books. One of the end products of the this initiative has been the creation of a new Smithsonian Libraries artists’ book collection portal where visitors can explore the many artworks in the collection and learn more about the medium.

Many branches have these artworks in their collection, but one of the largest collections of about 300 items is housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery (AA/PG) Library. The library has hosted several exhibits featuring artists’ books, including those organized by interns in 2011, 2012, and 2013. As the branch head of the AA/PG Library, working with the collection and conducting research, I have become more knowledgeable in the subject area which combines both books and artwork. As a librarian with an art history background, I have found artists’ books fascinating. So it was a surprise and honor when I was contacted by an organizer of the biennial books art for Pyramid Atlantic, a non-profit contemporary arts center focusing on printmaking, papermaking, and the book arts in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland.

Considering that I had never juried an exhibition before, I was excited about the opportunity and curious about the process. The call for contributors was nationwide and artists could enter up to five original or limited edition artist books, sculptural books, book objects, altered books, or book installations. Pyramid Atlantic offered cash prizes for third and second place with the first prize winner to be acquired by the AA/PG Library. I also discovered that I would be the sole juror. Often juried exhibitions have multiple jurors, but in this case I was the juror and jury!

The artists submitted their works through an electronic portfolio and by the closing date, 74 artists had submitted over 250 works. This really added to the pressure of the sole juror, especially since there were only about 40 slots in the exhibition. Over the next week I looked at all the submissions, with my criteria that the winner should display a combination of technical skill in the physical construction and strength of message or idea, with bonus points for unique creativity in either of these areas.  I finally narrowed down the submissions to 43 works and the artists were notified. The works were then shipped to the gallery for installation.

Mounting an artists' book exhibition
Mounting an artists’ book exhibition

 

I had already created a short list for the prizes but waited until I could see the works in person. Since interaction with the artist book is an important component of the medium, I wanted to experience the works before making final decisions.

The day before the opening I went to the gallery while the exhibition was still being mounted so I could look at the books. It was an incredible challenge because so many of the works were of such high quality from many established and well-known artists. I certainly had a wealth of works to choose from and was especially glad that I hadn’t made final decisions beforehand. None of the works on my short list ended up being a prize winner – interacting with the books and seeing the artistry in person ultimately determined my decisions. However, it was so hard to choose, that ultimately I added an honorable mention in addition to the 3 prizes.  The night of the grand opening and the first prize winner will be revealed in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned!

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