ANN ARBOR - To many, the Ann Arbor Art Fair may seem like a massive free-for-all, but it is a thoughtfully curated event that takes months of planning to pull off.
Thousands of artists apply for the coveted spots, and each artists' work must pass through a jury.
The fair is divided into four sections, each belonging to a different art fair organization.
This week, I was invited to observe the jury selection process for the largest fair, The Guild.
It took place at The Guild's offices located at 118 N. Fourth St. in Kerrytown. An unassuming storefront with the blinds rolled down, it looked like a business closed for the day, but inside, armed with laptops and a big-screen TV, artists were judging works for Ann Arbor's biggest art event of the year.
Jewelers score collections on the second day of jurying (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
It was surprising to see how meticulous the process is.
Over three days, the jury of eight scores a variety of mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, jewelry and more.
Each day there are different jurors, who specialize in that day's categories; many of whom have submitted their own work to be scored.
Some of them said they have been rejected in the past, speaking to the stiff competition each year.
It was interesting to see how the group dynamics changed each day.
On the 2-D art day, it was a fairly silent process, but most of the artists claimed their work when it was being scored.
On the jewelry day, most of the artists kept quiet when their work came up for judging, but were by far more vocal about technique and the difficulty level of crafting certain pieces.
Several times, jurors asked for an opinion of those who have experience with a certain technique, which helped formulate their scores for several works.
(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Another jeweler defended an artist's work when it came up for judging because she felt the pictures didn't do the pieces justice. "I've seen her work in person and it's really beautiful," she said.
To an outsider, it seems endless, but for artists, it can be a small world. Even members of The Guild staff admitted to knowing who the artist was based on their booth presentation.
Artists must anonymously submit several photos of individual works and a picture of their fair booth.
As stunning as their pieces may be, if the booth doesn't impress, it can hurt their chances of selection.
I was sitting next to The Guild's executive director, Karen Delhey, watching the scores come in in real time. Jurors had the option to write feedback so that the artists may understand why they received a certain score. Feedback on subpar booths was the most common comment throughout the process.
Delhey also told me about people who will buy jewelry and resell it at art fairs as if it is their own. Supporting this statement, during the jurying process, jurors remarked that some pieces looked manufactured.
Other artists show up to the fair with completely different works than they juried with, and in some cases have been asked to leave the premises.
It takes a discerning, trained eye to spot these things.
As with any art, jewelry tastes are extremely specific. I spoke with the jewelers and asked how they judge if the pieces aren't to their taste. They admitted it can be difficult, but many did try and consider skill level.
They're also looking for consistency and coherency within a collection. After all, collections show best when they have a common theme, common colors and materials.
Others tried to keep an open mind regarding consumer tastes. One collection that was submitted was simplistic and looked right out of an Etsy page, but one juror gave it a high score because it seemed like it would appeal to the tastes of 20-somethings, and perhaps to their wallets as well.
Art fairs are aging and attracting younger artists and customers can be a challenge.
Overall, it was a fascinating experience to witness. And based on many of the works that scored well, it is going to be another showstopping fair this summer.
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