I attended the opening of the Harriet L. Newbill 2007 competition for Water Media on Paper. I went to support four of my classmates who were entered in the competition: Amy Sorensen, Kelly Ulcak, Marty Weishaar, and Sharon Servilio, but I also went to see which one of them would win the competition. Since four out of the six contestants were from American University, it seemed a no-brainer that one of us would take away the $4000 prize, the only questions was who. Each of their pieces were so different: Amy’s provocative and confrontational acrylic-tinted prints, Kelly’s delicate organic patterns in watercolor, Marty’s colorfully abstracted contemporary landscapes, or Sharon’s quirky and whimsical gouache collages of everyday scenes. Each of them seemed to be using their very traditional media in a thought-provoking and non-traditional way; for the most part by denying the pastel softness and fluidity typically associated with water media, in favor of bright colors, sharp edges, and tight control.
In my estimation, this re-evaluation of the media should have been one of the criteria for a contemporary water-media competition. Unable to select a clear winner for myself, I decided that the prize would hinge on the judge’s personal taste. Little did I suspect what a problem this would turn out to be.
I noticed that something was off before I even left for the gallery. The reception was held on Sunday, as I have said, from 2:00 – 4:00 in the afternoon. While this is certainly not unheard of, every other reception I have ever been to has been held in the evening, and usually on a Friday or Saturday. Maybe they are hoping to attract the after-church crowd, I thought to myself sarcastically, and then laughed as I tried to picture my stereotypical church-goer face to face with one of Amy’s prints.
Upon entering the Bethesda gallery, I realized that my church hypothesis was not far off the mark. Scattered among the expected crowd of proud parents, art students, and neighborhood culturati was a significant showing of stately, pearl and tweed be-clad elderly men and women who indeed looked as though they came straight from church. A glance at the program confirmed my suspicions: the event was sponsored by the National Society of Arts and Letters, which I knew to be a non-profit, volunteer organization designed to ‘create opportunities’ for young artists. Who has the time and finances to ‘create opportunities’ for young artists? Elderly wealthy people. Yup, the tweedies were in charge. (A later visit to the NSAL website’s photo-directory was further validation. In fact, the Washington DC chapter, one of the oldest chapters, was originally known only as the Chevy Chase chapter.)
Wait, wait, wait. I stopped myself before I became too cynical. The competition was judged by a collection of outside artists and curators, among them Judith Brodie, prints curator for the National Gallery, Stephen Bennet Phillips, curator for the Philips Collection, and Nicholas Simmons, local watercolor phenom, and the only judge present at the reception. Surely these are just the sort of forward thinking people to appreciate the work of one of my friends.
Let me pause here to describe the work of the other two contestants. First was Shelly Voorhees; an Angelina Jolie look-alike whose darkly ethereal acrylic ink and watercolor figures seemed straight out of Interview with a Vampire (a fitting observation for which I can unfortunately not take credit). Next was Jennifer Davis, whose oversized watercolor portraits of young women (presumably her friends), while technically impressive, seemed stale in their photo-perfection and were very, very conventional. Incidentally, at 17 Davis should not even have been allowed in the competition (the age range being 18 – 29), but whatever.
When the results of the judging were announced I was disappointed, if not totally surprised given the circumstances, to hear that Jennifer Davis had won. A second component of the prize is an all-expenses paid entry and trip to the national National Society of Arts and Letters water-media competition (with a prize of $10,000). Surely our forward-thinking panel of judges had their audience in mind, and selected the artist most likely to please their conservative benefactors. Moments later, when I overheard judge Nicholas Simmons admit enigmatically that his initial choice had been ‘overruled’ I wondered if the Society had not in fact applied a little pressure on the panel to make a more conventional choice. Pure speculation, of course.
This whole affair got me thinking about two things. First, it made me consider the prejudices and biases that colored my experience from the beginning. As someone who has worked closely with the comfortable enough (if not affluent) ‘over 65’ crowd for several years, I should be the first person to admit that their tastes and views are as diverse as those of any other demographic. However it’s difficult not to fall back on the ‘rich elderly people are conservative’ stereotype when events such as this play to them so obviously. Second, I had to consider where the money is in the Art world. If a large portion of the Art market is controlled by the demographic described above, why do we drive ourselves crazy trying to make provocative, contemporary work that will inevitably alienate them? This competition served as a glairing reminder that, most likely, none of us are in it for the money, and that we all surely have a long, hard road ahead. Hopefully it will be enhanced by other sorts of rewards.