a matter of time: selection process

The art of curating brings three distinct imperatives: to select; to organise; and to look after the items in a collection or exhibition. Today I look at the first imperative and the selection process for a matter of time.   I received 104 entries from 99 artists. With only 32 spaces available for exhibition, determining the finalists was challenging.  This post builds on my earlier observations in The Living Colour Selection Process and includes some additional takeaway tips. You may also be interested in these other related posts:

administrative tools and systems

My selection process is underpinned by core administrative tools and systems including:

  1. Online entry form: no fussing with CDs or deciphering people’s handwriting for me!  All entry data, apart from two glitches, was collected via an online form and can be easily exported into an Excel spreadsheet. I used Contact Form 7 and Contact Form DB. When some gremlins mysteriously appeared, I swapped to JotForm for the last two days and managed to come in just under their 100MB free monthly storage cap.
  2. dropboxImage folders: as entries came in, I copied the images into a folder in cloud storage service Dropbox. I could then view the images on both my laptop and my iPad while I was travelling. I also created a 240×600 pixel rough cropped thumbnail of each overall image.
  3. Thumbnail & Information Sheets: After entries closed, I created a contact sheet in Photoshop Elements  that showed the thumbnails in a grid along with the filename. (See PSE contact sheet tutorial.) I also made a print out of the artist statements and information about techniques and materials.
  4. Mailchimp: I use this mailing software to send out notifications to entrants and to keep in touch with the selected artists.  Unlike regular e-mail, Mailchimp lets me know when e-mails have bounced and I can track when e-mails have been opened.
  5. PayPal: selected artists paid a participation fee by direct deposit or by credit card via PayPal.

preliminary review

Four entries were eliminated due to non-compliance with the specified dimensions.  That left me with 100 entries/200 images to review.  I spent a lot of time at my desk!

On the first day, I thoroughly reviewed all 200 images several times on both my desktop computer and on the iPad, the latter being ideal for zooming in on particular details. I was excited to see the diverse and imaginative interpretations of the title theme.  Aside from reading titles, I did not consult the artist statements and techniques and materials information until the third or fourth run through.studio3

The next step was sort the the entries into three broad classes:

  • Non-contenders – obvious shortcomings in design or execution, in comparison with other entries;
  • Strong contenders – high visual appeal and/or the most accomplished examples of a particular technique or sub-theme (eg the best of the several entries depicting the life cycle of birds)
  • Other possible contenders

My notation system was pretty basic.  I placed the thumbnail sheets into plastic sleeves and marked the sleeve with a black sharpie. This approach meant I had could take the photos out and use them again. Here’s an anonymised sample (the A denotes an abstract work):


I then transcribed my assessments in my master spreadsheet. This preliminary review reduced the number of works in contention by half.

copyright aside

A small number of entries incorporated third party imagery that may be subject to copyright.  For example, some works featured the distinctive blue form of the Dr Who TARDIS, a trademark of the BBC.  While these entries were ultimately excluded for other reasons, uncertain copyright status was an extra niggle. As a curator that is publishing a catalogue; providing publicity images to international media; preparing an online gallery; and negotiating with multiple galleries and show venues, I prefer not to have any copyright questions hanging over the selected works. 

Takeaway tip:  Check the prospectus to clarify whether works incorporating copyright material are permitted. If so, provide a copy of the copyright consent with your entry.

Bonus tip: Save yourself some worry, and obtain any necessary design consents before commencing your work. Better still, work from your own source materials and sketches to create your own original designs.

audition time

The next step was to audition various combinations to create a thematically and visually cohesive exhibition; one that represents a broad range of techniques and materials and includes both abstract and figurative works.

I emphasise that I did not have any grand “vision” or preconceived idea of what the exhibit would look like.  I had to wait (patiently!) and see what work came in.  I have remarked previously that the role of the curator/juror is to create a cohesive exhibition out of the works submitted.  To, in effect, “make a work of art out of works of art”.  All those principles of design come into play:  unity and harmony; balance and proportion; repetition, rhythm and movement; variety and tension.

Using the uniform-size thumbnails I made earlier,  I created various arrays on my screen and in printouts. This was an intense, multi-day exercise. Numerous combinations were available. As I swapped various works in and out, I was reminded of the sliding square puzzle.  Except that, just as I thought I had the best order, I’d realise that there are other fabulous spare squares on the table. In an alternate universe, it would be possible to fit all the squares in the available space but that was not an option.

Sliding square puzzle

Visual cohesiveness was not my only goal.  I also sought a flowing narrative to the underlying exploration of the fourth dimension (time) in cloth. Given that there are more than a dozen sub-themes (see vital statistics), this was an extra challenge.

Not every curator goes to these lengths. However, I will be living and breathing this exhibit for the next 18+ months and presenting numerous floor talks along the way. As with previous exhibitions I pictured myself giving a curator floor talk and asked myself  questions: how does this exhibition flow?  how would I segue from one piece to the next?  why would I include this work?  what would I say about it?  These questions are very instructive and every work that was selected has justified its place.

cross check and final review

As I whittled down my short-list, I was on the look out to pre-empt any presentation issues or logistical problems.  I went back to some entrants and requested replacement images that show the edges of the work as specified by the conditions of entry.  Edges of work are important!  They show that the work is actually finished! and ready for exhibition; that it hangs straight and is neatly finished; and complete the overall visual impact.

I also sought clarification that some pieces that were distorted or crooked in photos were in fact straight and that seemingly delicate works were suitable for the rigours of travelling.  It is not conventional for curators to do this extra interrogation.  Other curators may eliminate the works automatically or take the risk that it will all work out.

Takeaway tip:  Present your work at its best. Ensure your overall image is taken at a 90° angle at the centre of your work so that it is straight and clearly shows the edges.

moment of truth

Curating an exhibition from digital images remains an imperfect process.  Even the best photos do not convey the full character and texture of the work.  So far, 6 out of 32 of the works have been delivered to me.  I am pleased to report that the works are even better in the cloth. Come and see for yourself!

MoTT-3moreLeft to right: artwork by Linda Robertus; Mary McArdle; and Sheila Beer

For more curatorial insights, I invite you to join me on one of my upcoming floor talks for a matter of time:

Related posts:

Read more in Curator Knowledge, a series of blog posts and resources based on my experience as an exhibition administrator and curator.


  1. I am grateful to you for providing this in depth description of your selection and curating process. It helps to understand how a piece is being judged for acceptance. This information can be used to improve future entry submissions for all shows. Thank you for taking the time to provide this understanding.

  2. Thanks for a very informative discription of your selection process. I really enjoyed reading it and it helps me know what can be looked for by the Curator.

  3. This is great, Brenda. It really gives an in depth account of how a curator might work. This would be an excellent reference article for SAQA – have you thought of submitting it?

  4. Linda Stokes says:

    Thanks for your work in providing all this information – always interesting to read & learn.

  5. Lorraine McMahon says:

    An interesting process and so well explained. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Having been through similar experiences in the past and then this week with our textile art group’s new exhibition. I can say I know where you are coming from. At least we are taking our own photos, but not sure if this will always be the case.
    But sometimes you wonder how to get people to read the call for entry requirements! On the other hand, some went beyond the call of duty. And so it balances out. This time! LOL
    Sandy in the UK