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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Viewpoint: Judy B. Dales' Road to Landing a Museum Exhibit

I think it's safe to say we can all share in the excitement of our own Judy B. Dales' solo show "Ahead of the Curve", currently exhibiting at the Shelburne Museum. In that light, I asked Judy if she would be willing to write something about the experience for our blog. In the resulting essay below, she has generously volunteered details about her journey, including the challenges experienced and lessons learned along the way. 
If you haven't had a chance to see the show yet, do be sure to find time before the close date of October 31!

How Does an Artist get an Exhibit in a Museum?
The Long Answer to a Short Question

I have been making fiber art for almost 45 years and my career has, of course, had both ups and downs. Early on, I had the advantage of being “Ahead of The Curve” (pun intended). People were startled and fascinated by the idea that quilts were to be hung on the wall and viewed as art. Since I was part of one of the early waves of art quilters, wonderful opportunities came my way. I had a one-woman show at the NJ state museum which I’m not quite sure I fully appreciated at the time. I received two fellowship grants from the state of New Jersey, and had a piece purchased into the fine quilt collection of the Newark Museum. I did some exciting commission work including one for the Morris Museum of Arts and Sciences in NJ and the NIH’s Children’s Inn, won a number of awards and sold practically everything I made.

Along with early successes came teaching opportunities and I soon found myself traveling constantly, often to exotic and exciting places. I continued to sell most of the pieces I created, but before they went to live in their forever homes, my quilts served as an effective marketing tool for my teaching career. My name became synonymous with “curved seam piecing” and I was asked to write a book about my technique. Curves (pieced, fused or raw-edge appliquéd) are now so commonplace that it’s hard to realize that back then, piecing curves was a new and exciting idea. Once again, I was in the right place at the right time.

Enchanted Forest                                                      © Judy B. Dales

Eventually however, things changed. I noticed that I seemed to be getting rejected from juried shows more often than not. This was a new experience for me and I spent a great deal of time worrying about why this was so. The answer did not come quickly, but I gradually came to understand there were a number of factors at play. The most obvious was that the competition was stiffer. There were way more art quilters, and we were all competing for the same spots. It was at this time that quilting became big business, and innovation exploded in the quilt world—new tools, new techniques, new ideas and new approaches. At the same time, organizations such as SDA and SAQA, that serve the art quilt community, came into being and began promoting and producing exhibits for art quilters. These were the shows I was being rejected from.

I know that every artist gets rejected from shows. It’s part of being an artist. But the number of rejections was unbelievably disheartening. After fretting about it for years I gradually decided that I had now found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had been around for quite a while so I was no longer new or fresh. My style was easily recognizable and perhaps it was time to make room for newcomers—someone new and different. Could it be that I should count myself among the artists who peak too early?? Gasp??

I also realized I was out of step with the hot trends of the moment. Experimentation with different materials, incorporating new techniques (dyeing, photo imaging, fusing, collage, beading, embroidery, etc.) were all the rage and the emphasis was always on “new and innovative”. 

Moon Dreams                                                       © Judy B. Dales

I have tried many of the new techniques and enjoyed many of them, but found myself returning time and again to the simple techniques I love. I draw a design free-hand, enlarge it and create templates, then piece the individual hand-cut pieces together and machine quilt to finish. I wondered if my preference for these time-honored techniques was one of the things that provoked the rejections. I was definitely out of step with the trends sweeping through the quilt world, and I expended quite a bit of energy fretting about this.

At the same time, I became discouraged about teaching. It seemed that the trend was toward quick, easy in everything and I often felt pressured to make my classes easier, the technique more “accessible”, the product accomplished in a shorter time.

It took me a lot of time and some major internal wrestling to come to terms with all these issues. I finally decided that I had to be true to myself and continue to work the way I want to work, and to produce the kind of work that pleases me. I love my process. Every step is satisfying and even the most tedious parts provide pleasure. I decided that rather than push myself into using techniques that don’t appeal to me, I would concentrate on improving the content of my work. 

Reverberation                  © Judy B. Dales

I have been taking classes in other media to broaden my perspective, and also a drawing class, an on-line creativity class, and a few classes on computer programs. I continue my practice of drawing whenever possible and keep a file of all the designs I produce as well as inspiring photos and images. I take a lot of photographs as a reminder of things that interest me.

At the same time, I have turned away from national juried shows, concentrating on showing my work locally, networking and working for local arts organizations, and increasing my online presence. I continue to produce art quilts, but avoid themed shows, calls for entry that have stringent size requirements, and any other exhibition opportunities that overly influence the course of my work. I try to avoid stress, which means no deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, and no competition.

I am simply trying to concentrate on the work, allowing myself to work how I want and when I want to, which has brought much of the creative joy back into my life. I am determined to ignore the newest trends, the latest fads and the all too prevalent push for technical innovation and experimentation, focusing instead on improving my chosen methods and the designs I choose to work with. 

"Ahead of the Curve"                                          Shelburne Museum

This is not an easy thing to do, but the wonderful exhibit of my work currently at The Shelburne Museum seems to me to be the reward for this effort. It is a validation of not only my work, but of the path I have chosen in the last decade. It tells me that my efforts are leading me in the right direction, allowing me to grow as an artist, but at my own pace and in the direction that I have chosen.

Which brings me to the point of this writing: how does an artist get the opportunity for an exhibit at a prestigious museum like The Shelburne? There are, of course, many specific things one can do: have good PR materials, get your work out where it will be seen, cultivate relationships with gallery owners, museum curators and other professional artists, make your name and work known. But what it really boils down to are two all-important criteria.

The first, and the most important, is to do the work. Get into your studio and make the work, and keep making it. There will be good pieces, horrible pieces, unfinished pieces, and a few brilliant ones. There will be good days and bad. There will be anxiety, worry and frustration, mixed with a little jubilation and pride. You just have to keep making art if you want to make something of yourself as an artist. You have to do the work. There are no shortcuts.

"Ahead of the Curve"                                              Shelburne Museum

Classes are fine. Teachers can help, and learning stuff online can smooth the process. But it is only by making art day after day that you will find your own path, your unique voice and vision. Learn to delve deep inside yourself and bring whatever is there into the art you create. You literally have to learn how to put your “Self” into your art so that it will be unique, authentic and worthy.

And the other imperative is to be as professional as you can in ALL situations.. Forget about being an eccentric, quirky artist. Be responsible and conscientious. Do things when you say you will do them, meet deadlines, hold up your end of the bargain. By doing this, you make the other person’s job easier and they will remember you fondly. On the other hand, if you are a flake, demanding and difficult to work with, that will be remembered also. 

Lunar Reflections                                             © Judy B. Dales

I’ve been on the other side of this fence, having organized craft shows and curated traveling exhibitions, so I learned early on how important it is to be professional in all circumstances. Curators and gallery owners are only human. When evaluating and choosing artists, they can’t help but be swayed by the reputation of the artists. Granted, the excellence of the work could perhaps outweigh an artist’s poor reputation, but wouldn’t you really rather have your professional reputation enhance your work and encourage a curator to choose you, rather than prevent him/her from making that choice.

I think we artists often try to put the cart before the horse, dreaming about fame and fortune before we have earned it. It may seem that some artists luck out and opportunities just fall into their laps, but I’m sure this is the exception, not the rule. Exhibits in museums come to artists who have worked diligently for many years to make their work the best it can be. And they support their work with a high level of professionalism and commitment, making it easy for a curator to choose them out of an extremely large pool of candidates. So if your dreams for the future include a museum exhibition, do what the T-shirt recommends: “Go to the studio and make stuff!” And then do it again! And again!

It’s all about the work!

Judy B Dales

1 comment:

  1. Good for you Judy! Everything you are saying rings true for me and it's heartening to see this wonderful opportunity for you! Thanks for sharing this with us!