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Transcript of 'Judging John Moores 24' podcast

Hi everybody, thankyou for coming.

My name is Ann Bukantas and I'm the curator of Fine Art here at the Walker Art Gallery and I was one of the five jurors for this year's John Moores exhibition. I also served on the jury two years ago which was my first experience of the John Moores. What I'm here to do today is just give you a bit of a blow-by-blow account of how this particular exhibition comes to be. I'll obviously talk a bit about the judging process which is the behind closed doors element of it that people are obviously quite intrigued by.

I've got some notes with me because I did forget one or two things I wanted to mention last time I did this talk. If you've got any questions at the end hopefully there'll be ample time for that or if you want to interrupt me as we go along please do.

A bit about the history of the John Moores to start with. It's one of the most established painting exhibitions and painting competitions in the country. It's extremely famous. The first John Moores exhibition was held at the Walker Art Gallery in 1957. Officially next year, 2007, it will hit its fiftieth anniversary year, but we'll be celebrating it with John Moores 25 which will be held in 2008 during the Capital of Culture year.

The exhibition title this year, John Moores 24, literally equals the twenty fourth John Moores exhibition. Might seem obvious to point that out but perhaps some people don't realise that.

It's a painting competition for artists who are living or professionally based in the UK. There's no stated age limit on it but it does tend to attract graduate level and above artists. Historically it has had different sections to it. There was in the 60s a sculpture section but that was phased out and that certainly now we're dealing with works that are in, as the rules state, any painted medium.

Some of the works if you look in detail incorporate things like collage, inks, watercolours, for example.

In the main, over the years, most of the prizewinning works and Martin Greenland's 'Before Vermeer's Clouds' is no exception enter the Walker Art Gallery's permanent collection. So if you visit our contemporary and modern displays you will see that a large number of the artworks in them, many of which are large-scale paintings, have actually come through a John Moores exhibition route. Either being donated to the gallery as the prizewinning painting or having been purchased by the gallery, perhaps in some instances not as the prizewinning painting but as something we thought was a strong addition to our collection.

Last time, as well as acquiring the prizewinning painting, we bought a painting by the artist Jason Brooks and that is actually on display at the moment. He, by coincidence, is one of our jurors for this year's competition.

One of the things that really does make the John Moores significant is the prize. It carries a first prize, the prizewinning artist, of £25000. In monetary terms to the artist, that's a tax-free prize, that's worth a huge amount of money. But also in terms of the significance for the career of the prizewinning artist it really is a big badge to wear to hopefully give them a next step up in their professional career and we do hope that will be the case for this year's prizewinner.

The Turner Prize also has a first prize of £25000 so it really is up there.

In addition to that, for the John Moores, there are four runners-up prizes of £2500 and we introduced last time a visitor's choice prize which comes with a £1000 cheque attached to it. I'll mention a bit more about that later.

The John Moores is a massive undertaking. What you see here is the very tail-end of the whole process. We've got 52 paintings on display here, but the whole run-up process to that probably takes at least 18 months. I was trying to calculate back when we first started working on this current exhibition.

We're already, this afternoon in fact, holding one of the first meetings for the next John Moores exhibition in two years time, so it's not a case of suddenly doing everything in the last three months of the show. We've really got to start planning every single stage of it.

One of the first things we need to do which was obviously really important to us this year is to get the jury in place. Getting the right jury in place not only guarantees us an exhibition that people will want to come and see has works of a very high quality. It also enables us to publicise the exhibition and we hope to attract artists to actually enter their work to it because it's an open submission exhibition and we rely on artists entering it in the way anybody would enter any competition. We can't force them to do that, we have to do everything we can to encourage them.

By getting a high profile jury, whether they're artists, writers, in some instances - we had a celebrity musician last year- the names attract press attention and in turn we hope that that enables us to get our message about the competition out to a much wider range of artists.

The other thing that we'd started to do in this sort of early stages is look back at everything we'd produced in the current year. All the print, all the forms that go out to artists. We look back over those. If we've had any problems, if we've had any queries that artists don't understand certain bits or there've been misunderstandings, we need to revisit all that in order to get that up and running for the forthcoming year.

Meanwhile we're having discussions about things like sponsorship because it's a big expensive thing to run. Our Development team who do the fundraising are already thinking now about how that package will go together for 2008.

The actual team that work on the John Moores is in the main internal to National Museums Liverpool. So the Walker Art Gallery which hosts and organises the exhibition is part of National Museums Liverpool which is a large government-funded museums service and there are representatives from my department which is curatorial, myself and one of my colleagures. We have quite a large team from our Exhibitions department and my colleague Lisa Baker in the green shirt over there was this year's John Moores exhibitions officer so the role that Lisa held is really quite crucial, quite a pivotal role in making sure that all these different elements come together.

We have designers. I've already mentioned fundraisers, art handlers, our estates department who are the people that arrange for the walls to be painted, all those little things that you might not think about. We have to start putting them in place and putting price tags on them as all the things that they do costs money and that helps us to put our budget package together.

We also work very closely with the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition Trust who put funding and expertise into the whole project. One of the things that we work with the Trust on are the selection of the jurors for the exhibition. People are quite curious to know where do these jurors come from? How do you decide?

What we do literally and we've started to do that already is go through lists of whose been jurors before and in some instances, I'm not going to name any names, but there might be somebody we've been trying to get for whatever reason, a particular artist, and they've expressed an interest in being a juror but they haven't been able to do it because the time hasn't suited them. That's another reason we have to plan now for two years, because a lot of the people we're dealing with have got small windows of time and the John Moores is a big commitment.

We all come up with ideas of people that we think would make good jurors. I've already said they might be practising artists, they might be art critics, they might be people who review exhibitions professionally for the newspapers. They might be a celebrity who we know is an art collector or has particular interest in contemporary art. What we're looking for ideally are people that bring something special, a certain strength to that jury so that across the group of four or five people who make up the jury, I think the jury numbers have varied slightly over the years, we've got a diversity of knowledge, of experience, of taste. Taste is a difficult one but it does inevitably come into it based upon what people have seen, what they feel to be good in comparison with something else.

This year the jurors, if you've read the panels and followed the exhibition, in addition to myself representing the gallery, we had the artists Sir Peter Blake, we had Tracey Emin, we had Jason Brooks who as I've already said was a previous John Moores exhibitor and we also had Andrea Rose who is a curator like myself but works for the British Council's Visual Arts department based in London and she's got many years of exhibition organisation experience and working with artists behind her. So, together, they brought a huge breadth of knowledge to the jury, but in the case of Tracey and Peter certainly, they had that extra element of celebrity that really has made it very much easier this year for us to attract press interest.

They both agreed at various times throughout the process when we did press calls and press announcements to act as spokespeople for the jury and you can imagine they're people that the press, particularly in Tracey's place, really want to know what that person has got to say. What was the experience of being a juror like? Do you think this exhibition represents the best of contemporary British painting?

So I think the combination of the jury this year has worked particularly well for us. They also as I've already mentioned are people that have definitely increased the numbers of entrants we've had and we've had more entrants this year than since 1967, the highest level of entries in 43 years. The initial call for entries for this year's exhibition was made at the end of October last year and that went out in the form of a press release from our media department.

You can see the headline here 'Tracey Emin and Sir Peter Blake to head up jury for Britain's biggest painting competition'. That gives you a good picture of how it starts to work and what the call for entries does is it basically announces that the John Moores is happening, when it will be, who's involved in the jury, what the prizes available are and it tries to drum up that interest in artists to enter themselves into the submission process.

What happens is if an artist wants to enter they contact the gallery. There are a variety of means they can do that, by letter, by phone, through our website, and they register their initial interest. That generates the first lot of bureacracy and the gallery sends out to that artist what we call a first stage entry pack. Not all the artists who express an initial interest follow through and I'm sure there are 101 different reasons why that doesn't happen in some cases. But if an artist does follow through they send us their completed form and they are also asked to send a slide of the work that they would like to enter.

We've been using slides for some time now and there is quite a lot of debate over whether or not it's fair to the artists that the jurors are making the initial selection from slides rather than, as we are here, standing in front of the actual work. It would be argue if we were standing in front of the actual works from the outset, I'm sure the exhibition would take on a different character as a result of that. But because of the numbers of artworks we're dealing with, we'd probably need a ten year run-up for every exhibition and have a hugely bigger budget that we do have in order to facilitate such a large number of works.

This year we had 2600 artists entered their work and, in addition to the slide of each work that they've submitted, they are invited if they would like to send in an additional slide which is a detail of the work which hopefully will go some way to compensating for the fact that we can't look at the original works up close. What that meant for us as a jury is that we were looking at 3450 slides because a number of the artists did take up that option to send in that extra detail.

We do emphasise over again in the literature we send out that the work you're submitting as a slide if you're selected has to be the same work that you actually send in for the jury to look at at the second stage. It might seem silly that we have to point that out but, if we didn't, I think we would get all sorts of different works which the jury were looking at for the first time in the warehouse and thinking hang on a minute this is not the one we saw on the slide.

We really do like to keep it as uniform as possible and if we suspect that an artist has sent in a different piece of work we do chase after them. Won't go into any more detail than that.

The first stage selection for this year's competition was done in early April and that lasted three to four days and was done in the lecture theatre in the County Sessions House, adjacent to the Walker. If any of you have been to a lecture there, that's where we held it. The jurors were brought together and sat in a darkened room and looked at slide after slide after slide with coffee and biscuit breaks to keep us going. It really is quite an unremitting, Tracey commented at the end of it that she felt for the week after that staging of judging had finished she was calling out 'Yes, no, maybe' the whole time because that's what you spend your time doing. It's like subliminal art being flicked in front of your face.

Because it was the first time we'd been brought together, some of us knew one another on a professional basis, but it was the first time we were all sitting together and trying to achieve a particular aim which was to select the works that would be called in in the flesh for the second stage of judging. None of us knew how the other worked in that sense, so we had to agree a set of criteria of how we were going to make those initial judgements and we went for a basic yes, no, maybe approach that I've just mentioned which meant that if any one juror had an interest to see a work for whatever reason we would call out 'Yes' and that would go into the 'Yes' pile.

If everybody immediately shouted out 'No' then that was pretty definite that that artwork would be put onto the non-selected works pile. If we couldn't decide because somebody felt well maybe I'd like to come back to that one and have a look at it at the end of the day that went into the maybes. What we were trying to do and this was something that came from the gallery's perspective based on us knowing how many works we needed to see at the second section to give the jury enough choice to create the final exhibition, the gallery wanted the jury to try and aim for around 400 works out of that 2600 works that were entered.

It's quite difficult to get that balance and what we did was ask for a tally every half hour or every coffee break. The person standing at the front managing the slides would tell us how many we'd said 'Yes' to, how many we'd said 'No' to. We tried to keep in mind how we were going as we went along.

The other thing I really do need to emphasise and we do get a lot of enquiries about this is that throughout the judging stages the whole judging process is completely anonymous in terms of the artists. The jurors do not know who the artists are. In order to make the decisions on each individual slide we can ask for certain additional information but the only information that we can ask for is the size, what medium has been used to paint the work and the title. In a lot of cases that would come back as 'Untitled' which sometimes didn't go down too well when we were trying to make a decision on things, it's nice to have some kind of guidance but that was all we could know.

Obviously because of our professional knowledge some of us did recognise the work of particular artists because certain artists undeniably have their own visual language that doesn't change from year to year. In those circumstances we agreed that we wouldn't tell one another who the work was if we recognised it but we'd just try and get a debate going on the merits of that individual work.

A large number of the slides we looked at did create significant debate, but, as I've already mentioned, in some instances the response was almost instantaneous and we made that yes/no decision without actually feeling the need to have more protracted debate about it.

Although I've said we set out to bring in about 400 works, as it was in the end, we ended up with a group of about 268. We didn't feel, under the circumstances, we could get that number any higher. We did go back through all the slides from the start a second time just to make sure that we hadn't missed anything. Sadly there were a small number of the slides that we felt weren't of sufficient presentational quality for us actually to make a decision on the work. An example might be where an artist had perched their work in front of the garden fence and taken a big wide shot of which there seems to be more garden than there was artwork. Even though it's a slide and not an original work I think to be able to think this is a major, major competition I really ought to at least concentrate my slide on the artwork to sell it as best I can and several artists did make that mistake and it was really easy for us in those circumstances to say this person hasn't really gone the extra mile to present their work in a way that shows it off to its full effect.

Of the works that we selected, the next stage was that the artists were contacted and asked to deliver those works to a series of collection points around the UK and then Lisa and her team arranged for those works to all be brought to a warehouse in Liverpool and in June of this year the jury reconvened in that warehouse. All the jurors working together at once, still anonymous in not knowing the names of artists we were dealing with and that in that way, as well as everybody coming together again for what we knew was going to be an enjoyable but challenging experience, it really was quite startling to see things in the flesh for the first time.

What we had were sometimes foggy, sometimes clear memories of things but because we'd seen them as slides we'd put an interpretation on them and even if someone tells you what the scale is and gives you the measurements of it, certainly in my case I do find I need to stand next to something in order really to get an appreciation of that. I think we probably spent the first hour walking round going 'oh my goodness that's not at all what I expected it to be'.

We revisited our selection criteria and did stick pretty much to the way we'd looked at the slides in that we had a yes/no/maybe but certainly we were able to have, because we were dealing with a lot less work, much longer discussions in front of each individual work. As we narrowed the selection down in some instances we were able to ask the handling team who were the people carrying the works backwards and forwards to bring certain groups of work together so that, for example, if we got in its simplest sense, if we got a lot of pictures of birds, as it happens we did have a lot of pictures of birds, we were able to compare one against the other and compare the quality of them, compare the whole experience of one picture against another. Whether or not something worked on a large scale or a small scale. To look in detail as to how one artist had used materials as against another.

Very gradually through that kind of process and through discussion we were able to gradually whittle the works down. If any of you saw a few weeks month ago now there was a program on BBC2 I think about the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition which basically showed the jury sat there and people bringing artworks in front of them one after another. That's very much the way that we were set up except that we were sat on a big, squashy red sofa.

Every so often we had to take a break and come back to things because we were very keen throughout that we come to each work of art afresh and certainly from my perspective as the gallery's representative if I felt we needed a break and just wanted to stand back from the process and then come back in we did insist on everybody stopping, taking half an hour out and then coming back to it so that we could keep our brains fresh and give as much debate and consensus to one work as to the next.

There was something interesting that cropped up this year that I'm not aware has really been such a strong issue in the past which was that of frames. A large number of the works that we had called in were unframed and a very small number were framed. Some of the jurors felt these were detracting from the success of the finished work and Martin Greenland's painting was one of those. Martin gave a talk on his work last week and it's quite interesting to hear him talk about the frame and I think we'd perhaps seen it from an opposite perspective. Whereas we thought that having the frame, it's quite a large flat frame which I have to say will probably be reunited with it when the work goes back on display elsewhere in the Walker, for safety's sake really.

But Martin said he felt that having the frame didn't enclose the painting metaphorically in the way that you would think a frame did but actually opened it out to be something that could spread beyond the canvas and I think we felt the opposite. We felt that the canvas was being restrained by having that frame in and we did actually ask the artist if we could remove the frame if the work was selected for the exhibition and he was one of a small handful of artists that we did do that with.

Another is Neil Kelly who produced the painting with the electricity pylon in the background there. Other works like the piece at the end here, we had the same discussions about the frame, but ultimately because that's a work on paper it is very difficult to actually show that physically without its frame so we had to make compromises as well as expecting the artist to make compromises.

While we were selecting works that whole melee of our professional knowledge of looking at painting after painting after painting in all the different contexts we'd worked or people like Tracey and Jason and Peter who'd been teaching art students, knowing what people producing, being able to make judgements on what's a well-painted work, what's a well-structured work. We had discussions about whether images were particularly strong, whether an artist had done something on a very large scale and perhaps failed on that scale, whereas if they'd painted on a much smaller scale it would have been a much stronger piece that would have got into the exhibition.

That's the sort of discussion we had. We looked very closely at the techniques artists had used and whether artists had pulled it off. This year we did have a lot of representational rather than abstract works submitted in comparison with other years and therefore we were in a way pitting one piece of photo-realism against another.

We were looking for things like originality.

Some paintings interestingly grew on people in a way that is hard to describe unless you were there having to make the judgements. There were certainly examples of paintings that in the early stages we all passed by and then you'd come back in the morning and having had a good night's sleep saying 'God, I'm still thinking about that painting, can we bring it back again and have a look at it? and you would make an argument for why you thought that work should be brought in whereas the previous day you'd all agreed it was not going to be in the show. You had to try and turn your fellow jurors to see what you were now seeing.

Even now, I'm still having that happen to me with works that have ended up in the exhibition that I didn't respond to in any way at the outset. Now they've really grown on me and it's interesting when that process happens naturally as you're living with the works from day to day.

Some works became associated with certain jurors, there might be a case of 'Peter's paintings coming back again' or 'Jason's painting's coming back again' because they were things they were attracted back to in the way that I have described and that happened right up until the very last minute. It was actually quite exciting at one point, you think you're there and someone suddenly goes 'Hang on a minute just bring that back again' and the whole process almost starts all over again.

We had, I think it's represented in the exhibition, a lot of works submitted that looked at themes to do with the cosmos in its widest sense and sometimes really quite literally. There was a bit of science fiction and space going on in them. We had a lot of works that looked, again in the broadest sense, issues to do with the natural world and the environment. Perhaps that was really to do with people's growing consciousness about environmental issues and things like that, global warming. Certainly it was something pre-occupying artists this year.

That was interesting for us to see that coming through so strongly and its inevitably been something that has been reflected in the final selection for the exhibition.

I should just say that the jury were brought to have a look round the gallery spaces at the very outset of the judging process, before the slide selection. One of the reasons for doing that was to give them an idea of the scale of the whole task and what we were aiming to do. Obviously until you know what works you've got, until you know what size they all are and all those factors, it really is very difficult to be working in the abstract to fill spaces from a group of works you've never seen before.

At the same time, we were selecting an exhibition. We were also bringing together quite a random and diverse group of works that ultimately we hoped would work as an exhibition. It's not until you actually get them in here, in the galleries and up on the wall that you really see the final results of your endeavour. It is quite a peculiar process in that sense to be involved in.

We eventually managed to whittle the works down to the 52 that are here in the exhibition. The last John Moores exhibition had 58 works in it. We think really from past experience that that's a good number. Not too many, not too few. To give sufficient artists an opportunity for their work to be shown and to give sufficient diversity of things like scale. We've got room to show large-scale ambitious canvases at the same time as we can show very subtle tiny postcard size works like the two that are in the opposite corners of this room.

The final thing we had to do in the warehouse was decide on the five prizewinners and I think everybody had been putting that off in the sense of how on earth are we going to do this? Perhaps we did all have in our minds what would have been our personal prizewinner but we had to reach a consensus because as I've already said it's a major prize, it's a large sum of money to be giving to be somebody. We had to collectively feel that we'd made the right decision.

In order to do that what we started off by doing was going round those 52 works with a notepad and we agreed we'd all right down five works that we thought ought to be prizewinners and we probably spent about half an hour doing that and everybody immediately headed off in a certain direction, you knew people certainly had their view of 2 or 3 that they definitely wanted in.

We grouped on the squashy sofa and we all read through our lists and every single person had picked more than five, myself included. You just can't really bring it down to that number immediately. It was fun doing it because everybody had picked at least one or two pictures that there was some consensus on so we all went 'Oh I've got that, I've got that'. But then pretty much every juror would have picked a wildcard in terms of what the other jurors were thinking so people would go 'Oooh'. Then people would say 'Yes, I can see where that person is coming from now'.

We then had a chat about our collective decisions and I think there were perhaps one or two paintings at that stage where we all agreed nobody's really arguing very strongly for that so they might have dropped out. What we did was we had the remaining works brought together and grouped so that we could see them and really not see any of the 40 other works that hadn't been selected for our potential prizewinners.

I think it was possibly at that stage that one of the jurors went 'Hang on a minute I want to bring that painting that's been rejected back into the mix'.

Finally we managed to get down to I think about seven paintings that, some of it really is a bit of a blur actually, because the discussion was moving along quite a pace at this stage. We got down to about seven paintings that we all agreed were really representative of what we thought a John Moores prizewinning painting could be about. We talked and talked and had several more revotes I think. Eventually managed to get it down to the five works that we knew had to win prizes but we didn't know which one of them was going to be the prizewinner.

Then we revoted again for our individual prizewinners. I think we went from having a consensus of 3 votes to 2, then 3 to 4, then back up in favour of another one. I remember feeling quite confused at one stage but eventually we did agree that Martin Greenland's painting which was one of the ones that we all clearly remembered had stuck with us from the very outset of seeing the slides did merit being the John Moores prizewinner.

We knew that it would cause a lot of interest because if you look back and look through the galleries in the Walker at works that have won the John Moores previously it is very, very different from them.

I think Graham Crowley who was one of the other prizewinners, he painted 'Red Reflection', the landscape down at the end there, described it quite eloquently when he did a talk about his relationship with the John Moores last week and he said what makes this an exciting painting, and I think it does reflect what the jury thought, is the fact that it looks to all intents and purposes like a traditional landscape but the artist has done one small thing that tilts it that extra degree towards it being not quite what you think it is by including this peculiar little tower in it. You suddenly start to realise it's got quite surreal and haunting and difficult to pin down qualities that just mean he's pushed the conventions of landscape painting in a completely different direction.

Eventually we got to the state where we thought 'Yes, this is it, this is our prizewinner'. I think I'm probably right in saying it's been one of the most popular prizewinners that we've had for some time. Finding out more about the painting, hearing what the artist had to say about it, certainly for me, has made it even more fascinating.

The prizewinning artists in this exhibition are all denoted by having the blue labels on. We've got two down the end of this room, James White and Graham Crowley of the runners-up, and then Vincent Hawkins and Matt Burrows are in the first room that you came into.

The last stage of the whole process once the prizewinners had been selected and having to keep that secret for the next several weeks until the exhibition opened, was getting together things like the catalogue and the exhibition print. For me that was the stage at which it became even more fascinating because as one of the people working on the catalogue, to suddenly be able to read what the artists had sent about their work, the information that they'd sent, was in some cases really quite astonishing because a work that perhaps I had seen in a completely different light previously was now given a very very different meaning than I'd brought to it in my perception of it.

That's something that I know people think, well wouldn't it be fairer if you had that information from the outset but I think in a way not knowing what the work means can in many many instances enable you to be much more objective about it and stand back.

Whereas I think knowing all that, having all that baggage I think could possibly fog up the whole process somehow. It's good that the works as images in their own right are able to be put in for the challenge as whether or not they stand on their own two feet. I think we've got a group of works here that I hope definitely do that.

The hang itself, the layout of the exhibition was done this year by myself working with two of the jurors - Tracey Emin and Andrea Rose - and that was undertaken in what was quite a long day, quite an intense day of basically getting all of the works moved around and seeing what worked with what else.

With a big painting like Gordon Cheung's painting at the end that's something that you have to be quite careful that it doesn't overdominate and kill off the impact of the work next to it. It's really quite a challenge to hang such a diverse group of works.

Tracey and Andrea felt very strongly that we wouldn't use any screens in the exhibition this year and I think in the end we just ended up with one screen, so that when people came in they got the impact of what are very fine galleries and also got a broad span of the whole exhibition in front of them before they then focussed in on individual works.

Everybody seems to have responded through our visitor comments very well as to the overall look and appearance of the exhibition this year, in addition to the actual content in terms of the artworks themselves.

Throughout the show we've been running a Visitors' Choice prize of £1000. Voting closed a week ago on that. We know who the winner is but you won't know until Monday 13 November when the announcement will be made. Those of us who've been involved in the exhibition had a little bet on which works would win, I think somebody got the right one, I certainly didn't.

We are always interested to know whether our visitors agree with what the professional jury have come up with so do watch the press and do come back to the gallery after 13 November to see what the Visitors' Choice has been. It's a nice extra publicity for the artist.

It can be one of the prizewinning artists, we don't put any constraints on who people can vote for. It's been quite tight this year, it's been quite exciting.

There's a big learning programme which has been built up around the exhibition which my talk today is part of. Everything that you see in association with the exhibition, the guides that some of you are carrying are there to supplement people's visit and to help them get more out of the works that are on display.

The catalogue itself is for sale and obviously we do recognise that not everybody will want to, or be in a position to buy a catalogue so we put the catalogue online. Our web team are quite heavily involved in the whole process, from publicising the exhibition in the first place to making sure there is a lot of information on the artworks and the artists once the exhibition is actually up and running.

The production of a free guide once people are in the exhibition is really quite crucial to the whole process for us.

I think that probably pretty much finishes everything I've got to say. Ok thanks for coming.