Whose painting is it anyway?

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We are half way through the selection process for the John Moores Painting Prize 2018, the year in which we celebrate the competition’s 60th anniversary.

The first stage of selection took place last month, when the jury met to decide upon the shortlist of paintings that will be brought to Liverpool for the intense few days that make up the Stage 2 selection.

As anyone who entered knows, this was a digital image-based selection, it is the only way that the jury can look at such a large number of entries. The jurors gave their full consideration to every single work submitted, and were able to familiarise themselves with all the images before coming together to whittle the number down to the Stage 2 shortlist.

In total, we received an amazing 2702 registrations and 258 of these have been called through to stage 2. This represents the largest selection taken through to Stage 2 for several years. In late March the jury will select the exhibition and award the prizes from those 258 paintings . There is no set quantity of paintings that the jury have to select for the exhibition. Selection numbers in the past few years have varied from the upper 30s to the lower 60s.

The jury are given a tour of the exhibition galleries before selection begins so that they are conscious of the spaces available to fill. Throughout the entire process, as has always been the case – and despite what people may think – the selection remains anonymous.

The choices of the 258 shortlisted works was reached following two rigorous – and exhausting – days of discussion in which the jurors scrutinised images of the submitted paintings and discussed the individual merits of each. Some choices were made swiftly, others after lengthier debate – there are no rules about how this process unfolds, and each different jury over the years has found its own ‘level’. Some paintings were revisited towards the end of the process, at which point some were dropped, and others taken up.

As ever, the jurors were encouraged to shortlist any paintings that they could not come to a firm decision on. Members of Gallery staff who support the process do not pass any opinions on the artworks under scrutiny, and even restrain themselves from uttering noises of delight or disappointment if a work they like the look of is selected or otherwise!

We do not wish to influence the jury in any way. The jurors are not given the names of the artists, nor do they ask for them. This anonymity is key to the overall fairness of the John Moores Painting prize, and it is understood and respected by everyone working on the competition. The paintings must stand on their own merits, regardless of who painted them.

On request, however, jurors can be given the size, medium and title of any painting. They are not told where the artists are from, and the final geographical spread of artists in the exhibition is therefore totally arbitrary, although it may statistically reflect the usually higher proportion of London-based artists who enter for the Prize.

Despite this compulsory anonymity, of course it is unavoidably the case that some artists have work which is instantly recognisable in style. Likewise, a painting may be familiar to a juror from an exhibition they have visited, from someone they have taught or whose work they have shown, or from an image on social media. Indeed in recent years it has become almost impossible for us to ‘control’ the spread of post-selection word-spreading, especially on artists’ own social media. How then, under all those circumstances, is anonymity retained?

In such cases the jurors know that it is not appropriate to reveal the artist, and that a ‘level playing field’ must be maintained. Our artist-jurors understand what it like to be part of a selection process and as such, are acutely aware of the John Moores Painting Prize entrants’ experience, and of the need to have a fair and open process. In all of these instances, the emphasis is solely on a discussion of the merits of an individual work, and how it compares with other paintings across the whole field of entries.

Unlike at Stage 1, artists’ statements (but not CVs) are available on request at Stage 2, but for anonymity, these are carefully redacted so that any give-away information, such as their names, references to gender (e.g. ‘her paintings explore’), age, or specific locations (‘from my London studio, I like to paint’) is removed prior to jury members having access to the material. Each jury measures painting by their own criteria, which are applied regardless of whether individual members recognise the artist or their work.

The size of the jury, normally five members, also helps to maintain an impartial and balanced process. As observers to the process over recent years, it’s also worth saying that we have seen paintings by artists whose work we have recognised – and therefore the jurors are likely to have also – yet which have not made it through to Stage 2.

So, recognition, where it does occur, by no means guarantees a passage through to shortlisting.

‘Rigged’ is a word that we have had levelled at the process. Operating as we do within the Prize’s strict boundaries, and to our highest professional standards, it is fair to say that such comments do impact upon the morale of everyone working on the competition.

Each person in the project team, whether jurors or staff, operates with the greatest of integrity in ensuring that the work has a fair and equal opportunity for selection. Even our jury members have commented on the – dare we say – highly detailed (if not obsessive) thoroughness of our process.

What next? The 258 shortlisted paintings will be viewed ‘in the flesh’ in Liverpool and the final selection made. From these, the jurors will select the four prize winners and the first prize winner.

Whilst we do not publish a list of artists selected for Stage 2, the list of artists who have been selected for the exhibition itself will be announced in late April 2018. There will be a full embargo on the selected artists’ names until that time.

Don't be downheartened For those who have not made it through to Stage 2, and who do not make it through to the final cut, our 2018 jurors’ advice is not to be downhearted.

They emphasise that they have looked at every submission, they have seen examples of your work, they have seen things that will stay in their memories and which may even lead to things in the future, and they would encourage you to try again next time. Juror, Jenni Lomax had this to say:

All artists who registered should by now have heard from us whether or not they were shortlisted to Stage 2. If you registered, but haven’t heard from us, please contact the John Moores Painting Prize office on 0151 478 4218 or email jmpaintingprize@liverpoolmuseums.org.uk.