The Last of the Cattle Call

The Big Show Moves to Online Jurying

Brian Piana
May 2, 2015 · 4 min read

Houston’s Lawndale Art Center snuck out out a press release Friday afternoon announcing the details of this year’s The Big Show. Now in its 31st year, The Big Show is an annual juried competition open to anyone within 100 miles of Houston, and the resulting exhibition/opening provides a fun spark to the sometimes sleepy summer exhibition season.

For me, the real beauty of The Big Show has always come from its process: hundreds of Houston-area artists bring upwards of a thousand works of art to Lawndale to be juried in person by someone who most often is from out-of-state. Following two days of deliberations, a show of anywhere between 80 and 110 works is chosen, and then Lawndale staff and volunteers call the selected artists with the good news. For those artists that didn’t make the cut, there’s no phone call. Or email. Or text.

There’s just … silence.

Following that silence comes the awkward task of having to then go retrieve your rejected pieces from Lawndale. I wrote about my own Big Show experiences some years ago on The Great God Pan Is Dead. News flash: not getting a phone call and then having to go get your pieces is a kick in the gut. Yet the set up for The Big Show was also unique. How many other monster juried exhibitions have the work evaluated in person as opposed to via JPEGs? Certainly not very many. And now, sadly, there’s one less.

Lawndale Art Center announced in their press release Friday that The Big Show 2015 will be juried online, via JPEGs. The end of an era, indeed.

In a Facebook post about this year’s show, Lawndale said they hope this new online submission process will “allow more artists to apply and save all participants time and energy.” I’m all for more artists applying — The Big Show raises helps Lawndale raise some money via the $30 entry fee. It’s the “time and energy” aspect I’m struggling with.

Submitting work to The Big Show wasn’t necessarily meant to be easy. You had to physically take your work there within a specific two-day window. Then, for the works that didn’t make it in, you had to go back and retrieve them over another two-day window. There’s also the task of just getting the works safely to Lawndale. In my podcast conversation with Lawndale Community Relations Coordinator Emily Link last year, we discussed how some pieces wouldn’t necessarily survive transport to the show (or would at least be very difficult to get there), and how some paintings would even arrive for jurying still wet. Other times, artists would fail to meet the deadline, pulling up to Lawndale only to be turned away.

Yet if you were able to get your work there, and if it was chosen for inclusion in the show, it felt like you earned it in a slightly different manner than having your work selected from a JPEG. “Notification Sunday” was always a bit stomach-churning for me, but it wasn’t only because I really, really wanted to get in. It was also because I really, really didn’t want to have to look the people handing me back my rejected works in the eye. (Damn you, pride!) The new online submission process clearly saves me — and everyone else – from that uncomfortable scenario.

Of course, the new system also puts pressure on having quality images of your work. In 2012, I entered three pieces of packing styrofoam wrapped in various color of duct tape. In theory, the juror could have walked around the work, picked it up, flipped it over, etc. Now, he or she would have just gotten this JPEG instead:

I didn’t get in then, but I don’t think I would even bother entering those pieces using such a pic now. A friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that most all open-calls are handled digitally anyhow, and such a process forces sculptors, in particular, into learning how to properly photograph their work. I agree with the latter point, but I’m still sad to see The Big Show succumb to such online peer pressure. I know this new system will save the Lawndale staff an enormous amount of time and effort in preparing for jurying process, and I’m sure there’s also a financial savings as well.

Yet for all the convenience, I will honestly miss having to take my work up there for Big Show consideration. That trip was always an opportunity to mingle with the other hopefuls and take stock of what the competition might be. I will also miss chatting with the staff and volunteers as I pay my entry fee and membership dues. Will I miss having to go back, head down, and collect my rejects? Of course not. Yet making a series of clicks on the computer and then forgetting about just doesn’t have the same appeal.

I predict a surge in entries this year under the new format. It’s no longer the same, but it’s still The Big Show, and I’m sure I’ll submit a few JPEGs none the less. It’s just now a lot less different than every other juried contest around.

    Brian Piana

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    Visual artist and designer.