How to prepare a good application? What should artists pay attention to? How to organise the art competition?
Read our interview and following tips from Karolina Jaklewicz and Magda Bobko — founder of the “Fresh Blood” competition.
Dobromiła Błaszczyk: When artists begin their education, they are told that it is worth their time to take part in competitions. The “Fresh Blood” competition, which you run, focusses on young artists and so, I would like to start our conversation with a basic question: why is it worth taking part in competitions and why do you run one?
Karolina Jaklewicz: It all started in 2011, during the Geppert Competition entitled “What does a Painter Do?” when the prizes were awarded to installations and video art instead of paintings. And while it is true that it was not the best time for painting, so it is difficult to question the jury’s decisions, but it still made me sad. Acting on an impulse, I decided to create a competition dedicated only to painting, and from there on it took us a month to organise the first edition of the “Fresh Blood.”
Because of time constraints, the first Fresh Blood required work to be completed very quickly and so we invited selected artists to take part in its first year, but the next “Fresh Blood” was an open-call contest. The need to support painting was one of the main driving forces behind the competition. It is a classic medium, and like poetry, it is there to stay. I was convinced that painting would regain its former significance, and that this was just a passing phase. After a couple of years of organising the competition and paying close attention to young painters, it possible to say that this has indeed been the case.
DB: However, we’re beginning to act beyond the framework of strict divisions between different media. There is a turn away from dividing and outlining boundaries; painting is one thing and object is another. The artist operating within one medium moves on to another easily, and visually combines them in one work of art. But through Fresh Blood, you still maintain that there is a division between techniques.
KJ: We’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years now and we are gradually including spatial forms into the competition. We can see that artists using traditional techniques frequently look for new ways of expression, and this multidimensionality makes them complete artists, while the painting itself doesn’t lose anything.
DB: But the walls of the competition exhibition hall are filled with traditional paintings…
KJ: Yes, because the main category is still painting, but spatial forms, a parallel category, have nevertheless been present for two years.
DB: You still haven’t answered my first question… Being an artist as well as the organiser of Fresh Blood, your perspective on the usefulness of competition is particularly crucial.
KJ: On the one hand, I dream of a world without any competitions, any invented competition categories. But I also know that that is not possible. It’s how the artistic world is arranged, there have been contests and always will be. People like fighting and winning. Artists do too. Competitions provide an opportunity to confront your works with others, meet new people, discuss — this exchange of thought, and being together, among others, contributes to a dialogue. Competitions initiate subsequent activities e.g. exhibitions. There are failures, too, but as time passes, you look at it from a certain distance and treat participation in competitions as a sort of exercise which helps you stay in shape, even without any spectacular results. You should be immersed in art when you are in your atelier, and then it is always worth releasing your work and to give it an independent life.
DB: But a competition is also an artificially created situation, showing that someone is better than others because of the prize won. Art is, to a large extent, a subjective and individual sphere. By creating a “hierarchy” of the prize-winners, competitions provide a “seeming” truth, which is an outcome of all the votes of the specialists on the jury. However, the decisions are often based on the average value of votes cast for contestants and not the best work; in other words, the winner is frequently not one who has produced the best work, but one who has produced the most average and the safest one.
KJ: That is often the case, but in “Fresh Blood”, we try to choose a winner unanimously. I would like to refer back to a discussion held during the final event of the Bielska Jesień 2016 painting biennial where we touched upon the issue of objectivity and subjectivity in art, in light of the audience disagreeing with the Grand Prix. One of the jurors — Kamil Kuskowski expressed an interesting suggestion: To create two separate commissions within one competition, which would probably mean two completely different prize-winning works. Essentially, it is a great marketing idea… Going back to your doubts, I don’t think that the main prize-winners would think of themselves as better than others. We know that the competition is a temporary agreement, a convention we agree to.
DB: On the occasions of certain competitions and group exhibitions organised to present the best artists from a given circle, there is a tendency (not a new one, it dates back to 19th century) towards expressing views on organising an exhibition of both these artists and the works that had lost, were not qualified — a society of the rejected ones.
KJ: Before the announcement of the results of each competition Łukasz Huculak (a former juror, and a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław) asks us to send him photos of works that weren’t qualified. So yes – curiosity for the unknown is strong.
DB: Let’s go back to the question of organising the competition, because we’ve digressed from that issue a bit. What are the conditions, the methods of selection, and the categories? The first stage is an online application — you choose contestants for the next part of the competition based on those.
KJ: I think that Magda is the right person to answer this, because she is responsible for the schedule, performance and organisation of the competition.
Magda Bobko: The main principle is that anyone can apply — the framework of “Fresh Blood” is open. Artists who passed their diploma exam in a given year or the year before can all apply. We just wait for paintings and sculpture work to come in.
As far as the choice of works is concerned, it’s clear that it’s subjective. We are not driven by formats, or the choice of topics, we select works which are the best and the most interesting in our opinion. We try to showcase the widest scope of young artists’ works possible at the post-competition exhibition. We choose diverse works, in terms of technology, artistic forms and narration.
DB: Are the contestants required to attach a description of the work, project, or concept to the application?
MB: It’s not obligatory, but the artists often choose to include this information on their own anyway. That is understandable because they can only submit two to four works to the competition, and those works are often part of a diploma work or another larger series. The description allows one to place them in the right context.
DB: We’ve passed over something; the first stage covers the submission of works in electronic format, and the first selection is performed on that basis. I wonder how you choose a work of art on the basis of an electronic file.
I also see that you have a large number of textural paintings qualified for the exhibition which are not visible on a computer screen.
KJ: It is a bit easier to see the form of a spatial object in its electronic version than with a painting, especially if it is based on nuances. I have this, let’s call it an “advantage” that I graduated from painting and can predict the form of a painting on the basis of electronic reproductions.
MB: Of course, there is always the risk that some nuances might be missed. This was the case with Justyna Smoleń, who submitted black textural paintings two years ago. We couldn’t determine how they would look like in real life on the basis of the photographs alone. So it poses a certain risk, but we acknowledge that.
DB: Have you applied this formula from the very beginning?
KJ: Yes. There are a lot of submissions each year and it would be impossible for us, authors of an original and grassroots initiative, to manage a large number of delivered parcels and physically accommodate all the works submitted for stage one.
DB: How many of them go on to qualify for the competition exhibition?
KJ: About fourteen artists this year, and eighteen or twenty last year. The number depends on the exhibition space where we present the works. In addition to that, thinking about the painting review as an exhibition, we must take into account how the selected works should be presented together, we especially don’t want to cram them next to each other, from ceiling to floor.
DB: So the first choice is a more like a sort of personal selection.
KJ: Yes. Of course, I do additionally consult with the gallery’s staff and there are always doubts. The initial selection is the most demanding, but at the same time a very exciting stage of the process. It’s very time-consuming. I tend to go back to individual submissions countless times. While thinking of individual works, I must also take the final exhibition into consideration. I look for some understanding between the works, or a conflict. I look for separate works. I think about narration — whether it is possible or not. Can I arrange the works into a story? I usually invite a jury of five people to the arranged exhibition. “Fresh Blood” is dedicated to young artists, and we like them to be assessed by a relatively young jury. There are no distinguished professors, heads of institutions, or editors in the jury, something which can be incomprehensible for some. We wish for the jury to be aligned with contestants. If the juror is a representative of academic circles, they are an assistant or lecturer (Łukasz Huculak, Rafał Borcz, Karolian Frejno, me), if representing a public institution, they are usually curators (Anna Mitus, Anna Borowiec, Piotr Stasiowski – before becoming the head of the Gdańsk City Gallery), if a writer, it’s someone like Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało.
DB: And what about the way the works are chosen? The decision is made unianimously — all the jury members need to be unanimous in their pick as far the prize-winner is concerned.
KJ: Yes, the most important thing is to reach an agreement and not to force your opinion upon others. Discussion is fundamental and the basis on which we choose prize-winners (often after a heated exchange of opinons). It’s not that we have to award a prize at all, and last year, we resigned from granting the Grand Prix in the sculpture category, because we decided that there was no one work which everyone agreed upon. We gave up because we decided that we would stay fair to our judgements.
It is sometimes the case that the final winner is a work that didn’t seem as good in the reproductions, or which was not taken under much consideration during the jury’s discussions.
DB: What do you look for in these works?
KJ: They must move us. There are works which attract the viewer, release emotions, and provide topics for conversation. It is good if art crosses the boundaries over to other subjects, when we start talking about a painting and move on to philosophy, film, and literature. We discuss every work in detail during the jury’s session. It has become a small tradition and a great pleasure.
DB: Do you follow the lives of the artists and the works presented to you during the competition?
KJ: We choose prize-winners after much thought, so that we can invite them to collaborate on further projects. We don’t want “Fresh Blood” to limit itself to “hello” and “goodbye” after the exhibitions. We invite young artists to take part in joint exhibitions or external projects, and when looking for artists we always reach into the competition’s archives.
DB: Like the last exhibition of the competition’s prize-winners at the Wrocław Contemporary Museum.
KJ: The exhibition at the Wrocław Contemporary Museum was a way to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the competition. Natalia Bażowska, Monika Mysiak, Agata Kus, Filip Rybkowski and Justyna Smoleń presented their most recent works, not only paintings.
DB: Do you provide them support?
KJ: We remain very interested in their activities, cooperate with them on external projects, and showcase their works at art fairs. But we’re not closely tied.
MB: We’re a sort of advisory back-up; we help them and offer advice.
DB: How does the competition benefit the artists? Being an artist, what assets, or to put it differently, what possibilities do you see associated with Fresh Blood? Why does one enter competitions?
KJ: I believe that my paintings want to take part in competitions and I don’t limit them. I want to show them to people, I want them to travel and make new contacts. A joint exhibition is different — as the curator has to carefully select the works according to a larger theme — than a competition exhibition — which is often accidental. And that is very interesting to me — it provides a new context for my works. It acts like a breath of fresh air for me and my art. Besides it is always a good excuse to meet friends at the opening.
MB: Participation in competitions is a litmus test of an artist’s activity, their willingness to develop and test themselves. It also creates a useful distance between an artist and their art. Furthermore — a competition provides a chance to show oneself to a wider public and obtain exposure because competitions usually have budgets for promotion and have a wider presence in the media.
DB: Do the curators and gallery owners look at the results of competitions? Is a competition of any significance to them?
KJ: It depends on a curator or a gallery owner’s expectations. They do have a look at the results out of curiosity, and to keep track of things. But is the first prize in a competition cause for a gallery owner to initiate cooperation? I don’t think so. It is a personal decision because of one simple fact: If I were to allocate my own resources, including the most valuable one – time, I must be certain. The key factor in close cooperation is the relationship with a given artist.
DB: Has this always been a nationwide competition?
DB: Weren’t you tempted to expand the scope of the competition by allowing international submissions? If you want to show the strength of painting in various fields, why limit yourselves to only one country? It would be interesting to present young artists in a broader context than just one circle, to search for common subject matter from all over the world, to wonder how artists of similar ages create and think. In July 2016, the All-Poland Best Diploma Work Review was held in Gdańsk featuring graduates of higher-education institutions from Central Europe who were granted prizes by the Academies.
KJ: To begin with, my wish is to organise the competition in a larger space. For the time being, we are operating well within the available space, but we are planning to expand the competition. International artists? Let’s see.
DB: Our last question is more of a request, really, for any tips you might have for artists. As the competition is quite extensive, what should they pay attention to? Should they send everything they have or be selective?
KJ: It is always worth paying attention to competitions which have a certain tradition and a reputation built over many years. Competitions are usually organised by people from artistic circles and therefore may be useful in opening new career paths to artists. There are also numerous competitions which operate on a smaller-scale, and here I would pay attention to who won the previous years’ competitions. I would also recommend finding out if the organisers continue to provide some sort of support to the artists after the event is over.
DB: Another frequently asked question is if it is better to submit one work from each series, or to be more consistent and present works of similar theme. What are your opinions about this?
KJ: Consistent works for sure. The impact is stronger. If it works, we go on to examine the remaining works anyway. We do more reading, look for more information on the Internet, and look closely at the portfolios.
DB: Wonderful. Thank you so much for talking to me, and for all the useful information you had for artists.
Karolina Jaklewicz – founder of the “Fresh Blood” competition, Magdalena Bobko – producer
Young Art Review is organized by Socato Art Gallery, www.socato.pl
More information about competition – www.socato.pl / www.swiezakrew.pl
From the very beginning of the Competition the strategic sponsor is Olesinski&Partners