Transparent, Open and Free - an article by Dexter Prior

"Having my own work selected in the Nottingham Castle Open last year, I was interested in how it all works and comes together, which for myself (and I’m sure for many others) is something of a mysterious process.  Instead of submitting this year I was invited to gain some insight into the ‘goings on’ of how an open submission show comes together, including sitting in on the Selection Day to see how work is presented, and ultimately ‘judged’. Dexter Prior_Diminuendo 1'Diminuendo', 2012, Dexter Prior

My main task was assisting with the production of a slide-presentation for selection. This was quite a daunting task as there were nearly 1,000 artwork submissions from around 330 artists.  Once eligibility had been checked (a handful applied from London, Liverpool, Glasgow and even one submission from Vienna - which made me double check that there wasn’t a small hamlet on the outskirts of Derby of the same name, but no, it was Vienna, Austria), it was then the long process of turning all the data into an image (or video) only, anonymous presentation for the judges. To do this, all personal data was removed and a number was assigned to each submission.  For example, submission ‘45’ may have four individual artworks with an accompanying detail for each piece, and so labelled as 45-1 and 45-1a (for the first image) 45-2 and 45-2a (for the second) and so on.



This labeling system was displayed in the bottom right-hand corner of each slide along with the submitted image.  If multiple works were submitted by one artist, they were grouped together so the judges could also get a sense of the artists’ practice as a whole. The judges had no idea of what the numbers meant, or who they related to.

On the day of selection the judges (Emily Speed, Holly Slingsby and Roger Malbert) were informed about the history of the Castle Open and how the selection process has worked in previous years. I got the sense that all of a sudden this instilled some fear into the judges, further informing them about the amount of submissions that needed to be looked through, and that by the end of the day a final selection would have to be decided upon. By this point I noticed that the initial fear had turned into more of an anxious “let’s get on with it then!”. With the judges ready to go, we made sure they understood the labeling system for each submission and that they could ask at any point for more information regarding each work, for example, a materials list, dimensions and the artists statement to inform their decision further – but nothing about the artist themselves.

BU1bVEzCcAEADlr.jpg largeThe Judges on the Selection Day, (l-r) Holly Slingsby, Emily Speed and Roger Malbert


The process quickly began to gain rhythm but it was evident that the judges were finding it hard to give a firm ‘yes’ to any works they had seen so far. Although some concrete decisions had been made early on, the majority of works were initially long-listed and later revisited after all the submissions had been viewed, only then could they start to make more confident decisions. I can now see that the judges came to their own curatorial conclusions on the final selection in a considered and democratic yet critical way, emphasizing the ethos of what an ‘open’ exhibition should be – judged on the images/artworks alone and in context with the other submitted works as a whole; if three different judges were on the panel then they may have responded in a different way to the selection process and thus created a different show altogether.

I was delighted to see that there were a few friends who made it in but there were also friends of mine that did not, which was quite awkward. Being impartial (as I was not a judge nor had influence over their decisions) I knew that this was the nature of the selection and being from the local area, where the majority of applications for the exhibition had come from, it was highly likely that I would see the an artists work I knew. Not that I disagreed with each decision the judges made, but I realised that I had also made a kind of selection in my mind of works that I liked or thought were interesting.

Open_2013-8047Nottingham Castle Open 2013 installation shot, John Hartley.

Listening to the judge’s comments on the day, there were a few recurring problems that hindered an artist’s work being selected, mainly based on the quality of the documentation and images. As selection was based on the images provided by the artists themselves, a good image was important for the judges to get a real sense of the work. They found that quite a few submissions were not clear enough in what they were showing - not really to do with megapixels (although that can help) - but were at times too ambiguous in terms of what the work was, or how it was to be exhibited. Taking the time to take good images of your work absolutely plays into your favor, and witnessing the selection process first-hand really ‘hammered it home’ to me how crucial this is. This was one of the main points that the judges wanted to highlight in terms of feedback that could be given in general to those who did not get selected.

I remember talking to the judges afterwards about applying for shows like the Castle Open, in particular with Emily Speed and how she mentioned the difficulties she had when receiving rejection letters, and how it can sometimes feel that luck is never on your side. She mentioned that very rarely do you receive any kind of feedback, personally or in a general sense after applying for an open-submission exhibition, which is understandable as it would take a long time (and sometimes impossible) to give individual feedback to each unsuccessful applicant. It was refreshing to hear that an established artist like Emily also had many rejections along the way. I personally have had many rejections from jobs, shows and residencies so it is something we can all relate to.  Last year I saw an artist’s work in a show at QUAD in Derby as part of an open-submission called Artifacts-Failure, displaying a large text piece consisting of all the first lines from rejection letters and emails the artist had received - which there were quite a lot of. The artist in this case had turned their rejections into an artwork, but it reminds me of something I have come to realise from assisting on the Castle Open that rejection is actually, and should be, part of an artist’s practice. In the face of rejection it is easy to feel like you want to stop altogether but being active and continuing to apply to opportunities and persisting, adapting and evolving the work you make are all positive responses to ‘rejection’."

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Nottingham Castle Open 2012 installation shot, John Hartley.


Dexter Prior is an artist based at One Thoresby Street, Nottingham.