SWAIA commits to transparency in its jurying process for Santa Fe Indian Market.
In a public question-and-answer session held on May 23, Ira Wilson, the newly minted executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), invoked the Diné concept of hózhó, a striving toward finding balance. When Wilson stepped into his post in late February, the jurying process for the 2018 season had already wrapped up. His role, as he mentioned later, had been to right an unsteady ship. And so, when he invoked balance at the public proceedings, it was in response to a long-standing need for communication about organizational decisions that appeared shrouded in mystery. Former or current participants of Indian Market were looking for clarification on topics ranging from booth selection, how to honor elders, application deadlines and the jurying process. The event was filmed in a Facebook live feed and many in the online community also responded in real time with questions, grievances, support and suggestions.
The discussion also centered around the immensely thorny issue of tenure, the now-defunct practice of allowing longtime participants to maintain a booth at Indian Market without having to apply or have their
work juried into the show. Between 1992 and 2015, “A majority of artists [in Indian Market] were tenured so a smaller percentage who didn’t have tenure status had to jury into the show,” Cliff Fragua, a sculptor from Jemez Pueblo, former board member and past juror, describes. For those who had to apply, the waiting listing could be upward of 10 years, leaving many artists feeling like participating in Indian Market was an impossible prospect.
At first intended by the board of directors to be temporary—two years—tenure eventually lasted for more than two decades. In that time, it had naturally become an expectation. With livelihoods at stake on both sides, its recent abolishment unleashed a tempest of reactions—support, shock and feelings of rejection alike. Amidst the responses there has also been a clear desire within the new administration
and beyond for transparency, on the one hand, and the standardization of procedures, on the other. Here, a new chapter of SWAIA is unfolding, in which all artists compete against their peers for a place at Indian Market. To be in hózhó, then, is to strike a balance between multiple forces while taking the necessary steps toward mending the fault lines that have come to bear as a result of the growing pains the organization is currently experiencing. As this new chapter opens, the process of jurying applications will remain pivotal.
Nuts and Bolts
Currently, there are 661 booths available through the City of Santa Fe. To gain one of those coveted spaces, aspiring participants all go through the same screening process: filling out an online or hard copy application, which comprises submitting high-quality photography, providing a short description of the work, proof of tribal status and certifications. The applications are numbered consecutively depending on when they are received; the 10th application to come in the door, for instance, would be numbered “10.” This number is used in the blind jurying process so that jurors refer not to specific creators, but to generic numbers. This is meant to ensure against biased jurying or preferential treatment based on one’s personal knowledge of the artist. Typically, applications open in November and are due in mid- to late January. As SWAIA’S FAQ page makes clear, all determinations of admission, wait listing or rejection are based upon photographs the artists send and without “consideration of the artists’ history of awards, family legacy or anything else.”
To Navajo jeweler Lyndon Tsosie submitting highquality photographs of artwork is key to admission. He has himself been a judge twice and emphasized that a pixelated or blurry photograph or a background, for instance a patterned blanket, that distracts from the artwork can lead to a low score. “You don’t need ad photos for judging. Simple photos with the right lighting and the right background at 300 dpi or more,” are his recommendation. Adrian Wall, a sculptor and jeweler who has also judged twice in the past, remarks that it wasn’t until after applying three times and getting waitlisted twice that he was juried into the show. Echoing Tsosie, he also believes that having a pool of quality photography taken over the course of the year is next in importance to making excellent work. It’s also key to establish scale for works that are especially small, like miniature pots.
“Jurying is one of the several pieces that form the core of Indian Market,” Wilson explains, noting that SWAIA looks to experienced specialists (artists, curators, collectors and art educators) in compatible fields to make the determinations of admission. “When a person puts themselves into the position of getting judged, they’re trusting the process,
hoping the jury is unbiased, understanding of craft, materials and design,” as Joan Caballero sums up. A dealer and collector of Native art as well as a former judge and board member, she notes that the process of screening is necessarily subjective and relies on a deep past knowledge of art and craftsmanship. It is a process of “making points of comparison” until the pool finally shrinks and a “few rise to the top.” It takes a close analysis of works and if any aspect of the craftsmanship (the amount of epoxy used on a chipped inlaid piece of jewelry, for instance) comes under question, that sense of uncertainty can define the fate of the artist’s admission or rejection. The notes section of the application is where artists can concisely clarify their process.
When jurying applications, jurors consult four criteria: technical execution, concept/design/ creativity, aesthetics and Indian Market standards, each valued at up to 25 points for a possible total score of 100. Standards can be upholding the use of certain materials while prohibiting others. Fragua mentions that “resin isn’t allowed because of the potential for mass production,” even if some exceptions are made for unique resin sculptures. Other exceptions include the use of canvas for painting. Reconstituted turquoise
and man-made gems will also not be considered. As for bronzes and prints, while easily reproduced, they are admissible in limited editions.
“There are techniques, materials, media that are constantly coming into the market,” Fragua points out. “That can sometimes be controversial. It takes time; research has to be done. Just because one or two artists are doing that work, we don’t have to make a whole new category.” The shifts in media have warranted a certain kind of flexibility on the part of SWAIA and an evolution in Indian Market standards. For those with whom the jurying process has been mystifying, Fragua’s remedy is for “SWAIA artists to volunteer and they will have a better understanding.”
The goal for having an all juried show is not to push longtime participants, many who identify as traditional creators, out of their place in Indian Market, but to remain true to SWAIA’S mission. In fact, traditional creators had the chance to jury into the market for their first time in recent years just the same as contemporary artists. Still, traditional and contemporary creators are not in opposition or competition even if the dialogue has been mired in just such binaries. Often portrayed as a scarab fixed in amber, tradition is rather a continually evolving set of technologies and associations from ancestral to anthropological, just as contemporary Native art always remains steadfast in its roots. And while helpful to some in defining artwork, the terms can have the unfortunate effect of boxing meaning and makers into divisive categories. The two are not separate on the timeline of cultural production but instead walk a parallel path.
Along those lines, the reverence for elders and what they produce has been continually reaffirmed across the board. “Our culture says that our elders come first and I made sure to help my mother apply [the past two years] and encourage other artists to help their elders, too,” Fragua explains, referencing the difficulties that older populations face with taking photography,
submitting an online application or saving images to a USB drive or CD. Others may face obstacles like lack of internet access, for example. SWAIA is now embarking on outreach in tribes, setting up booths in various Pueblos, Hopi, Zuni and the Navajo Nation, to help artists fill out applications.
“As the new executive director, the one thing I want to achieve in the next few years is to peel the skin of the onion back and allow for transparency,” says Wilson. As far as jurying goes, Wilson plans to gather data about other juried art shows to provide benchmarks for SWAIA’S own evolving model. He is well aware of and open about claims of unscrupulous jurying practices in the past, whether the result of bias on behalf of collectors or artists, or inexperience. The Native art world is small, and blind jurying requires an added sense of neutrality when looking at work that is readily recognizable by craftsmanship alone. To that, his remedy is to widen the jurying net beyond the region to include specialists from around the country with the hopes of a workable online system, as well as to responsibly vet jurors and their expertise. In time, a new artist committee will be formed to confront artists’ concerns, but also to seek out their opinion on jurors who will maintain a commitment to neutrality and honesty.
With a sense of calm about him, Wilson was clear about the challenges the organization has met and will continue to meet, many of which go far beyond the jurying process. Moving forward though, he sees himself as a unifier and, above all, a listener.
2. SWAIA executive director director Ira Wilson
4. Sculptor and jeweler Adrian Wall.
3. A visitor views the 2017 award winners. Photo by Daniel Nadelbach.
4. An artist fills out an Indian Market application, with work to be juried.
A couple brings jewelry to apply for Indian Market during an outreach visit.
Jeweler Maria Susanna Lovato shows off a photo of a past Indian Market.