Once I did a talk on how I would jury work from submissions to a show that received over 500 entries! My job was to discourse or critique each work entered. We reviewed pieces one by one in a slide show. (We did not get through the 500 pieces needless to say!) It was noticeable that some subjects were very popular. Waterfalls, mountain vistas, scenes with barns abounded! Since the show was not themed around any of these subjects, it made the competition even more stiff for some who chose these common subjects.
For artists, the most important thing to do is to enter their best work, and let each entry compliment the other. It lets the juror see that the artist has a focus, and it may be more likely that at least one of your pieces is accepted. Don’t second guess yourself, and don’t try to please the juror whatever you do! If the theme of a show is not something your work fits into, wait for the show that does.
For the viewer of an exhibition, looking at the show as a whole, how it is displayed (usually this is done by members of the organization) and puzzling over how winners are chosen is a way to learn more about art.
Picking the winners is a very daunting task. I think all experienced jurors work in a similar manner. I usually scan the room and see what works really jump out. I like to stand back to do this, so I view the works both close up and from a distance. In the end there are several criteria where an artist must excel to make it to the winners circle. Mastery of medium is an important one, and it is usually obvious if someone is lacking skills with their materials. A sound composition is also vitally important. Does the work tell a story or convey a feeling or mood? Sometimes a strong message can overcome weaknesses in other areas. Finally, is the work unique or does it have a flavor all its own? I am drawn to something that stands out with a compelling and creative twist. Does the artist have a different take on subject matter, or a new way of using media? While there are very clear components to a good artwork, in the end it is the subjective choice of the juror. Artists should never feel slighted. I knew an artist whose work was consistently rejected for two years. The same pieces were later accepted into a show, and he won first prize!
The courage and tenacity it requires to be an artist is its own reward, and the prize is a life filled with happiness and satisfaction. All successful artists savor the process over what comes after a piece is finished.