In the mid-19th century, the Paris Salon, the official annual exhibit of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, showcased the best academic painting of the time. In 1863, two-thirds of the artworks under consideration for the show were rejected, leading to the establishment of the Salon des Refusés, an alternate exhibit that contained works by Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and James McNeill Whistler, to name a few. Many of the artists in the Salon des Refusés would go on to even greater renown than some of the contemporaries favored by the Académie. What led to the alternative exhibit was the uproar caused by the Académie’s rejection of so many works. The artists were outraged. Something similar played out during Indian Market weekend this year, when several artists who normally show work at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts annual event ended up at the Indigenous Fine Art Market (IFAM) instead.
SWAIA made applying for a booth at Indian Market much more competitive than in previous years, with new guidelines for judging artworks. This came as a surprise to a lot of Indian Market artists who were expecting to be juried in. Photographer Peggy Fontenot, mixed-media artist Brent Greenwood, sculptor Mark Fischer, glass artist Tony Jojola, and others who normally show at Indian Market received letters stating that this year, they didn’t get in. As any artist who applies to juried shows can tell you, the application process is never a guarantee of placement. There are more applicants than there are available booths, and SWAIA maintains a waiting list in case a spot should open up. But many of the artists who did not get juried in were award-winning artists at previous Indian Markets who had been participating for years and, in some cases, decades. “I received this letter on how they have upped their standards, and I didn’t make the cut,” glass artist and longtime Indian Market exhibitor Tony Jojola told Pasatiempo. “What they did was just not right and a lot of it impinges on our sales. I had my booth for over 30 years. A number of my clients come year after year. If you’re not there then you possibly lose out.” Jojola, who studied with Venetian glass artist Lino Tagliapietra and attended the prestigious Pilchuck Glass School in Washington, supplied photos of his work as part of his application process, including an image of Antelope Mount, an award-winning sculpture from a previous market year. Jojola’s letter from SWAIA, which he provided to Pasatiempo, suggests that artists have been submitting poor images and inadequate descriptions of their artistic process. “Considering the caliber of artists competing for a booth at Indian Market,” states the letter, “please make sure that future applications put forward your work in the best possible light.” Jojola said, “It’s a generic letter, but I was pretty offended by what it said. It made me feel like it’s the work. But it’s not the work. I mean, I have gotten nothing but good comments about the work.”
Several artists, including Jojola, contacted John Torres Nez, IFAM’s president, and were able to procure space at the Indigenous Fine Art Market. “It wasn’t just a few — I think it was like 50 — artists calling me at the last minute, completely boggled by the fact that they weren’t in Indian Market,” Torres Nez told Pasatiempo. “We kind of did a second jurying. The show was full, but I asked for an expansion. The fire marshal approved it so we could accommodate a lot of those other artists.” Painter Ronald Chee, who did not get into Indian Market, said, “I called IFAM at the last minute, and John was very understanding. If you have a question for John, he’s right there to answer you. He’s not going to hide behind a desk, behind closed doors.” Some artists had booths in both markets this year. Last year, IFAM staff automatically juried in anyone in Indian Market who wanted to participate. That helped swell IFAM’s numbers, considering the short amount of time (about four months) the organizers had to pull the alternative market together and find exhibitors. IFAM ran Thursday through Saturday for its first two years, overlapping with Indian Market on Saturday only. In 2014, Chee started off at IFAM and moved over to Indian Market that weekend. “When I relocated to the Plaza, I felt I was doing my part as an artist to support both SWAIA and IFAM.”
IT may be SWAIA’s prerogative to change how it does things, but communicating those changes to its artists is a major concern. The rejection letters the artists I spoke with received came as a shock. According to SWAIA’s chief operating officer, Dallin Maybee, the judging in years past was based on a scoring system. Three judges awarded points considering a number of criteria for a perfect score of 15. “One thing that I noticed which was a little too arbitrary was how do you decide how many painters, how many potters, how many jewelers get in? Obviously, you don’t want every jeweler to get in or else you’d have a show of 800 jewelers and a few hundred of everybody else,” Maybee told Pasatiempo.
For 2015, a panel of three judges considered works based on four criteria: technical execution; concept/design/creativity; aesthetics; and Indian Market standards. Each judge could award 25 points per criteria to a perfect score of 300. “That gave us a very hard line,” Maybee said. To make the selection process fair, SWAIA staff came up with a number — 58 percent — that could be applied to each category for which artists submitted applications. That means that 58 percent of jewelers could get in, as well as 58 percent of basket makers, 58 percent of painters, and all other categories. “I don’t want to sacrifice one classification over another,” Maybee said. “It’s a matter of fundamental fairness. I had one artist who came in. He’d been here for 24 years. ‘How could I not get in? There should be some mutual respect.’ I said, ‘You’re a great artist. I know your work, but let me show you what’s happened. We pulled up his images. We pulled up his score. He was maybe eight points off the cutoff, and he was on the wait list. I looked at his score from last year. When you needed a 14, he had an 11. The year before that he had a nine. Somebody didn’t want to have that conversation with him. If I’m going to be in this job, that’s my job.”
Brent Greenwood lost his booth after being told it would be reassigned. “Really, most of the blame can fall back on me,” Greenwood said. “There’s a booth fee, and I missed the final deadline. I called about 10 days after the final deadline, which is the end of May. They said, at that time, they were going to reassign my booth and that it was too late to pay that booth fee. I mentioned that it was halfway paid for.” Greenwood had a booth mate who had paid her half of the total fee. Greenwood offered to pay a late fee, but SWAIA wouldn’t budge. “They said there’s a waiting list, and it wouldn’t be fair to them. I get it and that’s totally understandable.” But when Greenwood went to see his friend during Indian Market, he found that his former booth mate was occupying the space herself. “She said, ‘They called and told me I had to pay the whole fee because you didn’t pay.’ I said, ‘I tried to pay, albeit late.’ If you say you’re going to reassign the booth, then reassign the booth; don’t put the burden of that financial expense on her.”
A somewhat similar experience awaited Peggy Fontenot, who shared her booth with a friend last year. “My friend ended up winning First Place and Best of Division for her quilt, which qualified her for a booth this year,” Fontenot said. Her former partner complained about wanting a larger booth this year. “I asked her what booth she had. She simply replied, ‘Yours.’ As you can imagine, I was devastated and angry.” Fontenot had won Second Place awards in photography at SWAIA for two years running. “I not only lost my booth, I didn’t even make it on their wait list, thus prohibiting me from sharing with someone,” she said. “I am one of the only photographers, and yet I didn’t jury in.” Fontenot was asked by a friend to help organize IFAM in 2014 before the decision to go ahead with the new market was made public. “I gave it much thought, but at the last moment decided to remain loyal to SWAIA, as it took me years to get a booth,” she said.
Ronald Chee applied for the 2015 Indian Market but never received the letter stating that his work was not accepted. “I was a 2012 Best of Division winner,” he said. This year, he said, “I didn’t find out my results until way beyond the time when the notifications were sent out. I physically had to walk into the SWAIA office and insisted on finding out whether or not I had a booth assignment.” According to Chee, SWAIA staff were unable to locate him in the computer system. “They said, ‘As a result, you were not accepted.’ I felt like there was just a real lack of professionalism on their part. If I was denied in the process, a letter should have been sent to me, but it wasn’t. Having been in Indian Market since 1997, I’ve always turned in quality images whenever required. I couldn’t get to the bottom of it. I wasn’t upset because I didn’t get in. I was upset because I didn’t get a letter in time to make other arrangements.”
Chee tried to get answers from Maybee. “I did email him and wanted to know some details but I never got a response. I talked to a couple of other artists who had a difficult time with their application process and had also tried to address the director and were not getting a response.” Jojola reported his difficulties in getting information, as well, when he asked Maybee for the names of the jurors selecting the artists who would show at the market. “He would not give me any names. I would like the board to answer to some of these questions. Who are the jurors? How could they diss these artists who have been so loyal to SWAIA over the years?”
According to Maybee, the jurying process is blind, but for an artist with a long history of showing at Market, a rejection can feel personal. “It is a rejection, so it feels like an attack, but it’s not,” said Maybee, who responded to Jojola’s frustrations about getting information. “Tony came to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m one of five glass artists in town. How did I not get in?’ ‘Well, you’re competing with all of sculpture, not just glass. I know your stuff is good.’ ‘He said, ‘Could it be that I did IFAM last year?’ I said, ‘Tony, I don’t know who did IFAM. I don’t have time to worry about that.’ He said, ‘I heard you could jump me in to the show?’ I said, ‘I could, but I’m not going to do it. It’s not fair to the ones who got in with a high enough score. It’s not fair to the ones who didn’t get in.’”
Fontenot, too, had her difficulties in getting information from SWAIA. “I contacted Dallin immediately, and we went back-and-forth,” she said. “Ultimately, I was told that my work did not meet their standards of quality this year. I was told that they have created a new scoring system and I fell below the grade.”
Issues between artists and Indian Market organizers are nothing new. Last April, Torres Nez, SWAIA’s former chief operating officer; Tailinh Agoyo, director of public relations; and Paula Rivera, artist services associate, all resigned. In a matter of weeks, they began organizing the volunteer-run IFAM at the urging of Native artists. “I’ve had a real up-and-down relationship with SWAIA over the years,” Chee said. “I think it’s normal with the changes of directors, all of them having their vision for SWAIA and where they want to take it. Artists are caught in between whether they agree or disagree with the changes. Sometimes, as a consequence, they don’t get booths.”
Maybee, who stepped in as SWAI’s interim COO in after Torres Nez resigned, has had his hands full responding to the flood of questions from rejected artists. “I had around 80 people reach out to me right around the time of the jurying, and I tried to get to every single one of them,” he said. “Some of them we didn’t get to. I’m an artist. I’ve been here since 2001. I won Best of Show in ’07. I’m very conscious about maintaining transparency and fairness and educating the artists as to the process because it was a mystery for me. I just knew that I submit an application and either I get in or I don’t get in. Every year I would worry about getting in even after I won Best of Show.” Maybee also had a booth at Indian Market this year and was juried in by the same process as other artists. “I’m not exempt at all,” he said, “and, actually, I didn’t have any work this year at Indian Market. I shared a booth with my mom. She probably loved the extra space. The only piece I produced I donated to the live auction gala.”
Chee was told that SWAIA changed things up over concerns about tenured artists and a lack of available booths for new exhibitors. SWAIA’s tenureship program allows master artists to occupy booths without first having to be juried in. “They told me tenured artists occupy about 40 percent of the available booths, and only 60 percent is open to new art coming in. In my opinion, that 40 percent coming in has actually elevated SWAIA over the years to become the market it has.” SWAIA reserves about 400 slots for tenured, nonjuried artists. “The tenureship program is the next big issue,” said Maybee, who would like to do away with the program. “There’s an inherent unfairness about that program. I don’t want people to feel their work is substandard. It’s just got to be fair.”
While Maybee seems to be addressing the issues of fairness in the judging process, there are kinks in the effective implementation of these plans, as evidenced by the number of artists who contacted IFAM when they didn’t get into Indian Market. If Maybee is committed to maintaining transparency at SWAIA, which has a history of being difficult to get information from, it could help alleviate criticism of the organization. Let’s hope that the current issues are just hiccups on the road to a more equitable entry process for future markets. ◀