Every summer, the local art world buzzes with anticipation for The Big Show at Lawndale Art Center, an annual open-call, juried exhibition that gives emerging and underrepresented Houston-area artists the opportunity to get their foot in the door at one of the city’s premier arts institutions. Each year, artists across the city and within a 100-mile radius of the venue scramble to get materials and works together for submission. Started in 1984, The Big Show was formerly known as the East End Show, sponsored by the East End Progress Association, at Lawndale’s original location. The show receives hundreds of submissions and works are selected by an esteemed curator, arts administrator or person of interest chosen by a committee within Lawndale.
For many years, the selected juror lives and works outside the region. I myself was chosen to jury The Big Show in 2010 when I was still living in Portland. It goes without saying that The Big Show presents an amazing process for juror and artist alike. For the artist, it’s their chance to get their work in front of a fresh set of eyes. For jurors, it’s a whirlwind jaunt and an all-immersive process flying into Houston and choosing 100 to 200 works from the 700 to 800 submitted works. Until a few years ago, each artist was allowed to submit up to three pieces of work and the pieces were physically dropped off at Lawndale; the walls and every square foot of space was filled with canvases, sculptures, boxes and installations pieces. The jury process took an average of two very long days within one weekend. Usually the visiting curator or creative spent only about three days in Houston, diving headfirst into the works, attending a few parties and mixers, and then jetting back to their home state. The winners were chosen before the jurors returned home, and on occasion, they were able to make it back for the opening. Of course, there were pros and cons with this method, but it worked just fine for the organization for well over 30 years.
But as the previous year’s wrapped, Lawndale began to tweak and reconfigure how The Big Show managed the process. First was the jury process itself. The works were chosen through a digital submission process and the out-of-state juror or jurors had the luxury to go through the process in a less hurried manner and from the comfort of their own home or office. I’ve always prefered to see the works in person, but as you could imagine, 700 artworks would drain your life force faster than The Dark Crystal. There was some grumbling amongst the artists who had participated or submitted every year, but it soon subsided and things were back to the normal workings of the everyday. This year, the artists were allowed one submission of work made that year. As well as the new criteria, a theme, “The Rate of Change,” was set into place for the first time. The fine tuning was still at hand, and with the waving of the entry fee — thus giving more artists the ability to apply — Lawndale broke with its decades-long practice of relying on out-of-town jurors and redefined itself.
This year, Lawndale welcomed local juror Toby Kamps, the new Director and Chief Curator of the Blaffer Art Museum and former Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Menil Collection. This was certainly big news for Houston and Lawndale. However, this was not their first local juror. In the beginning, the first few years featured local curators and artist as jurors, including the renowned and nationally recognized museum director and curator of contemporary arts Walter Hopps. After his time around the country, Hopps was the director of The Menil in 1980 and later curator of the institution for several decades. His long-awaited autobiography, The Dream Colony, just hit the shelves on June 6 of this year. It only seems fitting to return to early tradition by choosing Kamps as this year’s Big Show juror. Kamps reviewed works by 549 artists — the largest number of artists to submit their work in the history of The Big Show — and selected nearly 200 works for the exhibition. With the change in juror this year, we saw a grand mix of emerging and established artists, with the likes of Terrell James, George Smith, David McGee, Bill Willis, Laura Lark, and recent wave-makers such as Bret Shirley, Iva Kinnard, Heather Bause, Phillip Pyle II, and many more. The roster read like a who’s-who list with a pleasant peppering of new names and works. This year the annual award was divided three ways — another break in tradition — and given to new faces Kathy Drago, Zachary Gresham and Renata Lucia at the opening night ceremonies, which was as usual filled elbow-to-elbow with notable creatives. The exhibition was covered floor to ceiling with works, and was still surprisingly exciting to navigate. Much like working your way through a museum’s flat files, The Big Show presented a wide range of works to experience.
Free Press Houston was curious to learn more and asked Lawndale Executive Director Stephanie Mitchell to comment on the new changes and her take on the impact:
“Lawndale has been working carefully and diligently to raise its profile as an exhibition space for artists across the spectrum (emerging, mid-career, established),” Mitchell says. “We have done this by increasing the exhibition honoraria, commissioning critical essays and producing publications, and investing in programs like SPEAKEASY that harken back to Lawndale’s early engagement with performance and music. Toby Kamps thinks big and passionately, and he was excited about the opportunity to see and work with newly made artworks and with artists in the wider community. Internally, there have been many discussions about how to make the jurying process as stimulating for the juror as possible. One great benefit for the artists – in addition to the awards – is that they have the opportunity to have their work imprinted on a curator who works outside of our community and within the larger art world. That’s awesome! Part of the reasoning behind the new criteria of one work created within the past year is that it gives the juror more space to carefully consider the work in front of them. When a juror is considering hundreds and hundreds of artworks — online, no less — I believe strongly that something is lost in the process. We want to prevent that and ensure that The Big Show is functioning as much as an export of the great work being done in Houston as it is an import of a great juror from the national/international artworld.”
This year’s exhibition does read a bit more like a curated exhibition, but it’s still very much the beloved Big Show. It’s apparent that it’s very different from previous years, but it’s good to see Lawndale embracing change and shaking up their white box a little. It’s good to step out of the comfort zone for a moment and adapt to the environment. Kamps was a shoo-in choice for the new year, and he certainly had plenty of insight to share with Lawndale. The Big Show 2.0 brought a wave of freshness to the process, and it still leaves the door open for out-of-town curators to step in another year. The Big Slide Show — a presentation-based crash course on many of the artists involved — will be held once again this year on three consecutive Thursday evenings at 6 pm, starting on July 20. At Lawndale’s Big Show there is much to see and be enthralled by, always providing an impressive core sample of the Houston arts and its surrounding cities. It’s a great summer show to step into and it provides a chance for discovery both as a viewer and as a participant. So go and embrace the new elements! Moreover, do not fear — change is good for the soul.
The Big Show at Lawndale Art Center (4912 Main) runs through August 12, 2017. The Big Slide Show will be held on three consecutive Thursday evenings at 6 pm: July 20, July 27 and August 3, 2017.