What Its like to be a judge for the Coconut Grove Arts Festival

This year will be my second year as a judge for the Coconut Grove Arts Festival. As an artist myself, I always wonder what judges are thinking when they select winners and losers. I can’t speak for others, but I thought it might be useful for people to understand my perspective as a judge. First and foremost, it is a great honor and a big responsibility to make it a fair and valuable experience to both visitors and participants. Judging is a personal decision and there is no mathematical scoring system to play by. I will be judging both photography and digital art. That said, these are the things I look for in judging the competition.

Technically Strong

The Coconut Grove Arts Festival is a juried festival so it almost goes without saying that every work of art in the show should be technically strong. If you are a photographer that means exposure, contrast, sharpness, color, focus, etc. must be considered in making the image. This does not mean that these elements must meet a certain standard, but, if they diverge there must be an artistic reason for the divergence. In digital art, I look for works where the composition of elements creates a visual world, whether, real, fantasy or surreal. The works should not look like a poorly assembled collage of individual elements unless that is part of the creative vision.

Grove Vibe

The Coconut Grove Arts Festival has grown from a small neighborhood festival into arguably, the nations largest juried outdoor art festival. The Festival’s history reflects both the bohemian and Bahamian lifestyle of artists who made the Grove their home. Much of the artwork exhibited in the Festival today still pays tribute to the south Florida culture, its tropical climate, and its independent lifestyle. What tends to be absent from the Festival is much of the dark and paranoid visions often promoted in the New York and International art shows; and that is a reflection of the artist’s community of Coconut Grove. Additionally, we see only a little of the commercially targeted “total abstract” artwork reminiscent of works by Jackson Pollock and similar contemporary artists. The artwork that makes it’s way to the festival tends to be beautiful, uplifting, and pleasant to look at. I look for artwork that is congruent with that Coconut Grove vibe; something I could imagine hanging on the walls of one of our resident’s homes.


Does the art evoke emotion? Does it speak to me? I need to feel something when I look at art. If its a portrait, the eyes should draw me in and capture my imagination. If its a landscape, it should make me want to walk into the picture and become part of the story. If its a fantasy or surreal world, I should find myself embracing this unusual place and constructing a story about my existence in this place. If its nature, I should be so amazed by its beauty that I want to reach out and touch it. If its the human form, I should be drawn to its beauty and character. An abstract work of art should appeal to me with its composition and color to invoke a wholesome mood. The worst thing that art can do is leave me without feeling, just overloaded with visual noise.

Visual Elements and Content

Does the artwork have good composition? What makes it visually interesting? I like artwork that considers the graphical elements of composition; leading lines, organic forms, sculpting light, color (or lack of color), framing, and layered depth of field. Good art doesn’t have to have all of these items but it does tend to make the art more appealing. Strong graphical elements can hold the viewers attention on a specific element while strong lines can guide the viewers attention around the work of art. Organic forms tend to soften the tension in a work of art and proper lighting turns a two dimensional surface into a three dimensional vision. Color sets the mood while depth of field tells the story.

Personal Appeal

Darren Olsen Photography

The most subjective part of judging is personal appeal. Is this something I might own or see in the home of my neighbors? Does it fit into the vibe of the Grove? Does the artwork speak to me personally? There is really nothing an artist can do about this aspect of the competition. Art appeals to different people in different ways. The best advice I can give to a competing artist is don’t change your art to please an audience or judge. Make art that expresses your inner emotions and let it shine through. If your expression is genuine, it is more likely to have broader appeal.


What does your booth look like? Did you take the time to design a booth that enhances the experience of viewing your artwork? Entering a street art festival is tough. You have to bring your work, hang it in a small space and make the booth inviting. If the booth isn’t inviting, people will just walk on by. One thing I recommend for exhibitors is to make sure nobody feels trapped inside your booth. Sometimes people try to maximize wall space and make a small entry. When people come inside, they get cornered by other visitors or even the artist. Collectors need ample space to enjoy your art. Visiting an art festival can be visually over stimulating. Try to hang pieces with complimentary color schemes together to reduce hyper-stimulation inside your booth.

Artist Statement

Sometimes, I feel that there is too much weight placed on artist statements. I feel that writing an artist statement is of most value to the artist understanding their own work rather than explaining it to others. It may be interesting to read what an artist was thinking; but I should not have to read, understand, nor agree with the artist’s statement to appreciate their art. In my personal experience, when people say they love a particular work of art, I ask them to tell me how the art speaks to them. I have found it is best to let people make their own interpretation of art; let it reach into their soul and find meaning. Bottom line, when I enter a booth to judge an artist’s work, it is probably not helpful to talk to me about the inspiration and meaning behind your art.

Other Works

Eric Clay Fine Art Photography

Does your website and social media demonstrate a consistent quality of work? Is there a recognizable style to your work? The day of the judging is a very hectic time. Booths are spread across a mile long stretch of streets with many people visiting the festival. There is little time for deep contemplation of the artwork so preparation and research is key to giving every artist careful consideration. Days before the festival, I review the sample artwork submitted for entry to the festival and then I look to the artist’s website and social media to get a better feel for their work. This makes it easier to understand their art when I enter their booth.

Visit the Coconut Grove Arts Festival and Collect Your Own Art Masterpieces

Don’t wait for me to show you the best art in the Grove! See it for yourself. Visit the Coconut Grove Arts Festival this President’s Day Weekend and support the artists. The weather in South Florida can’t be beat this time of year. Get out, bring the family, make friends, experience the Grove vibe, collect art, be happy!