Here’s what I see when I look out my window at work: the National Portrait Gallery. Reopened to the public in July 2006, the NPG features a stunning building and a solid collection. But the thing that intrigued me most over a summer of occasional window-gazing was a banner featuring two words: Portrait Competition.
I don’t know about you, but when I think “portrait competition,” I imagine refrigerator drawings and cell-phone snapshots. I’ve been conditioned by the inconsistent quality of web 2.0 to look askance at contests. Sure, Oreo had success with their jingle competition, but the National Portrait Gallery? How good could it be?
Very good. The exhibition is varied, lively, and the art is of high quality. Friends name it as a highlight of their visits to D.C. It doesn’t feel like an experiment in 2.0. It feels like a vibrant art show.
I spoke last week with Brandon Fortune, curator of the exhibition. She detailed the deliberate steps NPG took to try to ensure that this competition would be a success. They modeled the competition after the British NPG’s well-established competition. They limited the entries for 2006 to paintings and sculptures to focus the submissions. They advertised the competition on the web, and only accepted online entries. They received over 4,000 submissions from all 50 states, which were judged by a panel of seven—including museum staff and outside artists. The top 100 selections were sent to Washington for final judging. One year after the competition was announced, the exhibition opened.
Perhaps the most well-thought-out piece of this project is its web component. Not only were the entries received via online submission, the judges used web-based systems to communicate. The museum also invited a number of artists to participate in “Portrait of an Artist,” in which competitors were given blog space by NPG to write about their artistic processes and the development of their submission piece. Some of these artists, regardless of the status of their submission, continued contributing to the site for a year. Finally, in addition to the top prize pieces selected by the judges, visitors to the website and to the exhibition were able to vote for their own favorite piece, which received the People’s Choice award. 14,000 people voted. (Brandon noted that there were noticeable differences in voting trends between in-museum and web visitors, though the winning piece won in both venues.) The curators later contacted some of the people who had voted for that piece and asked them to comment on their selection. Interesting that on the exhibition website you can see how regular visitors chose their favorite but not how the judges did.
There have been some criticisms that the competition, and this kind of approach, could move art exhibitions from challenging to appeasing populist preferences. But I think that misses the point of what's successful about the competition. While some components of the project are less impressive (an online “create your own portrait” feels weak), I appreciate the extent to which the NPG team thought about and focused on creating and showcasing relationships—between artists and their work, and between visitors and art. When I walk through the exhibition, I feel connected to the artists and their subjects in a way I rarely do in more traditional shows. And at the most basic level, the thing that appeals to me about the competition is the banner, which engages me in childhood delusions that even I could send in a submission. I could be a part of this.
I asked Brandon how this project differed from other shows with which she has been involved. As she put it, “it’s such a rush not knowing what’s coming. We couldn’t control the input, there was a large panel of jurors—it was the complete opposite of a show put together in a single curator’s voice.” The competition, endowed by a Gallery docent, will be a triennial event. The museum team is just starting to reevaluate changes for the next one, and Brandon encourages anyone with comments to email the team at portraitcompetition (at) npg (dot) si (dot) edu
And if you’re in town, see the exhibition! It closes on 17 February, 2007.