Tuesday, March 03, 2009

American Watercolor Society Gold Medal - the final verdict on Sheryl Luxenburg

It was a long time coming, however last month the American Watercolor Society, Inc., (AWS) finally released the following statement to the AWS membership and the artist community at large about the withdrawal of 2008 Gold Medal from Sheryl Luxenburg.

The controversy surrounding the American Watercolor Society’s 141st International Exhibition Gold Medal winner, “Impermanence,” by Canadian artist Sheryl Luxenburg has been the subject of innumerable blogs, websites and chat rooms worldwide for many months.

We sincerely appreciate all those who contacted the society and respect all opinions expressed on this issue. This dialogue has contributed to our understanding of the extent to which the art community has taken an interest in the outcome of this issue as it affects each artist and the respective art societies.

The American Watercolor Society has been holding an annual juried exhibition of watercolors from artists throughout the world for over 140 years. It was founded to promote watercolor and support painters of the medium. The goal of the AWS has always been to promote original art and it is against this backdrop that the controversy first emerged.

The American Watercolor Society, like other watercolor societies, has developed its eligibility requirements for entry into the exhibition over the course of many years. Eligibility for entry is as follows. “The Annual Exhibition is open to all artists working in water media (watercolor, acrylic, casein, gouache, and egg tempera) on paper. No collage, pastels, class work, copies, digital images or prints; original work only. Maximum frame size is 44” in any direction. Image size limit is no smaller than 10” x 14.” All paintings must be sturdily framed and have plastic glazing (Plexiglas).

The requirements as contained in the prospectus as well as the acceptance form are quite specific and leave no room for ambiguity. Upon acceptance, the requirements are further emphasized by a disclaimer signed by the artist stating that “The accompanying artwork is an original; not a copy or likeness of another’s work, i.e. painting, drawing or photograph.”

Our prospectus clearly informs artists of these eligibility requirements which were designed to maintain high standards and to focus on originality.

By establishing these requirements, the onus rests with the artists to ensure compliance with the rules set forth. Each artist is therefore free to accept or decline these conditions.

When it was determined that Ms. Luxenburg’s entry violated our eligibility requirements, the AWS requested that our Gold Medal and prize money be returned. The Medal and prize money were returned, and Ms. Luxenburg has been disqualified from entering any future AWS exhibitions.

Watercolors accepted to our annual exhibitions reflect a wide variety of styles and inventive handling of the medium and attest to the fact that innovation and exploration are not only encouraged, but welcomed by the AWS.

The AWS will continue to count on the integrity of artists entering our exhibition, but in fairness to our own members and the art community in general, we will remain vigilant for any violation of our standards. Any artist who is determined to violate our entry procedure can expect a fair evaluation initially, but if found to have done so; can expect a serious and permanent final resolution.

AWS Statement on 2008-2009 Gold Medal Award Statement released February 2009

The gold medal controversy and its implications for artists and art societies

It's unclear as to precisely what rule(s) she infringed - which is a pity. However the statement gives a clue in the parts of its rules which are quoted and the penalty suggests to me that there was at least some conscious element of deception.

The way I interpret the statement is that

  • Luxenburg produced a derivative work created from two photographs which she had not licenced correctly from the photographers for the purpose for which they were used.
  • Luxenburg's 'artwork' did not meet the society's explicit requirements for original work.
  • Luxenburg either understood nothing about copyright and/or reads rules and terms and conditions without due care and attention and/or practiced to deceive.
It's still not entirely clear what the answer to 'the big question' was. I'm not clear whether the work in question was really a watercolour painting or whether it was a giclee print or a print with some degree of painting enhancement. Based on the evidence presented on the internet (before most of it was removed due to representations by Luxenburg's lawyers), a number of people concluded that it was highly likely that the work in question was predominantly a giclee print. I'd love to know what steps the AWS took to establish whether or not this was the case - and what the outcome was. While digital artwork might now be gaining a place in printmaking exhibitions the AWS has now made it very clear that people using any element of digital artwork (eg using technology and water-based inks) cannot enter their watercolour competitions. Presumably brushes must be tangible and not part of a computer program!

I also think the AWS would be doing a great service to all other art societies if they explained the process they went through to review the case and establish the nature of the infringement(s) which occurred.

After all, key issues arising from this case include the following

  • it's fact that there are artists who set out to deceive as well as artists who fail to read the rules of entry thoroughly and others who will opine that they made an 'innocent mistake'
  • ineligible works do get submitted to art competitions; do get shortlisted; do get into exhibtions and do win prizes. This is not the first time it's happened.
  • it is possible to for judges in a juried competition to either lack the knowledge to detect ineligible works or to be deceived
My own view is that the artists - particularly those of a photo/hyper-realist persuasion - can defend themselves against any possible query if they do the following:
  • avoid making assumptions
    • make sure you understand what an art society means by 'original work'
    • make sure you understand the entry conditions and copyright law as it applies to use of reference photos and originality of artwork
    • ask questions of the art society if you're not sure about anything
  • avoid making 'innocent mistakes'
    • read the rules of entry thoroughly and more than once
    • read carefully all the detail and terms and conditions of any licence to use a photograph taken by another artist
  • establish your own credibility and integrity
    • don't be secretive about your process - in future this may now give rise to concern
    • retain and be able to produce your own data inclusive photographs of the original reference
    • take photographs of the artwork during the process of completion - as these will support any statements you might wish to make about the way you work

......and finally - what about the other artists?

Personally speaking I'd have also really liked to see a statement which revises the awards given to all the other artists. After all at the Olympics if the gold medal winner gets disqualified you don't leave the gold medal without a winner - you upgrade all the other competitors in the order in which they finished!

I think it's a very great shame that Mark E Mehaffey AWS doesn't get to include AWS 'Gold Medal Winner' in his resume.

Links to posts in September 2008 about the AWS Gold medal controversy: