Linda Tyler was the judge of the 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review. Here's what she had to say at Friday's awards function.

Art competitions always invite controversy.

No one would dream of telling an electrician the best way to wire a switchboard, but when it comes to art or design, everyone is an expert or has an opinion.

To excuse themselves, it is common for people to come out with the old adage "I don't know much about art but I know what I like."

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After 35 years of studying, teaching and writing about art, I am here to tell you that for me, it is very much the case that the more I know, the less sure I am what I like.

I often wish it was the other way around, because this week I have been something of a circuit judge, selecting winners for art awards in Auckland, the Adam Portraiture Prize in Wellington and now the pattillo Whanganui Arts Review, and, if all I had to do was rely on what I liked, it would make the job of selecting the recipients for these art awards so much easier.

The first response you receive when you are identified as the judge of an art exhibition is sympathy – not for the difficult task ahead but because your decisions will most likely be challenged.

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Assessing art is regarded as "so subjective" that ultimately the decision you make will be simply a "matter of personal opinion" and hence unsupportable in any public forum.

Misguided and inherently insulting as these presumptions are, they are presented with concerned deference.

What they imply is that you are working on very shaky ground with a complete lack of evidence on which to justify your decisions.

Although propelled into this position of power you have feet of clay and with no court of appeal to confirm your pronouncements: everyone has the licence to disagree with impunity.

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Tracey Byatt, Parrot Tulips - A Study in Sugar. . 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Open award winner.
Tracey Byatt, Parrot Tulips - A Study in Sugar. . 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Open award winner.

It is an attitude that undermines the arts and relegates them to the minor leagues in a society where scientific objectivity is the gold standard.

But I believe that the same principles that underscore assessment and review in science or any discipline are also the basis of judgments made in the arts.

They are objective standards which mark out the work and the maker as performing at the top of their game.

In selecting the Merit Award winners and those who would receive the Excellence Awards and the pattillo Open Award, I was looking for works that inspired curiosity about how they were made, and which were either examples of excellence in a tradition of craftsmanship in a particular medium, or which effectively conveyed a thought-provoking concept through a sophisticated manipulation of materials and technology.

I can tell you that my job was made much easier by the application of the judgments of the selection committee comprising a Sarjeant Art Gallery curator, a locally based art expert and an out-of-town gallery professional.

Richard Wotton, Amelia Jury. Archival inkjet photograph. 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Merit award winner.
Richard Wotton, Amelia Jury. Archival inkjet photograph. 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Merit award winner.

Rather than making the call about what was in or out based on their personal opinion or what they liked, they brought their knowledge and experience to the process of evaluation and the resulting unanimity underscores the objectivity of their decision-making.

They subjected the 209 works submitted for the award to intense scrutiny, reducing them to the 150 which are hung in the Sarjeant on the Quay gallery as contenders for the overall 11 different awards.

So if you are here tonight to make a scene because your work was rejected, you will be cheered to know that fully a quarter of those submitted did not make it into the finalists exhibition, and before you pelt me with canapes, remember – a thick skin is a gift from God.

In acting as this year's judge, I have been delighted by the variety and excellence of work in the awards which is a signal of the vibrancy of the art community locally, and of the attractiveness of Whanganui and the surrounding districts of Ruapehu, Rangitikei and South Taranaki as places for creative people to live.

Whanganui's reputation as a centre for manufacturing and engineering is being enriched by it also becoming a haven for artists.

Many who the Sarjeant Gallery brings to town as artists-in-residence at the Tylee Cottage choose to stay on here permanently, so the number of artworks per capita being produced locally has been accelerating into the stratosphere lately, with more and more makers choosing this town as the place where they want to settle and prosper.

Leigh Anderton-Hall, Ovastrung. Ceramic & Wool. 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Merit award winner
Leigh Anderton-Hall, Ovastrung. Ceramic & Wool. 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Merit award winner

This influx of creatives can only be good news for Whanganui.

I already know of two inbound tourism operators who run specialty art tours here taking in the Quartz Museum of Ceramics run by local legend Rick Rudd, as well as spending up large in your plethora of dealer galleries and artists' workshops.

People from all over New Zealand and further afield are getting to hear about this great little town on a beautiful river with its magnificent marae, historic buildings, wonderful art school, gallery and museum and fabulous gardens.

You don't need me to tell you what a wonderful place Whanganui is, but it must be satisfying to know that your population of 41,000 is growing, and the town is well positioned to boast of its cultural capital.

Thank you for inviting me to be the 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review judge. I have been treated like a queen by the staff of the gallery and have delighted in the beautiful weather and cultural riches on offer.

I hope the award grows in stature and continues to attract a high calibre of entrants and that you all support it and the artists in it by buying their works and promoting the exhibition.

Nat Kirk, Healing. Graphite. 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Youth Recognition award winner.
Nat Kirk, Healing. Graphite. 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review Youth Recognition award winner.

The best advice I was ever given about judging art awards regionally was to get out of town quickly afterwards, and I will be leaving at 6am tomorrow morning. Until then I plan to have a great night, and I hope you all do so as well.

•The 2020 pattillo Whanganui Arts Review is on show at Sarjeant on the Quay until May 17