A good critique group (crit group) can be one of the best tools an artist can have to help build a conceptually solid practice. Critiques can help an artist better understand how his or her work is communicating to a larger audience. Regular critiques also help to develop critical thinking and public speaking skills. Maintaining an efficient crit group may help your work to stay fresh, relevant, and active in the art community. Perhaps the most beneficial thing about a critique group is that it builds a community of artists that are familiar with each other’s work, and often end up exhibiting work together and sharing resources.
Most critique groups start in art schools as part of a required class. These critique groups usually function because the artists involved are in classes together and are in constant dialogue with one another. Sometimes these groups stay in touch after graduation, though usually with fewer participants.
Consider how many people you want in your crit group. Having many participants, 10 or more, means you will have many viewpoints, multiple voices and a greater support system in the future. But with ten or more people you will have less time for each other’s work. Since you shouldn’t all try to show work during the same crit, each participant will have to wait long periods in between critiques.
A smaller crit group of less than ten people ensures that each person gets a healthy critique of his or her work, and a smaller group can provide for more intimacy and bonding in the group.
Decide how long you want critiques to be and how many artists will get their work critiqued during each session. One of the biggest mistakes critique groups make is trying to review every person’s art during one session. Generally it takes a minimum of one hour to adequately critique an artist’s work. Most grad school programs hold critiques that last three hours or more for each artist’s work. While each critique group has its own needs, try starting out your critique group at three hours total, with each artist’s work receiving a one-hour critique. If this seems too long, consider shortening the critiques. If it seems too short, try critiquing only two artists’ work for an hour-and-a-half each.
Next, think about the people who will take part in the critiques. A crit group can consist solely of fine artists, but it can also include curators, critics, and other art world people. Having a diversity of opinions present will help to ensure that no one viewpoint will dominate the group. Getting multiple points of view will also help you better understand how your work speaks to a variety of people.
Consider the kind of work the critique group makes. Having a group made up entirely of painters can inspire great conversations about paintings, but also limit the scope of the discussion. We recommend mixing up the critique group with artists dealing with a range of subjects, in a variety of media. This way each artist will be well-versed in the language of each kind of art.
If you are having trouble finding other artists to join the critique group, try going to your local arts nonprofit. Inform them of your endeavors and ask if they have any recommendations. They may send out an email to their members, post something on their website, or even offer to host the critiques at their facility. Another option is to contact alumni from your undergrad or grad education. Many of your former classmates would love to reconnect and share in this mutually beneficial opportunity. To cast an even wider net, try starting groups online through social media and other forum sites. These discussions can lead to the in-the-flesh critiques necessary to discuss artwork.
Consider inviting guest critique moderators to lead the group. Reach out to local critics, curators, or arts professionals and ask them to moderate the group. Pool resources and compensate guest moderators for their time by paying them a small fee.
Holding a Critique Session
The first thing to decide is where you are going to have the critique. If the artists in your critique group have large studio spaces, you’re in luck! But if the people in your group have small studios and cannot comfortably accommodate more than four or five people, try finding a space that can fit everyone in the group, like a school or nonprofit. The most important part is that there is comfortable seating and adequate wall space and lighting. If one or two artists in your group have large studios, ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing their space for critiques.
A good rule of thumb is to have the critique group arrive a little ahead of time. People are usually late for critiques, and it takes time to set up work. Ask that people arrive 30 minutes ahead of time to help with installation. Remember, critiques should be fun and provide time for socialization. Ask people to bring snacks and drinks. If everyone in your critique group is comfortable drinking alcohol (and of age), consider bringing wine or beer. A few drinks may just loosen the group up. But always remember that too much booze can lead to arguments and a very jumbled critique.
Establish regulations for the crit group so that everyone knows the rules and responsibilities of each member. Crit rules can include dues each member must pay for refreshments, crit moderators, space rental, etc. They can also include an understanding of civility and how crit members must behave when discussing work. Members can be required to attend a certain number of critiques each year, and to contribute to discussions. Having these details worked out ahead of time can help your crit group avoid conflict later.
Decide ahead of time who will moderate the critique. Consider having a schedule for a rotating moderator. This will eliminate any notions of hierarchy by any one person and ensures that everyone participates as a critiqued artist, a critiquing participant, and a moderator. Having a moderator will insure that everyone gets a chance to share her/his opinions about the work. The moderator should be in charge of keeping time and sticking to a rigid schedule. A good moderator will know when the conversation is dwindling, when to start a new line of communication, and when to politely ask that an overzealous commenter wrap up her/his points. The moderator should be as objective as possible, steering away from any and all value judgments. A good moderator will respond to any type of criticism about the work with the question, “Did anyone feel differently?” This ensures that all opinions get addressed. Once you have decided who the moderator will be you can start critiquing work.
There are many different ways to discuss works during a critique, and each critique group decides which methods are most suitable. Here are a few ways to think about structuring your critique group:
1. Each artist whose work is being critiqued writes a list of questions she/he wants the critique group to answer. These questions can be about anything and everything pertaining to the work. The benefit of using this kind of critique format is that it ensures that the artist’s specific concerns are addressed and there is a wealth of topics for conversation.
However, this critique structure may come across as potentially impersonal and inorganic.
2. Round robin discussion allows each person in the critique group to take turns explaining her/his reactions to the work, and addresses the following questions:
What is the work presented?
What does the work do when presented in this way?
What aspects of the work are beneficial and why?
What aspects of the work can be improved upon and how?
Providing written feedback to the person whose work is being critiqued can be very helpful. The artist can ask questions based on these responses, and review the feedback post-critique. This format works well for groups with members with writing abilities, and with groups where members can take time to write down their responses. This format can potentially be limiting to spontaneous discussions or uncomfortable for people who wish to speak on their own terms.
3. Presenting work without an introduction or written material can provide insightful unbiased observations. Free-form critiques starts when anyone has something to say about the work. On the plus side, this “blind-read” format can lead to discussions about topics undiscovered or peripheral to the work. On the downside, this kind of critique can distract from discussions about the actual work in the room, derailing the critique group off topic. Additionally, this kind of critique may lead to one or two people dominating the critique with their own point of view.
4. An artist may chose to provide context, background information, or read a statement before the critique group has a chance to comment. This tactic presents more control to the artist and can keep the critique group successfully on topic. On the other hand, it can lead to forced or guided opinions. It is also good to see whether the statement the artist makes about the work, is indeed what the work is conveying.
5. Some artists find it helpful to use a critique session to discuss a project in process. This can mean talking about ideas and articles that are influencing the work. Artists taking this approach can send an article or topic of conversation to their critique group before the critique, and then use the actual critique time to discuss the article. Another approach is to ask the critique group to discuss a particular exhibition at a museum or gallery. This kind of critique doesn’t have to occur in a studio but can take place on-site or at a local coffee shop, bar, or restaurant. In order to discuss work in progress, it is helpful if the artist has determined the outcome of the project and the content she/he wants to convey. It can be a disadvantage if the artists has not determined what she/he wants from the work.
No matter how you decide to structure your critique group, keep in mind that the primary purpose of any critique is to provide the artist with constructive criticism so she/he can make her/his work technically better and more conceptually sound. Always check in with the artist being critiqued to make sure she/he is getting what she/he wants out of the critique. Unfortunately, some critique groups can veer off topic or worse, be fueled by artists’ egos. Respectful participants, a responsible moderator, and an attentive, non-defensive artist will ensure a smooth and productive critique.
A good rule of thumb when critiquing anyone’s work is to sandwich bad news in between praise. First, praise what works, then talk about what doesn’t seem to be working, and end with praise. This is particularly important when discussing a new work of art or when critiquing among strangers.
If you find your crit group floundering, and there are far too many long awkward silences, or you just want to broaden the topics you address, consider using the following as a jumping off point. This list is from an excellent article called “On The Manner of Addressing Clouds,” written by Thomas McEvilley for Artforum in 1984, and still relevant.
Address the following sources of content:
1. Content that arises from the aspect of the artwork that is understood as representational.
2. Content arising from verbal supplements supplied by the artist.
3. Content arising from genre or medium of the artwork.
4. Content arising from the material of which the artwork is made.
5. Content arising from the scale of the work.
6. Content arising from the duration of the work.
7. Content arising from the context of the work.
8. Content arising from the work’s relationship with art history.
9. Content that accrues to the work as it progressively reveals its destiny through persisting in time.
10. Content arising from participation in a specific iconographic tradition.
11. Content arising directly from the formal properties of the work
12. Content arising from attitudinal gestures (wit, irony, parody, and so on) that may appear as qualifiers of any of the categories already mentioned.
13. Content arising in biological or physical responses, or in cognitive awareness of them.
Keeping a Critique Group Together
It can be very hard to keep a crit group together. People leave for many reasons, such as job or family obligations, sickness, fatigue, or conceptual or artistic differences within the group. The best way to keep the group together is to maintain open communication, honesty and, most importantly, trust and respect for one another. No one wants to spend every critique having his or her work berated or picked apart, and no work or artist deserves such destructive criticism. So first and foremost, keep things civil, comfortable, and constructive.
One way to maintain cohesion in the critique group is to stay in touch outside of the critique group, by attending each others’ openings and events. Many artists join crit groups to develop their networking group and obtain support from fellow artists, so show up and support your fellow crit-mates.
Another way to promote group cohesion is to set up an online resource so your crit group can stay in touch outside of the crit sessions. This can be in the form of a chat room, a Facebook group, or a simple email list. This can also let group members share opportunities and news in an effective way.
A third cohesion strategy is to show together. The people in a crit group are often the greatest experts on each other’s work. Organize an exhibition and curate the work so that it proposes a conceptual argument. Showing together can be a great cooperative endeavor, and a good way to get publicity about the work of the entire group.
You can also get our popular book for artists which includes all of this information and more here.