Peer mentoring

All artists can benefit from support, advice, critique and feedback on their practice, and this is frequently most beneficial when it comes from your peer group – people working at the same professional level as them.

A peer mentoring / crit group a group of practitioners who meet regularly to discuss their practices, the state of their careers, or other professional or cultural developments. Such groups benefit artists by allowing them to find out about alternate practices, informal advice and information, and providing a more cohesive social network.

Groups can take on different names and formats but essentially they are an opportunity for artists to gain feedback on their work and learn more about their own interests and ways of working. They also provide an opportunity to learn from the work and perspectives of others, to develop skills in reading and talking about artwork, and to think about display and what the wider context is for their work.

Read our Peer mentoring guidelines for artists.

The following tips were written by Sarah Rowles, Founding Director of Q-Art and author of Art Crits: 20 Questions.

Presenting at a crit

Take ownership of your crit: despite what many people think, and despite many haunting experiences that people may have had at art school, a crit is not just something you have to ‘get through’. A crit can be an opportunity to learn more about what you are doing and to really push forward your practice. Probably the most important thing to remember is that you can use a crit to your advantage. Think in advance about what it is that you most want to get out of the crit, and structure the session accordingly. For instance, if you want to learn of the wide variety of ways that your work is being read, don’t give too much away at the start, as this will influence peoples thinking. Alternatively, if you are due to exhibit work and have some specific questions about how you might install or display it, prepare these in advance and use the opportunity to ask these to the audience. Also there are no rules to where a crit takes place and so if you need to hold a crit outside or online, do so.

Be open to feedback: crits allow you to gain critical distance from what it is that you have produced and see how the work is being read on its own terms, like it would be in a gallery context for instance. Often interpretations of the work may differ from what you intended to communicate. This can be a good thing and allow you to either modify your work to more closely meet your intentions, or alternatively, learn from and build upon these surprise readings as you develop your practice in new ways.

Don’t be too defensive: very often work is personal and artists can feel that the critique is aimed at them rather than the work. It is important to detach yourself from the work and not be too defensive otherwise you will not learn anything.

Manage silence: a big fear that people have after introducing their work is silence from the audience. However, people forget that interpreting art is difficult and people need time to experience and think about what it is they are looking at. Why not tell the audience you are giving them 2 minutes for just that? Then perhaps give them another minute to write down their immediate thoughts or chat in small groups about their initial reactions before feeding back amongst the wider group.

Take notes: it is easy to be ‘in the moment’ and forget to write down anything that the audience has said. Bring a Dictaphone or ask someone else to take notes for you.

Participating in a crit

Talking about art: interpreting art can be difficult to do, especially if you’ve not grown up learning to do such a thing. If you are new to the process, and even if you are not, a good place to start is by saying what you see and gradually build up from that. For example, what does this remind me of, why? What colour, size, texture, or material has been used and why do I think the artist has chosen these? What clues does the title give? We have all had different life experiences and will interpret the work differently as a result of these. It is important to remember that whilst an artist may have an intention for how they want the work to be read, art is open to interpretations and there are no wrong answers!

Combating jargon: if someone in the room says something you don’t understand or makes a reference to an artist who you have never heard of, ask them to explain what they have just said and the relevance of their comment.

Facilitating a crit

Dealing with dominant characters: more confident members of a crit can dominate conversation and give the impression that their views are ‘right’. Facilitators/ organisers are also instantly seen as an authority figure and also run the risk of doing this if they talk too much – think of students who trust the opinions of their staff more than others. Crits are about giving voice to a range of opinions that the presenter can learn from and take on board/ reject as they choose. If you are facilitating a crit it is crucial that you are aware of this. If you are facilitating maybe do so with someone else. You must also be confident to lay down some ground rules, welcome all voices, and politely moderate those who are speaking too much.

Keep good time: crits might last 20 minutes or they might last a whole day. Regardless of which format you choose, make sure that everyone is given the same amount of time to receive feedback on their work and be wary of cramming in too many presenters. A lot of mental energy goes into looking at and talking about work and it can be difficult for the person who goes last if time has run out or everyone is too tired to give them the level of attention that they gave the first presenter.

Speaking in public

A fear of speaking in public can affect presenters and those in the audience. However, it is an essential component of the crit and various other aspects of life.

Practice: as scary as the thought of public speaking can be, it is important not to avoid it, as those this will increase the fear and make it worse. We all have to do it at some point and the more we do it, the better we get. One useful thing to do in the run up to any presentation is to rehearse speaking in small groups and then gradually make the group and the length of time you are talking for, bigger.

Calming nerves: before you begin breath in slowly for a count of five and then release and repeat. Visualise the event going well (rather than badly!). When you start, smile as it breaks down the gulf between you and your audience. Keep returning eye contact to those who look are smiling and nodding. Prepare. Know your subject. Know what it is you want to get out of the event or what message you want to convey and keep returning to these.

Body language and delivery: spread feet shoulder length apart and do not lean to one side. Keep your hands at waist height but not in your pockets – as this looks withdrawn, and not waving around in the air – as this causes tension in the room. Project your voice, and do not rush what you are saying.

Further resources

From 2004-08, Artquest ran Forum, a peer mentoring project. Will Clifford, one of the artists who participated in Forum, talks below about his approach to running a peer mentoring group.

Here, Sarah Rowles, Director of Q-Art, shares her experience and tips on getting the most out of crits


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