Art Business: High-School Students Show Their Artwork in the Capitol

13 Sep 2008

The next time you visit the nation’s capitol, add the art exhibition in the Cannon Tunnel to the list of things to see. The Cannon Tunnel is the walkway inside the U.S. Capitol building through which members of Congress, congressional staff, lobbyists, and the general public enter the building. Every year, members of the House of Representatives sponsor “An Artistic Discovery,” an art competition open to all high-school students in their respective legislative districts, and the winning entries are displayed in the Cannon Tunnel.

More than 650,000 high-school students throughout the U.S. have submitted their work for judging, marketing art they've created just like professionals and receiving the same consideration in the process.
More than 650,000 high-school students throughout the
U.S. have submitted their work for judging, marketing art
they've created just like professionals and receiving the
same consideration in the process.
Started in 1982, “An Artistic Discovery” is organized by the Congressional Arts Caucus, which is composed of members of the House of Representatives who have aligned themselves with the cause of federal-arts support. Since that time, more than 650,000 high-school students throughout the United States have submitted their work for judging, marketing art they've created just like professionals and receiving the same consideration in the process. There could be as many as 435 winners each year if every representative took part in the competition. At present, approximately 400 members of the House of Representatives participate.

Each participating House of Representatives member solicits entries from high-school students for the event and establishes a method of judging the submissions. The top prize is uniform: The winners’ artwork is displayed in the Cannon Tunnel for a year, and the young artists are invited to attend the opening of the exhibition in June. Additionally, all district winners are eligible for a $5,000 scholarship, which may be renewed annually to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), in Georgia. (Admission is also based on a 3.0 high-school grade point average.) Eighteen winning students from around the country applied to SCAD’s freshman class of 2007.

Almost every other aspect of the competition is determined on the local level, such as who makes the selections and whether or not there are additional winners and honorable mentions (and what their prizes are). Participating members of Congress often arrange for round-trip transportation to the opening. In some cases, entries are placed in the Washington, DC, and district offices of each participating member of congress for one year.

Some participating members of the House of Representatives have partnered with local schools and businesses to augment the prizes. For instance, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky has arranged for the first-place winner to receive a scholarship to the High School Summer Institute at Columbia College Chicago as well as round-trip airfare to the capitol for the opening. Second-, third-, and fourth-place winners receive gift certificates in varying amounts to local art-supply stores and a $75 family membership to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

In the third congressional district of Arizona, which is represented by John Shadegg, the overall winner receives a Best of Show award that includes round-trip airfare for three to Washington, DC, hotel accommodations, a $30,000 scholarship to the Art Institute of Phoenix, and $200 in cash. Winners are also chosen in four different categories, and they receive a $5,000 scholarship to the Art Institute of Phoenix and $300 in cash. In addition, 10 merit award winners receive $100 each. The amount of cash awards can vary each year, depending on the corporate sponsorship. In addition to providing the scholarships, the Art Institute of Phoenix holds an awards reception for the winners and hangs their art in its gallery for a month.
Similarly, scholarships of $10,000, $5,000, and $2,000 are awarded by the Art Institute of Atlanta to first-, second-, and third-place winners of the competition in Georgia’s 13th congressional district, which is represented by U.S. Rep. David Scott. Scott’s district office runs the contest, but Arts Clayton, a nonprofit arts organization in Jonesboro, Georgia, selects the judges from its board of directors and hosts a monthlong exhibition of the artwork.

Perhaps the longest ongoing partnership between a congressional office and a private organization is found in the 15th district of Pennsylvania and the Baum School of Art, in Allentown. This relationship dates back to the early 1980s and has spanned the terms of four different members of congress. A nondegree-granting community art school, Baum hosts the competition, promoting the event to area high schools, arranging the judging process, and displaying the artwork in its gallery. The school also sponsors all the prizes, including a full year’s tuition for the winner, tuition for one term to the next four runners-up, and a half-term tuition for the next five.

The nature of the judging is likely to vary widely from one congressional district to another. Schools of art may judge artwork differently than area artists or the staff of an arts center. U.S. Rep. Schakowsky charges the jurors her staff picks from the local arts community to evaluate submissions based on a list of criteria (overall quality of work, sense of purpose or function, originality and individuality, completion of work) on a one-to-five scale.

There is no entry fee for the competition, and all entrants—including the winners—are permitted to enter the contest for more than one year as long as they remain high-school students. The entry—one two-dimensional artwork no larger than 30" x 30" framed—must be accompanied by a one-page application signed by both the student and his or her art teacher. Entries are accepted in the following categories: collage, computer-generated art, drawing, mixed media, painting, photography, or graphic prints. The application can be downloaded from the website of each participating member of congress. Deadlines vary from district to district.   

by Daniel Grant


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