The Art Show: Celebrating Process or Product?

For the artist, making art is a long process that mixes thought, creativity and technique. The non-artist however, doesn’t see the process. They come in at the eleventh hour and only experience the final product. The most common event where the non-artist and the artist meet to view these final works is the art show.

art show

Though deciding which pieces will go into a show might take some time, most would agree the principle behind the selection process should be relatively easy. Gather up the cream of the crop and narrow down the selection from there. Choose the best of the best first, highlighting the students’ achievement and second, showcase the art department’s success. While this is a proven, standard method for selecting art, it has a hidden flaw. What about the students whose work is not selected?

In every art class, no matter what school or grade level, there will be a handful of students whose work shines above all others. These stars are easy to recognize. Their work is exemplary, always going above expectations. There isn’t an issue of if their work should be in the show, it’s deciding which of their pieces to use.

For the other 90% of the class, it’s business as usual. They will struggle through the project. They may produce art to the best of their abilities but frankly, these works just aren’t at the same level. Their art won’t be considered for the show and why should it? Exhibits are there to showcase the best product, not the work that went into the production… but does it have to be this way?

What if we as art teachers made a conscious decision to display the works of the other 90%? What if instead of exhibiting the superior product, we celebrated the prevailing process? This will take courage. There will be many ready to criticize us for presenting an “inferior” product. Likewise, it will take educating the public.The inherent danger in displaying the 90% is the inability to showcase the value of the process over the product. However, this can be accomplished through providing artist statements that include what the art personally means to the students and by providing details about the trial and error of the process.

art show

As art teachers, our primary task is not for our students to create master works of art, but rather for each student to learn and grow. The student art exhibit needs to be a reflection of this concept. It’s up to us as art teachers to see it through.

How do you choose pieces for student shows?

How do you feel about the process vs the product? Are there different expectations at different grade levels? 




Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Anne Sommer Bedrick

    Every student has a piece in the show – two if they request it and all the work is self-curated (with a little advice from me).

  • Debra McDowell

    I teach elementary art. I’m a half year program. I try to finish between 4-5 projects for each grade. I put every childs project (That is finished) in my art show.

  • Tracy

    We have a county art show that requires a limited number of pieces be shown but any tim I display something in the building it is the artwork of the whole class, the only exception being unfinished work.

  • Mrs. P

    YES! Thank you for this article! I love the idea of having students create an artist statement and self-curate their own show (ideas from Choice-based Learning and Teaching for Artistic Behavior). Some of the “90%” pieces may not be aesthetically pleasing to adults, but have real worth to the child and reading the story behind the work sometimes helps adults appreciate the piece. The more students are engaged and participate in the art show, the more the “90%” will feel that the show is theirs as well. Imagine all students being excited about the art show and their participation in it!

    • Melissa Enderle

      Agreed. A school art show is for the students first. As such, it should represent the students as a whole – not a select few. Involving students in selecting their own piece(s) as well as being docents, and even hanging up work is important to cultivating the inner artist and creating ownership of the show. Informative artist statements and project signs can be invaluable in conveying the process & learning behind the pieces that might not be apparent to adults.

  • mrs g

    Our yearly show consists of three pieces from every student at every grade level. ( I teach at a small private school of about 160 students). At this age I think everyone should be represented and like someone else said- the more students that participate the more excited they (and parents) are in the show. I also have a signup sheet for greeters at the show and even docents. It’s a big deal at our school and happens the same evening as our music program. Lots of work but well worth it.

  • Diane

    We have an annual show and every student selects one piece of art work from their portfolio. I make sure every one of our 400 students is represented. Parents love their childrens art work.

    • Lisa

      I do this same thing. For shows outside our district, I select only a few high quality works. But for our district elementary art show every spring, each student selects their best work. During the year, I hand back art 2-3 projects at a time. Students select their best and I hold on to it; they take the rest home. Next time art is passed back, they either swap their old choice for a new choice, or leave their first choice. By Spring, I have a wide variety of art works (usually at least one from each lesson!), and each student has a work of art displayed that they are proud of.

  • Laurelee MacHale

    Thank you for this article! I have supported the process over the product but it is so hard to get support and understanding. Yes, I display the entire class when I can and yes, we have a district art show with limited space. I have 100 feet to showcase work and over 700 students to choose from. I am grateful for the opportunity to show work and take everychance I get. I think the district, families, and students get to see a little bit of both mastery and process.

  • Ms. Mona

    Of course the very talented students are put into the art shows and there is limited space. I built into my annual evaluation that I find at least one venue (school, community, museum, digital exhibit or Artsonia, etc.) to display each student at one or more venues. Each student has a digital portfolio and at various points in the school year, we run a slide show of everyone’s art.

    I have known teacher who only cater to their very artistic students and I feel their program suffers among students but looks good to judges. I would rather create excitement among all of my students and families.

  • Angela Karamian

    All my students have an opportunity to display one piece of art for the end of the year show. During the year when I display artwork I usually choose the work that best represents the assignment.
    In the academics many children are left out of honor roll because their grades are not “good enough.” or they are a behavior problem. Many times these are the students who excel in my class. These are the students whose work is being displayed.

  • Charmaine Boggs

    I have 750+ students and my display space is limited. I rotate the grade levels for some displays and when I do that, every student has his or her work up. For other displays, I try to mix up the work and have some of the “best” examples along with some from students who have put a “creative spin” on the assignment. I have to admit that for public shows at outside venues, I do tend to select the work that will put our school in the best light, usually because I have a very limited number of works allowed for the show.

  • Toby

    In the schools everyone’s work is displayed. In the city wide displays where only 3-4 pieces per teacher are allowed then the top artist is selected. I teach elementary and the kids know that everyone’s work should be different from each other, so it’s a judge free zone. Everyone is important!

  • Tim

    I think any good teacher can appreciate both the product and the process. It doesn’t have to be either/or. And if you’re teaching the process in the right way, a good product should follow.

    This is a good article, Ian. It made me think. A lot.
    And I put a few more of my thoughts here:

    • iansands

      Tim, Thanks! you make good points in your post as well!


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