Tonights meeting Part 1 of a talk by Mark and Ritta Cooper on Bonsai exhibitions – a fairer system of awarding prizes. It was a very successful evening with a good range of lively discussion on the topic of judging and some food for thought.


Bonsai exhibitions

First Mark went through the current situation of bonsai exhibitions and discussed various views that have been expressed that there are too many shows, they are very competitive, all chasing same audiences. It is the same exhibitors, most shows have little growth, and some have decline. Requirement has shifted to more niche exhibitions and many club standard shows but few of UK national standard and that this is an issue for UK bonsai.

Here are some of the criticisms…

  • Too clubby
  • Stuck in a rut
  • Poor selection of traders
  • Not improving
  • He shouldn’t have been a judge
  • Judging was really bad
  • Awards not publicised up front

He goes on to mention a quote by Stephen Hawkins that “Intelligence is the ability to adapt & change” and this is a must for UK Bonsai exhibitions perhaps.


Bonsai exhibition judging

Questions were posed as to whether there really an issue, does it need to improve and it is wider than just a UK issue. He also outlined thoughts as to can it be improved and how can you compare the judging process vs judging standards.


The key issues- problem analysis

The process currently is opaque and open to criticism and it creates an impression that judging is not impartial. There is a need for a transparent process. Some judges aren’t always perceived to command respect or have credibility and are not always seen to be objective or are influenced by personal prejudices. Should Sponsors be involved in judging, and is this a good idea?

Usually there are just only 2 or 3 judges in a panel and personal tastes and commercial client bias are perhaps more likely. Why is this, well there appears to be a limited choice of judges and they are usually always professionals and male for some reason. Exhibits are often labeled with the owners name which is perhaps not correct. Therefore show planning, experience & judgment should be more defined and clear at the outset.


Bonsai judging- why improve?

There is a growing concern in the hobby over judging and exhibition organisers have a duty to improve. The phrase often heard is “If it ain’t broke why fix it!” however there is always room for improvement. Displays and exhibit standards have improved immensely over the last 5 years but Shows and Exhibitions are still experiencing the stuck in a rut syndrome. People often feel they have the right to exhibit and who actually defines a National show anyway.

The evening progressed to discussion whether you should have club trees at National show and what this would do to the reputational impact on any exhibition. The process is viewed as a black box currently but we need a system that is perceived to be clearer, fairer or transparent.


Elements to still work on

Current perceived issue around a limited pool of quality judges, awards and guidelines for bonsai size classes plus quality control are still present and need to be addressed going forward.


Recent trends for change

There seems to be a trend for Club style displays to focus more on individual displays in the  “Tokonama” style and this works well and moves away from crowded tables packed with bonsai trees. There is also an increasing requirement for a process of pre-selection of quality exhibits, which is another positive step for raising standards. There have been positive displays that focus on the bonsai tree and pot combination with that of stands and the overall aesthetics of the display which has improved the standard of display.


So what’s the solution?

  1. An improved, transparent judging process that’s perceived to be fairer
  2. Carefully selected judging panels
  3. Pre planning


Any improved judging process relies on

  1. A process that is open & transparent, the organisers and the show guests
  2. Well briefed judges, that command respect and credibility that have expertise in the award classes they judge
  3. Judges that have up to date and recent experience of bonsai display aesthetic and exhibiting
  4. A large panel of experienced judges to smooth any bias and each judge has 3 equal vote to allocate to their chosen best three trees in each award category
  5. Sponsor judging not separately but part of panel
  6. Defining what is being judged – the tree or display?
  7. Setting clear guidelines for the show and asking exhibitors to define what they want judging or define the requirements up front


Thank you Mark and Ritta for a most enjoyable club night and we look forward to testing out the new judging ideas at future shows.