I received a letter of acceptance to a national exhibit this week. This is, of course, reason for celebration, but an artist can always find a way to over-examine a situation in search of the the darker side. Part of this has to do with the automated notification system that makes life easier for artists and for exhibit hosts. For this exhibit, I entered three drawings. One drawing was selected and two were rejected. Or "Not Invited" as the email stated. I'll admit that sounds less negative. Kinda. The first email was the "Invited" one. I was thrilled. The next time I checked my mail, the second email had arrived with the "Not Invited" entries. This allowed me to properly celebrate with a happy dance and then a while later, mourn the fact that not every human on Earth loves my work.
My university hosted the annual student juried exhibit recently and each year this is an opportunity to teach my students how to deal with the process of entering exhibits and dealing with the results. It's a lesson in maturity, human nature and the mechanics of the art world. And even though I know these things well enough to teach them to my students, I still find myself dwelling on the two uninvited works.
While I'm easily distracted, and Lord knows that during the semester I have plenty of things to distract me, my mind eventually circles back to the exhibit. I have to put it on my calendar and make sure I ship the work to a state many hours away so I have to be reminded not to forget. And even when I'm taping up the box of art I know I'll still be wondering why the juror chose this drawing but didn't chose the others.
Academically speaking, I know the answer to this question. Artistically speaking, I know the answer to this question. But as a human trying desperately to hide his sensitivity about something he created, I'm tempted to dwell on the negative and to even think negatively about this mostly ridiculous thing called The Art World. Just a few weeks ago I waded into a conversation about the art world with my advanced sculpture students. I love my students dearly and I want to fuel any excitement I see in them as it relates to studio art. Many of them have traveled to art fairs or the Venice Biennale or will travel to them soon. All of them have the current celebrities of the art world on their Instagram feed so it's easy for them to think that this is the sum total of what it's like to be an artist. Of course I want them to see contemporary art and to also have goals of obtaining gallery representation if that's the best path for them, but I also feel the need to spring a little honesty into that constant barrage of happy art stuff.
They're going to be rejected. Many hundreds of times in their career they're going to feel that burn. They will be passed over for great jobs, they will have work rejected from exhibits and they will have galleries delete their emails on a regular basis. They will watch artists they know rise to unimaginable heights and be promoted to celebrity status while they may never win a single award and may struggle to get work in a local exhibit. This is a weird area of studio art education and one that is mostly overlooked by universities. We want to pump our students up about possibilities but I think we have a responsibility to prepare them for the certainties.
So let's look at some observations together. And let's be honest about the observations and say that they are the observations of one mid-career artist. (Am I really a mid-career artist?) Other artists may have different experiences and not all artists may agree.
1. Exhibit Jurors are biased. Juried exhibits, large or small are chosen by single humans or small groups of humans. Humans with personal interests, particular tastes and individual built-in biases. I've been a juror for exhibits and I would want you to think that I can be totally unbiased. I would argue that I chose the absolute highest quality work for the exhibit and for the awards. I could justify it all on paper. But the truth is, on a different day of the week, with different weather and with a different amount of caffeine in my bloodstream, I may have chosen slightly different work. Of course I had a list of criteria points but those points were chosen by me. If a juror is experienced in a certain area, they may be hard to impress in that area. At the same time, they may have expertise that informs them that a work of art in that area is exceptionally well handled, even if it's not the "best" in the pool. You will also notice that not all jurors are exhibiting studio artists. In fact, many are not. Now the interests and biases have changed. If this juror also owns a gallery (and many do) what personal interests might also be in play? Most often the entries are meant to be anonymous but some established styles don't need a signature to be recognized. You could pick my work out of a lineup right now. I could probably pick yours.
I would suggest that the best approach with juried exhibits is to understand the built-in flaws and see the exhibit for what it is. Not a show of "the best" artwork submitted, but a show of high quality artwork selected by a particular juror.
2. Favoritism is a real thing. Some days it will work to benefit you and other days it will not. It's not cool to accept one side of that coin and to complain about the other side. I've been very, very lucky as an exhibiting artist. I've had gallery owners take chances on my work because they responded to it positively. They've actively promoted my work to collectors, telling them my work was good. While this was great for me, I have to be aware that a choice was made and while that choice put my work in someone's home or office, that same choice left another artist's work unsold. One person liked my work and told someone else to like it. I've been in situations where I'm sure that an exhibitor liked me and my personality as much or more than they liked my work and that has benefited me as well. Late night host Conan O'Brien said "Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen." Every artist can't be the best. I'm pretty sure math doesn't work that way. But if you're good and you're likable, you put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.
Instead of complaining about favoritism, perhaps you could spend some time and energy working hard and being kind. There's no downside to this suggestion.
3. It's not fair. That person in your Instagram feed is a hack. That painting that won Best In Show is terrible. That artist's work really isn't any better than yours. You will have these complaints and more and you will be totally justified in having them. There's nothing fair about a system designed around making a profit. If collectors are not art savvy, gallerists may resort to pushing the lowest common denominator to ensure a sale. This has much more to do with a healthy bottom line than being fair. That artist who always makes the most gigantic pieces for shows always seems to win the awards while your tiny but exceptional work of art goes unnoticed. Maybe you like to work small or maybe you don't have a warehouse studio or a truck. And that artist representing that country at the Biennale isn't the best artist in that country. They were picked up by a gallery, then chosen for a fair and then promoted to a committee. They are exceptionally lucky and probably very grateful but what they really are is a person who was in the right place at the right time and it turned out that what benefited them was coincidentally something that benefited someone else.
Worrying about what's fair or unfair will not make a new body of work for you. It will not show your work to the new gallery and it will not make you a better artist. Getting in your studio and working hard will make you successful. Focus on you, not them.
4. The value of your work is decided by you. Is your work any good? Is it worth making? Is it worth sharing? This is not a choice left up to any outside source. The gallery director/owner may know very little about art making. They may or may not have a degree or any experience in art. The juror for that exhibit may have terrible taste. And even the ones who love your work are not the ones who give it value. You decide if your work is worthwhile. You decide if you will spend your life sharing it with others. But here's a tip: if there's something inside you telling you to make art, you need to make it. If someone doesn't pick it for a show, you still need to make it. If you don't win an award, you still need to make it. If your jerk professor hates your project, keep trying. It's fine to get down about a rejection or a negative comment, but remember the person who rejected your work or made a negative comment is not the reason you made the artwork.
Making art is bigger than you. It's bigger than the the exhibit. Take a moment to say a bad word, have an ice cream and then get back in the studio and get to work. Someone is waiting to see it.
5. If it was easy, everyone would do it. This is a cleaned up version of something my dad used to say when I complained that something was difficult. I love the idea behind the phrase. It suggests that of course this is tough to do and that you should feel honored to be good enough to do it. Art is hard. Ask any of my current students. Better yet, ask the students who changed their major to something easier after the first year. Not only does it require a ton of physical effort and mental strength, it also requires an emotional maturity to be able to deal with negative feedback and keep moving forward. Studio artists, we get to make art. It's a privilege. An honor. You may get a "not invited" email and you may not get represented by the good gallery but you may also inspire a young person to pick up a drawing pencil. You may make a viewer smile. You may make something so powerfully beautiful that your work of art touches a nerve in the heart of a viewer and changes their life forever.
It's not easy. Nothing worthwhile is.
That's probably enough for now. I hope it wasn't too much of a fortune cookie. I just want you to know some of the things I've learned so far. Maybe it will help you be better prepared for life after art school.