by Daniel Grant
Nothing irks artists more than criticism and rejection, probably rejection more since criticism implies that someone presumably is taking their artwork seriously whereas rejection means the person isn’t taking it at all. A lot of meaning is imputed to what is often a form letter: the art isn’t good; the artist is a bad artist; the artist is an idiot for having submitted artwork in the first place; the person who sent the letter is stupid and biased; that person expressed the considered opinion of the entire world.
Handling adverse — or even favorable — reaction to one’s work is a learned behavior, the result of maturity, confidence and just experience of how art dealers, exhibition jurors and collectors think. “When I reject an artist, it’s generally because the artist and the gallery aren’t a good fit,” said Franny Koelsch, owner of Koelsch Gallery in Houston, Texas, which receives “proposals and portfolios from artists often.” “A good fit” takes in a wide realm of possibilities: It may be that the artist’s style or subject matter isn’t compatible with other artworks in the gallery, perhaps that prices for the artist’s work are too high or too low for the collector base. An artist’s work may be too large for a gallery, or the dealer may only show artists who are local or whose work reflects local subjects. Koelsch stated that a standard rejection letter is in her computer, and she may “modify it a little” for different artists.
One of the artists her gallery does represent, painter Deanna Wood of Denton, Texas, has been affected by rejections enough over the years that she has written about the experience repeatedly on her blog. Wood’s blog is intended to offer useful marketing and personal tips, based on her own experience, to other artists at the beginning stages of their careers, but this was a subject more for commiseration than advice.
Personally, I do get a little depressed when I receive a rejection letter from a gallery that I really liked or a show that I really wanted to get into. But I just file it and try to figure out what to do next. Well, that didn’t work out, what can I do now?
“I just put all my rejection letters in a folder,” she said, adding that she has never counted them all, because “that might make me more depressed.” Included in that folder are 44 rejection letters from 2005, when she sent out a proposal for a solo exhibition to 50 nonprofit and university galleries around the country. She also had received six acceptances, showing her collection of paintings in Iowa, Kansas, Nevada and Oklahoma, but it is the rejection letters that haunt her more than the success. “I had a stronger emotional reaction to the rejections. I took it very personally, thinking they were rejecting me and not my work.” In yet another posting on the subject of rejection, Wood offers some sample rejection letters to any gallery owners reading her blog in order that they might avoid hurting the feelings of the many artists they inevitably will find themselves rejecting.
She is not the only artist for whom rejection seems a more vibrant subject than more welcome news. Others (on their Web sites) describe creative re-uses of rejection letters, such as wallpaper and Christmas wrapping paper, or their responses to those who rejected them. James Culleton, a Canadian painter living in Winnipeg, turned a stack of rejection letters into an art project, laminating all of the letters he had received over a four-year period and riveting them together into a “suit of armor that will provide protection from future rejection.” They include letters from grant making agencies, juried competitions, art galleries and art schools (all 10 he applied to for their Masters of Fine Arts programs said no). Suzanne Clements, a figurative painter in Palm Bay, Florida who is represented by galleries in Florida and North Carolina,created a Web site specifically for publishing her rejections. Among the postings is this:
Recently, I entered two pieces for consideration by the local museum for their juried art show. I thought about submitting more edgy work, but on a last minute whim I submitted the following two pieces:
Today I received electronically the letter regretfully informing me of their decision:
On behalf of the Local Museum of Art and Science thank you for submitting your work to the 2007 Juried Exhibition. The juror had a challenging job choosing from over 300 submissions. We regret to inform you, your submission was not selected this year. We hope you will apply next time.
We wish you continued success in all of your creative endeavors.
2007 Juried Exhibition Committee”
“All in all,” Clements added as commentary, “it’s not a bad letter.”
In a telephone conversation, she explained that putting her rejection letters online “gives a purpose” to her experience and may encourage other artists who have also received far more rejections than anything else from the art exhibition world. “It’s important for all of us to deal with the problem of rejection, and I’ve learned that rejection isn’t necessarily personal or serious; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just part of the process.” She finds the more personal rejection letters helpful (“they give me pointers for when I apply next year”), considering these opportunities “near-misses,” but unfortunately the overwhelming majority of them are form letters into which little can be read. “So many of them are photocopies with a checked ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box on it.”
Clements’ Web site is intended for other artists but, of course, the Internet is an open door for anyone with a computer, including prospective collectors of her work who might question their interest in buying the artist’s work when viewing a published record of rejections. Not to worry, according to Raymond Voelpel, owner of the Tidewater Gallery in Swansboro, North Carolina, which represents Clements: “True collectors are confident in their judgment and not as influenced by what others think as first-time buyers.”
Success may mitigate the sting of rejection but not eradicate it. Not being accepted taps very basic emotions of personal connections (mother-child, community-individual), which may be why a single rejection letter sticks in one’s craw long after a string of successes should have erased the memory. Probably every artist present and deceased has experienced rejection of some quantity and magnitude, but the story of renowned artists is principally told through their achievements and successess. Only Vincent van Gogh’s commercial failures (only one painting sold during his lifetime) is such an important part of his biography, because of his published letters to his brother Theo that detail the adverse reaction he continually faced. Otherwise, successful people and their biographers prefer to discuss what they accomplished, not what didn’t take place, because the public display of rejection is a sign of not having achieved much.
Rejections do mount up, particularly in the early years of an artist’s career, and a growing number of artists attempt to look at them in a positive light. “In a weird way, 100 rejection letters are a good thing,” Wood said, “because it means that I’m putting my work out there for people to see.” Perhaps, rejection is a “badge of honor,” since it suggets that one has “taken risks, broken taboos,” according to Catherine Wald, a writer who created a Web site that features her own rejection letters and those posted anonymously by other writers and artists. She developed the site as a response to her own experience of having written at novel in 2001 and spending two years trying to interest publishers in it. None were. “The reality that it really wasn’t going to be published hampered my ability to do my work” — she earns her livelihood as a freelance corporate report writer. Being rejected so often made Wad feel “ashamed, as though it’s a deep, dark secret,” but she came to realize her experience was one shared by many others. “I wasn’t alone. It’s not so shameful.” Wald developed “three or four book ideas” on the subject of being rejected, all of which were rejected by publishers, before starting her Web site. A history of being rejected “speaks to your professionalism,” she noted, because “you’re willing to stick with your art.”
Of course, she added, it is important for all artists and writers to assess whether rejections indicate something lacking in their “craft or artistry or for reasons that have nothing to do with that, such as the forces of the marketplace over which they have no control.” Part of the job of being an artist is determining which one applies, and there is no Web sit as yet to help with that.