Art Business: Putting a Positive Spin on Rejection

Nothing is more frustrating than rejection, and many times artists inject a rejection letter—often merely a form letter—with more meaning than was intended: The art is bad; the artist is an idiot for submitting it; the letter writer is biased or expressed the opinion of the entire world.

by Daniel Grant

Nothing is more frustrating than rejection, and many times artists inject a rejection letter—often merely a form letter—with more meaning than was intended: The art is bad; the artist is an idiot for submitting it; the letter writer is biased or expressed the 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 experience with how art dealers, exhibition jurors, and collectors think, which can only help an artist's art business in the long run.

Traces by Deanna Wood, 16" x 16", collage, gouache, and encaustic.
Traces by Deanna Wood, 16" x 16",
collage, gouache, and encaustic.

“When I reject an artist, it’s generally because the artist and the gallery aren’t a good fit,” says Franny Koelsch, the owner of Koelsch Gallery, in Houston. An artist and gallery might not be “a good fit” for a variety of reasons: the artist’s style or subject matter isn’t compatible with the gallery’s other artwork; the price of the pieces are too high or too low for the collector base; the work is too large; or the dealer only shows local artists or subjects.

Success may mitigate the sting of rejection, but it doesn’t eradicate it. And rejections do mount up, particularly in the early years of an artist’s career. A growing number of artists, however, are attempting to look at them in a positive light. “In a weird way, getting 100 rejection letters is a good thing,” says painter Deanna Wood, of Denton, Texas, who is represented by Koelsch Gallery, “because it means I’m putting my work out there for people to see.”

Wood writes about rejection on her blog, which offers other beginner artists useful marketing and personal tips based on Wood’s own experience. In one entry she admits, “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.” In another posting she offers some sample rejection letters to gallery owners to help them avoid hurting artists’ feelings. Other artist websites describe creative re-uses of rejection letters, such as for wallpaper and Christmas wrapping paper, or their responses to those who rejected them. Suzanne Clements, a painter in Melbourne, Florida, created a website specifically for publishing her rejections. In one posting she writes about entering two pieces for consideration in a local juried art show. She includes photos of the paintings as well as the text of the standard electronic rejection letter she later received, commenting, “All in all, it’s not a bad letter.”

Clements explains that putting her rejection letters online “gives a purpose” to her experience and may encourage other artists. “It’s important for all of us to deal with rejection, and I’ve learned that it isn’t necessarily personal or serious; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just part of the process,” she says.
Clements says she considers the more personal rejection letters “near misses” and often finds them helpful. “They give me pointers for when I apply next year,” she says. 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,” she says.

Perhaps rejection is a “badge of honor” since it suggests that one has “taken risks, broken taboos,” says Catherine Wald, the author of The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph From 23 Top Authors (Persea Books, New York, New York). Wald created a website that features her own rejection letters and those posted anonymously by other writers and artists. She developed the site after writing a novel that never got published.

Wald, who earns her livelihood as a freelance corporate writer, says,“The reality that it really wasn’t going to be published hampered my ability to do my work.” She says being rejected so often made her feel ashamed, but she came to realize her experience was one that was shared by many others. A history of being rejected “speaks to your professionalism,” she notes, because “it shows you’re willing to stick with your art.” Of course, Wald adds, it is important for all artists and writers to assess whether rejections indicate something lacking in their art or whether they are being rejected because of marketplace forces over which they have no control. Part of the job of being an artist is determining which one applies, and there is no website as yet to help with that.


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