Help Desk

HELP DESK: The Answer is No

Welcome to HELP DESK, step into my office! Each week I’ll be answering your queries about making, finding, marketing, buying, selling—or any other activity related to—contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues.

This week, let’s email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions (you can use a free anonymizer like Anonymouse.org if you want) and save the comments section for continuing the conversation on the topic at hand.  All submissions will be treated as anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving.

Your counselor, hard at work.

I am a curator and was recently contacted by an artist whom I have never met, who was recommended to me by a mutual acquaintance (another artist). The artist is inviting me to do a studio visit, but after looking at the artist’s website, I know that I am completely uninterested in seeing the work in person. I would like to decline the request in a way that is honest but kind, without necessarily making an explicit value judgment about the work. (I realize that expressing an opinion from my position holds a specific kind of weight.) I want to avoid wasting anyone’s time by doing a studio visit that will not yield anything for either of us. From an artist’s perspective, how can a curator best handle this situation?

This is a great question, one that many of us on the receiving end have thought about long and hard. Personally, I take my rejections straight up (with an escapist murder-mystery chaser), because the perennially used and ever-ambiguous “I’m very busy right now,” leaves me wondering, Do I ask again later? How much later? Or should I understand somehow that “busy” actually means “go away forever”? One might spend days second-guessing the intention of such messages and ultimately end up more depressed than if there had simply been a polite “No, thank you.”

As always, I thought I’d better ask around in case my preferences aren’t the norm. Surprisingly, everyone I asked said you should be candid, but in varying degrees. The artists I queried are all in various stages of their careers, from fresh out of school to seasoned professionals with gallery representation and long CVs. Despite the differences in experience, the sentiment was the same: don’t beat around the bush. Some had great suggestions for how they’d like their “no” served: hot, room-temperature, and/or with a side of kindness.

One artist told me, “I’d say give it to them straight. It was the artist that did the contacting and so they should be ready to be rejected, it’s already happened to them many times if they’ve been an artist for long. Maybe something along the lines of, ‘Thanks for your kind invitation. I enjoyed looking at the work on your website but it is not a great match for my curatorial direction. I don’t believe that a studio visit from me would prove to be of any benefit to you or your work so in order not to waste any of your time I must decline. I wish you the best and thank you again for the offer.’”

Yes, it's a negative.

Another suggested, “I think if the curator wrote the artist an email saying, ‘I looked at your work on the website and while it is interesting (add whatever adjective to soften the blow), I’m not sure that its a great fit for the work that I generally show,’ I think the artist would find a way to understand.’”

If you’d prefer to keep your rejection more open-ended, you could try, “Thank you for contacting me regarding a potential studio visit. At this time, I am not involved in any projects that would be suitable for your work and I prefer to make studio visits with a specific goal/endpoint/situation/exhibition in mind. I do encourage you to keep me updated on new bodies of work.”

An additional idea that almost everyone mentioned was your ability as a curator to point the artist in the right direction by supplying the names of other curators who might be interested. Obviously this is not always possible (for example, if the work is of a quality that you would be embarrassed to recommend); but barring the truly awful, if you can help the artist create a relationship that would be mutually beneficial, then you will have done two people (the artist and the other curator) a great service. One respondent to my query suggested, “I’m not the best person to review your work but perhaps ping these people [insert name here].”

Another artist would like to remind you that looking at work on a website isn’t the same as seeing it in person, and that sometimes there is more to a studio visit than finding a perfect aesthetic match. This person commented, “Above all, I would like for someone to come do a quick visit. You could say, ‘I have about 15 minutes to stop by,’ if the concern is wasting time. Talking with someone is never a waste of time in my opinion no matter how busy you are, and who knows what kind of relationship will develop—even if you still don’t like the work. There may be something about the work that is never seen in image form or that person may be able to contribute in some other way beyond the typical curator-artist relationship.”  Another artist, thinking about this issue more long-term, added, “I would always consider if there is anything I could stand to benefit from a studio visit or meeting. If time is really of the essence, I would tell them that I have limited time for studio visits, but I would be interested in seeing what the work looks like in, say, a year, if time permits. If the artist is dedicated enough to follow up in a year, I would genuinely reevaluate the offer and take a look at the work again.”

To steal a line from one response, “Artists know that rejection is part and parcel of the field we have chosen.” It’s better for everyone involved in the arts—artists and curators alike—if we spend our time and energy with people who can support our endeavors.

How would you advise a young artist to stay mentally healthy in his/her studio? Dealing with extended solitary time and rejection can be tough. Tips?

I gave some ideas about creating a peer group in this column a few weeks ago, to which I would add that you should be getting regular feedback on your work if you want to avoid that “toiling in Siberia” feeling. One way to get feedback is to contact local curators in your area and ask them for studio visits that focus on a “cold read” of your work. You might want to hunt down some similarly-young curators for this, so that you can all essentially practice on each other. They’ll be flattered to be asked and you might make some new friends.

Dealing with rejection is going to depend a bit on your personality and circumstances, but the one thing that you must learn to do is not internalize the negativity such that it affects your practice. Historically (and in Hollywood films), our models of oft-rejected artists have been bitter egotists, weepy depressives, and the drug-addicted. May I suggest that you sidestep these choices?  Aside from being unhealthy and hard on your immediate circle of friends, they’re all quite clichéd and boring.

Jasper Johns, Target with Plaster Casts, 1955. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects, 51 x 44 in

But how to avoid getting to that dark place? Life as an artist is full of rejection, so it’s best to learn how to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune early on. One method that seems to work quite well is to apply for everything. It is time consuming, but can be quite effective. Using this strategy, when you get the next letter that begins with “Dear Artist” and ends with “…but we wish you good luck in the future” you can safely move your thoughts to the next possibility and not dwell on that particular unfavorable answer. Move forward, and concentrate on opportunities.

A little commiseration can help you lick your wounds, too. If you’ve got a peer network that you trust, have a rejection dinner party where everyone brings their form letters and reads aloud (I’m certain there’s a drinking game to be invented from this). It helps so much to know that you’re not alone, and this applies to everyone from a freshman performance artist to the wretched three people who did not win the Turner Prize last year. Their work hangs in the Tate and I’m still pretty sure that they all went home on award night and got out the gin and the telephone.

I think it was the writer Natalie Goldberg who suggested that all rejections should be countenanced with the mantra, “So what, so what, so what?” but if this seems too insouciant for the novice, I suggest the more earnest, “Next time, next time, next time.” Don’t let a negative reply take the joie from your vivre. And if nothing else works, try to remember that “no” is an extremely small word: only two letters, a single syllable, and utterly forgettable.

Anthony Discenza, The Way It Is, 2009. Digital print, 24 x 18 inches

HELP DESK is sponsored in part by the generosity of KQED arts in San Francisco.

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