Image courtesy of Artwork Archive artist Deena Ball
Getting rejected is part of being an exhibiting artist pursuing a professional career in the arts.
Many of the greats were not appreciated in their time— indeed, Google has a healthy search result of lists people have made conveying just this thought. Rejection wasn’t always this formal though— the opportunity machine of today is a product of the privatization and commercialization of the art world at large.
In 2023, depending on where you are in your career, as much as 50-60% of your dedicated studio time might be used to find, apply for, and process work for applications. That’s the grind you’re probably in if you are an emerging or mid-level artist actively pursuing fellowships, exhibitions, and grants.
While we can’t promise fame or fortune, what can be done to make sure that time invested reformatting images to various application specifications and writing exactly 100 character statements is yielding as many granted opportunities as possible?
Can you have any influence on how many times you’ll hear “yes” instead of “no” on this year’s batch of applications?
Follow these Artwork Archive tips to move your needle towards more acceptances and fewer rejections in 2023:
Make sure your artwork is actually a match for the art opportunity.
Think deeply about how your work fits in with the mission of the art organization offering the art opportunity. Spend time on their website and social media getting to know the overall vibe of the granting body and how they present what they do.
From this research, you should be able to learn such things as who are the recent (1-3 years) recipients of the award and where were they in their careers when they received the opportunity?
What kind of work were they making at that time?
Does this organization tend to favor people who are emerging or established artists?
Self-eliminate early if you don’t fit the basic qualifications of the opportunity.
If you are still in grad school and the requirements say you cannot be in school at the time of application, you aren't doing yourself any favors by taking the time to submit an application.
If the award is for photographers and you’re mostly a painter who has made a couple of photos in the last few years, honestly ask yourself if the time and effort to compete for such an award will pay off for you. Perhaps you want the opportunity to become a better photographer—then by all means apply and explain in your application you would use the award to grow in a new direction.
Carefully review all the specific information made available by the organization about the opportunity.
Pay attention to the jurors if they are noted on the website.
What kind of backgrounds do they have? What kind of work have they done previously, as well as recently?
If the curator of a juried show is obsessed with abstract sculptures and you make installation work, it could be a fit even though those are not always overlapping fields. Perhaps it is less of a fit if the curator appreciates figurative painting and you make work inspired by time travel.
If you can find it, look for the acceptance rate of the last time the award was granted—statistically, you have a greater chance of being awarded an opportunity if you submit a strong application to a foundation that gets 100 applications a cycle and awards 20 (20% acceptance rate) compared to one that gets 600 applications and awards 20 (less than 1% acceptance rate).
You may need to calculate the rate of acceptance yourself. To do this, find a previous rejection email that lists the number of applications and then count awards granted as listed online. This is especially worth doing for awards with a high application fee and a low acceptance rate— they are basically funding the award with the application fees of artists.
Artwork Archive artist Christina Mitchella measuring a piece inside her studio
This should go without saying, but give thought to your images and their order within the application.
Having great documentation is a must to be in consideration for any major award, but go one step further and think about which of your images makes the most sense for each application.
Should you have detail or installation shots?
Where should they go in the order of your image checklist?
Should you show the jurors one body of work or several?
Always submit the maximum number of images allowed. If you have the option of 8-10 images on the application, show the jury ten, making the optional two images potential installation shots. If you are applying for grant money to continue or expand on a previous project, use the images to demonstrate the work you have already done so the judges can easily visualize how the money will be used.
Note: You can store your high-resolution images on your Artwork Archive account along with all the details about each image, so that you are ready to apply to any opportunity when it arises.
If you’re writing a budget, be exact but not excessive.
If you are creating a proposal and need to include a budget, read carefully the organization’s guidelines for what they will and will not fund.
Some entities fund travel and food, while others do not. Some will fund hiring other professionals to help you with aspects of a project or to teach you how to do a process, others will not.
You’ll likely want to include an artist’s fee for yourself, which should be no more than 30% of the total project budget. If you have additional support, funds, or means, include them in the total budget— funders like to see that other entities have already cosigned a project because it assures them it is more likely to be completed.
A good way to estimate your expected expenses for a budget is to keep track of your past expenses. The expense and revenue feature in Artwork Archive make is easy to track all of your sales, expense, and other revenue categories.
Don’t rush an application just to submit something.
It's important to know yourself and how much time it takes you to prepare a strong application.
Don’t wait until hours before the deadline to begin writing statements and documenting your work. Have as much as you can ready ahead of time and spread your work time out over a couple of days or weeks so you can return to it with fresh eyes and edit your own writing. Sloppy applications rarely get awards, and that time will feel pretty wasted in hindsight.
Remember that there are enough opportunities to go around and to reapply.
You can do everything “right” and create an extremely competitive application, and you can still get rejected. Perhaps the jurors preferred the work of someone else, perhaps you didn’t meet the unstated criteria of the awardee they were looking for—there are a lot of nuanced reasons in the final stages of awarding a grant.
Most of the time we never learn why an application was refused. However, if you’ve done your research and really feel the opportunity is a good match for you, apply again in a future year—the selection committee may change and exactly what they are hoping to award might change too. Plus your work will be another year stronger.
Suzy Kopf is a multidisciplinary artist, college educator and arts writer. She has been an invited speaker on career development topics at the College Art Association, The CUE Art Foundation, Artists Thrive Conference, and the Maryland State Art Council, among others. She is a regular contributing writer for BmoreArt, as well as Baltimore Magazine, Johns Hopkins Magazine and the Baltimore Museum of Art and specializes in profiles on creatives, art business practice and exhibition reviews. Her work has been shown throughout the US and Canada and she has been the recipient of numerous residency fellowships including Kala, The Studios at Mass MoCA, Playa and VCCA.