When Artists are Rejected — and a Fear of Failure

Steven Spielberg was rejected three times from the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, Film and Television; J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers; Stephen King’s first and most famous book Carrie was rejected 30 times; and Andy Warhol was rejected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Read more about artists and rejection in my article in the October 2020 issue of the Pastel Journal.

I have had varied experiences with rejection.

For four consecutive years I applied for a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts for three different projects. Each year my proposal was rejected. After the fourth rejection, I launched my own investigation and learned that one staff member was blocking my application, but for reasons that were so petty I could only attribute them to a “personality conflict.”

Venting my frustration, I wrote to the council’s executive director, detailing the four-year history of grant applications, the hours spent completing forms, answering questions, attending meetings and interviews, and providing letters of recommendation. But most important, I reiterated the merits of the project that I wanted funded. I also named the staff member who had been giving me such a hard time and sent a copy of my diatribe to that person. About three weeks later I received a letter from the arts council stating that it had reversed its decision – the project would be funded.

In 2016 my literary agent sent letters to various publishers proposing a new edition of my book How to Survive & Prosper as an Artists: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul. The last edition had been published in 2009 and it was greatly in need of an update and overhaul.

A very prestigious university press expressed interest and in turn sent a copy of the 2009  edition to two artists for feedback. I was not privy to the names of the artists and was merely told that one reader was “a working artist and longtime teacher of art” and the other reader was “a more junior commercial artist.” Since my book had nothing to do with commercial art fields, I thought that it was odd that the editor’s choice of a reader would be a commercial artist!

In the feedback notes the young reader wrote that he/she was an “artist and an illustrator,” conducted all business and marketing online and never showed at galleries. “Because of this, I won’t address chapters 7-9.”

I do not know whether the young reader entirely skipped the three chapters or felt that he/she could not comment because of  lack of experience in the fine art world. But regardless of whether the chapters went unread or read, each of the three chapters represented the most competitive aspects of an artist’s career: applying for exhibitions, grants, and gallery representation!

The young reader’s 576-word critique tore into my book with such wrath, I sensed that the book hit a raw nerve. I suspected that chapters 7-9 were the raw nerve because they reminded the reader of his/her fear of failure, fear of competition, and fear of rejection in the fine art world!

Instead of being brave and chancing rejection, the young artist, was happy to live online, finding the “consumer market” most appealing. It felt safe, secure and comfortable; a place where the reader would not be judged — unlike the fine art world comprised of artists, curators, art dealers, critics, art historians, and collectors. This safe and  secure place is what author Aaron Velky* refers to as “the bubble.”

“Failure is a word that seems to be offensive in today’s times . . . Significant avoidance of failure is what I like to refer to as ‘the bubble,’ and it’s where many of my friends live. Safe. Secure. Serene. Life’s great in the bubble. You never get hurt, you can’t fail, and you won’t stumble. You never get hurt because the bubble (someone else, privilege, income, race) shields you. You can’t fail because you won’t be allowed to. The bubble will insulate you from risk, and you won’t stumble because the floor underneath you is made of marble, so there are no sharp edges or holes.”

Velky’s bubble description was included in his recently published book Let Her Play: The Unfiltered Guide to Empowerment Through Sports.  Velky, himself a millennial, has coached young  soccer players for nearly a decade, seven of which were spent coaching young women. In his perceptive book directed at parents, coaches, and gym instructors, he delves into the best way young female athletes can succeed on many levels and discusses at great length the subject of failure.

In the end, my book was rejected. The university press valued more the opinions of the young artist/illustrator than the working artist and longtime teacher who praised the book and wrote that “. . . [it] is a necessary read for everyone, regardless of age entering any creative field.

In 2017, the 7th edition found a home with Allworth Press and was published the following year.

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*Aaron  Velky is the CEO and co-founder of the Ortus Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides millennials and those in Gen Z with the resources and information to elevate their lives financially. During the last few years, he has worked with more than 1500 young adults, helping them to shift their mindset and develop skills related to money, careers and happiness. https://aaronvelky.com

 

ETHICS OF ARTIST SUBMISSION FEES

Not too long ago, charging artists fees to exhibit work was considered an appalling practice associated with what was once known as “vanity galleries.” Slowly but surely the practice eased into art fairs, exhibition and residency submissions, and grant applications, sponsored by nonprofit organizations, including museums.

Way back in 1994, art critic Joan Altabe posed the question “What would you think of a theater that charged the performers rather than the audiences? Crazy, right! Behold the crazy art world. The arrangement described above is one of the ways many exhibit halls support themselves.” Altabe interviewed various not-for-profit arts organizations who justify charging entry fees because the fees pay for the venue’s overhead. “We couldn’t survive without entry fees.” Altabe responded by offering a practical and intelligent suggestion: “Charge the audience, not artists.

Charging artists submission fees is now a fait accompli – and few are questioning it. The same thing happened when over the years artists have allowed gallery sales commissions go from 20% to 33 1/3% to 40% – and now 50%. Surely there are more creative ways that nonprofit organizations can stay afloat without getting on the backs of artists!

In most instances, I have been unsuccessful in dissuading some of my clients not to participate in art fairs if they (and not galleries) must pay for the so-called privilege. However, success from my warnings have only come after clients have shelled out $2,000-$3,000 (sometimes more) and have nothing to show for it, no sales and no valuable contacts. So, success is achieved by lessons learned from the hard school of knocks.

Each month I include in The Newsletter a few exhibition, residency, or grant opportunities. I would like very much to list more, but I try not to include venues that charge submission fees. Consequently, there are slim pickings and I spend a substantial amount of time doing research. If you run across any venues that do not charge submission fees, share the good news and let me know. carollmichels@gmail.com

THE TALENT OF COMPARTMENTALIZING DURING A CRISIS

Compartmentalization is often described as a negative trait. Wikipedia has this to say:

“. . . a subconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.”

However, the ability to compartmentalize when dealing with stressful situations is a true talent and if you have this ability it should not be taken for granted, as it is not a talent that all artists possess. Unfortunately, some people find themselves unable to focus on anything else but the Covid crisis and are preoccupied 24/7 with mentally paralyzing thoughts.

On the other hand, some artists handle stress by retreating to their studio to create new work or begin a new series. Other artists are wrapping their brains around career development projects that will be launched in the future – once the crisis has passed.

As many therapists have pointed out, compartmentalization is a skill. It is the ability to be afraid, angry, hurt, sad, or disappointed and put those feelings away until a time when you can better deal with them. Healthy people do it all the time.

For more on the subject:

https://withoutstress.com/reduce-stress-by-compartmentalizing

WEBSITE TO HELP ARTIST TAKE CONTROL OF THEIR CAREERS

The Artist Help Network ®™ is a free career resource website for fine artists – offering national, international, and regional, contacts and information designed to help artists take control of their careers.  The site is based on the Appendix of Resources in How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul by Caroll Michels (7th edition, Allworth Press, 2018).

People working in the applied arts, arts administration, and arts-related fields will also find the site helpful. The site is a work in progress and is continually being updated. It is divided into the following categories that unfold into many subcategories:

  • Career
  • Exhibitions, Commissions & Sales
  • Money
  • Presentation Tools
  • Legal
  • Creature Comforts
  • Other Resources

Caroll Michels is career coach and artist-advocate, she works with artists throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and South and Central America.  For additional information visit www.carollmichels.com.

“NETWORKING IS OVERRATED”

Writes Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School.  Although the article “Good News for Young Strivers: Networking is Overrated” is not written specifically for artists, much of what the author has to say is applicable.  “If you make great connections, they might advance your career.  If you do great work, those connections will be easier to make. Let your insights and your outputs – not your business cards – do the talking.” Click to read the full article:

WHY I WON’T USE THE WORD “GALLERIST”

I read recently that an organization that provides career support services to artists is sponsoring a podcast that describes the differences between art dealers and gallerists.   In my humble opinion, they are one in the same.  Excerpt follows from How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul (Publication date: April 2018):  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1621536130/?tag=artisthelpnetwor:

“Somewhere between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, art dealers in New York reinvented themselves and changed the title of their occupation to “gallerist.” . . . The new title arrived with a set of rules regarding who can use the title and who cannot. As an attempt to explain the difference between an art dealer and a gallerist, a gallery owner interviewed in the New York Times1 described an art dealer as one who buys and sells art but does not represent artists. The article also suggested that a gallerist nurtures artists . . . . Although the new title is pretentious and a less-than-subtle embellishment of the occupation of “salesperson,” it can also be interpreted that the “ist” at the end of “gallerist” symbolically represents yet another encroachment into an “artist’s” territory. It can be compared to the 50 percent sales commissions art dealers receive, an implication that they are major contributors to the creation of artwork! Therefore, this is the only section of the book that will refer to art dealers as gallerists!

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  1. Grace Glueck, “Old Business, New Name: Behold the Gallerist,” New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2005/12/24/arts/design/old-business-new-name-behold-the-gallerist.html. to art dealers as gallerists!