Rejection might seem like a downer of a way to start the Marketing Monday series, but the hope-dashing, nerve-breaking, thanks-but-no-thanks wall that stands between an artist and success is a looming constant. There’s no easy way to deal with it except to experience it, get over it and move on. Rejection is never pleasant, but until you get over it, you can never move on. Fortunately, you do develop a callus over the soft spot.
Here's my rejection story:
At the very beginning of my career--pretty much before I even had a career, actually--I had an appointment with a young dealer on 57th Street. When I arrived, an assistant instructed me to set up my work on the floor around the perimeter of the small carpeted viewing room. The dealer entered, took a cursory look at the work and, and without making eye contact said, “Thank you,” and walked out. I put my work back into my portfolio and left, stung by the curtness and impersonality of that 20-second encounter. (And did I mention that I'd made the trip down from upstate, rising at 4:45 am to catch the early train?)
The rejection became an enormous psychic scab as I picked at it endlessly. Surely she had seen something of interest in the work when she viewed the slides, hadn't she? Why, then, was she so uninterested in the work in person? Did I do something wrong? Was it me? I should have declined to put the work on the floor! I should have spoken up as she was leaving! I should have followed up with a note. The work isn't good; no wonder she didn't like it. I'll never have a career. Pick, pick, pick.
Over time, as small encouragements tempered that initial big rejection, and then small successes became more frequent, and then--hurrah!--there were bigger successes, I was able to let that rejection go. Actually, that rejection spurred me to get shown, get representation, get my career moving. That's why I could finally let it go. Eventually I again started to visit her gallery, which has followed the standard migration pattern of galleries in New York. In fact I admire the way she has stuck with her gallery all these years (not unlike my own dogged adhesiveness).
Out of the blue--well, because I put her on my e-mail list a few years ago--this dealer recently sent me a kind e-note praising the way I promote myself and my work via the Internet. "Believe me, I've seen it all," she said. She has no idea that I was a young artist she dismissed many years ago or the impression her brusque dismissal made on me. I'm not going to tell her, either. It's history. (But, you know, that note still felt good.)
Here's what I learned from that initial rejection:
. I allowed waaaay to much to ride on that one presentation. Talk about naive. I'd probably pinned all my career (such as it wasn't) hopes on that one visit
. I ceded her too much power. One person on one day saw a tiny slice of my oeuvre and found it not to her taste
. Consider who's rejecting you. My psychic slasher was a young dealer, probably as inexperienced in rejecting artists as I was receiving rejection. I'll bet she has gotten better at it over the years
. She was under no obligation to offer me a crit of my work. The fact that she responded so coolly was message enough that it was not to her taste. If she'd taken the time to speak with every artist at every presentation, she would never have had the time to build up her career
. I should not have capitulated to the request to put the work on the floor. Maybe it was her standard operating procedure, but if the work is meant for the wall, that's where it should be seen
Degrees of Rejection
"There are three kinds of rejection," says a curator at an art college in Maine. She calls them "levels." I'm paraphrasing here, but here's the gist of how she responds to presentation packages:
. Level One: a definite no. I respond with a short note that says, 'We feel your work is not right for the gallery. Thank you for thinking of us, and best of luck with your career.'
. Level Two: Although the work does not fit into the scheme of any exhibitions I have planned, I like what I see. I send the artist a note saying exactly that, asking them to stay in touch. If they do, a relationship begins. Who knows how it will culminate?
. Level Three: If I like what I see and think it might fit into the program, I ask to see more work. If the artist is nearby, I might call to schedule a studio visit. If distance is a factor, I would ask the artist to bring in some work so that I can see it in person and get to know the artist.
Many Reasons for a Rejection
Another dealer offers this insight (again, I'm paraphrasing): We can't have a conversation with each individual artist who sends us material, but here are some of the reasons we might reject an artist's work:
. We might love it but know that we don't have a collector base to support it. Much as we love to show art, we have to sell it to stay in business
. We might already represent an artist who fills that niche for us. We do want artists who fit our program, but if their work overlaps with what a represented artist does, we won't consider the applicant
. One of us might love it and one of us might not. [This is a common issue for business partners, I have learned]
. The price might be too high or too low for the gallery
No Means No--For Now
One dealer lives by the motto, "No means no--for now." Things change, she says:
. A new director comes in with new energy and ideas, stretching the parameters of the program
. An artist leaves the gallery and an appropriate 'slot' opens up on the roster
. An artist keeps us in his or her mailing list, and looking at a postcard image of the new work we see a breakthrough or a find that the new direction is right for us
Ball in your Court
"One thing I can tell you for sure," says the no-means-no-for-now dealer, "is that if we ask you to stay in touch with us, we mean it."
And how many artist have done that? I ask.
"A tiny percentage."
What's your rejection story?
And equally important: What have you learned from it? .What have you