Marketing Mondays: Rejection Redux

The second post I wrote for Marketing Mondays, back on January 26, 2009, was called Rejection.  Everything I wrote is still true. It still stings, we still cede way too much psychic power to the rejecter, and we still need to get over the hump of it.

But not all rejections are the same. Today I want to talk about degree. I’m jumping off from a conversation with a director/curator I spoke to back then. I’m reproducing her comments and then providing comments of my own and those of two artist/gallerists--the comments being something I didn’t do in that earlier post.

"There are three kinds of rejection," said the director/curator of an art institution in Maine. She calls them  "levels." I'm paraphrasing, but here's the gist  of how she responds to  unsolicited submissionswhether via actual  package  or  email:

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,'” said the director/curator.

What You Might Do
Many of us have received this kind of response. It’s a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you-and-we’re-not-going-to-call-you. The impulse is to say, “Fuck you,” as a handful of artists have. Definitely don’t act on that impulse. And don’t waste your time obsessing over the rejection. Instead:
. Painful as it may be, read the rejection again. It did not say You are an unloved, ugly, untalented scumbag with no hope of a career, and, by the way you’re going to hell when you die, which couldn’t be soon enough. It said, The work is not right for the gallery. See the difference there?
. Understand that galleries have programs and if your work does not fit the program, it will not  be considered
. Understand, too, that even sending a letter to you represented time and effort on the part of the dealer because the package you sent was unsolicited  
. Send a postcard, ideally with an mage of your work, with this message: Thank you for considering my work. I know you must receive many submissions, and I appreciate that you took the time to respond to mine.
. Continue to visit the gallery. Do not bring up the issue of rejection. Just enjoy the exhibitions. If you see a change in the program over time, it may be because the curator or director has changed—there’s a lot of movement in the art world in every region and at every level—and it may be that a different director or curator will have a different take on your work. Your work may have changed, too. Whether or not you decide to try again is up to you.
. Relatedly, don't dis the exhibitions you see there--at least not while you're in the gallery. A different gallery director tells the story of an artist who was rejected for an exhibition and then bad-mouthed each show, and the artists in it, every time he returned to the gallery with friends. I suspect that artist will be shown in the gallery only when hell drops below 32 degrees Farenheit.

A Voice of Experience
I’m quoting Eva Lake, artist, radio host, gallerist, force of nature in Portland, Oregon, who responded to that original post: “There can be a million reasons why someone decides against you. People have their programs—they may actually like many things but they don’t show many things. It gets very particular. I say this as someone who has curated many shows. One time an artist really pressed me for a decision right then and there! I had been considering her but in a back burner kind of way. I've shown plenty of artists who started that way and made their way to the front burner,  but her insistence for input really turned me off. If she was like that before I said anything, how would she be later on? So I just said No. That No was not about her work really. It was about her.”

Level Two: A Definite Maybe
“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?”

What You Should Do
This is where many artists trip up. The dealer is saying maybe, stay in touch, down the road, who knows while the artists is hearing No No No No No No.
. What part of stay in touch do you not understand?
. First send that thank you postcard, adding that you will indeed keep them apprised of new work. Address it specifically to the person whom you spoke with, or who sent you the letter
. Then stay in touch. Put the person on your mailing list so that she’s aware of shows you’re in. Solo shows tell the dealer you’re ambitious and hard working, and that someone has else found your work compelling enough to give you such an opportunity. Pick the best image for that postcard and make sure your name is on the front of the card with the image (good office printers allow you to custom print a card). If you’ve got a catalog, send that. If you’ve gotten a particularly good review, scan it and create a PDF and email it to the dealer, with a short note.
. Continue to visit the gallery. Sometimes dealers are just too busy to respond to every missive, but if they like what they’re seeing, and they’re reminded of that by seeing you, they may want to take a next step, which could be a studio visit if you are nearby or asking you to bring in some work. If it doesn't seem forced, you could drop off a catalog of an upcoming show, or hand deliver

A Voice of Experience
Here I’m quoting Rob Hitzig, an artist who runs a small gallery, who also commented on that original post: “If a gallery is encouraging and asks for updates, believe them. They want to see your work progress.”
Level Three: "Let's proceed"
 “If I like what I see and think it might fit into the program, I ask to see more work," said the director/curator. "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.

How to proceed
Schedule that studio visit or bring in some work! If the dealer calls you, great. If she asks you to call the gallery, do so in a timely manner. (Timely: later that day, the next day. Carpe diem! ) If you’re scared to death, plan what you want to say. Maybe even write it down and say it a few times—while breathing.
. In terms of scheduling, be available, be flexible, but don’t go to extremes. If you’ve got an operation scheduled, for instance, don’t put off the surgery
. Prepare for a studio visit  so that when the dealer or curator arrives she sees just what she has expressed interest in and/or just you want her to see, nothing extraneous
. Follow up as necessary, whether it’s to drop off work or prepare requested information. And send a postcard to the dealer thanking her for stopping by is a nice touch.
. When you visit the gallery, don’t monopolize her time just because you have had a personal encounter. She’s probably doing the same thing with a number of artists

A Voice of Experience
Here, it’s my own: Understand that it still may take time for things to get rolling. I showed a body of work via slide (in the early 90s) to a New York dealer; he liked the work but not enough to do anything about it. "Let me see your next body of work," he said.  About 10 months later I did, to pretty much the same response.  I kept painting  and showing in group shows elsewhere. About a year later I was so confident in what I had that I called and said, "I'd like to bring in a few paintings to show you." He accepted them for the gallery, sold one, and shortly thereafter included the others in a gallery group show. Sometime after that  I was invited to join the gallery. The process took about three years.

How have you followed up after a rejection?
My question not about how you felt after the rejection but what you did positively after that. Do tell.

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Ben Stansfield said...

I've had a rejection from my local dream gallery, and it made sense to me, given their program at the time, and my then-work.
I've kept them on my mailing list, and popped in to see shows once in a while, and make a point to say hello. They've given me free tickets to the big local gallery art fair, always friendly.
Actually, I was surprised how good I felt after the rejection-that I went ahead and submitted something, and that I didn't take it personally when they said no.
And thanks for the no-nonsense writing and perspective. It helps to hear about the things nobody much wants to speak about.a

Susan Schwalb said...

There is actually another kind of rejection that I experienced many years ago. I used to get only the form letter back with my slides but then I began to get letters that were personal saying that the work look beautiful but it was not for the gallery. At that point I actually felt encouraged that eventually I would find a gallery. I was right. Keep the faith.

Philip Koch said...

Joanne- a wonderful post!

I laughed my head off reading your description of the internal monologue likely to run through an artist's head after receiving the Definite No- "You are an unloved, ughly, untalented scumbag..." Have never seen the emotional blows that come with rejection so well stated.

This is a vital topic to wright about- I fear most artists experience these setbacks as personal events. It is far too easy to fall into thinking "you are the only one" that this kind of thing happens too. Over the years I've often thought the most critical talent for an artist to possess might just be the ability to crawl back out of the pot hole that they've fallen into most recently. Vision, talent, persistence are all right up there, but so too is resiliance.

Gwenn said...

I go with the 2-for-1 response to rejection. For every rejection I receive, I send out two new queries.

The queries can be formal, like another grant application or another exhibition proposal, or they can be a note to a friend letting them know what's new in my work and in my world. Either kind of query counts for me: what matters is that I do it even though I feel like doing the opposite!

Anonymous said...

All of my galleries took at least three years of work to get in to. My little secret-I would photocopy the rejection letter they had included with my last packet and send it with the new work. My cover letter would state-this is what you thought last year-what is your opinion now? This opened up thoughtful rejection letters (stopped the form rejection letters) and helped them remember me and my work. Which considering the amount of submissions the galleries receive is not an easy feat.

Anonymous said...

I have not got past lvl 1. lol.
My work does not fit most galleries. It has taken some time to figure that out . I am learned a lot over the last 5 years. Thank you Joanne I have learned a lot from you. I think you are a pretty good artist, I could pick your work out of any group.

mariabordeanu said...

I've discovered your blog recently and I started reading many previous posts, they are very inspiring! I hope you have the time to answer my 2 questions regarding the way to approach a gallery:

1. I am currently in a proccess of emailing galleries abroad and on some gallery websites I find a lot of contacts: director, manager, gallery assistant, sometimes as many as 10 contacts...which one should I write (I am a painter, with exhibited works)? I wish to ask them politely to take a look at my work, send them reminders, etc.

2. Some galleries say "The gallery does not accept unsolicited artist submissions." It's obvious they don't want to see new work, but I would only wish to show them samples for future consideration. Is it proper to approach them with a polite mail? I find some of these galleries really linked to what I like and show, I would wish to have a chance of showing them something.

Thank you!