Marketing Mondays: Rethinking the Artist’s Statement

Here’s what I hate about artists’ statements: On an 11 x 8½  sheet of paper, the artist writes “Artist Statement” at the top and sticks a couple of short paragraphs of often impenetrable prose toward the top of the page. When you're confronted with it as a reader, what do you typically do?  Read the first few lines, skim to the bottom, and then put it down, right? Snore.

This is how statements have “always been done” but I think there’s plenty wrong with the format


Speaking as the editor I was for 20 years, I think there’s a better way to do it. Take, for example, a front of-the-book article in a magazine, typically a one-pager. What gets you to read it?  Your eye goes to the title and subtitle, rests on a picture and skims the caption, and then may fall on a call out or pull quote, elements designed to synopsize the text. So before you actually read the text of the article, you have gotten a sense of the story.

Considering the way we read the printed page as just described, or surf the net with a series mouse clicks and flashing images, who in the world is going to give your statement the three or so minutes it takes to plow through a paragraph that may or may not even be plowable?

Though I'm not suggesting you include a pull quote, I think you can take a cue from the magazine page and use the real estate of that 11 by 8½  page a whole lot better:

Think of your statement as a small editorial feature
(Click both text images to see them larger)

Give Your Artist’s Statement a Title
Everyone knows it's an artist's statement. Why not give it a title instead? The title could be the name of series you’re working on, or a phrase or word to describe the work; it might even be a phrase a critic has used to describe it (make sure you attribute it in the text itself).

Include an Image
If one picture is worth a one thousand words—and never has that been truer than in our insta-culture—then for godsake include one. Pick the best image of your best work, or a studio installation shot, or a gallery installation shot, or even a detail of a work that embodies the elements you talk about in the statement. Pick something to show your reader what you do.

Caption it
It might be as simple as the basic info of title, date, medium, dimensions. If it’s a studio view, note the date of the photograph; if it’s a gallery installation, note the gallery and the city it’s in, exhibition title, and date. If it’s a detail, identify it as such.

The Statement Itself
. Is it written in artspeak? No one is going to understand it. (If you’re problematizing expectations and deconstructing antiaesthetic historical precedents, with or without allusions to formalist thinking, take a look at Carol Diehl’s classic Impenetrable Prose from the Whitney Biennial. She’s commenting on critical writing, but too often artists try to emulate that ridiculous prose in an effort to sound more artlike. The message here: Don’t!)
. Is it too long? No matter how well it’s written, no one is going to read it. Write about your work the way you would verbally describe it to someone. Edit it, of course. Prose-ify it a bit if you wish. But keep it readable and keep it short: What you’re doing, why you’re doing it; and if, applicable, how you’re doing it. Boom, boom, boom.

Provide just enough information that the reader will want to engage with you to know more and to see more. (That’s what made Gypsy Rose Lee so famous.) You want to interest a dealer or curator sufficiently to click onto your website (or better: visit your studio), to inspire a critic to visit your show, to tantalize a collector to imagine what your work would like on her wall. Otherwise, they or any other reader will give your statement a once-over and put it down. 

The Letterhead
At the top of the sheet provide a letterhead—the same one that’s on the first page of your resume, on your price list, and on your correspondence. Your name is on this letterhead, of course, along with your contact info: e address, land line, cell, website, and perhaps your studio address. Create a template from existing fonts in Word and use it for everything you print out. Yes, it’s businesslike; you are a business of one. The people you are dealing with—dealers, museums, consultants, for instance—are also businesses. If you prefer to make your letterhead a “letterfoot,” that’s fine. Just be consistent about it.

When I send a new statement to a gallery I'm working with, I just leave space at the spot, top or bottom, where they put their gallery letterhead/foot.

Related topics: The Elevator Pitch; Resume, CV, Bio

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annell4 said...

A post filled with lots of good ideas!

pam farrell said...

Joanne: including a photo with the statement is a fantastic idea! Brilliant.

I was in a gallery the other day to see the current show. The artist's statement about the work was posted on the wall among the paintings, and I was immediately struck by its simplicity, clarity, and brevity. In a few well-written sentences, the artist had provided just enough information to pull me into the work. When I mentioned this to the gallery director, she laughed a bit and said the first version was so densely written with technical and theoretical jargon, that she couldn't understand any of it. She asked the artist for a re-write, and got positive results.

I guess the moral of the story here is that it's good to have a second pair of eyes on the statement before it gets published.

Great MM post!


Unknown said...

This is brilliant. Thanks for sharing all that.
Miles says 50 words ,or less is good!
Best wishes, fanne

* said...

Good idea about including the image.
Seeing the two versions for comparison really makes your point.


Tamar said...

Terrific post Joanne, chock full of good suggestions.

It is often a struggle to write a coherent statement because we think we are expected to include a string of insightful comments, instead of letting the work speak for itself. You are absolutely correct that short and sweet (well, at least clear) is far better than a rambling statement filled with jargon. I've been including a small image along with my statement for a couple of years (but certainly a larger image is even better).

And Pam-you include another terrific idea--get someone who you trust to look at the statement before you publish it......I might just take you up on that!

Victoria Veedell Studio said...

I like the idea of giving your statement a title. Definitely more interesting than "Artist Statement" thanks!

Jason Hoelscher said...

Hi Joanne,
This is a great post! I have many of my senior and grad students write artist statements, and emphasize three things:

* Minimize the art-speak: If you can't write about your work conversationally then my assumption is that (a) you don't really have anything to say, or (b) you don't fully understand your work well enough to describe it. (Plus, overuse of art-speak often comes across as an amateur who's showing off terminology s/he just discovered)
* An artist statement should ideally describe the work well enough that a person could guess with reasonable accuracy which work in a group show goes with the statement
* The statement should be interesting enough to make someone want to seek out the work and learn more

I'm definitely going to point people to this post as well, as there are some great ideas here.


Mery Lynn said...

Let me second Pam's suggestion to have someone else read your statement before you release it. Making certain that you have no incorrectly spelled words and blatant grammatical errors also helps.

Professional does not mean obtuse. Write your statement with your cousins in mind, not art critics, and the result will be stronger.

Anonymous said...

Artist's statements are a HUGE waste of time. I have been painting and selling professionally for 15 years and have had just one (read 1) inquiry asking for an artist's statement,

Leave that sort of "Save the Whales" navel gazing for amateurs and focus on (A) creating great work (B) building up your bio of shows, awards and recognition, and (C) sound marketing of both A& B.

David W. Mayer
West Creek Studio

Brennen McElhaney said...

Joanne - This is wonderful stuff! practical and well-thought-out. I plan to review my artist statement with your suggestions in mind. Thanks also for including excellent examples.

Also, I believe that an artist statement should include examples of artwork whenever possible.

(Tongue-and-cheek comment: I think if artists are expected to write an artist statement, I believe that it's only fair to expect writers to paint a picture to explain their writing.)

Kelly M. said...

Bravo! We are no longer in the world of Henry James where it takes 3 paragraphs to make a simple statement (and I love HJ) -- today's mind and time constraints force a quicker, more accurate distillation. Now where did I put my artist's statement . . . !

Dana S Whitney said...

So one would have an artist statement for each series...?

Pamela Farrell said...

Just a couple of questions to David Mayer regarding his philosophy on artist statements:

What do you tell a curator, gallery owner or director who asks for a statement to accompany your work in a show?

How do you submit proposals, or apply for grants, fellowships, funding opportunities, or residencies without a statement?

Karen Minton, Studio Blog said...

Thanks so much for this post. It's exactly the information I needed as I am trying to transition from selling via small solo shows to building good relationships with galleries. I'm preparing portfolios to be sent out and the fancy art speak just has never seemed to ring true for me or my work so I had been stalling on writing a statement. This just took all the stress out that for me!

P.S. Silk Trail 45 is particularly gorgeous. Love watching your work.


Joanne Mattera said...

To respond to your anti-statement stance--and you certainly are welcome to that point of view--I would second Pam Farrell's comment and add this: Don't expect that your work will speak for itself. Everyone sees something different. If you want your audience to know about your work from your point of view, you need that statement.

Also, you dealer needs your statement for a variety of reasons: to help her talk about your work with a collector or potential collector, to write a press release, to include in the packets of into she sends to consultants, curators, others. It's your voice talking about your work when you are not there to talk about it in person.

Joanne Mattera said...

Dana asks if we need a different statement for each series (or body of work).

Each time I create a new series, I prepare a new statement. It's new work; I have new things to say about it. This is particularly important for the dealers I work with. Some have been showing and selling my work for well over a decade. As my work changes, they need to be able to refer to my comments as they present the work to their clients. (Of course we talk about it, too, but the statement give them a precis of my thinking about the work.)

Art Epicurean said...

I agree with everything you said. I have always thought the artist statement was written more for the artist than the reader. I am definitely going to create a new artist statement with the ideas you noted. Thank you.

* said...

If all else fails in the statement-writing department, one can always resort to this:

Nancy Natale said...

Good suggestions, as always, Joanne! I'm going to follow your lead with the subtitle and picture immediately if not sooner.

Nancy Natale said...

And by the way, I think the two picture format - one larger than the other - could work very well with a detail plus the full image of one work. That would be especially helpful for my work.

Joanne Mattera said...

And then there's the Instant Art Citique Phrase Generator:

LM Smith said...

I agree with the lone dissenter here. I don't believe it is the artist's job to tell people what they should see or feel when they look at a work of art. The work itself should do the talking:) The possiblity that a viewer might be puzzled by it or not understand it should be accepted as one of many possible responses. (In other words, it should succeed or fail on its own terms.) Many successful artists have said as much over the years. If statements are so important why don't art schools teach artists how to write them? My own very recent art education implied that statements were necessary in today's art world but no class time was actually spent on how to write one.

Joanne Mattera said...

Your art school did you a disservice by not helping you with an artist statement. Many schools now offer Professional Practices courses--much needed and entirely appropriate, expecially now that the financial stakes for artists are so high--in which the artist statement is addressed.

It is not the artist's job to tell a viewer what they should see or think, but the artist loses a valuable opportunity by not presenting the work in her/his own words--the what and the why. The statement opens the door to an understanding of the artist's oeuvre, or to a particular series, or even to a specific work. (If it's poorly written, the statement may just muddy the waters.)

It's another way to answer the question, "What do you do?" You wouldn't remain mute in a gallery if someone asked you, right? The statement is the written equivalent. But it is your right to opt out of that kind of clarification.

Lynda Cole said...

Joanne, this is great. Thanks. I'll leave an appreciation with PayPal.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thank you, Lynda. Your donation is much appreciated.

susie q said...

Great post! This computer-generated artists' statements speaks directly to your advice:

So funny!

LM Smith said...

Thanks for yor response Joanne! Answering a viewer's questions about the work is another thing altogether; they have already seen the work and want more information, something I'd be only too happy to provide. The written "statement", on the other hand, presupposes what those questions might be and puts the cart before the horse so to speak. I actually love reading interviews with artists because what they are saying is a response to the response of someone else who has experienced the work already. Again, I think the art should start the conversation, not the artist's own thoughts about the art. As for statement writing being taught in schools, I have read so many bad ones by recent MFA grads that I have to wonder:)!

Anonymous said...

Just forwarded this to other Mason Gross (Rutgers/New Brunswick, NJ) undergrad students like me via my Facebook page... I hate the Holier Than Thou artist statements I've read. Statements should be succinct and pretty. :) Thank you.

stellth said...

As a curator and a gallery owner I want you to send me a statement. I don't want you to tell me what to see. I want you to tell me what informs your work.

I also don't want you to pretend to be a graphic designer and add images and create letterheads.

Use simple block style, have good grammar and spelling. Make sure I have all the information I need to contact you.

Don't try to dazzle me with bs.

Joanne Mattera said...

Well, OK then, Stellth.
But as a visual person you realize that visual information is not bs, right?

mjsee said...

THANK YOU. I was struggling with my very first artist's statement for my very first show. I am largely self-taught, so never had a course or lecture on marketing art/statements/etc. This gave me the direction I needed. Left a small donation.