Marketing Mondays: 10 Tips For Writing a Clear Artist Statement

Last year in this column I wrote about a new way of thinking about the artist statement. I talked about keeping it short and avoiding artspeak, but mostly I focused on the presentation of the document. My suggestion was to give it a title, since everyone knows it’s an artist statement, and more importantly, to give it an image. Use the  page. 

What I didn’t do was talk much about the statement itself. I just assumed that after art school everyone has figured out how to write one. But I got a lot of requests to talk about the writing.

This is a recent statement. I'm not just telling you about my work, I'm showing it to you, too
So, OK, let me put my editor’s cap on—I wore one for two decades in my day job—and offer you these 10 tips:

1. Start with good work
That's the basis, because all the explication in the world won't make it better. As a corollary, you also need good images since that’s the way your good work will be seen by dealers and curators until the studio visit or the gallery exhibition.

2. Write about it in plain English, in your own voice
The common wisdom is that your work should speak for itself, but if you want it to be understood on your terms, you have to speak for it. When you aren’t there to speak for it, your statement does. Eventually your dealer will speak on its behalf, or a curator, but even they will be helped by what you have to say about it.

3. Keep it brief, up to three short paragraphs (about 150 words)Some artists have taken an unconventional stance—a poem, a list, an anecdote. Well, OK, there are many ways to convey what you wish to say. However, I’m not a fan of using quotes by other artists, writers or philosophers. Considering how little time a reader will spend with the statement—maybe a minute, but more likely just a few seconds—why have the takeaway be someone else’s words?  (Then there’s the belligerent, “If you can’t understand it, I can’t help you.” That’s an art school posture. Say something.)

4. What is your work about?
What themes, issues or ideas are you addressing? You may allow your feeling or emotion to come through, and you may align yourself esthetically with a particular artist or school, but keep your opinion out of it; that’s a job for the critic or essayist. So while you may think you are a worthy successor to Mike Kelley or Louise Bourgeois, or that you're the art world’s next Cindy Sherman, allow Jerry or Roberta or one of their colleagues to make that pronouncement.

5. Why are you doing it?
Yeah, yeah, you’re making art because you have to create. Now tell us something we don’t know about the work. How does it relate to a previous body of work? How does it respond to a situation or movement? Why is it coming out of you in this way at this time? Ideally—and without being pompous about it—you will help the reader understand where the work fits into landscape of contemporary art. 

6. How are you doing it?  
If you address this question, don’t get bogged down. If your work is process intensive, or if you work with an unusual technique, acknowledge it, explain it simply and directly (if you think it needs explaining) and then move on.

7. Mention medium if it’s relevant
I see this with newbies, with artists working in a process-intense or technically demanding medium, or with mediums that are unusual. But keep this thought in mind: The medium is simply the means to express your ideas. It’s not the reason for the work. Silverpoint, for instance, has a long history, but you are a contemporary artist, not Leonardo. Encaustic is luminous and beautiful, but it doesn't have magical powers; it's just pigment suspended in wax. If your medium is talking to you, talk to a therapist.

8. Edit what you’ve written
Edit it again. Put it down, then come back and edit it once more. You not only want to catch the typos, you want to smooth out the phrases that cause a reader to stumble.

9. Ask another artist to read it for you
That person should be able to read through it once, in two or three relaxed breaths, and understand exactly what you mean. If they have to re-read it to get it, or if they don’t know what you are talking about, go back to Step 2.

10. Get good at it
The statement speaks on your behalf, so it will need to change as the work develops. And your work will continue to develop for your entire life.

As an ongoing project, read about art in various literary forms:
. First-person comments: See how artists let you into their work via statements or interviews. The best and clearest statements are not just easy to read, they convey a lot of information gracefully and economically. 
. Reviews: Critics write objectively and analytically. Criticism should be more challenging than an artist’s statement. Someone else besides the artist is looking at and thinking about the work.
. Essays: These are think pieces. Essayists typically balance observation with critical thinking, often connecting the dots between artists and/or genres. If you're hiring someone to write an essay about your work, choose the writer carefully. If your work is included in a catalog essay for en exhibition, make sure the writer has your statement (or make sure it's accessible on line).
. Features: A feature writer may incorporate all of the above in some measure, typically in a more conversational tone, with personal facts, and typically with pictures.
. Profiles: Typically brief, it offers an aspect of an artist’s life and work. There’s usually less about the what and why, more about the who.  
. Biography: This is the province of art historians, who will offer the full view, warts and all. (Different animal: If your dealer or a curator asks you to provide a bio, it's a resume in narrative form. Info here.)
. Academic writing: Thesis writing is its own genre. Stay away from it unless you are working toward a degree.

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Rossana Taormina said...

very interesting, thanks!

Jane Housham said...

Very illuminating, thank you so much.

Josephine A. Geiger said...

Love the clear, step by step instructions, but especially the limits you recommend following and the editing required! Sometimes it might be good to work with another artist – we talked and she generated the first draft based on our conversation, because sometimes it is a lot easier to speak about your work than it is to write about it.

annell4 said...

Another wonderful post, and should be very helpful. I usually write a statement about my work, every six months, that way I see it is am on the same track, or what direction I am moving in my work. Joanne you may be the single person who is actually helping artists to create more interesting statements! Thanks so much.

Adeaner said...

THE, very best advice I've ever encountered on this subject.

ska said...

Surprisingly, writing statements gets harder the older one gets and the more work one does. You have this perfect statement, 3 versions: long,medium and short, and one that includes a short bio - one paragraph. Then your work changes, and OMG, you have to start over and decide whether to mention previous work and how they connect or dont, its an ongoing process right along with the work's changes, and all I can say it that it keeps your mind whirling and prevents alzheimers. It helps that you (Joanne) think so clearly and concisely to guide us in this wilderness.

Daniel Roger said...

This is not working at my end? You put very good tips for writing a clear artist statement. Can someone please help me how to fix it? I have tried bit I can’t.

Joanne Mattera said...

I'm not understanding your question. Can you not see the text? Or are you saying that you can see the text but still need help with the writing?

ken said...

All really great advice as always, Joanne.

I have to disagree with "ska", though-- I don't think it necessarily gets harder as you go on. I would say it can get a little easier:
You get to know your self and your own work better.
You learn through practice how to talk and write about your work. You have more experience of what other people see, don't notice or want to know.
Also, if others, like curators or reviewers, write about your work (and if their perceptions ring true), that can actually be a help in refining your own thoughts, which can feed into thinking about a statement.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks,Rossana, Jane, Josephine, Annell, Tackad, Susanne and Ken.

I agree with Ken; it does get easier. However, I understand Ska's comment in that the more work you make, with all of its connections to what has come before, it's hard to be concise. But I'd say, keep it in the present.

For a longer statement, put it on your website--break it into series, or decades, or something that creates a kind of history for you. And if you want to say a bit more on the statement for your solo show, go ahead. You've earned the right to do so.

ska said...

By harder, I mean that I expect more of myself each time I rewrite a statement. I agree that I know myself and my work better as time goes on, but I also demand more of my writing ability --that it will be clearer, more concise, and more relevant than the last one I wrote. And I still find art easier to make than to explain in words.

Anonymous said...

If one finds the task of writing an artist's statement to be too daunting or too time consuming (that is, eating into studio time), I think it's perfectly fine and cost effective to hire an editor or a writer to shape and refine the text. Statements and bios are often picked up by reviewers (especially smaller or online publications) and re-purposed, sometimes verbatim.

Joey Harrison said...

Nine of your 10Tips should be mandatory reading for every student. Lord knows students have a hard enough time writing clearly and concisely. And if they aspire to be an artist, the writing they encounter in that world teaches that text has no value for conveying information, that text should be vague, that words should have a private meaning, that conventional rules of writing are passé. There appears to be an unspoken rule: Since an artist must be unfettered by rules in the creation of art, an artist must ignore rules of communication. The result is giant mountains of nonsense.

Which tip do I take issue with? No. 9. Never give your artist's statement to an artist for editing (Joanne excepted) unless you hope to make Nonsense Mountain even bigger.