Dealing with Rejection

Sandra Indig, Psychotherapists for Arts Services

Matthew Deleget, Visual Artist Information Hotline

Every time you send off a portfolio of your work to a gallery, curator, grant program, slide registry or other such person or entity, you take the risk of being rejected and disappointed. Rejection can naturally lead to feelings of hurt and discouragement. In this issue of FYI, the Hotline has teamed up with artist and psychotherapist Sandra Indig, founder of Psychotherapists for Arts Services, to take a closer look at rejection and to offer you some strategies for building up your immunity to the reality of rejection.

Looking at Creativity and Rejection

To begin with, Ms. Indig defines the creative process as “giving oneself permission, whether consciously or unconsciously, to access a state of mind which is free from judgment and criticism, and is fluid enough to allow connections between seemingly unrelated elements.” In sharp contrast to this, artists are generally expected to pursue rational goal-oriented art careers that include business activities such as sending off summary portfolios, filling out grant applications, holding studio visits, mounting exhibitions, etc. You should be aware that conflicts generated by career pursuits can become detrimental to your creative practice, particularly when you receive negative feedback.

The Effects of Rejection

When rejected, you probably start to doubt your abilities and vision. You may even feel like your work is meaningless. According to Ms. Indig, artists’ reactions to rejection can range from “just a mild annoyance to intense feelings whereby the rejection seems to threaten an artist’s integrity as a human being to the point where her or his existence is being compromised.” The emotional and physical effects that accompany rejection can include “feelings of loss, abandonment, anxiety, depression, hostility, fatigue, withdrawal, sleep disturbances, and they may even be the source of physical problems as well.” On a more positive note, Ms. Indig reminds us that although artists are often subject to rejection on an ongoing basis, they continue to produce artwork throughout their entire lifetimes. Rejection is just a natural part of the process.

Separating You from Your Art

As an artist, you are fortunate to be involved in one of the few professions in which your work is so closely associated with communicating your inner vision. Ms. Indig states, however, that “the effect of identifying too closely with your product can have dire consequences.” Thus, it’s important to keep a clear separation (albeit a difficult one) between your creative work and your art career. You already know that whenever you send off a portfolio of your work to a venue you are consciously seeking its validation of your vision and abilities. You also need to keep in mind that the reasons for rejection are complex and that they are never absolute truths. Decisions made by individuals such as arts professionals are always subject to external influences on various levels: personal, professional, and social. Like you, arts professionals have personal preferences for certain styles of artwork, media, and concepts, all of which can have a positive or negative affect on their perception of your work. Naturally, you may sometimes feel that their decisions are arbitrary and illogical. Please remember, though, that when your work is rejected it doesn’t mean they’re rejecting you as a person. They’re just not supporting the current product of your artistic vision, oftentimes because it doesn’t fit within their own vision and projects.

Insights into Success and Disappointment

Ms. Indig also reminds us that artists commonly regarded as “successful” (either critically, financially, or both) by other artists, critics, and institutions, often experience feelings of disappointment and failure as well. Many times “successful” artists may feel that they are not successful, admired, or understood well enough. These artists may suffer from creative blocks due to negative criticism and performance anxiety, as well as losses in focus and momentum.

Close Calls

Another thing to keep in mind whenever you’re rejected by form letter is that you probably never realize how close you actually were to being selected. You should never automatically assume that you were the first person out of 1,500 applicants to be eliminated during a panel process. After auditing (and even participating in) many juried panels, I have seen artists who were top contenders during the entire process get eliminated in the final voting round. I have also seen artists win grants who were not immediately supported at the start of the selection process. You need to understand that the panel process is complex. Individual panelists sometimes have personal agendas that they wish to promote, and this can be a great source of friction between them. Sometimes individual panelists are even obliged to make selections from a group of artists they would not normally support.

Maximizing Your Efforts/Minimizing Your Rejections

Here are some strategies for increasing your odds of being accepted:

Research – Complete a thorough evaluation of the gallery, museum, juror, curator, etc., to whom you are submitting work. Find out as much as you can about them. Would they be interested in your medium, style, or concept? Do you (or your work) share any common qualities with other artists they have supported in the past? The answers to these questions will determine whether or not you should apply. You should also try to cultivate relationships with others in your art community. Strong relationships can lead to exhibitions, sales, and more.

Circulate – Whenever you receive a rejection from one program, send out a new portfolio to another one. Keep your portfolios in circulation. This will help you replace feelings of rejection with feelings of anticipation. Furthermore, in her book How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist, artist and advisor Carroll Michels points out that most artists need to mail at least 50 portfolios to elicit even one positive response. She determines that less than 50 portfolios does not begin to constitute effective exploration of available opportunities. In other words, don’t put all of your career hopes on a single application.

Reapply – Most artists, once they get rejected from a venue, will never reapply with a new body of work. Programs with annual deadlines such as NYFA’s Artists’ Fellowship Program should be applied to every single year, no matter what. Panelists change annually, so you never know who will be judging your work or when it will be accepted. Also, be meticulous (not creative) when filling out application forms. Many artists’ applications are disqualified before their work is even reviewed because they simply don’t follow the instructions on the application.

Other Strategies for Dealing with Rejection

Be patient with your career and remind yourself of past successes. Be aware that rejection happens to everyone. Don’t become discouraged. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and stay focused on your personal goals. Also, don’t compare your career to other artists of the same age, medium, style, etc. Each artist’s career is unique and follows its own path. Create a support group of friends, family, and fellow artists around you that will provide you with comfort and stimulation. Practice your own methods for exorcising the rejection demons (meditation, yoga, workshops, athletics, and so on). Sometimes stepping away from your artwork and focusing your attention on something not art-related yields positive results in the studio. At the same time, please keep in mind that books on “instant success” are not long-lasting solutions.

A Final Note

Lastly, as painful as it is, you need to resist your first instinct to shred those rejection letters to pieces. You should hold onto them. Rejection letters are great proof that you are in business as an artist if you’re ever audited by the IRS.

Further Questions?

For additional information about dealing with rejection, please contact NYFA Source at our toll-free number (800) 232-2789, or by email at visual@nyfa.org.

About Sandra Indig

Sandra Indig, MSW, R-CSW, ATR-BC, is an artist, arts therapist and analytic psychotherapist. She founded Psychotherapists for Arts Services in order to address the needs of visual, performing and literary artists. She is also currently the chairperson of the Arts in Clinical Practice Committee of the Metropolitan Chapter of the New York State Society for Clinical Social Work, and she conducts workshops for the United Federation of Teachers. Ms. Indig welcomes readers’ comments and questions.

NYFA Quarterly – Summer 2000. Vol.16, No. 2