Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The art of rejection

As much of a bummer it is to get a rejection letter, I actually missed the formality of it when my rejection for the State Council grant was lost in the mail. I have gotten at least 15 rejections from this particular grant in the past. I know this because I take a perverse pleasure in saving all my letters in a file that is over an inch thick now.

I'm coming to realize that documenting rejection letters is a fairly common obsession among artists, for example...
  • Although she hasn't posted in a while, Suzanne Melbourne has an entire blog devoted to it at http://myrejectionletters.blogspot.com/.
  • Dan Senn created an art installation using them.
  • I still remember Providence artist Jessica Rosner's piece she exhibited at List Gallery of collaged lines cut from rejection letters. She said every artist who came in felt the shock of recognition when they saw it.
  • Catherine Wald is the President and Chief Rejecutive Officer of rejectioncollection.com
  • Note that this writer's few acceptance letters were not mounted but "tossed in" to her 1930's scrapbook of rejection letters, almost as an afterthought. When I think about it, I haven't even saved my acceptance letters!
So rejection letters have been sent out for a very long time, but the urge to save them and the language that they use hasn't changed. Most all have these elements...

Although some believe in laying it right out there with an immediate "We regret..." or "We are sorry to inform you...", most try to soften the blow by beginning with "Thank you for...".
You know though, don't you, what that means.

Then they may try to make you feel not quite so much of a loser. They...
"would like you to know that the entries were of a consistently high caliber and the selection process was a difficult one... The sheer volume of entries was enormous...the quality of submissions was indeed very high... We have be overwhelmed with the high number and quality of submissions this year... There were may high-quality submissions, making selection extremely difficult... The jurying process proved to be quite difficult due to the overall quality of the work...this was an usually competitive year... Given the high quality of submissions, the decisions were difficult, at times wrenching."
Although not so wrenching as this one, I'm sure..
"Not only was competition intense, but jurying was delayed when lead Juror B--- V--- gave birth to a child on the very day she was scheduled to sit down in front of hundreds of slides."
OK, just breathe...

Then they try to give you a glimmer of hope..
"...strongly urges you to submit your work for future programs... encourage you to resubmit your work... we encourage you to continue to submit slides... certainly do reapply next year"
And for a moment you think that they noticed that your work rose above the "sheer volume of entries", until you realize that the letter is addressed to "Dear applicant".

Then they close with a cordial invitation to the opening that you are only going to attend to see who they thought was better than you.
"Please accept our invitation to the opening reception... We hope that you will be able to join us at the special members preview... You are cordially invited to attend the opening..."
Some throw a nice gesture or genuinely helpful advice...
"As a gesture of appreciation for your participation...we are awarding you a family membership in the Museum." "Submit your entry early...but if you are delayed, don't waste money on FedEx. Our deadlines are not so hard and fast that missing a day or two would disqualify your entry."
Or really offer sincere encouragement...
"The jury was very interested in your work and was considering it in the final round of the selection process." "Your work stood out as exemplary and would have been chosen if not for the limited ..."
and the business card clipped to one that told me I made the short list 2 years in a row.

But you can also get the little zingers...
"None were so interested as to be future clients. The work, while vivid and strong, did not have sales appeal... Perhaps your work might be better represented elsewhere... I have no use for this artwork at this time... I do not see an arrangement that would be mutually beneficial to either of us."
This one speaks not only for the gallery, but the entire art market, extinguishing all hope...
"A show would not be beneficial to either party...should the market become more receptive to your mode of work we can contact you."
The only one I ever received that was inexcusably rude was from a gallery in the Berkshires that advertised for submissions. Like I usually do, I meticulously labeled my slides, put them in a slidesheet, in a 9x12 envelope with cardboard backing, with a folded self addressed, postage paid return envelope. I received the slides back with only a note on a torn piece of paper. "Next time use a smaller envelope". I wish I had saved that particular rejection, but I was so incensed I sent it to the director with a piece of my mind. Of course I never heard back.

Other than that I have developed quite a thick skin about rejection, rudeness is after all very rare, and I appreciate the efforts of the galleries and art venues to reject nicely. I would probably write very similar letters were I in their place.

As one gallery says...
"Please interpret this exclusion in the most positive of terms. Keep the faith.
Keep working."

Ok. Thanks. I will.


  1. Rejection letters always suck, I hear you. I remember talking to an assistant prof. at SVA that said he could wallpaper his studio in rejection letters.

    I save all of mine. I figure one day I'll do a piece with them or something


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