Brief and attention-grabbing – but beyond that, this fellow’s artist statement could use some work.
Few artists enjoy writing them. Some, if pressed, might admit they don’t look forward to reading them. But chances are that you, as an artist, will at some point encounter an opportunity – a grant you’d like to apply for, a juried exhibition, etc. – that is going to require you to submit an artist statement. That means, of course, that you’ll have to have write one.
Why do gate-keepers ask for artist statements (especially given the first two sentences of this article)? Well, the answer is two-fold, and the reasons can guide your future writing/revision.
The first is that granting organizations, schools, galleries, or other gate-keepers are offering to make an investment in the promise of your work. Since there are doubtless many artists vying for that same investment, gate-keepers want a sign – they want proof – that you’ll have the professional capacity to make the most of it. Fair or not, a competently written artist statement with correct spelling and punctuation makes for a decent signifier that you’ll be able to deliver on your promise. If the statement can also genuinely enhance the experience of your work, even better.
Which brings me to the second point: an artist statement can, in an ideal scenario, deepen the audience’s experience of your work without reducing or over-explaining it. It can, as artist Pat Shannon puts it, “allow people a way to get closer to the work while still having their own experience.”
First Do No Harm
Your art is excellent, so why would you want to kneecap it with a sloppy artist statement?
Misspellings, grammatical errors, sloppy or “creative” punctuation: these all suggest lack of experience and will harm your chances. Take the time to remove your statement’s compositional flaws. Another thing that can harm your statement is excess – excess words, excess repetition, excess length.
“It’s a good strategy, also empathetic to your reader, to keep your statement to just a paragraph or two,” says Cara Ober in a particularly good article on artist statements in Bmore Art. Massachusetts artist Mathew Gamber agrees that brevity helps when writing about your work. “In that brevity, you have the opportunity to distill your intent to a specific focus.”
In an article in the Abundant Artist, Hannah Piper Burns reveals that her own statement is just “six healthy sentences long.” Aspire to write a brief, tight, focused statement. You can always expand it later if you need to.
(You won’t need to.)
A Way In
So, aside from correct spelling and brevity, what else should be in an artist statement?
Artist Pat Shannon says writing about her work “feels like taking a step out from inside the art to offer others a way in.” Her work tends to be conceptual, and the media and materials depend on the project. So rather than explaining her work, “I prefer to talk about the questions that fuel my curiosity.”
Speaking of media and materials – that can provide another “way in.” If your media and materials are consistent from project to project, what is it about them that allows you to best explore the questions driving your work?
As far as the thematic content of your work, focus on why you’re exploring it rather than trying to explain what you are trying to do. As Shannon says, “I’m the only person who can account for why I made something.”
Your Unique Voice
To find the voice or tone for your statement, look no further than your own art. Are the defining features of your art – say, vibrant colors, or mysterious narratives, or dark humor – reflected in the words and writing style you choose? If your work is funny, allow your statement some levity. (Of course, if your work is grim, a light-hearted statement will feel odd, to say the least.)
Notice I use the word “allow.” Be generous with yourself in allowing your unique voice as an artist to inform the writing of your statement. But be ruthless against bad writing habits like repetition, obtuse meanings and “art speak,” or grandiosity. Remember, we’re writing the artist statement people want to read – even if they aren’t curators, art professors, or MFA art students.
Peruse the websites of artists you admire and see how they write about their own work. See which ones you respond to and which ones you don’t, and determine if those in the “do” column have shared strengths you can incorporate in your own statement.
Artist and writer Gigi Rosenberg has a thoughtful article on writing a strong artist statement, and she offers another interesting idea: interview your own audience about your art. If you have a trusted peer, or better yet, a group of peers, advisors, and admirers, ask them what they see in your art, and what engages them. Whether or not you agree with their observations, “remain open and curious and record what they say.” In their responses “you may find language you like,” Rosenberg says.
Finally: assuming you are writing an artist statement for a particular opportunity, you could even contact the organization behind it and ask how the statement will be used and what is most important to include or leave out. For example, we don’t ask for artist statements in the Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowships Program, but applicants frequently ask us to elaborate on the materials we do ask for. And honestly, we’re only too happy to discuss it. Most organizations will feel the same way.
To sum up: you have to write an artist statement because gate-keepers ask for them. But since you have to write one anyway, why not endeavor to make yours rise above the artist statement’s damaged reputation? Make your the exception: the artist statement they’re excited to read.
Related articles on ArtSake: How Do You Talk about Your Art?