Rejection and The Art Prize

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An Op-Ed by Cara Ober

I can still remember my first art rejection letter. It was addressed in my own handwriting, on the self addressed stamped envelope (SASE) required for the application package. I hadn’t realized what that envelope was for until I received one. After that, I started decorating my envelopes with hearts and skulls and peppy slogans, but it didn’t soften the blow much. Every time I’d glimpse my own handwriting in the mailbox, my stomach would dip and I’d go through the stages of grief – disbelief, anger, and sorrow – over my newest rejection letter. It was pretty dramatic and took a lot of energy.

As a young artist, I applied to a ton of juried calls – for exhibits, grants, competitions – and I wasn’t picked for any of them. This was difficult to handle when friends or colleagues won the awards, but even harder when artists I had never heard of won, suggesting that jurors had no interest in the ideas or communities that I value. In these cases, it is easy to argue that the judges were out of touch or simply wrong.

When you don’t win the prize, it’s hard not to take it personally. Even when the competition is extremely stiff and the jurors highly respected, it is easy to complain about the outcome and wallow in frustration. And in situations where a prize is an annual exercise in hope and dejection, artists complain after the awards are announced for a number of reasons. Some of the complaints are valid and others are sour grapes, and either way it’s a part of the process.

Although we all know that art prizes are subjective and jurors are only human, it’s hard not to internalize every jury’s decision and feel personally maligned. It’s difficult not to feel like a loser, when you do, in fact, lose a competition, even though this isn’t productive.

I am sure we can all come together and create a list of constructive criticisms for the prizes in the area (for example, Sondheim should choose jurors from places other than NY, and Baker should send out rejection letters before announcing the awards and be more transparent about their judging) and this may be a valuable exercise, but it can also read as resentment when it comes a day after the prizes are awarded. The right thing to do is congratulate the colleagues who applied just like we did and were picked this year.

Since none of us can control an art jury’s choices, (especially that elusive Baker committee) and it’s important to continue to create opportunities for yourself, I am suggesting that artists should focus on the things within our control: a change in perspective. I know this is especially difficult, because we have to believe that we deserve to win in order submit an application and rejection is painful.

Repeat after me: We all deserve to win, but we’re mostly not going to. This is simple math and not indicative of my talent or judges who know nothing. Winning a prize is nice, but one isn’t going to change my life or validate my career.

William Powhida’s Whitney Rejection Letter, 2008

I don’t know if it’s because I have been doing this for a long time, or if I’ve simply given up, but I no longer take it personally when I don’t win a competition. I still apply and put my best foot forward, but I don’t expect to win and I am not disappointed when I don’t. Conversely, when I do get picked for something, it feels like winning the lottery. I am thrilled to be a Sondhiem Semi-Finalist this year after applying for close to ten.

If you really want to develop a healthy perspective on art prizes, I highly recommend jurying one. I think that every artist that applies for a prize like the Sondheim, Baker, Rubys, or Trawick should serve as a juror for an art competition, even a high school or community art show, just to see how difficult this is and to realize how arbitrary and impersonal the process really is. As a judge, you bear a huge responsibility: knowing that you’re making three people happy and crushing the dreams of 20-30 others is not fun. But this is the job.

We can have a larger discussion about the purpose of art prizes, and whether they actually accomplish an organization’s larger goals – to promote excellence, to build community, to create opportunities for artists, to gain press attention – or if they create frustration and division instead. We can discuss other options for prizes and funding for artists that may be better than a competition, but that’s a different conversation. An art competition judge’s job is to make decisions based on their own aesthetics and ideas, rather than trying to make people feel good. This is completely subjective, it’s nerve wracking, and it’s impossible to make the majority of the applicants happy. This is how a competition works.

No one values a race where everyone wins. No one values a contest unless the judges choose winners based on their honest opinions. Basic math proves that this is not going to be popular, but I think it’s mostly worth it to keep throwing our hats in the ring. Or, maybe we should collectively decide that competition is not good for community and find another way to dispense funding and accolades to deserving artists?

If you have serious criticisms, questions, or problems with an application or selection process, you can always make the choice not to participate. Or, if you really care, then it’s your responsibility to bring constructive observations and suggestions to those who care most about them – the people who devote their professional lives to art funding, prizes, and juries. They all have email addresses.

* Author Cara Ober is the Founding Editor at Bmoreart

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