As you leave university and start applying for residencies, exhibitions, grants and other opportunities, you’ll likely deal with rejection. Overcoming rejection can make you a better artist, but that can seem bittersweet when you’re reading a letter or email that is peppered with the words “unfortunately” and “regret to inform you”. It takes many rejections for one acceptance.
A lot of articles exist expressing general ways folks can deal with rejection from relationships and jobs, and while those are also disappointed, there’s something different about being rejected based on your art when it’s entwined with who you are as a person. We hope these six ways to deal with rejection help you become a stronger artist in the process.
Often the first place you head after receiving a rejection is to assume there was something wrong with your work. While that certainly could be the case, you often will never know the real reason your work was rejected. Many factors result in a rejection which has nothing to do with the quality of your work. A no can often mean, “not right now”, that there are too many applicants, that your work didn’t fit the curatorial vision for the exhibitions this year, or that the timing simply wasn’t right.
Try not to let the myriad of potential reasons take over your thoughts. You’ll waste a lot of time wondering “what if” when you could be addressing this rejection with more applications and submissions.
Bonus Tip: If you’ve applied for a residency or grant application, you’ll likely have needed a letter of reference from someone who believes in your practice. Re-read these letters to remind yourself that your practice is stronger than you’re currently giving yourself credit for.
Learn from Rejection
Take a page out of a writer’s book and look at rejection as an accomplishment: it means you’re putting your work out in the world. If you’re willing to face rejection, there are more chances for an acceptance letter. Many writers set rejection goals for the year because it means they are taking risks, sending their work out, and inevitably more people are seeing what they’re passionate about. The same works for art.
You can also learn from rejection by looking at your submission package with a critical or unbiased eye. The only bad experience with rejection is the one you didn’t learn anything from. Was the quality of work you submitted the very best? Did you miss any requirements? Could your proposal have been stronger? Was the jury partial to a style or medium different than yours? Were you lacking the criteria that the other artists who were competing against you had? Comb through your submission and ask yourself these questions to strengthen it for next time.
Bonus Tip: For every rejection, find two new opportunities to submit to. The more applications you send out to the world, the better chance you have of someone supporting your project.
Ask for Feedback
After being rejected, it’s common practice to contact the organization and ask for feedback. Whether it’s a grant, residency, or exhibition, having the jurors’ notes as to why you weren’t selected is invaluable. Often they will have feedback – sometimes it’s available as written but many times it’s available as a phone call, so be ready to take notes. Not all organizations can offer feedback, but it is always worth asking for it.
When you successfully receive feedback, it may ease the pain of the rejection but more importantly, it will give you the tools to make your next application that much better.
Bonus Tip: If the organization is unable to provide feedback, reach out to one of your mentors or a fellow artist to have them look over your application for improvements. A fresh set of eyes may see something you missed. While you should also do this before you submit a project, you can also do this after with different people.
Having your art rejected is a hard hit. You are allowed to grieve the loss of opportunity and take some time to recover from what feels like a loss or a judgement against you. Be kind to yourself. Remember why you make art, why you find it important, and why you’re drawn to creating in this way.
Give yourself the space you need before jumping back. Journal about how the process made you feel, take a long walk, do something nice for yourself, or lean into your support system.
Bonus Tip: Write a letter in response to the rejection – and never send it. Lean into your emotions and write exactly how you feel. Alternatively, you can record it as a voice clip. It’s cathartic to express yourself verbally and get all your frustration out. Don’t send this though, you don’t want to burn a bridge!
In the face of rejection, the best response is to be as gracious as possible. Thank the organization for their time. Don’t be afraid of sending your work to that organization in the future – next time it might be a resounding yes! Keep yourself involved in the arts community where you live and make new connections with other artists and galleries.
Bonus Tip: Join or start an artist support group. Even if it’s just you and two other people, having a space to openly talk about the frustrations of the art world can be valuable. You can also just discuss your work if you have no specific problems to address!
Turn it into Creativity
Instead of letting rejection tear you to pieces, transform it into art. One photographer, Suzanne Clements, turned all her rejection letters into a blog. Make artwork from the letters themselves, like this 18-year-old who was rejected from Oxford. Use this as a tool for exploration. You can also just turn your emotions into a piece of work. Have you made artwork from rejection letters? Reach out and share them with us!
Bonus Tip: Visualize the bigger picture and remember that critiques are often a way to see yourself from another point of view. It’s not a personal attack on you or your artwork.