Monday, July 2, 2007

"On Burning Bridges" - Matthew Deleget

Matthew Deleget writes the "Ask Dr. Art" columns for the NYFA Quarterly - a newsletter of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) - The following article was published in the Fall 2001 issue. It is reprinted here by permission:

(In this column I discuss a letter of rejection NYFA received back from an applicant to the Artists’ Fellowship Program. The applicant wrote "FUCK YOU" in large letters with a black marker across the rejection letter.)

When I first saw this letter, I was speechless. It is an arresting visual/verbal expression of utter frustration and thorough disappointment, and I am sure that the artist who wrote it is not the only one feeling this way. (This year, NYFA’s Artists’ Fellowship program received 3,376 applications in eight discipline categories, and awarded 158 grants, which means 3,218 artists did not receive a grant this year.) At one level, I found the letter irritating, but I also wondered to myself what would make an artist reach this point of combustion. In my imagination, I tried to retrace the steps this artist took in articulating such an angry response: receiving and opening the envelope with great anticipation; reading the letter; growing consumed with anger; grabbing a large black marker; writing commentary directly on the letter; stuffing it back in an envelope; and mailing it off.

On the one hand, I completely understand this artist’s sentiment. As a working artist myself, I have received dozens of rejection letters after applying to similar programs. I can honestly say from first-hand experience that there is definitely no worse feeling than receiving an SASE back in the mail and being able to feel my slides through the envelope. Who wouldn’t be upset by this? I have also felt myself reach the point where I could barely control my impulse to shred the rejection letter to pieces, or, even worse, to fire off a revengeful letter of my own back to the organization rejecting their rejection of me. However, thinking about something and actually doing it are two entirely different matters.

I feel that this artist clearly crossed a line into unprofessionalism. Being "creative" doesn’t justify acting unprofessionally. Letters like this one can and will burn bridges; they can even jeopardize a career trajectory. This letter, driven in part by a feeling of self-entitlement, is, in many ways, a classic case of biting the hand that feeds you. More importantly, its comments are not only directed at NYFA, but at the arts community as a whole: individual artists, arts professionals (arts administrators, curators, gallerists, and critics) and arts organizations (non-profits, private foundations, government arts agencies, and corporate sponsors). Supporting an individual artist takes an entire arts community, and running support programs always requires the participation of individuals working in each of these areas. To be sure, most arts organizations out there are not pleading with artists for assistance, but the opposite is almost always true. Thus, when an artist responds by saying "FUCK YOU" to a program—any program set up to assist individual artists—its repercussions can be severe and more widespread than initially realized. It’s important to remember that the art world is hardly a "world" at all; rather, it consists of a relatively small community of individuals. And these individuals are in constant communication with each other. It has been known to happen that problematic artists—meaning artists who are consistently difficult to work with—can and do get blacklisted. I have seen this occur to several artists I know, some of whom have even lost their gallery representation as a result. The message is clear: no one wants to work with an artist who is a constant hassle.

Now, on to some solutions. After speaking with literally thousands of artists from around the country who have called the Visual Artist Information Hotline, I have begun to see a very particular behavioral pattern surface among them. I have noticed that artists tend to place all their efforts into a single application (think eggs in a basket). It’s no wonder, then, that a rejection letter can set an artist into a tailspin. A single rejection should never be so upsetting that it causes an artist to lash out against her or his colleagues and the support mechanisms around her or him. Successful artists—I mean here those artists who are able to maintain a healthy career and state of mind—have no doubt developed a thick skin due to years of rejection. I’ve also noticed one thing that they all share in common. Successful artists are continually juggling many balls in the air at once. They are constantly sending out a steady stream of applications and proposals from their studios, applying and reapplying to each and every program every year they are eligible. It goes without saying that the more balls an artist has in the air, the less significant one ball becomes when it falls to the floor. Artists who consciously choose to juggle only one ball at a time are sentencing themselves to a lifetime of frustration and, most likely, failure.

Being an artist in the year 2001 requires much more than just making great work in an isolated studio. It also means branching out and applying to support programs and other opportunities, networking and sharing ideas with peers, and maintaining a professional approach. If not, to quote Jackie Battenfield of the Artist in the Marketplace Program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, "You are not doing your job as an artist." Personally, I have discovered that the best way to exorcise the rejection demons is simple. Every time I receive my materials back in the mail accompanied by a rejection letter, I send them back out again to a new program or venue. Similarly, I recommend you have your materials in constant circulation. Slides sitting on a shelf in the studio are literally not going anywhere. Being an artist is a choice for life, so over the course of a lifetime, an artist is undoubtedly going to receive a lot of rejections. Remember to stay positive, be professional, and keep applying.

(The New York Foundation for the Arts' (NYFA) mission is to empower artists at critical stages in their creative lives and provides the public with opportunities to experience and understand their work. NYFA accomplishes this by offering financial assistance and information to artists and organizations that directly serve artists, by supporting arts programming in the community, and by building collaborative relationships with others who advocate for the arts in New York State and throughout the country [italics added] - )


Sonji Hunt said...

I, unfortunately, am acquainted with an artist who does this sort of thing. It IS unprofessional and it DOES turn everyone off. The word gets spread around and more than the person/institution that the artist has written the letter to puts their name on the no-no list. What I have noticed with this particular individual, after over ten years of acquaintance, is that nothing is ever her fault. Everything...slide or digital quality, lack of correct application procedures, missed due dates, someone elses fault. Never hers. I get sick to my stomach when I have to be around her. She is quite toxic.

Gwen Magee said...

As you have so clearly pointed out, not only is this type of behavior unprofessional, its the equivalent of "biting off your nose to spite your face".

vyala said...

There has been a time when I was quite unhappy each time I received a rejection letter, especially when I had done my homework, checked out requirements very carefully, studied information about the judges, carefully studying their preferencies and was sure, I had created really outstanding work, that exactly fitted into the theme and still was not accepted. It took me quite some time to realize, it was not my efforts that were rejected, but a simple profane fact - especially when I had the chance to see the other entries - my work would not have fitted into the whole, simply because the other entries were all different, sometimes even less sophisticated. The rejection had nothing to do with my skills and thorough preparation.
After some time I even understood that a judge potentially just did not like my work - that simple.
But after I understood this - I did not see the refusion as a catastrophe any more - I was quickly beyond frustration and went straight away back to work. And after realizing that work, that had been refused before, won awards in another show, made it clear to me: don't let yourself be frustrated by other people - it is just an opinion and not even yours.

Ferret said...

I can sort of understadn defacing the letter, but rather then send it back they could have framed it and sold it as a work of art in it's own right. It was infused with emotion of the artist, and I suspect for the body that had to reject so many applicants (which I am sure they don't enjoy either). Who knows it might have been more valuable than the grant?

Gwen Magee said...

Vyala, your point is well taken. The ability to manage frustration is critical for artists in all fields. Irving Stone received 16 rejection slips for Lust for Life including one noting that it was "A long, dull novel about an artist"

Ferret, your suggestion to turn the rejection slip into a work of art is great!

Tim said...

Good Job! :)