Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Putting Rejection in Perspective" - Barbara Macey

If you’re feeling defeated because quilt has been rejected from an exhibition I hope that these true stories will help you to feel more positive and less isolated.

Rejection can be a very touchy subject. It's always unsettling to be rejected but it's an inevitable part of being an art quiltmaker, something that everyone must come to terms with. I asked a number of well known Australian art quiltmakers about their negative experiences. All readily agreed to be mentioned by name in the original newsletter article. They could see that it was in a good cause, that it could help other people to understand that having their quilts rejected is not the end of the world. But most were not keen to have their names included in the website version of the article. For that reason I've given all but one of them nicknames. But I can assure you that every one of these well known art quilters has received many, many rejection letters.

If it's all so traumatic, why would anyone subject themselves to entering exhibitions with a selection process? No doubt the reasons are varied and complex. Far from being overwhelmed at the thought of having their work critically scrutinised, many people have a competitive spirit and relish the challenge. For some people, this kind of success represents another step forward in their quilting career, another proud entry in their CV. This is important for the quilter who wishes to exhibit in prestigious textile and craft exhibitions. (Exhibitions with no selection process are not generally considered to advance an art quilter's career, nor in certain circumstances should they appear on a CV).

Being selected for the right exhibitions can lead directly to awards, more invitations to exhibit, purchase of work for public or private collections, exposure overseas, teaching appointments or indirectly to grants, residencies and more. Being able to demonstrate a good track record as an artist can be crucial. But it is not for everyone; if the whole idea of putting your work and yourself to the test in this way turns you into a nervous wreck, it's not worth doing. There's nothing wrong with enjoying your quiltmaking without being competitive about it.

I know that many people will be surprised to learn that even the most successful quilters receive many rejection letters. I hope this knowledge will encourage less experienced quiltmakers to continue with their quiltmaking when rejected. Mary enters many exhibitions and has far more rejections than acceptances, perhaps three rejections for each acceptance. Her track record includes more than one success at Quilt National USA and selection for many other international and Australian exhibitions.

Vickie has won many awards but was frustrated when her wool quilt was not accepted for two exhibitions. It did not seem to fit either traditional or contemporary categories: she wonders if there is a need for another category.
Of course as quilters become more experienced and have a few successes behind them, they tend to enter more challenging quilt exhibitions as well as general textile and mixed craft exhibitions. It is important to remember that the higher one aims the greater the risk of being rejected. The prestigious Quilt National USA 1999 had over 1400 entries with only 89 being selected. It's a great honour to be accepted for an exhibition of this calibre, and certainly no disgrace to be rejected.

All successful quilters are persistent, but if there were a prize it would surely go to Glenys Mann of Tamworth, New South Wales. Glenys had twenty seven rejections in a row before taking stock of the situation. She realised that she hadn't been reading the entry forms properly and wasn't giving her entries enough thought. Most importantly she had the courage and insight to appraise her work honestly, saw that she needed to change her tactics and at once found success.

Quilts are sometimes rejected from one exhibition then accepted for another. It could be that they were first entered in an exhibition that wasn't appropriate for them. Perhaps it was due to individual differences between selectors. Or maybe it was a genuine mistake on the part of selectors with insufficient knowledge of art quilts. For whatever reason, it is plain that selectors can and do make mistakes. If you think your quilt has been mistakenly rejected, you must accept the decision as final and refrain from complaining to the exhibition organisers. It will achieve nothing, and could count against you in the future.

Jo says it took her a while to get used to rejection, but it's happened so many times she doesn't worry about it now. However, she was quite upset when a client took one of her quilts home on approval, nailed it to the wall, then decided not to buy it! After being repaired, it was later bought by an American TV executive. Hetty had a quilt acquired for the collection of a Russian museum after it was rejected from an Australian exhibition.

My own first rejection in 1973 had both positive and negative outcomes. I decided to enter my first exhibition not really understanding the implications. Turning up at the opening with a friend I felt extremely humiliated when my little patchwork panel was nowhere to be seen. I learned that the 'rejects' were hung at a different venue. My entry was with the rejects because the selection committee thought that it (not a photo mind you), was a piece of curtain material printed with an Op Art design!

Fortunately someone later noticed that it was in fact a novel piece of patchwork and I was immediately invited to conduct workshops and to hold a solo exhibition which was very successful. The same people who had rejected my work were later instrumental in encouraging me to enter craft exhibitions that opened new doors.

A short time later I entered an 'avant garde' quilt in a local textiles exhibition that was supposedly 'cutting edge'. It was rejected, though a rather traditional quilt was accepted. In this case I was able to be more philosophical, concluding – correctly as later events proved - that my quilt was before its time! These were the first in a long list of rejections I've had over the years. Fortunately there have been many acceptances too.
I think that I was upset at the first rejection because it was so public and because there was no prior notification. Since then I have helped to organise many exhibitions and this experience has made me very much aware of the need to keep the whole process confidential and to promptly inform all entrants of their success or otherwise.

For a number of very successful people I spoke with, the answer was ‘yes’. They believed that in some instances they had not succeeded in making a first class quilt and were occasionally relieved that their work was rejected. Some thought that fast approaching deadlines had distracted them. Others believed that experimental work had not really succeeded. Experimentation and innovation are mainstays of art quiltmaking but since all experimentation is a risk it is crucial to be able to honestly assess the success of your own efforts. Just being original certainly isn't enough.

If you can foster the ability to stand back and be detached about your quilt you are less likely to make bad decisions about how successful it is. It also helps to begin well before the deadline to give yourself time to start again if necessary. It takes practice and a resolve to avoid self deception. It's not easy because flaws in the design of a quilt are not always self evident in the same way as they are in something purely practical like a jug that doesn't pour properly!

I'm really embarrassed about a few of my own quilts that have been selected and in my opinion shouldn't have been. To make matters worse, photos of some of them have been included in exhibition catalogues. Looking at them now, I think that they are not really bad quilts, but they're not good either! Only good quilts enhance your reputation. In the long run the selectors are doing you a favour by rejecting your less successful quilts, though you may not realise this until later!

Some people experience a kind of rejection whilst apparently being accepted. Trudie entered a quilt in an exhibition. It was well known that though there was no formal selection, the least favoured items were hung as far as possible from the entrance door of the exhibition space. Trudie was mortified to find that her quilt was hung a great distance from the door, and even worse, it was hung out of sight on the back of a cabinet! This was a case of the wrong kind of exhibition for a wonderfully adventurous quilt.

Agatha had just returned from a trip to Japan when I spoke with her. She was disappointed that though her quilt had been accepted for exhibition, it was returned without being hung, along with the quilts of several other Australians who had also been told that they had been accepted.

Edna had two quilts selected for a national mixed craft exhibition in a distant city. By chance she discovered that they were not hung and though she made inquiries, no explanation was ever given. The makers of other quilts selected for the same exhibition – also not hung - were told that there was not enough space available. Incidents like this should never happen.

  • Stay positive and confident. Realise that receiving
    rejections is the norm for everyone. Don't let it stop
    you from entering another exhibition. Like Glenys Mann,
    you can resolve to make it a learning experience by
    honestly assessing what went wrong.
  • Take the initiative, work at resolving problem areas.
  • Is there a possibility that you're entering the wrong kind of exhibition?
  • Are you hazy about what's original and what's not?
  • Does your design or technique need improving?
  • It's important to develop a coherent body of work,
    to make your own exciting journey as a quiltmaker.
    Are you doing this or just responding to exhibition
    opportunities as they come up?
Educate yourself - it can be fun!
  • Is your photography letting you down? Try
    taking a course or refer to one of the many
    excellent books now available.
  • Consider a mentor. You could approach an
    established quilt artist with a view to arranging
    a kind of apprenticeship in exchange for acting
    as her assistant part time for a while. (If you will
    be working in someone else's studio, find out first
    how you stand legally. For example, will you be
    covered by insurance in case of injury or other
    adverse circumstances?)
  • If there are other art quilters in your area, maybe
    you could get together and form a group for mutual
    support. Many people have done this successfully.
  • Is there a critique group nearby? If so, give it a try,
    if not consider forming one yourself. The benefits
    are truly worthwhile and having your work assessed
    by an expert in front of a group isn't nearly as scary
    as you'd imagine.
  • Broaden your view and hone your skills by taking
    master classes with appropriate tutors.
  • Consider taking a tertiary arts/textiles course.
    Some institutions now make it possible to study no
    matter where you live.
  • Read widely and attend art quilt exhibitions as well
    as other high profile art and craft exhibitions. Absorb
    information from websites, magazines, books and
    exhibition catalogues local and international. Don't
    forget historical quilts, there is much to be learned
    from them.
  • Do all this and you will begin to get a feel for what's
    going on in the contemporary art world and where
    you and your work fit in.

Be well organised
This all sounds obvious but it's surprising how many people fall by the wayside because they neglect the basics.

  • Read the entry form before starting to make
    your quilt, note the rules and stick to them.
  • Answer every question and keep your statement
    to the prescribed length.
  • Work out a timetable that allows plenty of time
    for designing and making the quilt plus plenty of
    time for photography and any necessary processing.
    Then allow extra time in case something goes wrong!
  • Learn to take good photos or find a professional
    photographer, preferably one who has a good reputation
    for photographing quilts.
  • Avoid being disqualified due to your entry arriving
    too late. Make sure you send it off in time to reach
    the organiser well before the deadline.
  • Don’t ever ask for any favours or expect the exhibition
    organiser to change the rules for you. That would be
    unethical because it’s not fair to those who have taken
    the trouble to abide by them.
  • Take the initiative, be honest with yourself, and learn
    to be your own most ruthless critic. In the end, only
    you are responsible for what you achieve.

Though disgruntled rejectees often suspect some kind of favouritism or unfairness, I believe that this is quite exceptional. After all, selectors value their reputations too, and most take pride in doing a good job.

Certainly the ones I spoke with approach their task very seriously. Selectors are aware that it is unfair and inappropriate to bring biased views to the selection process and they make an immense effort to be even handed. In a small place like Australia, it's inevitable that selectors will know some of the quiltmakers whose work they are assessing. It's unavoidable but need not be a major problem. Selectors are conscious that the situation calls for great care and speak of bending over backwards to avoid favouring someone whose work they recognise. But often it’s not recognised; I've been surprised on more than one occasion to learn that I've rejected the work of well known and successful quiltmakers who are personal friends, a painful experience for all, but you can't get more unbiased than that! My own work has also occasionally been rejected by a friend.

Most organisers attempt to minimise the risk of bias by employing a panel of selectors of varied background, usually three in number to avoid a stalemate. Those who are not quiltmakers usually have appropriate specialised knowledge of some aspect of the art world, though they may not know much about quilts. To provide a balance and remedy this deficiency it is usual to include a quiltmaker. If the exhibition is held regularly, there will be a different panel each time. Thus entrants who are rejected by one panel may well be accepted by another. There are variations on this arrangement. Some institutions have a single selector, different on each occasion. Others, perhaps with a particular policy in mind, use their own staff on all occasions.

In fact, we all have biases that we are not aware of. It would be naive to imagine that bias can be totally eliminated, but it can certainly be reduced. In the end, selectors are only human and exhibition entrants need to be realistic about what can be expected of them. The vast majority do approach their difficult task with the utmost care.

Sometimes the identity of selectors is publicised beforehand, sometimes it is not. There are people who decide whether or not to enter an exhibition on the basis of who is on the selection panel. I don't know how effective this strategy is, but I suspect that it's doesn't always enhance the entrant's chances of success.

I hope that these true stories of rejection will help you to feel less isolated and encourage you to keep making quilts, and to keep entering exhibitions. It's quite evident that receiving a rejection letter doesn't mean that a quiltmaker is a failure. Rather, it's a reminder that persistence counts as much as ability and that is very encouraging.

Barbara Macey © 2001

This article is part of a series giving a behind-the-scenes account of exhibitions from the point of view of the exhibitor and of the organiser.

It was first published in Ozquilt Network Newsletter (#40, June 2001), the newsletter of Ozquilt Network Inc, Australia’s organisation for art quilters. The article also appears in the newsletter archive on their website,

Barbara Macey is the Ozquilt Network, Inc. Newsletter Editor,
Website Coordinator and Running Stitch Coordinator


Anonymous said...

This is one of the best articles that I've seen about the need to receive rejections! Yeah....if we're not getting rejected, we may not be entering our work in enough possible venues!! I also love the advice on learning, learning, learning from as many sources as possbile.

Carole Lyles Shaw

Gwen Magee (Gwendolyn Magee) said...

I agree Carole. Barbara has given a lot of very good advice. I also can personally relate to one of the artist experiences she cites in "Where Acceptance is Rejection". That experience was definitely an eye opener for me and I quickly began to reassess why and where to submit my work.