Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Can You Handle the Truth?

If your submission is a notebook doodle,
I'm probably not going to take it seriously
I receive a lot of submissions.

New art is the lifeblood of any gallery so I'm happy to look at new work as long as it follows the guidelines posted on  the website (under Submission Policy, a drop menu under the Contact tab on the front page). For this past March's Laluzapalooza exhibition, I reviewed over fifteen thousand individual jpegs. Billy & I narrowed that down to about 227 pieces by 113 artists. Some of the art that didn't make it into this year's show would have been accepted in years past, and there were a lot of pieces that came very close to being included but space would not permit. We sold over two-thirds of the pieces exhibited, which is pretty damn good. Tightening up the curation process paid off, while ruffling more than a few feathers, and resulting in a lot of  defensive (and offensive) emails from artists who requested feedback but didn't get the type they wanted.

Curating is the most important part of my job as gallery director, and it's a job that many people think they can do. The sheer number of new galleries that open and subsequently close every year is testimony to the fact that they can't. The definition for "Curate" on is as follows:

verb (used with object), cu·rat·ed, cu·rat·ing.
1. to take charge of (a museum) or organize (an art exhibit): to curate a photography show.
2. to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation.

Many people acknowledge the first entry, but ignore the second. They specifically ignore the "sift through" part. Sifting inevitably produces disappointment in those not selected. Sometimes it's a tough call, but a lot of the time it isn't. If you do the math, 15,000 minus 227 leaves 14,773, and the vast majority of them were not close calls. In fact, most of them required little more than a cursory glance to pass on them. Some of them were so bad that they actually made me mad. In fact, I spent more time looking at the truly horrendous ones than the really good ones (which are also really easy to select).

A truly awful submission causes deep introspection in a curator worth his salt. Because on some level, whoever submitted that terrible finger painting or found art object assemblage saw something in one of my shows that made them think, "I can do better," which led to me staring aghast at my computer monitor and their "art."

The way the brain makes connections is a curious and complex process. If you've ever had a conversation with a friend or relative in which they suggest that two people with almost no similar characteristics or traits "look alike," you get what I'm saying. Sometimes the subject matter or color palette or materials are digested and regurgitated via the most left field criteria that an artist's occipital lobe can translate, and what they see as similarity remains unseen by 99% of humanity and 100% of curators.

Jean Michel Basquiat, Poedi, 1981, oilstick on paper,
12½ x 17
3/8 inches; Sold: £157,875 ($243,443)

And then there are the hard to explain nuances of primitive-looking works by notable artists in the self-taught movement–like the African American masters we included  in our Simply Iconic exhibition in 2011, or the many blue-chip artists whose work lacks realism. I'd wager that most people look at Jean-Michel Basquiat or even Jackson Pollack, and think, "I can do that," or worse, "My kid could paint that," and  judging solely by ease of mimicry, that might be true. But the historical significance of their work and the stories behind those pieces have played heavily into their demand and subsequent value. Whether or not abstract expressionism is as valid in 2013 as it was in 1956 is an entirely different argument, and whether or not high-concept-but-low-craft has a place at the table anymore is too. But there is no debating that copying a style that lacks realism with a lack of technique, discipline, color theory, composition and originality is not going to produce work on par with what it pretends to mimic.

And this leads to my conundrum:
If you've submitted your art and been rejected, do you really want to know why? Because on some level, the fact that you don't know is a problem, but without proper feedback you'll never know why. If you submit your work (whether solicited or unsolicited), you are inviting criticism. That means you are inviting negative criticism. If you can't handle that, don't submit. I can't tell you how many times I've been provoked to a critique only to get a very nasty response. Here's three words of advice: Don't do that. If you submit your art and get any feedback whatsoever, be thankful. Most galleries won't respond at all unless they want to work with you. Some will extend the uncommon courtesy of a rejection letter. Still fewer will offer a few words of advice, or specific criticism. If they do, don't write back except to say "Thank you."

The worst thing you can do is respond with an emotional, self-aggrandizing defense of your work. That's for art school, not for gallery submissions–and at art school the teachers won't put up with much of that either. You got rejected. Big deal! Suck it up and move on. Don't overstay your welcome. You submitted. They got it. If you didn't hear back, that should tell you something. If you did hear back, it literally did tell you something. Sometimes the feedback is cryptic, and if it is, that's because the gallerist was trying to be nice and let you down easy; either that or they had absolutely no clue how to help you improve. But it's really not their job to help you improve unless you paid them to critique your work and they guaranteed feedback.

Sometimes I send a form rejection letter. Sometimes I dig in and offer specific advice. I'm not doing that to make myself feel good by trampling your dream. In fact, most curators and gallery directors don't respond critically because your shitty art makes us feel even shittier when we have to tell you how shitty it is. Every once in a while I'll get a link from an artist who hasn't taken the initiative to look at the gallery website or look for the submission policy, and clearly they haven't looked at the past few shows to see what kind of art we are showing. That will automatically establish a bad first impression with me. Why would you even want to show at a gallery unless you knew something about it and felt that you fit into their aesthetic? If you haven't extended the gallery the respect of research, why should they extend the courtesy of a response?  Usually I do respond: with a link to our submission policy. If the art doesn't fit, I'll tell them so.

Don't PM me on Facebook, go to the website, read the policy and send a proper submission.

Often we get submissions from artists located outside the USA, and we rarely handle them because it's very expensive to return ship an exhibition to a foreign country–which is what will happen more often then not if we exhibit an artist with no local following. A gallerist has to curate for the space they have, not the space you wish they had, and that involves selling the art. It's what keeps the lights on: curating.

I very rarely send a harsh rejection letter, and when I do I usually let the artist know that the criticism I'm about to give them is going to be harsh. Why? Because some people have no business creating art for a living. Notice I said "business" and not "right." Somewhere along the line an unqualified person gave this "artist" some encouragement that was misguided and likely to eat up a great deal of their lives with dreams that will go unfulfilled. If I sense that there is no chance this person is ever going to sell a painting, it would be much more cruel not to tell them in spite of how uncomfortable it will make me to do so. It will also help keep clear my inbox of subsequent emails from the same rejected artist month after month. Except for maybe karaoke and sex, I can't think of anything but art that so many people are truly bad doing but which still gives them joy. I'm a fan of evident enthusiasm, but I'm not going to showcase bad art. A simple "this doesn't really fit with our program," suffices when the joy is obviously there, but the talent isn't.

I saved my pet peeve for last.

The sixth sentence of our Submission Policy states:
We showcase mainly figurative, narrative paintings and unusual sculpture. Our focus is not abstract expressionism and we are not accepting submissions of video or digital art, photography, edition printing or conceptual installations.

And yet I still receive (on a nearly daily basis) submissions of abstract bullshit, performance art, and highly conceptual, deeply personal photography. 

Just after that, I outline the specific file naming and jpeg size protocol. It's detailed info, but it's not rocket science. I can immediately determine how easy or difficult it will be to work with each artist based on their ability to follow instructions. We've got a lot of very talented people who are a joy to work with, so I don't really need to knowingly add stress to my life via people who can't get their shit together. How many submissions follow the guideline? Surprisingly few. What happens to those that don't? They get deleted. I don't even look at them sometimes. I receive somewhere upwards of 160 emails every day, so a reply to artists who can't follow directions isn't always in the cards.

Most successful artists are either versatile at social media and detail oriented or have someone who handles this for them. For those who don't have a support system in place, it means they'll need to develop these skills. Many successful artists aren't actually better than unknown artists, they're just better at presenting their work. That isn't always easy to hear, but it's the truth.

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