Be a better grant applicant
In order to help artists prepare to apply for grants, this Spring Chicken Tractor offered three workshops: How to Write an Artist Statement That Doesn't Suck was the first in the lineup. Chicken Tractor board member Larassa Kabel and Des Moines Art Center Curator Laura Burkhalter used their personal experience to help 20 workshop participants write short artist statements.
How to Write an Artist Statement that Doesn’t Suck
What is an Artist Statement?
An artist statement, in it’s best form, is an amazing tool that helps an audience gain understanding of a work when the artist isn’t present to offer insight or answer questions. It informs without over explaining and uses clear language that can be understood by an average audience. It should come in three sizes: small (25-50 words), medium (a paragraph or two) and large (one page—350 word max).
Why Have One?
The majority of artist statements are not worth reading. Often they are so full of jargon that they are difficult to understand or so generic that they could be applied to many artists’ work and are therefore pointless. After slogging through so many bad statements, its easy to understand how you might feel it’s better to let the work speak for itself rather than unleash another worthless (and time consuming) artist statement on the world. The reality, however, is that visual art attracts narrative, and if you do not provide one, someone else will. And it could be completely wrong. You, the creator, need to control that narrative even if it’s by hiring someone to interview you and do the writing for you.
The need for narrative springs from many different sources. You will need language to accompany work for grants, shows, websites, press releases, interviews and written correspondence. The thought and energy that go into creating an artist statement will also make it easier to talk about your work. As the creator, it is your job to be an articulate and steadfast supporter of your own art. Even if it feels strange and uncomfortable to be enthusiastic, DO NOT belittle or estrange your own art. You made it. Don’t abandon it like an unwanted dog on a country road. When someone asks what you do, do not assume that they don’t want to hear about it. You should give them a quick, concise overview of the what and why of your work. Bring the energy that made you create it in the first place. Even if they aren’t interested in your work (which is okay), at least you have opened up the possibility of having an interesting conversation about something you are passionate about which is always better than boring small talk.
How to Write One
First of all, remember that writing is an art that requires practice like any other art form. It takes time and effort to find your voice especially if you don’t write much in your daily life. A well written statement doesn’t magically appear on your first try. You can expect to produce pages of writing to get one page or even one paragraph of a finished statement. You may need to go through five or more drafts to end up with a finished product. It’s okay. That’s normal. Be generous with yourself and try to make the process as enjoyable as possible. 2
Here are the general guidelines:
Write in first person.
Have a strong first sentence and put the most important information at the beginning.
Use accessible language. Don’t dumb it down but don’t embellish with overly academic words. If in doubt, have a non-art friend familiar with your work read it to see if you are using any “art speak” that would be unfamiliar to a general audience.
Don’t tell readers how they should respond to your work.
Don’t use defensive language. Compose as if you are addressing a sympathetic friend.
Have an editor check your grammar and spelling even if you have to barter or pay them. An editor can be anyone with good writing skills - a teacher or writer you may know.
Use active language. Avoid words like “should”, “aspire”, “hope” and “attempt”. They are weak and feel like you aren’t certain what you’re doing. Also avoid words like “unique” (all work is “unique”, Snowflake), “first” (it probably isn’t and would be difficult to prove) and “only” (are you sure?).
The statement should answer:
What your work is like.
Why you make it.
What you are trying to do with it.
What your process is.
Quick Start by Jackie Battenfield
Start by describing one or two recent works. Be quick - don’t worry about grammar or jargon or finding the exact word. Write down everything that comes to mind about it.
Starter questions (not all of these will apply to your work so start with the ones that are easiest to answer):
1. What does your work look like? Make your description visual - think about the size, colors, shapes, textures, objects, relationships, etc.
2. Why do you do it? What inspires you? Where does the impetus for making come from within you?
3. Write about the work from different points of view such as concept, theme or emotion.
4. Is there a central image or idea in the work?
5. What are its different elements and how do they interact within the work?
6. What materials do you use and why?
7. How is it made? What is your process?
8. How does it use space? How does it relate to the surrounding space?
9. How does this work relate to other artists’ work? Who inspires you?
10. Where does this work fit into your development as an artist?
11. Are there frequently asked questions or comments you get when people look at your work? If there are, then these are aspects of the work people want to know more about.
12. Where are you from? Does your geographic or cultural background inform your work?
Sit in front of your work while you write. Don’t try to answer all of the questions at one setting but write as long as the words flow, then put it aside. Don’t reread or criticize what you have written - just let everything get expressed (even the pretentious, weird or silly things). This is just a process to generate raw material that will shape your statement. Trust that some small part of it will be useful later.
Broaden your writing to include other works that may precede the current work. Continue the exercise until you have covered a range of your work and as many of the questions that apply. Allow the process to take several days. Be generous - allow time for the messiness of the process to unfold.
You can also invite friends to come to your studio to talk about your work (you need to have the work present for the discussion). Try to include someone who isn’t overly familiar with your practice. Think of it as an interview and allow the discussion to build naturally and have someone take notes or, even better, record it if at all possible. Most smart phones are able to do this, and it allows you to catch any interesting points or phrases that get said without someone trying to write it all down before it’s forgotten and lost.
Once you have collected several pages of writing about your work, read it aloud and use a highlighter to mark the most interesting words, phrases, stories and concepts. Copy out all the highlighted text on a clean sheet of paper. What does this condensed information tell you about the work? Does it cover all the important aspects or is something missing? Are particular words or phrases or ideas repeated, and if they are, is it significant? Are there any ideas that should be expanded? Fill in the holes.
Now pull together the most important ideas you want to convey about your work in a first draft. Incorporate the strongest words and phrases from your list. It will probably still be rambling and messy, but that’s okay. Editing is it’s own process.
To edit your first draft, ask yourself if you’ve followed the guidelines.
Are you writing in the first person?
Where is the most important information? Is it in the first paragraph, trapped in the middle or tacked on at the end? If it isn’t at the beginning, move it and begin again. Develop a strong first sentence. If you present the reader with the most essential and compelling ideas first, then even if they don’t finish reading the statement, they will walk away with the most important information.
Is your language accessible to the average reader? Good writing is clear writing. Keep it simple. Even if your work involves complex theoretical ideas, you need to be able to express them so that an average audience can understand your statement. Using dense, jargon-laden language may alienate the audience or make them wonder if you know what you’re talking about.
Is your statement so general that it could be applied to many other artists’ work? Did you include personal details about you to give context to your art?
Does the style of your writing reflect your work? This isn’t easy, but it can make your statement stand out if the humor or political charge or formality of your art is reflected in the style of the presentation.