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I like to think of the artist statement as the wedding toast of the art world. If you wing it, suddenly you’re on the spot in front of a crowd of expectant faces, trying to put into words a relationship (between you and your art) that you’ve always felt intuitively. We’ve all seen those toasts. They don’t go well.
But if you put time and energy into crafting your message beforehand, you’ll actually add to that crowd’s understanding of the significance of this event (your art) and help them feel all the feels more deeply.
I’ve been wrestling with my own artist statements for as long as I’ve been making art. And I must confess, it’s never a task I look upon with glee. This, despite the fact that I write about art for a living. But reading other people’s statements has taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and how to reverse-engineer a killer toast: a clear, concise and compelling artist statement.
— Artist and writer Sarah Hotchkiss
In the interest of clarity, let’s define “artist statement,” since I’ve already needlessly complicated things by introducing a wedding metaphor into the mix.
An artist statement is a not-too-long series of sentences that describe what you make and why you make it. It’s a stand-in for you, the artist, talking to someone about your work in a way that adds to their experience of viewing that work.
Here are a few things an artist statement is not: a manifesto, an art history lecture, a story about discovering art, short fiction, self-psychoanalysis, a string of adjectives, a grand theory of everything you’ve ever made, or a list of your career accomplishments.
You’ll be called upon to submit artist statements when you apply for residencies, grants, and sometimes, exhibition opportunities. I wrote my first substantial one when I applied to MFA programs. And here’s the secret: even though they can be hard to write, they’re immensely useful. It truly helps me understand my own practice to sit down every few months and translate this nonverbal solitary thing I spend countless hours on into words for a specific audience.
If you’re reading this guide and it’s not the night before an important application is due, you’re already in good shape. Artist statements take time, but they don’t have to be torture. If you can get into the habit of stepping back, evaluating your work, and writing a few sentences about it, you won’t have to start from scratch when you’re down to the wire.
All that said, sitting down and writing clear, concise, and compelling sentences about your art is daunting. So don’t start with sentences. Ease your way into it with a writing exercise that feels exciting, or generative, or natural to you. A few suggestions:
Gather your art in one digital or physical space and really look at it. It’s possible you’ve been working on such a micro level you haven’t taken a macro view in a while. What commonalities and differences do you see? Think holistically about a specific body of art.
Write out a list of adjectives that describe your work. Use both visual and tonal descriptors. Be specific and avoid art jargon. If your art follows in the footsteps of minimalism, could you describe it as quiet? Or rhythmic? Is your work funny, raunchy, messy?
Record yourself describing your art to a friend, family member, or fellow artist. Chances are you’re making statements about your work all the time. Have a studio visit coming up? Record the conversation (with the other person’s permission), transcribe the audio, and mine it for pertinent details.
Think about the emotions and reactions you want your audience to come away with. An artist’s intent may have little bearing on an audience’s interpretation, but an artist statement is one of the few places you get to nudge that audience towards your desired result. Do they learn something from your art or make new connections between disparate subjects? Are you trying to make people feel agitated, joyful, incensed?
Write a casual letter to your best friend about what you’ve been up to in the studio. “Dear Laurie, today I spent five hours papier-mâché-ing a cardboard version of a hamster toy. It came out looking like a first-grader’s craft project, but that’s what I was going for. I think it’ll make you laugh.”
Jeopardy your practice. What are the questions you hope to answer in your work?
Suddenly, you have a bunch of words describing your art. Now you get to pick the best ones to fulfill the very basic elements of an artist statement: what, why, and (possibly) how.
What. Make sure to state what medium you work in (paintings, sculptures, installation, non-narrative video, durational performance, etc.). It’s amazing how many statements don’t include that basic fact.
Why. Try not to overthink this one. Look back at your brainstorms and your casual conversations. You make this work because you’re excited about it. What, exactly, are you excited about? Be confident: Your art shouldn’t “hope” or “try” to do something to the viewer, it should just do it. Here is where you can also bring up, without going too far into the art historical weeds, your influences and inspirations.
How. If you have a truly unique process that’s important to understand—or one that images can’t accurately convey—briefly describe how you make your work. (Please note: Collage is not a unique process and there’s no inventive way to describe it as such, even if you use the word “juxtapose.”)
Beyond fulfilling these basic “what, why, and how” requirements, an artist statement can be relayed in whatever tone and sentence structure feels best to you. (I encourage the use of full sentences, as fragments sound flighty.)
That’s it! Really!
In my many years of reading artist statements (and gallery press releases), I’ve developed an ever-growing list of banned words and phrases. While these ways of writing may sound fancy, they’re actually empty. And using them makes a piece of writing look lazy and nonspecific. Artist statements are particularly susceptible to these traps because we write what we think people want to hear instead of what’s actually true to our work.
Your artist statement should feel like it’s written by you, the artist—not by a critical theorist or an art history professor or a dealer or a curator. The people reading it are looking for an enriched experience of your work and proof that you’ve put some thought into what you’re making. They want to hear your voice—not that of some formulaic art-jargon robot.
So, some things to avoid:
Extreme binaries. Is your work really “examining the strangeness of both interior and exterior spaces?” Is it “both casual and formal?” “Light and dark?” (Similarly, ask yourself, is your work truly “blurring the boundaries between text and subtext?”)
Lazy clichés. Only you make your artwork—so shouldn’t the words you use to describe it be unique and specific as well? If you find yourself using certain words as crutches, or as highfalutin stand-ins for hard-to-articulate ideas, I highly recommend creating your own “banned words” list and keeping it somewhere handy. Then, go back to your brainstorm notes and pick out words or phrases that feel concise, fresh, and truly related to your work.
“International Art English.” Chances are you’ve seen it, read it, and felt unsettled by it in press releases, wall labels, and other people’s artist statements. This muddled and imprecise language seeks to elevate what it describes through nonspecific word choices, invented “spaces” (the space of the real, the space of the dialectical), and complicated grammatical structures. For an in-depth analysis of this phenomenon, propagated most intensely by the art world announcement email service e-flux, please see this fantastic article in Triple Canopy.
False range. Does your practice “range from drawing to sculpture to video to artist books” or do you simply make “drawings, sculptures, videos, and artist books?” False range is a rampant and completely accepted form of writing these days, but the discerning reader will notice it and judge you for it. A false range creates a continuum between one thing and another when there is no actual continuum. Yes, your palette can “range from blues to reds” (color is a spectrum). But your influences cannot include “everything from Wanda Sykes’ stand-up to Tamagotchi pets to tinsel” (there is no middle point between Tamagotchi and tinsel).
Theory. My extremely wise friend and colleague Bean Gilsdorf, longtime art world advice-giver, says this best: “Art theory only has a place in an artist statement if it has a direct bearing on your day-to-day studio practice. Otherwise, skip it.”
You’ve brainstormed, you’ve answered the what and the why. You’ve avoided all of the above. But chances are you still have a lot of extra baggage in that statement, or it’s not striking quite the right tone, or you feel like it could be more fun to read. Now you get to edit, revise, tweak, trim, and whip that statement into shape.
Read your statement out loud. Trust me, this works. As you read, ask yourself: Is it accurate? Is it descriptive? Is it compelling? Is it me? Could this statement just as easily be applied to someone else’s work? Make sure it’s specific to what you make—and provides a sense of who you are to the reader.
Look at your art while you reread. Remember, your artist statement should be current. You don’t need to sum up a wide-ranging practice from the beginning of your baby artist days to the present moment. It should reflect whatever images you’re providing alongside it. Put another way, your artist statement shouldn’t be so aspirational that you talk about making room-sized installations while your images are a few small-scale watercolors.
Work it into submission. Read aloud, edit. Read aloud, edit. Take a break (a day, a week), come back to it, read it aloud and ask the above questions again. Remember that this doesn’t have to represent your work forever and ever. Like the U.S. Constitution, an artist statement is a living document. You can update it as often as you like.
Shorter is better. Being economical with words proves you know what you’re doing, that you’re confident in your work, and that you don’t have to couch it in elaborate language to legitimize it. Your statement should be somewhere between 100 and 300 words in length. (This is an example of true range.)
The tone that you strike in an artist statement for a local group show should probably be different from an artist statement you write for a $100,000 grant opportunity. Every time you start reworking your statement, remember to ask yourself who or what this particular piece of text is for. Write a basic statement that can serve as the foundation for all future artist statements, but make sure you revisit and reevaluate for each application, exhibition, and request.
In order to truly know how your artist statement will be received, and if it’s doing the work you want it to do, you need to have other people read it. I recommend finding a diverse audience of art friends and non-art friends, family, and mentors. This statement should be as legible as possible. Tell them to be brutally honest with you and listen to what they say.
Have a writer friend read your statement for typos. Have someone else read it for typos. Triple-check for typos!
And most importantly, give the people you ask for feedback enough time to read your statement and reply to you. Do not do this: “Hiiiii, this is due in an hour can you look it over for me pls thx bye!”
As those who exercise say: no pain, no gain. Statements are hard to write, but they’re good for you. They can help someone gain a deeper understanding of your art, feel more connected to that art and, ultimately, value it. They can make or break an application. And they can help you put words to your practice, giving you the language to understand just what you’re doing and why it’s amazing.
Sarah Hotchkiss is an artist and writer in San Francisco. Since 2015, she’s been the visual arts editor for KQED, the Bay Area’s NPR and PBS affiliate, covering the local visual arts and film scene in online articles. Before wading into the earnest waters of public media, she worked as the communications director for the venerable San Francisco arts nonprofit Southern Exposure. And before that she wrote condition reports in a warehouse that stored Indiana Jones-level amounts of art. She holds an M.F.A. from California College of the Arts and a B.A. from Brown University. In addition to her own studio practice, she watches a lot of science fiction, which she reviews in a semi-regular publication called Sci-Fi Sundays.