Let’s just be frank – as an artist trying to get your art out into the world and into galleries, you are going to run into some rejection. Few artists have found success in the art world without first enduring failure. Not every gallery is going to see the merit of your work, and some of them are going to be pretty forthright in telling you what’s wrong with it. You’re going to have to face some “no’s” to get to that much anticipated “yes.”
As an artist, you would be well served to begin developing a thick skin. Don’t let criticism or rejection stop you from pursuing your passion. Remember, any opinion given by a gallery owner or director is just that, an opinion.
I’ve met too many artists who, after facing two or three harsh rejections, have retreated to their studios where they will hide in their work for months or even years before venturing out into the world again. “I just need to create more work and get a little better before I’m ready to go back out there,” they might say.
If you are creating the best work you can, and if you’ve prepared yourself following the principles I’ve been laying out, you are ready for gallery representation. Don’t be afraid to pursue it.
There are many ways to increase your odds for success and reduce the likelihood of rejection (may I humbly suggest reading or rereading “Starving” to Successful), but some level of rejection is inevitable. I would like to spend just a minute sharing some quick tips on how to prepare for and overcome the inevitable rejection you will face as you share your art with the world. These are tips that have helped me when I face rejection with clients, but they will also help you overcome rejection as you attempt to show your work to galleries.
Tips for Overcoming Rejection
1. Know the odds. It sounds counter intuitive, but knowing that most attempts to find gallery representation are going to fail can help you feel less dejected when a gallery says “no thanks!” The number of rejections you are going to face before being accepted can vary depending on your style of work, your personality, your preparation,and any number of other factors, but if you tell yourself to expect 20 rejections before you have success, each rejection will feel like a step down the road to success, instead of a stinging defeat.
2. Force yourself to keep going. As you prepare to approach galleries, make a list of galleries that are possibilities and commit to approach all of them, no matter what happens. It’s unlikely the first gallery you approach will accept your work, so make sure you have a plan b, a plan c and so on. As soon as one gallery lets you know they’re not interested, roll on to the next one.
3. Don’t take rejection personally. Even though some gallery owners may feel a need to reject you in a very personal way, criticizing you and your work, there’s no need to take the rejection to heart.
4. Talk to other artists and learn how they’ve overcome rejection. It’s very easy to feel like you’re the only artist who’s ever been rejected so resoundingly. Talking to other artists about their experience can help you realize you are far from alone. Start by reading the comments below!
We all fear rejection, but as you gain experience and wisdom in the art business, you’ll come to see that rejection is just another part of the process of building a successful art career.
Help an Artist – Share Your Experiences!
Have you encountered a particularly harsh rejection from a gallery? How did you overcome it? What have you done to develop a thicker skin in the face of rejection? Share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.
I once did exactly as you described. About twelve years ago, I approached three galleries in what I now know is the wrong way. I went unannounced in person with a few live examples in a carrying case and a folder of photos with terrible resolution.
The first gallery kindly turned me down and said they were not taking anything new at the moment, but to check back when I had a few workshops under my belt. I took that as an indication that I needed some serious improvement.
The second gallery owner rolled her eyes and told me in no uncertain terms that she did not accept walk-ins and that to approach a gallery unannounced was unprofessional and bordered on downright insulting, at which time she walked abruptly away and resumed arranging items on a shelf. I felt my face turn hot immediately and teared up as soon as I was out of sight.
Having learned from the first two experiences, I approached a third by calling first to ask about their procedure for viewing new work for consideration. I was invited to bring a few pieces of original work on the next slow morning. This time I asked in advance if she would be willing to give me some pointers for improvement regardless of her decision. I also brought fewer pieces…only my best…and was accepted on the spot.
Wish I could say the experience was as great afterward. But my feel-good representational miniature watercolors were placed in an area that majored on very dark abstract works. When I asked to remove them after a year with not one sale, she appeared disappointed and asked me to wait just a little longer. I decided to remove them anyway after discovering that three were missing from my inventory.
I ended up crawling into that proverbial hole and focused my attention on my “real” job, which at that time was cleaning offices. I went back to college and then taught elementary school for a few years. I managed to paint a little though time for it was scarce.
The good news is that as I began experimenting with oils, I found that I not only loved that better than watercolor, but even sold a few. So after a few years experimenting and learning both about my medium and about marketing, I feel I’m almost ready to approach galleries again. Too bad I let initial setbacks and life events get in the way for so long. Never again!
If you are a professional artist, and you are seeking, (or intend to seek) gallery representation, then it is imperative that you develop a strong sense of confidence in yourself and your work. You have to first believe in yourself and your work, before you can expect anyone else to as well. It is important to develop a strategic plan, as to which galleries you want to approach. Most artists naturally want to show somewhere close to home, however if you get rejected in all of those galleries near you, don’t stop searching. It is normal to approach 100 galleries before one will take any interest in you. If a gallery rejects you, it does not necessarily mean that your work is not good. Galleries select specific artwork for a variety of reasons. I have personally refused many talented artists in my gallery because their work simply did not fit into my market, or I felt it did not work with the scope of the gallery. It is also important to bear in mind a gallery generally reflects the taste of the gallery director, and your art may not click with their aesthetic. At times a gallery may reject your work, because they feel it competes with another artist they are representing. They typically will not express that to you, however it is a reality in the business. You want a gallery which is excited about your work, and believes in it. If they do, then they are more likely going to be able to sell it better than one which is lukewarm about it.
Some galleries want you to submit your work a certain way. Find out how they would prefer to review your work and approach them in that manner. If you are interested in a specific gallery, then try to attend an opening of theirs and introduce yourself to the owner. Don’t take up too much of his/her time other than to introduce yourself, and compliment the gallery. Tell them that you feel that your work might be a good fit, and inquire how you might go about showing them your portfolio. Don’t wrap yourself up too much emotionally with one gallery. Take the attitude that if they reject you then it is time to move on to another. Remind yourself that the greatest artists in the world all had to deal with rejection. They were successful because they did not take rejection personally and they persevered. Adopt that attitude, and you well too.
Dealing with rejection, prompted me to write my book, An Artist Empowered: Define and Establish your value as an artist now: Triumph over Rejection
This groundbreaking book was a ten-year-long writing and research project.
As always great advice and encouragement
It also helps me to remember most actually didn’t really look at my presentation at all.
But some rejections are well worded and do show attention to everything. I keep those in mind and just put the rest aside and keep going.
Excellent article, Jason, as usual! It helps to have been in sales and marketing for years before beginning to paint and approach galleries. Remembering the many rejections are leading to an acceptance helps. I found it advantageous to visit the gallery and meet then and even get to know them before requesting that they look at my work. And, if they have instructions as to how to approach them, I follow it to the letter.
Rejection is not failure; failure is when you give up on your gift.
Remember, too, that an art gallery is a place of business, not a shrine.
Readers will find value and inspiration in my book: An Artist Empowered: Establish your value as an artist now.
I read your comments on RedDotBlog and am very interested in what you said about your book. I am writing one myself and have questions regarding the steps necessary to get a book sold on Amazon. I hope you don’t mind my asking a few questions. Do you get the books printed at your own cost? How do they get to Amazon and how do you get paid? I presume they take care of shipping then. Who comes up with a cost that is profitable for you and them? Is Amazon better than Etsy?
I’m not sure if this is a standard business practice but I’m seeing more galleries saying that they will not reply to all inquiries. I worked part time in a gallery owned by an artist and she ALWAYS replied to each inquiry. I know she felt the sting of silence on her own applications.
Is it also advantageous to have your work in smaller galleries, alternative locations and “vanity galleries” as you seek out gallery representation in a ” traditional” commercial gallery ?
Very interesting article. I am still wondering what is the best way to approach a gallery. Is it simply to send an email with an attached portfolio, getting an appointment to present one’s work, go to openings to develop contacts or something else?