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Creative's Field Guide + Articles by Experts
Writing an Effective Artist Statement

March-April, 2008

The artist statement is a synopsis that outlines themes or processes specific to an artist’s project, series or body of work. Focus can be limited to one project or encompass an artist’s work overall, depending on the purpose and intent of the statement.

Writing an artist statement is not an easy task, but there are some guidelines that you can follow to create a document that will represent you and your work confidently, coherently and with credibility. I’ve provided an outline of guidelines and suggestions to help make writing the ever-dreaded artist statement a little easier. But first, these are the top 5 mistakes that I’ve seen made, based on my 7 years of experience as arts editor for Mental Contagion.

Top 5 Artist Statement Mistakes

1. Telling Your Audience How to Interpret Your Work

Statements are best received when they speak to the artist’s own experience. This can be accomplished through conveying intent or the reasons why and how a project’s trajectory took shape. Telling others how to interpret your work, or how it should make them feel is dangerous territory. Most of us are familiar with the well-known “I feel” statement, used as a tool for positive expression in therapy. Not to say that the statement should be wrought with “I feel” statements, but be aware of how you choose to compose them. It is, after all, called the artist statement, and not the artist mandate.

No: "The viewer should feel sadness when viewing the photographs that depict this event."
Yes: "The photographs convey the sadness felt by millions of people on the day of the event. "

2. Becoming Your Own Critic

When making declarations about the theme and purpose of your work, be careful not to create statements that evaluate your work, either negatively or positively. Try to stick to fact-based statements. Notice the difference in the following statements, the second being the preferred method of expression.

No: “My work is celebrated by nature-lovers because it shows that nature is love.”
Yes: “My work celebrates nature through the expression of love.

1. Writing Too Abstractly or Making Obscure References

Keep writing as concise and clear as possible. Abstract themes or existential pontification should be reined in tightly, if not avoided altogether. Academic writing can be dry, lengthy and downright boring.

If references to other work or artists are used, don’t assume that your reader will know the reference. These references should be kept to a minimum, if used, focusing more finitely on your own work.

Statement: "The edifice-like characteristics produce a narrative suggested by the finished work itself."
The reality: This is confusing. Simplify the language; would your mom understand this?

4. Conveying Doubt; Repeating the Same Sentiment Using Different Language

Repeating the same sentiment over and over again using different words is a trap that many artists fall into, especially when attempting to define the theme of their art for the first time. This is not lost on the reader, and works against the artist’s intent, sharing instead an assumption that the project was themed in retrospect, or worse, that the artist is attempting to convince him/herself of the theme!

Make a statement with your statement. Convey viewpoints with confidence, while being careful not to use language that communicates too much self-interest.

No: "This series seems to capture the strength of the working mother."
Yes: "This series reflects of the stregth of working mothers."

5. Over-telling & Overselling the Story of Your Work

Let the statement be a way to create depth and understanding in your work, without overloading the reader with unimportant details. A few examples that apply are statements like the following:

Statement: “My mom always said...”
The reality: If you include this statement, your mom better be an art critic!

Statement: "I first started creating art when I was 5."
The reality: Unless the work created as a 5-year old relates to your project, this is too much information.

Statement: "I did this, then this, then that."
The reality: Timelines are generally better stated in a bio, unless specificly supporting the project.

Guidelines for Writing

Functions

It’s not necessary to apply all of these functions to the statement, just the ones that reflect the aspects most relevant to your work.

• Tell the “story” of your work, but make it concise
• Highlight any unique aspects attributed to the work
• Speak to themes or methodologies, and what prompted them
• Define mediums, materials and/or process
• Is any significance attached to medium, materials, color, size, special relation, location or other factors that helped physically determine the look of the project or series?

Uses & Audience

• Grant proposal
• Call for submission
• Exhibition application or proposal
• Exhibition program
• For reprint in a publication in a journal, anthology or book
• A referential document used by a galleries, museums, publishers, agents or journalists
• Post on your Web site

Writing Style

• Write in first person
• Start with broad statements about you and your work, then refine to create depth
• Use language that can be universally understood
• Confidently get to the point; clearly express what you are doing, not what you are “attempting to accomplish”
• Maximum length is most often one page or less; use short paragraphs
• Scrutinize every sentence for repetition and relevance

Don’t Forget

• Create footnotes for quotes and citations
• Have it proofed by a trusted colleague
• Update as necessary

There is much debate on whether to include the following information. I tend to side with the camp that views it as unnecessary because these items already exist in a bio or CV. If you do choose to include them in your statement, they should be extremely brief and directly relate to the artwork discussed.

• Make brief mention of past work, artist-in-residencies or exhibits of note
• Mention awards, organizations and affiliations

In the Next Installment of Creative's Field Guide
Author Holly Day shares her extensive insight about the things never, ever to do for anyone who is serious about being a writer. Holly Day has authored or co-authored a variety of books including "Music Theory for Dummys," "Composing Digital Music for Dummys," "Insiders' Guide to the Twin Citites" and "Shakira, People in the News."

About the Writer

Karen Kopacz is a graphic and Web designer living in St. Paul, MN. Her freelance enterprise, Design for the Arts, provides design, strategy and consultation for artists, writers and creative businesses of all types.

Karen is director and founder of the monthly-published, online arts & literature magazine Mental Contagion, launched in 2000. She was a panel member of Fostering New Culture on the Internet in SXSW's 2005 Interactive Festival, and is the founder and curator of Reconnect, a ‘Mobile Art Gallery’ series that takes place at various locations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to help build connections between local artists, business owners and the community.

Karen's Web design has been featured in the design anthology Portfolios Online. She has been on the board of directors for the Twin Cities Fine Arts Organization, is a former art director of First Avenue’s in-house magazine, has been a columnist and photographer for PitchforkMedia.com and has collaborated with artists, musicians, photographers, copywriters and editors for more years than she cares to admit.

For more information, visit Karen's Web site at www.DesignForTheArts.com.


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