I’ve been thinking about juried competitions quite a bit recently – I’ve been entering many (and getting in a few), and most of my photographic friends and clients are doing the same.
Before I go on, I’d like to clarify that I believe that juried events are valuable to artists, particularly emerging artists. The obvious potential benefit (and the reason most people submit) is that getting your work in front of jurors, receiving an award or selection, and having work included in an online or physical exhibition can all result in exposure of your work to people who may be able to help advance your career. Another benefit is that selections will help fill out your artistic resume or CV and may help establish credibility and/or seriousness as an artist.
I’ve also found that for me personally, the process of selecting work to submit is a valuable exercise in editing, and who among us doesn’t need more practice with editing our own work? (If you get in the habit of frequently entering exhibitions & contests, however, your costs in time, money, and mental energy will quickly add up, so it is worthwhile to consider whether each makes sense for you and your work.)
So now let’s talk about rejection. After dinner last night when I checked my e-mail, I was staring in the face of three brand new rejections that all came in within the previous few hours. No matter what you might have won in the past or your own evaluation of your own work, a string of rejections is not conducive to warm fuzzy feelings about yourself. Most of us will inevitably start questioning ourselves, even if just fleetingly: Maybe my work just isn’t that good?
Well, who can be objective about their own work? For the purposes of this discussion, however, let’s assume that your work is good. And yet we still get rejected, time and time again. There are many legitimate reasons why any selected work will be rejected by a particular juror. First, most of these competitions are incredibly competitive – many have 1o’s or 100’s vying for each spot. Second, art is subjective. Perhaps the juror just didn’t like your work — well, there are always people who don’t like any piece of work. Maybe your work is more traditional and they were looking for something edgier, maybe your work is edgy and they wanted traditional. Maybe the juror was selecting works to curate a unique vision and, while they loved your work, it just didn’t fit it. For all these reasons and more, as artists we need to learn (and, believe me, it is hard sometimes) to not take it personally.
My lesson from all of this for my work is to embrace the rejections and recognize that they are just part of the process. Instead of being annoyed at each one like I used to be, I have now slowly come to realize that they really are subjective. And while I certainly prefer to get an acceptance rather than a rejection, getting a rejection means that I’m out there in the ring and trying to present my work to the world. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but how great is the ability to present your work that way? Now when I get those inevitable rejections, I know that I’m putting my work out there, trying for more and more competitive shows, and if I don’t get in — well, there is always next year.