It happens to all of us. All the time. In so many different ways. But artists might face rejection even more often than others. It is, unfortunately, a part of the job. And if you have recently been rejected—particularly if some of your creative work has been rejected—I am here to tell you that you aren’t alone.
This past week I received a rejection email from a holiday craft market I applied to a month or two ago, and I’m not going to lie, it stung a little. And while it was certainly disappointing, it wasn’t devastating. I have dealt with a lot of rejection over the years—rejections from schools and programs, rejections from residencies, rejections for grants, rejections from galleries and exhibitions, rejected curatorial proposals, rejected collaborative proposals, rejections from potential sponsors, rejections in the form of bad reviews and angry emails, mean comments…the list goes on and on. It is an undeniable part of putting yourself and your creative work out there.
At this point, I try not to take it too personally and to remind myself that there is probably a reason my work or proposal wasn’t accepted—that ultimately it would have been a bad fit and it is better to not go down that difficult road. Or maybe I was rejected from one opportunity to make room for some other opportunity that will turn out to be even better or it’s universe telling me to slow my roll and allow myself time to breathe and rest. Or maybe it was arbitrary…
When I was in high school (hey Baltimore School for the Arts), between my junior and senior year, I applied to a summer pre-college landscape painting program in Tuscany organized by MICA. I collected and documented all my best pieces of work, wrote a personal essay about why it was important I go on this trip and how I would grow and evolve as an artist and person, and filled out the application. I took it very seriously and I thought I was a shoo-in. In my head I checked off all the boxes: my grades were good (nerd alert); my portfolio was strong; my essay was convincing; everything had been turned in on time, etc. And then the day came when I received a letter that opened with, “We regret to inform you…” and my world came crashing down. Or, at least that’s what it felt like in the moment. It was the first time that I had really wanted something, worked really hard to get it, and been denied. (I was a privileged 17 year old, please forgive me for my narrow world-view!)
I had been rejected, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. In a spur of the moment move—still standing by the mail slot with my rejection letter in hand—I called the program director at MICA and asked if I could please have some more specific feedback on why I hadn’t been accepted so that I might learn from the occasion and strengthen future applications. The program director humoured me and looked up my information then said, “I’m really sorry. Your application was very strong, but some arbitrary decisions had to be made…”
You might be thinking at this point, Sarah, how do you remember what they said to you on the phone over a decade ago? Well, those words are forever burned into my brain. ARBITRARY. DECISIONS. HAD. TO. BE. MADE. I also remember losing it a little bit at that point. I didn’t want to, but I broke down in tears on the phone. Not because I was heart broken about not going to Tuscany (I mean, maybe a little bit), but because the admission of ‘arbitrary decisions’ after I had worked so hard was just too much.
It was a hard lesson to learn—and probably not one the program director really intended to teach that day. We ended up talking for some time (looking back, I really appreciate their generosity) and eventually the conversation came around to the fact that they wanted the program to have a diverse mix of students from all over the country and they had gotten so many applications from students within Baltimore, it had essentially come down to picking names out of a hat and the choices weren’t a reflection of the actual applications at all. I think this person told me a lot more than they meant to and it definitely didn’t soothe my indignation at the word ‘arbitrary’ but it was a valuable and eye-opening lesson nonetheless.
Now, ten years and a successful creative business later, I think back to that phone call every time I am rejected from something—not because I think all rejections are arbitrary, of course they aren’t!—but because it reminds me that all I can do is my best and once that ‘submit’ button is pushed it is out of my hands. And that knowledge—that I have done my best and it is out of my hands—helps keep me grounded when bad news comes in. So again, if you have recently been rejected, you aren’t alone. It happens to all of us at every stage of the creative journey. And that is ok. It isn’t a reflection of your value or your work’s value. Maybe it was just arbitrary.
Or maybe it isn’t. Bringing it back to the present, my recent rejection wasn’t completely unforeseen. The particular event that I applied to was very clear about giving preference to local makers and local businesses…my locale is not actually local to the market. I knew it was a long shot. But I also felt like, why not try? Worst case I don’t get in and that isn’t really so bad. There are other markets. Other events. Other opportunities.
It could also be that the rejection had nothing to do with localities. Maybe they received other really strong applications from other embroidery artists. Embroidery is a very specific niche. A relatively small craft fair probably doesn’t need two people selling that type of thing. Or maybe the jurors aren’t into embroidery at all and felt their community and the market at large would prefer other goods. Or my work is too bright and colorful and this is more of a twine and craft paper kind of vibe. Who knows. It isn’t really worth dwelling on because, again, I know I put my best foot forward and the rest is up to someone else.
I have applied to seven opportunities this year (one residency, two sponsorship collaborations, and four market events) and only three of those applications have been 100% successful. Two have been flatly denied. One ended up being partially accepted and heavily negotiated/compromised. And I am still waiting to hear back from two events. So for the year, so far, my acceptance rate is only 42% (I think…my math skills aren’t the best). I was even approached by a company with a proposal of their own a month or two ago and after having a conference call about it was informed that they were ‘going in another direction.’ Talk about a real ego-buster—they liked me until they talked to me!
I share all of this not because I am seeking pity or sympathy or anything like that, but again to let you know you aren’t alone! Rejection is really hard and has certainly sent me into an emotional tailspin and creative rut in the past (remember when I cried on the phone to a MICA administrator…not my best moment), but it can also lead to reflection and opportunities for growth. Rejections have strengthened me and my work. They force me to consider and re-consider what it is that I do and what it is that I want to communicate. Sometimes these reflections cause me to change course, but sometimes they confirm that I am in fact on the right path and what I am making is what I need to be making…whether it is a good fit for some specific event or not.
All we can do is continue making work we are proud of and excited about!