Help Desk

Help Desk: To Apply Oneself

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

Should there be a limit on the number of times you apply for the same opportunity before you come to the realization that they just aren’t buying what you’re selling? The application process for many residencies, fellowships, and publishing opportunities is annual, and it’s tough not to continually try your luck. While obviously submitting the same materials every year would be a fool’s errand, does there come a time when (even with diversified submissions) it’s reasonable to assume they aren’t interested in your practice and you need to move on? Is there a risk of being viewed as oblivious to when you’re being told “no”? Or is it more valuable to demonstrate a little fortitude?

Jim Lambie.

Jim Lambie. Shaved Ice, 2012; wooden ladders, mirrors, household fluorescent paint; dimensions variable.

There’s no doubt that one of the easiest ways to get your work out into the world is by applying for exhibitions and residencies/fellowships. (See my prior advice on this subject here.) Ridiculous application fees notwithstanding, the process is fairly low-risk: You mail the envelope or hit “submit” on a web page, dust off your palms, and head to the bar for a celebratory drink with the other hopefuls. Yet despite the overall simplicity, it’s just not worth it—emotionally or economically—to approach this process haphazardly. It helps to have a strategy, so let’s discuss the options.

To start, most competitions are juried by a different person (or persons) every year, so it’s not exactly “the same opportunity.” Some years might present better odds because the juror is someone who is specifically interested in practices like yours; other years, you may want to skip the application after discovering that the jury is primarily sympathetic to new-media work, when you make ceramic sculptures. So the first strategy is: consider your audience and apply only when it would be an advantage to present your work.

Another strategy is to consider the qualifications very carefully. Pay close attention to what the institution requires of its awardees (“we select emerging artists from around the United States” versus “support for internationally established midcareer artists”). If the prospectus doesn’t give you a sense for the expectations, then do some research on recent prior participants. Looking over the websites and CVs of the last dozen or so awarded/accepted artists should give you an impression of the kind of candidate the institution seeks. Ask yourself: What is similar about these artists’ practices? Are there overlaps in age, medium, education, location, previous awards, or exhibitions? Do you match these attributes?

Jim Lambie. Strychnine Seven and Seven, 2004; Record covers, tape, photocopies; 125 x 190 cm

Jim Lambie. Strychnine Seven and Seven, 2004; record covers, tape, photocopies; 125 x 190 cm.

As for being viewed as oblivious, I’m not sure that’s even a factor in most cases. Unless the applicant pool is extremely small, institutions might not recognize that you’re submitting again. Check out Christine Wong Yap’s R+D Blog; her “Art Competition Odds” section tracks the number of applicants versus awardees for many high-profile competitions. For example, the 2014 Artist Studio Program at Smack Mellon had over 700 applicants for six available studios. As a former residency juror myself, I can tell you that even an obsessive evaluator would not remember, a year later, the names of the 690+ artists who didn’t get in. Likewise, I’m not sure that fortitude is a factor, either; no artist ever got a residency solely on the basis that she has already applied for the last five years in a row.

If you’ve applied multiple times and were still rejected even after doing your research and determining a good fit, consider getting in touch with the institution to see if you can find out more. Chances are excellent that you will receive one of two replies: “We don’t do that,” or the not very useful “because we felt that other candidates were more qualified.” But you might be able to glean some tips or find specific information that will help you in the future. I recently was a finalist, for the second time, for a big award, and I felt terrifically awful that I had (at least in my own mind) come so close twice, only to be rejected. Although the institution’s website specifically states that the staff is not able to provide feedback on individual applications, I thought I would try anyway, and I emailed a brief outline of my situation and a plea for some insight. Remarkably, I received an answer: In both years, the institution took only candidates enrolled in PhD programs (which I am not). Though they don’t state this as a requirement for application, and though it means that I will probably never receive this award, at least I don’t have to wonder. Knowledge—even bad news—is power.

If you feel like you’re punishing yourself by reapplying, take a hiatus from applications. You could use the time to try other methods of getting your work in front of people: email them the link to your (updated) website, request a studio visit, ask them out to coffee, etc. You could also contact former awardees—perhaps you know some of them as friends or acquaintances?—to see if they will share their wisdom or even look over the last application you submitted to make suggestions for improvement. Whatever you choose, I hope you will be oblivious, demonstrate your fortitude, move forward, and think big. Good luck!