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How to Write and Artist Statement

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This tutorial will show you different ways to approaching writing an artist statement. Following this guide you will understand what an artist statement is and be able to produce an artist statement that reflects your practice and provides insight into your work for the viewer.

What is an Artist Statement?

An artist statement is a curious intellectual exercise required by many applications for artist opportunities such as grants, exhibitions, residencies, public commissions, university teaching jobs. Museums sometimes print excerpts from artist statements on the walls of an exhibition as didactic, or explanatory text for the audience. Students are generally required to write artist statements in BFA and MFA programs. Artist statements are usually written in the first person by the artist who created a particular work of art. The content is up to the author, but artist statements generally include a description of the work, cultural influences, and an explanation of the work. Some statements also include biographical information and personal details about the artist’s thoughts and life.

Artist statements can be short or long. It is best to keep the statement brief but some occasions call for a longer in depth statement.

Do I Need to Write an Artist Statement?

No.

You do not need an artist statement. You can have a successful career as an artist without every writing an artist statement. Much of the insistence of artists writing artist statement comes from inertia, or the tendency of things the remain as they are. Since previous people had to write artist statements, the next people think they need to write one too.

Applications that Do Not Request Artist Statements

The Guggenheim Memorial Foundationexternal link does not request an artist statement to apply for its Fellowships. It requires a career narrative and a statement of your plans for the fellowship, but not a specific artist statement. 1

The MacDowell Colonyexternal link artist residency application does not require or ask for an artist statement. It does ask for a “Visual Summary Description” of two to five words as well as a project description of “… the project you intend to create at MacDowell.” The application ask for a “Work Sample Explanation: Tell us how your work sample(s) relate to and support your proposed project.” 2 Notice that the application does not as about what influences artists have from art history or for a specific statement about the work. Rather the application ask for more direct and specific information about the artist’s intended project and how past work relates to the completion of the proposed project. While an “artist statement” isn’t required, it is required to write about your work.

Sculpture Spaceexternal link in Utica, NY has an open call for a funded Sculpture Artist in Residency Program. The application does not ask for an artist statement. The application requests a CV/Resume, 2 references, artwork samples, and a project description. 3

Applications that Request Artist Statements

Most college and university programs ask for an artist statement to apply for admission. CalArts requests a 500-1000 word artist statement. 4 Kent State University requires a “Goal Statement (250-500 words)” and a separate “Artist Statement (250-500 words) to apply to the MFA program. 5 Many residency and grant programs require artist statements. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation offers generous grants to artists and requests, a “one page statement describing the 10 images you have included with your application.” 6 and The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft requires a “one page or less … " artist statement to apply to its funded residency program. 7

So, I do Need to Write an Artist Statement?

The answer is still, no.

You will likely need to write about your work in some way to succeed as an artist but it is in no way a requirement. Even though not all applications ask for an artist statement, most applications as for some sort of written explanation about your past work or the work / project you plan to make.

The important takeaway is that writing about your art should be a means to an end. The “end” is to get other people to understand your art and what you want to do more. If the people who evaluate applications for grants, fellowships, residencies, exhibitions, and other opportunities understand your work more, then they are likely to appreciate it more. Therefore get rid of anything from your writing about your art that does not further the goal of explanation and understanding.

Although an artist statement is an unnecessary convention of the art world, it is a good idea to spend some time intentionally thinking about your artistic practice and why you are doing what you do. Otherwise you would continue thoughtlessly into the future with the same inertia as the convention of writing artist statements.

Artist Statement Instructions

The first step is to forget most of what you think you know about artist statements and the perceived need to connect to arbitrary art historical contexts. Forcing a connection to art history when it is not present is counterproductive. Your art is not made in a vacuum so there are cultural connections to your work from outside yourself. Identifying and investigating influences and connections in your work is important.

Focus on answering questions. What questions? Think about how you feel when you walk into an art exhibit. What do you want to know? What would you ask the artist if they were standing next to you?

Some questions you might have for an artist:

  • Why did you make this work?
  • Why did you use these materials?
  • How did you make it? Could you talk about the process?
  • Do you like how it turned out?
  • Why should I care about your work?

It would be great to have an artist next to you at an exhibition explain their answers to these questions. You should attempt to convey the same satisfying explanation of your work for your audience as you write an artist statement.

Do’s of Writing An Artist Statement

  1. Be direct. Get to the point. Write in clear sentences. Most people will not read your entire artist statement. Make sure you have a succinct summary of your message in the first few sentences.
  2. Keep it brief. Your audience is more likely to completely read and comprehend your artist statement if it is not too long. This means that you need to use language efficiently to quickly and clearly talk about your art.
  3. Talk about process. As an artist, you can easily forget that not everyone works with oil paint, clay, welded steel, fabric, 3D printers, or the myriad of other artistic techniques. Your audience is likely wondering how you made your work. Satisfy their curiosity by telling them about the process you use to make your work.
  4. Forget about “art history” Remember that you need to be direct and brief? How will you adequately explain a direct influence from art history in a meaningful way while keeping your audience’s attention? It is not impossible but difficult. Unless you truly could not stop thinking about a particular artist, artwork, or movement from art history while you made the piece, then it is probably best not to talk about art history. Instead, talk about the “real” influences on the work? This could be art history but also includes music, pop culture, your friends and family, your arbitrary lived experience and other thoughts that are likely more specific and meaningful than the influence from a few other works of art.
  5. Have someone read it. Have a friend or better, a stranger read your artist statement. Watch them while they read it. Look for any moments that they lose interest or seem confused. After they are finished ask them if they were bored or engaged. Ask them to tell you what they think you meant by the statement without looking back at the text. They will likely use different words than you. Some of the words they use could be better and clearer ways of explaining your work.

Don’ts of Writing An Artist Statement

  1. Don’t over explain. Stick to the matter at hand and keep any explanations specific to the work.
  2. Avoid common reflections. Most artists enjoyed making art in their childhood. While this may be important to you and your identity, it has the chance of seeming common or mundane to the reading. Make sure you write about the work and what it is about the work that is unique and engaging.
  3. Do you need that quote? It this your artist statement or someone else’s artist statement? A specific quote may inspire your work but the original quote is less important in your statement than an explanation of how the work expands on and presents ideas that may have originated from a quote. People want to see what you have to say and create.
  4. Don’t use “academic” language or uncommon terms. Sometimes an obscure word is just the thing to get your point across, but in most cases a more universal and clear explanation is possible. Try the xkcd Simple Writerexternal link that only allows the 1000 most common words. For example “How to Write an Artist Statement” becomes “How to Write the thoughts of a person who makes pictures” since “artist” and “statement” are not in the most common 1000 words. Of course you do not need to stick to these 1000 words. It is just an exercises to identify places in your writing that you may not be the most clear and universally understandable.

Approaches to Writing an Artist Statement

Have a Friend Interview You About Your Art

A great exercise for writing an artist statement is to have a friend or colleague interview. You. Have them prepare a list of questions that they want to know about your art. It is a good idea for you not to know the questions in advance so your answers are spontaneous. Sit down in a relaxed but relatively formal setting. Use an audio recorder or a speech to text application to record your immediate answers to the questions from your peer.

Why would you do this rather than just answering the questions yourself? By foreseen yourself to speak to another human, your mind will need to complete thoughts, even if your thoughts don’t make sense, you will continue talking because you understand the social expectations of the person interviewing you. We don’t expect someone to give a short for word phrase for an answer when being interviewed. But it is perfectly acceptable to jot down a few words or notes in a sketchbook or notebook without making a complete thought.

By using the forced interview, you will be required to speak complete thoughts. Of course, many of the sentences you say may not make any sense, that is okay. After you are done with the mock interview, then you can review your answers and see which parts are worth keeping and which parts need a lot of revision and editing.

Another benefit is you can directly ask the person who interviewed you about which parts of your answers were satisfying and which parts were confusing.

Read Other Artists’ Artist Statements

Whenever you see an artist statement online, or an artist statement had an exhibition, make a copy of it and save it. If you review many artist statements at the same time, you will notice features of statements that you appreciate and features that you find annoying. This will likely be different for each reader, but it will give you a sense of things that you want to do in your artist statement and things you want to avoid.

Think about artists whose work that you like. Look up their information online and see if you can find an artist statement that they have written. Read the artist statement and see if it aligns with your conception of the artwork.

If it does align with your conception and feeling about the artwork, how does it do this? If it does not relate to how you see the artwork, why is that?

The more artist statements that you read, the more you will have an appreciation for clear and concise explanations of artwork and concepts.

Further Reading

Historical Artist Statements

I was walking along the road with two friends — the sun was setting The sky suddenly turned bloody red I stopped, leaned against the fence, tired to death. Over the the blue-black fjord and city lay blood in tongues of fire My friends walked on and I stood there quaking with angst. And I felt as though a vast, endless scream passed through nature.

Edvard Munch - Written in a diary and on the frame of the 1895 version of the The Scream 8

Are there any art historical references in Edvard Munch’s statement on The Scream? Does the artist use any art speak or strange jargon?