Application Sunday, Part XII: Rejected by the artist: Submission approved? Make sure you approve back


Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I submitted work for the Paradise AIR Short Stay Program in Matsudo, Japan.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part XII: Rejected by the artist: Submission approved? Make sure you approve back

The sting is in the tail

In Publish my work? Thanks but no thanks: A vanity publication cautionary tale I share my experience of rejecting a publication “opportunity” after my submission was accepted. As the applications, and with them the rejections and successes pile up, one thing becomes more and more clear:

If you need to be cautious about applying to the right kind of opportunity, you need to be doubly cautious about acting on a given success. More often than not the “award” is a double edged sword.

My submission was accepted? Now answer these questions

Thank you for your email and interest in our project. We would be delighted to have both “Le Rebelle” and “Ce qui est créé par l’esprit est plus vivant que la matière” as part of our collection. Please see below an overview on the project and details on how to submit all physical work which is due in by Friday 16th October 2015.

Fifteen days ago I received an e-mail in response to a submission I had sent out in order to have two of my artist books placed in an “artist run, independent bookstore” in London. My first reaction on receiving this message, the opening lines of which you can read above, was of course one of joy and relief: My books, in a storage box for years, would at last be taken out of oblivion and seen by the public, potentially also bought.

Since the page the initial artist call had pointed me to was devoid of any actual indication about what the place where the books would be exhibited would be like (no photograph of the place or any other substantial information), I thought I would do some research of my own and see what this “artist run bookstore” might be like before actually sending my books out. Here is what I found: The place seemed to be nothing more than a cafe-bakery. Some cultural events had indeed been organized there, such as readings, but there was no evidence of the existence of an independent space, separate from the room where the lattes and the cakes were being served, suitable for hosting such sensitive material as artists books. Hmmm…this didn’t seem right.

I could picture my books being placed on a table in the same room where food and drinks were being consumed, openly exposed to dirty fingers that had just grabbed a cinnamon bun, or transported on a table full of coffee mugs and sweets, to be viewed at leisure by one of the cafe’s customers.

My initial enthusiasm was in grave danger of extinction. Since I couldn’t find any evidence online that there actually was a separate room in the establishment suitable for books (more than that, suitable for artist books), I decided I had to have some questions answered by the organizers before I acted on their “approval”.

Before I started writing my e-mail to them in order to inquire about the way the books would be handled, I read the e-mail they had sent me once again. This is when I realized that the “reward” of having my books showcased by their bookstore came at a price, one I had not paid much attention to before: We are delighted, the message read, to have your books as part of our collection. Part of their collection? I couldn’t remember reading such a clause in the open call published by the organizers, the one I sent my submission in response to. I reloaded the initial open call on my computer screen and read it again just to make sure. Their call simply stated that they were “looking for independently published artists/writers/poets who would like the opportunity to sell works directly through the space”. And also that the participating artists would have the opportunity to present their work through an event in their space, something that seemed like an opportunity I would gladly fly to London for. But there was no mention of any donation of artworks to any collection. Things started to look even more ominous. At this point my enthusiasm disappeared and gave way to a sense of astonishment at their gall: Did they really think they would be able to pull this off? What was their intention with this strategy? “Serve” the artist an e-mail of acceptance, catching him/her off guard and add that they would be “delighted” to have the artworks in their collection, a “detail” mentioned then for the first time? The whole thing seemed like a comedy, and a very bad one, being played, as usual, at the expense of the artist.

By then I was almost certain that this was no success to be enthusiastic about. Nevertheless, I thought, if the space was suitable for hosting artworks, having even one of my books shown at a central London location, potentially sold, and also being given the opportunity to make a presentation on my work to the public was probably worth donating a copy of one of my books – I was not going to donate copies of both though; These were valuable limited edition books and the price of having copies of both being donated for something like this just seemed too high. Especially since I was being “served “ the “donation” detail at the last moment. So I decided instead of being entirely dismissive at that point, to go ahead and write them that e-mail, including in it all the questions I needed answered before deciding on whether I would take them up on their offer.

As I was writing the e-mail new questions popped up I had not thought about previously. I was surprised to realize for example that in their e-mail there was no mention of how long the books would be kept in the bookstore before being sent back to the artist. Was it expected that they would remain there indefinitely, until they were sold (or destroyed)? Also, no mention of who would cover the costs of delivery for the books. By that point I felt I didn’t have much to lose, I had realized that there was more at stake if the whole operation was a poorly organized one than if I was “rejected” for asking too many questions, so I wasn’t going to hold back on any of my concerns. After all, if my concerns concerned them, that would be a definite sign that this was not a suitable venue to trust my work with.

This is the e-mail I sent them:

Dear …,

I am very glad that my two artist books have been accepted to be featured. This seems like an exceptional opportunity to communicate and potentially also be able to sell my work. I also find the prospect of a presentation there related to the books a very good one. Before I sent my books, I have some questions I would like to ask:

– The factor of donation to the bookstore’s collection was not included in the initial call and I would like to know more on how that would work: In order for both of my books to be showcased in the bookstore would you require a copy of each one to be donated to your collection?

– Along with the copies I will send to be featured and possibly sold in your venue, will I be sending additional copies for your collection?

– What would be the setup-style of the exhibition/bookstore? How would the books be presented? Would the visitors be able to freely leaf through the books, with no particular protective measures (like gloves)? I am interested in the framework of the works’ presentation because of their archival characteristics. The book Le Rebelle can also be presented as an installation, an open standalone accordion, which is how I had exhibited it in my School of Fine Arts thesis presentation. If it were possible for it to be showcased as an open accordion, then its message could be communicated to the visitors, both in a compelling way and without them leafing through and potentially compromising the condition of the book.

– Because I do not live in London, and am not able to visit and view the space myself, I was wondering whether it would be possible for you to give me an idea of the space in some other way (if there are any photographs for example).

– How long would the books sent to be featured and possibly sold be kept at your bookstore before they are returned to the artist? 

– A final question, about the costs of delivery. My books would ship from Greece, and I would like to know whether the bookstore would participate in any way in the expenses of sending the books and returning them back to Greece. 

Thank you,

This must have been too much for them to handle because I haven’t heard from them since. In any case, their silence gave me my answer: My books were better off in their box!

A set of considerations for the “successful” artist

This anecdote from my ongoing application regimen, submitting at least to one artist call per week, is one out of many were failure to check whether the organizer meets one’s requirements, could end up in disaster. In this case, had I simply been content with my books being selected and gone ahead with sending them out, any one of these not so pleasant outcomes would most likely be “served” to me eventually: My books could be destroyed by being exhibited in an unfit environment, they could disappear by being held indefinitely and under vague conditions by the organizers. Not to mention the very likely event of them being presented in a setting not appropriate for viewing them (these people were coffee shop owners after all, not curators or even bookstore owners) and of course having to bear the disproportional price of two artwork donations.

So next time one of your applications gets approved, before you act on it make sure you approve of the organizers back.

If there are unanswered questions you need answered or you perceive some vague aspects of an “opportunity” now is the time to have any of these gray areas clarified. You have too much to lose if you fail to do so.

Depending on the kind of “opportunity” you were victorious in landing, there is a number of questions you should have answers to before you go ahead and send out your works, or give your final approval for a feature/publication. If any of the following considerations remain in a gray area after you have been informed of your “success” go ahead and communicate them to the organizers, requesting clarification:

  • Safety. This is your valuable production you are trusting these people with. You should know where they are going, in what conditions they will be exhibited and how they will be handled. Also, what measures will be taken when on exhibit so that their condition is not compromised?

  • Time frame. Okay, so you have agreed to showcase my works in your art shop, book store, etc. You have even suggested that they be sold through your venue. That is great! I could use some monetary compensation for my efforts (artists do need that as well like everyone else). When can I expect to have them back (if they don’t sell instantaneously that is)? My works are my wealth and giving it to you to keep forever or in an indefinite framework is not my idea of treasuring it or putting it to good use.

  • Quality. Again, my work has been approved. Awesome! Is it going to be featured in a moldy garage? Is it going to hang on a wall with some 30 more works? No “opportunity” is worth the effort, time and money (because the artist almost always ends up having to spend some in the process of being exhibited), if the work is shown in an unfavorable framework. Special mention should be made here about the so-called “vanity” opportunities: Exhibitions and publications engineered for the sole benefit of the organizer should be rejected by the artist.

  • The bottom line. If it is not clear whether certain costs will be paid by the artist or by the organizer, go ahead and ask. This is essential, and sometimes the answer you get may reveal that the bottom line here is what is in your pocket rather than in your workshop. Make sure that the organizers are doing all of this for the right reasons. Any “opportunity” essentially funded by the artist should be considered a red flag.

  • Costs of delivery. Very often exhibiting your work means transferring it from one country to another, and then of course having it shipped back. Who is going to be covering these costs? Very often it is considered a given that the artist will be the one burdened with that expense. Nevertheless we should know better than to let this unreasonable and unfair “tradition” go on: In the case of an international call, it should be considered a given that the artworks will come from all over the world. Therefore shipping the selected works should be considered as a logistical prerequisite for the event to be held: Τhe works’ shipping costs are by nature an integral part of the exhibition’s budget. If the organizer does not pay for the whole amount of the shipping costs one should expect them to at least share the cost with the artist.

These are what I consider to be key issues one should have clarified before acting on a “success”, in order to make sure it doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.

It is okay if you applied to a call without doing your research first. It is not okay (for your benefit and that of your work) if you don’t look into the aforementioned “details” once “approved”. If the answers you get are satisfactory, go ahead and make the best of this opportunity. If the answers reveal that this is an all around ripoff, or if there are no answers, then back away.

No “opportunity” rejected by the artist for the right reasons is a lost opportunity. Choosing to stick by your standards rather than accepting an organizer’s inadequate and dubious “award” is more likely to land you an opportunity that you deserve.

Last but not least, the more we reject those that need to be rejected, the fewer “bad” opportunities we will stumble upon in our effort to get our work out there.

Did you ever reject an opportunity after you were informed your submission was successful? Is there any other question you believe should be asked before one goes ahead and acts on a success, not mentioned here? As always, I would like for these articles to serve as a starting point for a fruitful and useful exchange of experience between artists.

Featured picture: Yellow bird, colored pencils, 15 x 25 cm, 2011, Penelope Vlassopoulou

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