How to Prepare an Artist Statement
by Kate Ware and Joanna Hurley
CENTER’s Portfolio Bootcamp, 9-24-11
Before you can write a cogent artist statement, you have to have a really well-thought-out body of work. So first we are going to discuss the really essential question, which you have to answer before you can even think about writing an artist statement. That question is,
Do you have a coherent, cohesive, fully-realized body of work yet?
If you can say yes to that question, then you should be able to write an artist statement in about twenty minutes; if you cannot, then you need to go back and rethink your project and where you are with it.
CONCEPTING YOUR PROJECT: How do you Create and Refine Your Artistic Vision?
- A bunch of pictures of a similar topic or place does not a fully-realized project make.
- Start with your PASSION
- Anyone with technical skill can make a good photograph these days, what makes an image and a body of work great is the heart and soul in it, whether it is a documentary project, portraiture, photo-journalism or conceptually-based, it’s that individual spark that sets a project apart.
- It’s also the intelligence and discernment and individual eye of the photographer that is evident in the choices that have been made, from subject matter, to rendering to sequencing.
- This is particularly vital if you have chosen a topic or place that has been done by many people previously—eg Cuba, Mexico, a war zone eg., discuss Alex and Rebecca Norris Web’s book on Cuba, Alex Harris’s book on Cuba, Wright Ledbetter’s book on Cuba
Now we will frame how we talk and think about the artist statement using the tried-and-true journalistic approach to writing a story, that is, answering this set of questions: WHAT, WHO, WHEN, WHERE, HOW, and WHY?
THE ARTIST STATEMENT
1. WHAT is the artist statement?
The artist statement is an essential communication tool that cogently expresses the primary meaning of your work and how you arrived there.
Remember, your viewers haven’t spent the last three years working on your series – you have! They are coming to it cold, and may have a limited amount of time in which to look at it. A good artist statement is the basis for presenting a cohesive, creative body of work. It is a vital tool for defining and promoting your work.
As such it should provide
- A clear introduction to the work for anyone – a publisher, your mom, a bored teenager, a gallery director, etc. If you do it right, you will assist the casual viewer and encourage those who want to know more.
- Access and clarity
- Basic information on you, the work, your process, your influences and your intention
- Insight into your passion + how it guided you to make this work
- Leaves room for interpretation; guides rather than controls the viewing experience
2. WHO are you writing the statement for?
Who uses artist statements and how?
- Museum curators
- Gallery owners and dealers
- Book publishers
All of these people review work at one time or another, and all of them use the artist statement to
- determine if the work is suitable for their needs
- figure out what the artist is up to
- help the viewer engage with the work—particularly if it is in-progress
- maximize YOUR opportunity to have a constructive conversation about the work with a professional in a position to help you realize its potential and get it out there
- choose work for an exhibition
- assist those writing about your work, often without your being involved, eg. text for a label or education guide
- form the basis of proposing an acquisition
- determine if they want to represent your work in their gallery
- determine if the work is publishable by them or someone else
Joanna writes in her article that seeing a statement on work by emerging photographers is particularly useful in any setting, whether it is a portfolio review or if she is looking at a project for possible book acquisition. Ideally the work should speak for itself, and the statement should provide any necessary amplification of the artist’s intention and process.
In a review or jurying setting, Kate usually looks at the work first but checks in with the artist statement to make sure she isn’t missing something. It is not unusual for an artist’s ambitions or ideas to be greater than what is clear to a viewer at first glance. You want to draw us in, help us see where you are trying to go, and engage us in helping you get there.
3. WHY is the artist statement necessary?
Many photographers are baffled or resentful about having to write about their work. “I’m a visual artist,” they say, “I speak in pictures.” That’s fine but you also need words to maximize the impact of your work, and to properly share it with the outside world.
If you can’t talk cogently about your work, you haven’t thought it through;
if you talk too much about it, it’s not ready for prime-time.
At what point in the project should an artist write a statement for a body of work?
Certainly this is an individual thing, but the guideline is
- when you have a group of pictures that are starting to cohere, it is time to start thinking about defining the body of work. This can be a very organic process, in which your definition of it or your proposed titled is consistently tested against the pictures themselves. The statement itself may change as the project changes.
- When the work is really done and ready to be shown to the world.
An excellent example is Dan Milnor’s blog on his work-in-progress on New Mexico:
5. HOW to write an artist statement?
Make a Draft
Writing can be difficult for almost anyone, especially when it is something so important and personal. Each person must find his own strategy for getting started, whether it is giving yourself permission to sit down and write whatever comes into your head or speaking out loud and having a friend write down what you say. Start with the objective of writing a paragraph, in language that anyone can understand, that you could use to give a quick sense of what you do. Your initial goal will be to address the following basic questions:
- What is it
- Why you made it: why do you have PASSION for this subject? (and if you don’t have passion then forget the whole thing and start over—more on this below)
- What does it mean
- How do you make it
Edit Your Draft
Once you have something basic on paper, it may help to amplify some of those basic questions, to give yourself room to elaborate a bit:
- What is your idea for the work?
- Is there a working title?
- What do you want it to mean or express?
- How do the materials, presentation, and process you are using contribute to and support your message?
- Keep checking back and forth between pictures and text to make sure what you are saying rings true.
- Test your statement of purpose or title on other people
If you took writing composition in grade school, you may remember tools such as the topic sentence and the outline format, which can be helpful in structuring your statement. Once you get the basic information in place, you can think about how to organize it. Your next goal is to turn the basic information into a statement that:
- Reads easily
- Is informative
- Adds understanding (behind-the-scenes view)
- Is too short rather than too long (1-3 paragraphs max)
You can try putting separate ideas on file cards, if that is useful, or simply use the computer to try a variety of sequences for each idea or sentence.
More tips and things to keep in mind:
- Make sure it has a strong and compelling topic (beginning) sentence to draw us in (Don’t begin with your childhood! TMI disease!)
- Is the most important information at the top of the statement?
- Use your authentic voice: Avoid jargon and “art-speak”
- Be specific not vague
- Tell the truth (the Truth is often a simpler statement)
- Read aloud for clarity and flow
- Write in the first person—but DON’T make it all about you
- Don’t overreach: don’t make your work about everything, then it will surely be about nothing
- Rather, tell us what is distinctive about your work. This is vital especially if you are working on a project in an area or on a subject that has already been widely photographed
Communication gaps – remember the old Gary Larson cartoon about “what we say to cats” and “what they hear,” where the bubble around what we say contains “blah blah blah” and the bubble for what they hear contains absolutely nothing?
What you wrote is not what I heard
Test it out against people who will be honest with you
Be prepared to rework and refine the statement