How To Write An Artist Statement That People Can Actually Understand
What is an artist statement anyway?
An Artist Statement is a document you will be asked to submit along with an application to a graduate program, a residency, a grant, and sometimes a show. It is usually a one-page text where you outline your artistic vision, mission, and reasoning. Most times, it will come as a cover letter to your portfolio or reel, contextualising and framing samples of your work.
Writing an artist statement is one of the hardest tasks you will have to do as an artist. You can’t help but think it does not represent you properly, or it is cheesy, easy, and uninspiring. If you are lucky, though, you’ll have to write many different kinds of Artist Statements throughout your career. Keeping an archive of these will be helpful for when you work on your retrospective, as they will outline key moments in your artistic development ;)
What should it look like?
Depending on where you are applying to, you will be asked to submit anywhere between 60 - 1000 words. Usually, anything that can comfortably fit in a one page A4 piece of paper on single space at a 12 point font will do.
It is a good idea to write a long, all-encompassing Artist Statement your first time and then use that to create smaller, targeted versions for each of your subsequent applications. If you are submitting to a gallery, your statement might be printed on the catalogue or put up on the wall next to your work. It might also be included online or in literature relating to the exhibit along with your short bio.
What should go in it?
The structure can be anything you want but usually includes
a short introduction
a rationale of your work in the context of other artist’s work or contemporary currents within your area
a description of a particular piece or group of pieces and how they relate to each other
a paragraph about where you are in your career at the moment
and a conclusion reiterating and extending on the main themes and questions you have outlined.
What should it sound like?
The tone you want to strike is honest and unique. You want your personality to shine through, both the personal and the political.
Since this is a description in defence of your work, it is the place where your art and yourself meet on paper. The statement, in a way, is the only place where you represent your work, whereas most of the time your work represents you. So take this chance to be specific, teach us how to see your work and how to understand it. Here is a chance to introduce the language you want others to use around your work, what words do you want associated with your art?
Related Reading: How To Explain Your Art To People
So where to begin?
A couple of years ago, I found myself tasked with submitting an Artist Statement for a graduate program in Performance. As a performance artist, most of my work is non textual, material-based installations or durational pieces using found text or interviews. At the time, I reached out to my friend and colleague Kate, a visual artist with experience writing grants and applications. This is the advice she gave me on how to begin:
Think about your statement as a work of art itself. Perhaps you're not a writer, maybe you're a visual artist, a performer, or a musician, think about what makes your work yours, and then use that to make a piece of writing.
Now, take a look at your work.
If you have a portfolio accompanying your application, lay out the pieces in front of you. If not, gather some work you feel proud of and look at it.
What are some words that come to mind?
What are some visceral reactions you have to it?
Try to stick to sensorial words. What does it feel like?
Write these down. Look up the synonyms to these words and see if there are other words that sound more specific.
How have others described your work on blogs or articles? If nobody has written about you yet, have a studio visit! Invite a friend or colleague over to take a look at your portfolio and offer some adjectives, images, or questions that come to mind. Engaging in a conversation about why you do what you do, and why you have made certain choices can help you identify your key drives in your practice.
Make an outline
Maybe you work instinctively; maybe you hate being asked to explain your work. But thinking about your Artist Statement as an opportunity to make a piece of writing can reframe your aversion to writing about yourself and your work.
If you’re not a writer, and even if you are, try out some writing exercises to get you going!
Start with some free writing or journaling. These can help you get rid of all the usual first draft nonsense, the easy adjectives, the corny references, the cliche structures. After a while, once you’ve written your subconsciousness away, some of your inner thoughts and real feels will begin to pop through.
Once you have an idea of what you want to say, move on to how to say it! Play around with outlines, brainstorming and mind mapping. Rearrange ideas, find more interesting synonyms for easy adjectives, and search terms you are not sure why you used. Here are some do's and don'ts for your artist statement.
Related Reading: What To Put On Your Artist CV When You Don't Have Much Experience
Look towards artists you admire
Think about artists you love that have influenced your work. Why do are you drawn to them? You might like someone’s technique, someone else’s politics, another person’s career, and some other artist’s themes. Identifying exactly what it is that you are inspired by can help you outline how you sit within the larger context of their artistic practices.
Ask yourself: Whose shoulders am I standing on? Who's ideas have I borrowed? Who am I challenging with my work?
Activate your statement
Think of your work as doing something, whether it is extending, contradicting, questioning, or investigating a particular issue, question, subject, material, etc. This will push you to write an active statement. Using active verbs will drive your writing and keep you from non-linear and flowery statements that merely describe an idea.
Find real examples
Look at examples! Go to your favourite artists’ websites and see how they write. Take note of the kinds of words they use and the form of their writing as well as the content. What kinds of verbs do they use? What tense are they in? How many adjectives do they use to describe their work? How long are their sentences? A good exercise could be to imitate an artist’s style. Writing a statement in the tone of visual artist 'X' and then another one in the tone of performance artist 'Y' might reveal to you where you sit in between styles, and what feels more true to your aesthetic.
Think of it as a CV
If you are applying for a job or grant, your Artist Statement is not a CV or resume. Think about it less as what you have done so far and more as why you have done it. Your Artist Statement should be a rationale, an active invitation to piece together your work based on your intentions, your journey, and your influences.
Write it like an academic essay
If you are applying to a graduate program, your Artist Statement is not a writing sample or essay. Those are writing pieces showcasing your academic work and ability to write analytically. Your Artist Statement is an opportunity to show your personal voice and style, to blend your artistic work with your research and academic inspirations.
Turn it into a bio
If you are submitting work to a show or gallery exhibit, your Artist Statement is not your short bio. Along with your statement, you will usually submit a short 60 - 100 word bio outlining your studies, main gallery exhibits, and upbringing. Your Artist Statement might reference some of some items in your bio but leans more toward framing the work in the exhibit, a chance to speak artistically, not just factually. It also focuses on the present and the future rather than the past.
Check out this quick video by Thomas Evans on how to write an artist statement
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Valentina is a Colombian artist based in London. She is currently finishing her MA in Performance Practice as Research at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and is interested in issues of race, representation, and contemporary performance. Before coming to the UK, she completed her undergraduate degree at NYU Abu Dhabi.