An essential theme of this book, and most books on advancing a career, is about the personal contacts and friends that you make. Those contacts are often made through inbox messages on social media or email. In both cases, the writing that you do in those initial stages will make all the difference. I would try to imagine how you would feel if you received the letter you are writing to someone. What if someone sent you an inbox message that said, “My show will be up until May 15, here is the link.” Does that sentence attract you and want to make you click the link or go see it if you have never heard of this person before? I would think probably not. The reason is that it is the opposite of personal. It is a directive masked as an invitation. I get messages like this often. But when I get a message that says something more personal, like, “Hi Brainard, I am really enjoying your book, and have been finishing up my website as you suggest. There was one issue I had with using an email newsletter program and integration—is there an email program for newsletters that you would suggest?”
That is something I would tend to answer because it is a question that does not require me to review a whole site to see what is going on. If you were writing to a curator, you could also say something similar, such as, “Thank you for the great work you do, I just saw the show you curated at X space, and I thought your choice of artists mixed with scientists who approached the same subject matter was innovative and inspiring. Mixing two fields of study in this way add to both, and as an artist myself, I found it inspiring.”
In that note, you are not asking the curator for anything, just making them aware that you are sensitive to who they are and what they do. Since you did not leave a website, it becomes even more sincere. Anyone who reads that will probably respond with a thank you at the least and will most likely look at your Facebook page as well. Even if they don’t, in your next letter you can ask a question, or even, gently, send your website, or preferably talk about your work before sending it and ask if they would like to see work. Essentially, I am emphasizing writing that is personal and meaningful and not a quick note with your website link.
Everyone has a story to tell, a story about who they are and why they do what they do. Even if you were not an artist, everyone has a passion of one kind or another that they could talk about. In crafting your story, which could be similar to what has been called an elevator pitch, you need to tap into some kind of passion. Since you are most likely an artist if you are reading this, you will be writing about your art and your life. How you end up telling this story in a brief biography or an artist’s statement is of great importance, because it is how you will be initially perceived and perhaps even remembered.
Earlier in the book I reproduced the stories that my wife and I sent about ourselves for the Whitney museum curator when she asked. That was my style and how I approach things. In the interview with Allard van Hoorn, he is telling his story and it revolves around a specific theme that we can all relate to. He talks about wandering and trying to find out what he really wants and who he would like to become. That alone is something we can all relate to and draws us in. Then he describes what eventually became his statement or theme on the basis of his experience with Aboriginal culture and the idea of Songlines, which was a method used by that culture to navigate or map existing structures and paths in the world. It is a concept that in itself is fascinating, steeped in myth, dreams, and a culture that is a mystery to most Western minds. He tells it in a straight-forward manner, no unnecessary theory or mystifying, yet it is interesting and memorable while weaving a line of thinking throughout all his work. It also is something we can all relate to in some form; it is very much about connecting with our environment, the people and buildings around us. It is also sincere. No matter what your story is, that is how easily it could be presented, as a straight-forward account of who you are, and how you became that.
The Form of Writing
That is the form I would suggest when writing about yourself and your artwork. Choose something that is memorable and reach deep into who you are and who we are as human beings. The idea of creating a mystery around yourself does not have to be as obvious as what Joseph Beuys was doing in his statements and texts and work, but that is of course valid, too, if that attracts you. Many artists like to keep it short and sweet and use a piece of writing over and over for statements, but the problem with this is that it can sound too smug, and leaves little room for exploring your ideas. Part of the form your story takes should be about exploring. Like the Van Hoorn example, his idea can be continuously explored in many ways. This is extremely important because it is not about just one idea, it is about how you continue to discover new ways of articulating that idea over and over again.
As I write in the next chapter about talking to curators, the idea of structuring your conversation and approach will rely heavily on how you write about yourself and your interests. A teacher once told me that artists can often be heard saying something like, “I wish people understood me for who I am, not what I appear to be.” His comment on that was that we are in fact only what we say we are. We are not the secret thoughts and ideas we have not yet articulated, we are our words. We are our pictures as well, but to understand art we must understand the artist, and words must be used for that. Thus, your writing should be a clear explanation and exploration of what it is you are discovering and looking for in your work. It should tell the world what you cherish most and what you are seeking to understand. It should tell the world why it is exciting to be doing what you are doing.
It is acceptable to break the rules to some extent here. That is, you can be quirky in your writing, but you must be able to communicate clearly. For example, if you are going to create a poem for your artist’s statement, it should be a poem that is narrative, or something that is understandable and somehow relates to your work. Most of all, the overtone of your writing should be about an idea or ideas that you are interested in. If not ideas, then perhaps topics or cultural reflection of some kind.
When in doubt or stuck, look at the writing of other artists. Look at the brief biographies of artists that have recently won grants or awards. When artists win awards or are given them without asking (like the MacArthur genius award), there is always a brief synopsis of the artists’ work when announcing the grant or award. Those pieces of writing are great examples of how an artist’s work can be summarized in a way that makes sense to the general public and can be easily understood. Usually that is done in less than a paragraph.