An artist statement helps viewers understand an artist’s work, inviting them to engage with the work and the artist’s ideas, to learn something about what the work means to the artist and why it was created. The statement helps viewers enjoy all the layers of the work and introduces them to the ideas, materials, influences, and references in the work. A well-written artist statement can also be a marketing tool that grabs attention and increases interest from gallery directors, collectors, and curators.
Why do you need an artist statement?
Some artists want to fall back on the old adage, “My work speaks for itself,” but in today’s world, it often doesn’t. Your audience today will likely range from highly knowledgeable collectors and potential patrons who understand the depth of your work without prompting, to people who walk in off the street to enjoy their first gallery experience. Your artist statement should appeal to the whole range of viewers.
You want the viewer to feel a part of the work, to be touched on some level. Your artist statement is designed to give them enough information to pique their interest and encourage them to look and look again.
On a more practical level, you will need a statement to include with applications to graduate school, gallery shows, and competitions. When you send out your portfolio, it is customary to send a copy of your resume, your artist statement, and, sometimes, a short biography of your career as an artist. Everyone wants to know what ideas are behind your work, what emotions you were hoping to convey, and your motivations for making art.
What should you say about your work?
Artist statements can be about any aspect of your work. Some focus on the techniques used, how they were developed, and why they are interesting, others on the emotions felt while making the work. Some introduce the ideas behind the work or the reasons the artist wanted to make it. Still others talk about the meaning of the work or the process of making it.
The important part is to remember that the statement should be about you, your work, your ideas, your emotions, and your influences rather than about abstract ideas or huge concepts. If you are tempted to use the royal “we” when writing about your work, you will know you need to focus the ideas and speak more directly from your own experience. This does not mean that your work isn’t connected to large issues and important concepts; rather it means that you will connect better with your audience when you explain your own feelings and reactions in regard to those concepts, how you were introduced to them, or why you care about them. The best artist statements are personal and particular to the work.
You will probably want to have a different artist statement for each body of work you produce. It is rare for one to apply equally to all your work.
How do you get started?
Reading the statements of other artists can be very helpful at the start. Two useful books are Taking the Leap by Cay Lang and The Practical Handbook for the Emerging Artist by Margaret R. Lazzari. Most artists include their artist statements on their website; this is a quick and easy way to find out the approach that other artists are taking.
To start, look back at all the work you have produced in the past few years; identify what themes or ideas are repeated over and over in your work. What things have family, friends, fellow artists, and faculty mentioned about ideas or themes they see in your work? Finding repeated concepts is a good indicator of what is important to you and what you are trying to explore through your art.
Think about what new ideas are represented in your current work as well. What is different about your newest work from your older work? How have you grown and matured as a result of exploring certain themes in your work?
Which artists influence your work or which references inspire your work? Often the mention of an inspirational artist’s work, if he or she is well known, will cue the reader about ideas within your work. Similarly, if historical or cultural references will give readers the idea, they might be useful to include as guides.
How long should it be and what language should you use?
Usually, artist statements are quite short, one page or less, but you may certainly take more space if you need it. Be sure that your language is succinct and to the point; edit out any rambling ideas or unclear concepts.
It might be good to try talking it out with a fellow artist or a faculty member before you start to write; you may have trouble writing about your work but could talk about it more easily. Ask a friend to record the main ideas and phrases as you talk, and then combine those phrases into clear and concise sentences using as few words as possible while still capturing the essence of your ideas.
When you have a draft ready, put it away for a week or so, and then read it again. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to see needed improvements after a few days away from it. Editing more than once and asking others to review it will help you hone a strong statement.