Suggestions for making art competition applications more competitive.
This past week, I served as one of three jurors for a residency program. Over the course of 7–8 hours, I reviewed 116 applications and selected my top five picks. The odds for being one of my picks were one in 23, or 4%, of applications. (The organization will consider all three jurors’ picks and make final selections.)
I am sharing my notes as a reminder to myself—I fall short, wait to the last minute, and submit underwhelming applications—as much as it is an attempt to offer transparency and feedback to fellow artists. It’s also a win-win: better applications helps artists put their best foot forward, and helps jurors be more focused and efficient. Obviously, this is highly subjective; different jurors and programs have different approaches.
I’m incorporating these notes into a similar article I wrote two years ago, when I was a juror for another residency program.
Context: Jurying’s a tough job!
It takes a lot of time and offers little to no pay. In 2015, I spent about 16 hours reviewing 65 submissions, and rating and submitting scores. I did not receive a stipend.
If jurors only get through, say, 12 or less submissions per hour, you can see how quickly they can get crabby and find minor inconveniences disproportionately annoying. In fact, this week, I noticed that being annoyed by bad applications made me happy to reward well-prepared applications. I tried to be objective, but the emotional relief of reviewing clear, organized, compelling applications may have swayed my favor.
The lists below include many prohibitions. Don’t be discouraged. Accept that before your application can be seen as competitive, it first has to be free of major flaws. Then get to work!
The best applications are well-oiled machines.
I was most excited to see a clear artistic voice: an intangible whole that is the sum of smaller parts working together:
- Well-documented bodies of art that demonstrate consistency and an advanced practice.
- An artist’s statement that jibes with the work samples and speaks to intellectual engagement (in other words, that you’ve been thinking clearly and rigorously about what you make for some time).
- Work samples that show that you can pull off what you say you want to do in your proposal.
- A proposal that is ambitious and considered, demonstrating an accurate grasp of your capacities, areas where you need support or are taking risks, and program offerings.
In this week’s jury process, the organization sent a link to their Submittable account. They didn’t send any criteria, so I came up with my own based on my experiences as a past artist-in-residence there and former juror elsewhere:
- Clarity and strength of proposal: up to 3 points
- Ability to make the most of the opportunity: up to 3 points
- Work samples: up to 10 points
- “Diversity”: up to 1 point
I awarded one bonus “diversity” point for artists whose work, either in content or execution, provided a perspective that isn’t often seen in the art world. It was not awarded purely on demographics. In the end, though, that bonus point mattered little.
This Is a Competition: Be Competitive!
Generally I prefer cooperation over competition, but applicants should embrace a healthy sense of competition in order to make your application rise to the top.
With a total possible score of 17 points, only two applications received 15 points. Four received 14 or 14.5. Eleven received 12-13.5. Many pretty good applications plateau’ed at 10-11 points.
I’m including this chart to emphasize: This is a competition.
The distribution of points, on a scale from 0 to 17 possible points, of 116 applications. The top five applications scored 14 to 15 points.
Most of the applications scoring 10 or 11 points didn’t achieve excellence across the three primary criteria. Their proposal, fit, and work samples were just all right, but nothing special. (A few were just uneven: one application disappointed when great work samples were paired with a very low-ambition proposal that didn’t warrant a six-week residency.)
Applications that scored 7 points or less generally were not competitive across the basics—work samples and an artistic voice and vision—to garner a merit-based award. Fortunately these are all improvable with effort and dedication.
Overlook the written portions at your peril. For efficiency, jurors may start looking for reasons to eliminate applications. When I started seeing the points distribution, I realized that my top five picks would score at least 13 or 14 points. That meant that applications that scored low in the first two criteria didn’t have a chance of catching up in the third criteria, work samples. In these cases, I viewed at least three work samples out of due diligence and principle. Applicants should be aware that jurors only have time to skim their applications, which may extend to their work samples.
Sometimes applications are exercises in getting better at applications (which is worthwhile). To improve one’s competitive edge, try matching or exceeding the time, effort, focus, rigor, and work that competitors are investing—in their applications and their practices.
Write proposals that are specific.
When possible, propose specific projects, goals, outcomes, and benefits. Discuss materials, techniques, scales or area of inquiry that distinguish your practice. Why are you interested in this particular program? How will the experience benefit your practice, or advance your work? Try to show how your goals fit with the program’s unique qualities or equipment. This requires you to research and understand the program, and synthesize it in your proposal. Misalignments result in lower rankings.
Don’t rehash truisms about life for many artists, like:
- Wanting more time or freedom from day jobs.
- Wanting a change of scenery, or to travel or network in other cities.
- Wanting a community of artists for feedback.
- Passion from a young age.
- The high cost of living in your city.
- Not having space in your apartment to make larger work.
Plenty of deserving artists need support! General artists’ needs don’t speak to this specific program, and what you offer in return.
If your proposal includes an interactive or relational element, demonstrate a capacity for collaboration and some thoughtfulness about exchange. Why are you asking people to contribute to your project? Why should they?
Writing proposals is challenging. It’s one of my least favorite parts in the application process. It’s hard to tailor a project you’ll feel passionate about in 12-24 months that aligns with the organization’s goals and program. But proposals matter because they help jurors identify who will make the most of the opportunity. Many organization’s worst nightmare is to award an artist who squanders the program.
Convince jurors that you’re a fantastic fit. Make accepting you irresistible.
Craft a superb artist’s statement.
The best statements outline a unique, specific position, and coheres with the work samples submitted. If you tailor your work samples to a particular application, you may need to modify your statement, too. If you describe a certain media or theme, make sure it’s represented in the work samples. It feels schizophrenic to read about works we don’t see, and see works that don’t jibe with what’s stated.
Take the time to write and re-write. Do not simply list random thoughts about your practice in a paragraph form. If your conceptual intent involves word play, keep it short—don’t list noncritical allusions. Make it compelling. Help jurors understand your work, and get interested in you, your practice, and what you might do.
I often find myself asking one of two questions when reading statements, and neither is positive. The first is “How?” How does the art support or reflect the statement? When those two don’t mesh, it suggests that the artist is unclear about what he or she is doing. Luckily, what reads as a fairly major artistic problem can usually be resolved with the power of re-writing. Also, jurors may be practitioners in different artistic disciplines than your own. Help us understand how you do what you do.
The second question is “Why?” If you state that an idea or media is important to you, explain why. It’s fine to be arbitrary in your own creative process, but help other people care about your work by letting them know about what motivates you.
Be clear, concise, and coherent.
Minimize jargon, personal asides, and creative brainstorming (save that for your sketchbook). Sometimes artists take slack, too-cool-for-school attitudes because of a philistine sentiment that “Good art can speak for itself.” I don’t believe that you can truly understand an artist’s practice by seeing 10 JPGs, even if their work is primarily visual. That’s why up to 37% of the possible points I awarded this week were based on ideas and intent.
If your writing could use improvement, ask friends or mentors, take a class, or get reference books. You’ll probably have to write for the rest of your professional life, so you might as well improve those skills—and your chances of making your applications more competitive—sooner rather than later.
Proof-read and edit.
Make every word work. If a word is not adding anything new, omit it. If you can shorten long sentences, do. Know that jurors are skimming. Make it easier by summarizing main points, preferably at the start of every paragraph.
Work samples should convey rigor in concept and craft.
There’s an art to making art, and then another art to presenting it. Get good at presenting your art—photographing, color correcting, selecting, sequencing, and contextualizing. Doing so conveys that you’re a professional, and furthermore, that you’re motivated, responsible, and committed—the qualities of someone who will make the most of an opportunity.
Reviewing images this past week, I enjoyed the inclusion of well-done exhibition photographs. They revealed scale, ambition, and a higher level of professionalism.
Unfortunately, the obvious must be stated and repeated: never disregard work sample requirements.
Heed limits on work samples!
If you must link to long videos, indicate which segments jurors should watch. Segments should total less than the limit.
If you have the option to link to images, link to them, not to HTML pages with several images or projects on them.
Don’t underestimate how much bending the rules will hurt your application. Your submittal may be screened out in the first pass before jurors even see it. If it isn’t, your score may be diminished, because it’s disrespectful to jurors’ time and unfair to other applicants. It’s taxing for jurors to police when applicants over-submit materials. (See above for the number of hours I invested—and that is just to view the capped samples!)
Technical tips for linking to images and videos.
The more time people spend looking for your work samples, the less time and focus they will have for your actual work.
Don’t assume anyone will “tidy up” your submissions, such as download your large files, locate specific images in a link, or cue your videos and cut them off at the 10-minute mark. Jurors may have to navigate this themselves, and if it is an inconvenient process, they will be looking at your work samples in an agitated state. Here are some specific tips:
- Avoid Flickr. It’s free because ads can appear between slides. Find a different service. If you don’t have a website, get one—it’s never been easier or cheaper—or get a Tumblr, blog, or Google Drive account.
- If you use Vimeo or YouTube, post brief contextualizing information. Specify if it’s finished work or documentation. And make sure it’s not password-protected.
- On your own website, if you want jurors to view specific images, link to them directly. Don’t send a link to a portfolio page and then instruct them to scroll to the Nth image. (Unless your site is flash-based, JPGs are assets with their own URLs—on Macs, control-click on an image and select “open image in new tab”. Right-click on PCs for similar options. If you can’t manage that, then try Google Drive.) Do not let your domain registration slip up. Make sure links aren’t broken—load the page in your browser, and then copy the URL from your address window.
Work samples weigh heavily in your scores. Not being able to access them will be a deal-breaker. It’s a waste of everyone’s time—artists’ included.
Use captions intelligently.
Contextualize your work concisely and consistently. This is the first time jurors are viewing your work, so give it a proper introduction.
Don’t assume we can tell what we’re looking at, whether details, installation views, process documentation, photo-documentation of artworks, or fine art photography. Spell it out. Help us construe your role within a collaborative project. Notions of authorship aside, jurors need to know what we are looking at, and what parts you did.
If you’re a visual artist using your work samples to submit a lengthy (100+ words) text or webpage, provide a brief summary (2-3 sentences) in the image caption.
Special notes for project-based, performance, or social practice artists. Be sure to give context and explain what’s going on. What is process? What is product? For social practitioners, articulate the relational aesthetics at work. Explain how these projects relate to any 2-D or 3-D work samples.
If this advice sounds persnickety, that’s because it is. Consider accomplished athletes: experts in the rules of their sport, they would never ask for exceptions like more time or another do-over. In practice, they tirelessly hone their abilities and tactics so that in competition, they can execute with precision to score and win. They get that the competitive edge is very thin.
Artists’ applications are our proxies for scrutiny. By attending to every detail, artists can advance further in competitions.
Resilient athletes also set a variety of goals to evaluate improvement. They do not look solely—as so many artists (myself included) do—to the crushing, all-or-nothing, external validation of winning or losing. Break down competition goals into smaller, more manageable parts, such as completing applications, finding appropriate competitions, and getting feedback to improve work sample sets and statements.