A Tale of Two Rejections: When the Art Jury Says “No”

By Niki Hilsabeck in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

If you plan to show and sell your art, rejection is a part of life. And, no matter how many times you experience rejection, it still stings when it catches you off guard.

So in the spirit of encouragement, I thought I would share two up close and personal experiences I had with rejection. The first one left me devastated; the second was almost pleasant. The lead-up to both experiences was fairly similar, but the outcome of each couldn’t have been more different.

The first rejection

A few years back, I decided I wanted to be part of a community of artists in a nearby city. They had a unique space complete with studios, events, and year-round tourist traffic. It was a bit of a drive for me, but I thought I could make it work. I had just lost my mom to cancer a couple months before, and wanted to throw myself into a new career direction with my art.

I submitted my paperwork, got my pieces together, and enlisted the help of a friend to carry my work on jury day.

When I arrived, my stomach was already in my throat—there was also a large marathon going on in the area at the same time, which meant I had to negotiate parking with security (I have parking anxiety at any crowded event, so you can imagine my nerves at this point).

After I parked, we lined up and waited to be allowed into the jury room. Once in, I received a kind but pointed tip on my frames—they should have been finished on the back with paper. Still, I had high hopes, because the artist who helped me set up was a pastel artist herself, and she complimented me on my work.

We left the room and spent the day keeping ourselves entertained in the area, planning to return at pick-up time for the results. I had my toddler daughter to distract me (plus a friend who came along for the experience) but I was still a wreck by the time 4:00 rolled around.

The big moment arrived—I walked in planning to open what I was sure would be an acceptance letter. Instead, I opened a rejection slip, complete with scores and comments. For this jurying, we were competing with each other for a select few opening spots, and there were about 25-30 other artists in the room.

I looked around to see who got accepted (we weren’t supposed to but I wanted to know what they were looking for!) I saw a young woman happily writing her membership check, and took a quick peek at her work: five paintings, all the same tones of green, each with slightly different abstract shapes. I gathered my paintings with the help of my friend and stomped out, my little daughter in tow. I spent hours later pouring over the scores and comments, wondering where I had gone wrong.

It took me a long time to recover emotionally from that experience. I second-guessed my work. I even looked up the names of the judges, to see what their work was like (maybe it was a matter of taste?) Ironically, some of my highest scores were for “presentation” (as in frames) the only thing I’d been corrected on when presenting my work. I was confused.

At some point, I accepted that I needed to learn from the experience, rather than lament it. I came to feel embarrassed at my reaction in the jury room, wishing that I’d had the self-control to go around and thank the judges if they were there. They took the time to evaluate my work. They had the integrity to deliver their comments kindly with their own names on the papers, and in return I’d left in a huff like an angry teenager!

I decided to put on my “big girl pants” and take what I could from their criticism, even making a few changes in my newer work based on some of their comments. Lo and behold, as a result, my art did improve. It took me many months to realize that I’d gotten a valuable gift from the whole experience, even if I didn’t handle it that well.

I also realized that my heart was in the wrong place when I set it on joining this particular group. I thought that if I joined this group of artists and had a place to take my work to sell, my artwork would take me away from my personal problems.

Instead, I realized that I needed to keep art in my life to help me as I healed from the death of my mom, and also share it with my little daughter, who needed my full attention. My family and emotional well-being had to come first.

In hindsight, I’m not even sure that I would have been able to keep up with the expectations had I been accepted by this particular group, especially since just over a year later we welcomed my newborn son into the family.

The latest rejection

Fast-forward a few years; I’ve had some success with awards and sales. It’s another jury day (different town, different setup, and a much bigger pool of artists!) I’d always been particularly curious to try this experience, and the show sounded like something I could participate in since it was a long-term summer event.

I got my paintings ready, packed my daughter into the car and set off for what I was sure would be an enlightening day (even as I mentally prepared for the rejection).

There were the familiar obstacles: the long drive (much longer than I’d anticipated this time), the huge crowd in the parking lot, and the organized chaos of artists delivering their works. This time, though, I took it in stride, and decided to just spend the day down on the beach with my daughter after the drop-off time.

We relaxed on the sand until it was time for pick-up, and I headed back to the jury room, fighting weekend tourist traffic to get back to the location. We waited in a long line to pick up the scores, and when I received my score, it came up a few points short of the requirement to get into the show. Ouch!

The volunteer who handed my paper was ultra-sympathetic, but I thanked her cheerfully and got up to find a restroom for my daughter. I wasn’t angry. I hadn’t made any big plans this time, and I’d actually been looking forward to a little feedback from a blind jury of accomplished artists. Unfortunately, all I got was a score this time, with no breakdown of points—which was understandable, considering the sheer volume of artists who had applied in person and online.

Although I was exhausted on the drive home (seriously, I should have researched the drive time to this destination a little better), I was content. My curiosity about the jury day for this particular event was satisfied (I still plan to go in the summer, and see what it’s like as the show is running). I’d gotten up, gone through the process, and even gotten a nice day at the beach out of it. Most of all, I was much more comfortable with how I’d reacted to the rejection.

My daughter is old enough to watch how I handle disappointment, so I set a much better example this time (I’m trying to teach her that failure and disappointment are a part of life, and it’s how you handle them that matters). It had definitely been an enlightening day.

The thing about rejection is that we mistake it for something personal. My art is all over the place, getting mentally rejected by the people who see it online, in shows, and even in my kitchen as I work. I’ve sat in my booth at enough fairs to hear all kinds of comments.

Rejection is annoying, and it can affect some of our options, but you are ultimately in control of how you react to it. My reaction to that first jury day rejection had been devastation and anger. My reaction to the most recent one was to move on and prepare for the next jury submission (this one will go in the mail, thankfully!)

The highs and lows of acceptance and rejection can wear on any artist. At times, success seems to open the door for more rejection, but I find that being mentally prepared for both helps.

My advice: if you get feedback with a rejection, see if you can use it to improve—if it’s not useful, move on. Rejection may cause you to stumble, but if you get back up and start over, no one can stop you from walking your artistic path!


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