WHY, WHY, WHY?? How to Write a Stronger Artist Statement

I’ve just finished the final edits for an article I wrote for FiberArts magazine. You can learn more about the magazine here.

The article is about exhibition proposals–the “pitch” you make to a venue for a solo exhibition. It’s scheduled to run in the September issue, so put it on your calendars!

I think it’s going to be a slightly different take on similar articles. I actually went “behind the curtains”to see how such proposals are evaluated. I got to see firsthand which ones had pizazz and which ones didn’t–and more importantly, why.

Coincidentally, I also just finished my first proposal for public art. When a federal building project is budgeted, a certain percentage of the money involved is dedicated to providing art to decorate it–an amazing concept, and one that has long interested me.

You can read more about public art here.

Usually the scale is out of my league, and many designated sites are not conducive to fiber (outdoor installations, for example.) But this one was of manageable size. Best of all, I instantly felt it was a good fit for my artwork.
Why? Good question.

I’m not being facetious. When it comes to submitting a great proposal, writing a press release, or creating an astounding artist statement, WHY? is the very best question you can ask.

I found this out a few years ago while teaching a workshop on press kits.

My message was, the whole point of a press release is telling your story and getting it published in a newspaper or magazine.

So how do you tell a compelling story? I started with the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why, and how). That’s easy for most people.

But everyone was getting stuck on “why?”

They couldn’t get past the cliches we fall into when we are afraid to dig deeper.

“Because I just love color.” “I just love fabric.” “I dunno why I do it, I just like doing it.” “It’s so much fun!”

Even more telling, no one got WHY the “why” is so important.

I had a flash of insight.

Why?” is “Why do you care?” And “Why should I care?” (Sounds harsh, but true.)

To temper the process, I would just keep asking “why?” until I got a strong answer.

So I just asked “why?”

I asked “why” over and over and over, until we got to the heart of their story.

It’s simple. And it works.

I’m reading a terrific book called MADE TO STICK by brothers Chip and Dan Heath http://www.madetostick.com/ I was delighted to read the same technique recommended to get to the “core idea” you are trying to sell to people.

I use “sell” loosely, because whatever your product is–a movie, a car, a cleaning service, a painting, a charity–you have to make some connection with your audience in order for them to want it.

That connection, that “story”, can be about value, prestige, entertainment, convenience, whatever.

For most of us, “Why?” will get you to that story faster than the speed of light.

Here’s one example. Years ago, a friend who works with young adults with special needs complained about one former client he worked out with regularly.

His complaints were funny and amusing. But his experience sounded like so much trouble, I wondered why he continued to spend time with this young person.

I kept asking him why. He kept making vague excuses, none of which made sense. I kept saying, “But if this person is SO ANNOYING, why do you continue to do this??”

Finally, our friend burst out, “Because these people are different. They’re a little weird, they’re a little goofy. It can be scary if you don’t understand. In our culture, this tends to set them apart–they get marginalized, they get put aside. “

But the conditions that make them seem “odd” also give them amazing qualities. They have strengths and opportunities to offer us. Their “differences” are just part of the full spectrum of being human.”

I’ve always felt that, if only we could learn to be a little more understanding, a little more tolerant, then all our lives would be so much richer.”

As I heard this story, I felt myself determined to be a little more understanding, a little more tolerant.

The “why” had come through. My friend had made that connection by sharing that true story.

FWIW, in my book, one powerful story comes when we are motivated to be the best kind of person we aspire to be. To see common ground with others, and thus chose to act out of love, courage, passion and grace instead of fear and hate and pettiness.

So here I was with my first public art proposal. I found many of the same principles I’d learned from my research on the exhibition proposal article applied. But the biggest hurdle for me, as I said, was simply “why?”

WHY was my artwork a good fit for their proposal?

Once I answered that question to my satisfaction (and hopefully theirs!), I felt I had a good, strong proposal. I sent it off knowing I’d made my best effort.

Try this, the next time you need to really connect with an audience. Before you write your next artist statement, or submit your next exhibit proposal. Before you do your next show. Before you are interviewed by your local newspaper.

If this gets hard, ask a trusted friend to ask you, and tell them to push until they get the real answer.

Ask yourself “why”.

But ask it more than once.

Keep asking yourself “why?” until you get to the very heart of what motivates you.
Don’t stop til you reach the truth.

Trust me, you will know.

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8 Comments

Filed under art, artist statement, business, exhibition proposal, marketing, public art proposal, self promotion, writing

8 responses to “WHY, WHY, WHY?? How to Write a Stronger Artist Statement

  1. Thanks, Luann! I have been struggling with the “why” for a while now. When I really connect with somebody else’s “why”, it’s very powerful, and I feel like I come up short in that department. I’m NOT sure why my work matters…
    gotta sit with this one!

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  3. allthingsmetal

    Well? Did you get the gig for the public art?

    Elaine

  4. Nope. It was long shot, and I knew that going in.
    A friend who used to work at the facility love, love, loved my proposal–said it was ‘spot on’–but warned me that the commission would probably go to a more local artist there. (It was for a park building in Alaska.) She said there are many talented fiber artists there with limited opportunities to market and sell their work. Such a wonderful opportunity would probably be awarded to one of them.
    And it was.
    I like to think I made them hesitate, though! :^)

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  6. This was a wonderfully written and inspiring article! Thank you so much for sharing and yes…the question ‘why’ is so very, very important not only to the artist, but for the artist to connect with their audience.

    I still ask myself that very question and I know I create my art because it is all I know…it is what makes me, me. That is not a deep enough answer for others though and I know I still have a long way to go to really get the deeper answer to my ‘why’.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing!

    -ST

  7. Pingback: WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? Sometimes There’s a Bigger Story. « Luann Udell

  8. Hi, Luann. A fellow artist gave me a link to this article and encouraged me to read it. She is a fiber artist and really enjoys your blog. Thanks to her you now have a new fan.

    Love your writing style and your topics. Even though I’m a metalsmith, I found inspiration here as well as your post regarding the hosting of an Open Studio. They are a lot of work, and I do them every month. Thanks for some additional ideas on keeping things fresh!

    Thanks again for the inspiration, and please keep up the writing. Your work is gorgeous, too!

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