the brutal work of rejection


Sample infographic by Christine Wong Yap showing proportion of successful (red) to unsuccessful (black) grant applications

The artist Christine Wong Yap, on her R+D blog, has been performing a valuable public service to artists by tracking the precise odds of winning various kinds of art competitions, including grants, fellowships, residencies, awards, and festival entries. She has been publishing the results in individual blog entries that are greatly enlivened by her minimalist infographics like the one at left, in which the total number of applications is shown as a series of forward slashes, with the winners in red and the rejectees in black. The overall point is one that most artists learn the hard way: You probably aren’t going to get that grant because, no matter how good you are, the odds are hugely stacked against you. These fields of black slashes make the point more viscerally and immediately than the raw numbers (which Yap also provides), while the sheer volume of her data, encompassing some three dozen applications, helps to make the point that no matter how good you are as an artist, the numbers just aren’t in your favor. (I wrote an earlier post on this blog that makes the same point using a smaller data set.)

Most artists take these rejections so personally—and are so attuned to the necessity of never looking like a loser professionally—that they never make the results of their applications public unless they win one. This perpetuates two illusions:

  1. that most artists don’t apply for these kinds of things (since we don’t hear about all their inevitable misses) and
  2. that when artists do apply, they nearly always win (since that’s all we hear about).

As Yap writes in an article in the Temporary Art Review, she started assembling her data set a few years ago with the goal of improving her own odds by sorting the likely from the unlikely funders. I certainly hope it has worked out that way for her, but I think the public value of her data in combating the illusions mentioned above and helping artists to see the big picture can hardly be underestimated. Yap’s project also serves as a valuable antidote to the enormous number of posts perniciously advising artists that they can get those grants by following the 6 Secret Strategies of Successful Artists. Sure you’re out of the pool entirely if you can’t write a decent proposal, but doing so only lets you jump in; it’s not going to keep you from drowning.

To help make Yap’s data accessible to readers of this site, I’ve assembled a page on the odds, aggregating information from her posts with data sourced elsewhere. I’ve begun encouraging artists to send me the numbers that appear in the letters they get from funders so that the data can keep expanding and also stay current. From this combined data set, it appears that the chance of a successful application ranges from less than 1% to just over 13% (with a single outlier at 32%). But this also means that your chances of rejection range from 87 in 100 to 99 in 100. These are truly gruesome figures, and as an artist, there are really only a few sensible courses of action that I can see:

  1. Push out so many applications that the odds shift in your favor. For every 100 applications, the odds say that about 4 or 5 should be successful. If you can push out 25 a year, or 2 a month you might reasonably expect 1 success a year. (Update: Yap writes on her blog that in 2013 she put in to 34 applications and received 4, and in addition was a finalist in 3 others, which are very robust numbers all things considered.)
  2. If you can’t commit to the application numbers of point (1), you might as well stop altogether, because it will take so long for the odds to favor you that it probably won’t seem worthwhile. On the other hand…
  3. …if you’re someone who really enjoys gambling, you might as well keep going. You could get lucky.
  4. Only apply if you happen to know you have an inside track of some kind. This is very rare but not altogether unheard of.

You might also stop applying if, having looked at the time it takes to push out 100 applications, you decide you can make more money other ways. After all, the really sad thing about art grants is that they rarely top $5000 and are frequently much smaller. You would still give up the not inconsiderable prestige of these awards, but you would save yourself a world of irritation in the process.

Good luck either way!