Writing about your work, other people’s work, or events in the art world is a great way to add your voice to the global art community. Writing is one of the most valuable skills an artist—or anyone for that matter—can have. Being able to write convincingly and understandably can lead to employment opportunities, grant awards, and respect from colleagues. Like a muscle, writing takes dedication and practice, and if you don’t exercise your writing skills, you are bound to find yourself floundering and frustrated when you do have to submit a piece of writing for a publication or proposal. Often galleries rely on artists to help write biographies, press releases, and other marketing materials. Being prepared with a well-written artist statement can make this task easier and assure you that your work is properly contextualized and discussed.
Perhaps the most valuable reason to start writing is that when you publish your work, you can actively participate in the larger dialog surrounding a particular set of ideas, or shift the way an artist’s work is perceived.
Your writing practice can take many forms. Many artists supplement their income by writing critical essays or reviews in local and international publications. Artist-writers can also simultaneously curate exhibitions and exhibit their work. Artists who have an understanding of writing in the art world self-publish editioned books and produce popular zines.
You can build your writing skills by keeping a journal or sketchbook to clarify thoughts about your work. You can also build your writing skills by constantly updating your artist statement and applying for grants. Keeping up with these writing exercises will help you better understand your work and prepare you to talk with an interested curator or collector.
What Arts Writers Do
The world of arts writing is as vast as the art world itself. Arts writers can find avenues to publish their work in many places; for example:
Museum exhibition texts
Art theory essays
Informational texts for artist handbooks
Self published books
Writers communicate to a variety of readers in newspapers, magazines, catalogs and publications, websites, gallery handouts, and books. Some writers freelance and keep their own schedule. Other writers are on staff at large publications and write exclusively for their employer. Some writers choose what they want to write about and others get assignments from editors.
If you freelance and choose your own publications, you can usually write for a number of different venues. This typically means you are self-employed and should develop sound business skills and have a business license. If you are employed full-time as a staff writer, you may get health insurance and other benefits.
Some publications will take outside submissions from writers they have never worked with, and others will not. In order to find out which publications will accept new writers, visit their websites and take note of their submission guidelines and deadlines. Be sure to ask your writer friends about various publications they have written for and ask for a referral. Similar to our previous advice when approaching galleries or museums, never send unsolicited materials or cold call a business. This will only annoy if not anger the staff, barring you from writing for them in the near future.
Job Skills Needed
Interest in art and a background in art history
Have a strong point of view, not a passive voice
Ability to write clearly
Ability to understand publication guidelines and writing formats
Ability to write for target audiences
Thorough knowledge of the subject matter at hand
Ability to research on the fly
Ability to pay close attention to details
Ability to write for a variety of readers
Ability to use word-processing software
Ability to understand complex or challenging ideas and concepts
Willingness to stand by your opinions and ideas in a public forum
Ability to work alone much of the time
Ability to be flexible and adjust to changes in project scheduling
Ability to function as a self-employed writer and willingness to always be looking for new writing jobs
Where to Begin?
The first thing potential employers and editors will look for when considering a writer is a collection of writing samples. This can come in the form of published works or unpublished works. You will be in a better position to get the job if you have published some of your writings, but don’t worry if you haven’t published yet. The best way to get published is to keep submitting work to receptive publications. Start in your local community. Consider writing a review of an exhibit for a community newspaper, a small newsletter, or a community-focused online publication. Consider writing for one of the hundreds of art blogs currently in circulation on the Internet, or start your own art blog. You can get your start just about anywhere.
Once you have written a few pieces, select the work that best showcases your writing skills and demonstrates your unique viewpoint, as well as your ability to write various-length articles on different subjects. Assemble these work samples in a word-processing document and make sure to insert page numbers. Your future editor will let you know how she/he wants to receive your work samples. Follow her/his instructions very carefully. Sometimes editors or educational publications want to see actual hard copies of published works. This is why it is very important to always save at least three copies of every work of yours appearing in print. One copy is for your archives, the other is for your immediately-available writing portfolio, and the third is a backup. You will also want to include a letter of introduction and maybe a statement about your viewpoint as a writer and what you intend to accomplish in your writings. Often a prospective editor will be more than happy to look at a web-based portfolio of your work, so consider publishing your writings on online.
New writers may receive very little pay for their work. A five hundred word review of a show which took a dozen hours to write can fetch $70 or less. Some writers are paid by the hour, some by the piece, and some by the number of words in a project. Your experience and demand as a writer will also determine your rates.
Most writers write small reviews for little pay not because it pays the bills, but because they love to write and because the more their work is published, the more they can charge down the line and the more in-demand they will be for lucrative projects, like catalog essays, curatorial gigs, and longer essays. It is a good idea to weigh your options and choose what works best for you.