Most applications—for grants, residencies, teaching jobs, even some performance gigs—ask choreographers for an artist statement. But as common as it is, this kind of writing can feel frustratingly difficult to get right.
At its core, an artist statement offers a short description of what your work is, what it looks like and how it functions within the larger dance field or arts world. "It speaks to what an artist feels their purpose is in creating their work—and what drives them to make that work: what their motivation is, what their goals are, what their mission is," says Aaliyah Christina, artist programs manager and associate curator at Links Hall in Chicago. "An artist statement lets people engage in the work—and patronize it, too."
The Dos and Don'ts
• DON'T include biographical details. The awards you've won, the residencies you've been a part of, the places you've performed—those details belong in your resumé, CV or bio. "Those don't tell us what your work looks like," says Aliza Shvarts, director of artist initiatives at Creative Capital.
• DO revise—often. "Honestly, I feel like every time you're making a new work on your own, you should revise your artist statement," says Christina, who points out that many artists don't assess their statements until they have to for an application. Keeping your statement fresh (Christina calls it giving it an "upgrade") ensures its alignment with and application to your current work. "You might forget about it and have it up on your website, and people will read it and think it's still who you are—when it's not," she says.
• DON'T get abstract. Shvarts will often read an artist statement and not get a sense of what the artist's work actually looks like, or what it even is. "If you get too abstract, it becomes too hard to follow," she says. She suggests instead stating clearly what kind of artist you are (and if your work is interdisciplinary, identify the specific frameworks you're working within and/or against).
• DO be brief. "If you can say what you do in two sentences, that's enough," says Christina, who admits that a multi-paragraph artist statement can feel busy or redundant.
• DO keep your audience in mind. How you put your artistic practice into language will set the tone for how others enter your work, says Shvarts. That might mean creating several versions, depending on whether you're writing for, say, a residency application or a grant committee. It might require code-switching, too. "The way you might put something to one constituency is not the way you'd put it to another," says Shvarts.
• DON'T overuse jargon. Though it might be tempting to stuff in academic language, you risk alienating your reader. "Make sure that the language you use is accessible for the readers you're intending your artist statement for," says Shvarts. That's not to say that all big words are out: "If there's an idea that really animates your practice, like disidentification, it's okay to retain that complexity," she says.
• DO research the way other people write about dance. Shvarts acknowledges that it can be difficult to put movement into language. That's why she recommends checking out other dance writing. "Read other artist statements. Read critical theory. Read dance criticism," she says. "People take different strategies—figure out what's successful for you."
A Starting Place: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself
When Aliza Shvarts teaches artist-statement writing workshops, she asks participants to answer these three questions, in order:
1. Who are you? That's not an existential question, says Shvarts. She means for artists to answer the question of what kind of artist they are. "Do you do performance-based work? Large-scale installation?" she asks. "How do you categorize yourself, in a very straightforward sense?"
2. What does your work look like? Is it dance? Moving image? "Remind yourself that people don't know what your work looks like," she says.
3. How does your work fit into a bigger picture? What is your work about—is it political? Personal? Historical? Identify the frameworks you're working within. "Zoom out a little bit," says Shvarts.