Your portfolio is a valuable tool in your arsenal as an artist, and it is often the first opportunity you have to impress and influence those in charge of making the decisions and choices that affect you and your work. By developing and preparing a professional portfolio, every artist is taking a step towards ensuring her or his own success.
In general, a portfolio consists of various presentation materials representing both the artist and her or his work. Some artists will have a very detailed and complex portfolio, but the basics almost always include: an artist résumé and bio, an artist statement, work samples, press clippings or reviews of artwork, and, if appropriate, a query or cover letter. I see the artist's portfolio as an evolving assortment of credentials that can be modified and tailored for any particular audience. While each artistic discipline has its own conventions and standards in preparing a professional portfolio, all artists can benefit from the information and suggestions included below.
Artist Résumés and Bios
Just as an employment résumé outlines employment history, experience, and skills, an artist résumé details the accomplishments, endeavors, knowledge, and abilities of an artist. There are many common conventions that all professional résumés should follow. Remember, an artist résumé is not an “artistic” résumé. You want to present yourself and your accomplishments in a professional manner.
Artist résumés are organized by headings or categories that outline your particular artistic activity. Under each heading—listed by date with the most recent event first—list and then summarize the necessary information. Headings should stand out and can be bulleted, bold, underlined, or italicized. The specific categories you include depend upon the artistic discipline with which you are involved.
Typically, an artist résumé is one to four pages in length. Most artists have two versions of their résumé prepared: a long version and a one- or two-page version. Your résumé should be easy to read, typed, and printed on quality paper. Résumé paper should be muted in color. I prefer to see résumés printed on white, off-white, or ivory. Font size should be no smaller than 10 pt., and should be a font type that is easy to read. I find it helpful to include a date in the upper right-hand corner of my résumé. The date helps remind me when I last updated my résumé, and it also lets others know if my résumé is current.
The artist résumé is different from a curriculum vitae or artist bio. The c.v. is a record of all professional activities within academic careers, and is intended for use in academic situations only. An artist bio, while containing information similar to the artist résumé, is presented in a different format than the résumé. An artist bio is most often written in the third person and in paragraph form, and it highlights the information present on your résumé.
Many artists are downright intimidated by the thought of writing an artist statement. We have all read too many bad artist statements. In addition, I think artists hear a lot of different advice when it comes to writing about their work. The best statements I have read are written by the artists themselves. Statements written by those with a commercial interest tend to be more marketing pieces than informative statements—which in certain situations is appropriate. So again, know your audience.
In some instances you will be asked for a general artist statement, and in other circumstances you may be asked to provide a statement about a particular artwork. The best tip to start with is to limit the length of your statement to one double-spaced page maximum. Your artist statement should discuss both the conceptual (your ideas, concerns, and how they manifest themselves in your work) and technical or formal aspects of your artwork. Your statement may include information on any influences you feel inform your work. Keep it simple, concise, and straightforward.
Your work samples are the most important component of your portfolio. Work samples can range from slides and photographs to manuscripts, disks, and videos, depending on your artistic discipline. You have seconds to impress a panel, juror, agent, producer, or other professional with your work! Ideally, most artists should have their work documented and/or edited professionally.
All artists should supplement their work samples with a work sample description sheet. This sheet should include all pertinent information such as titles, dimensions, materials, date completed, length of performance, where preformed, your role in the performance, and any other technical, synoptic, or descriptive information that can inform your work. If submitting work samples to a competitive application process, ask the sponsoring organization how your work will be viewed, how much time the panel or judge will spend reviewing your work samples, and what the selection process is like. These types of questions can help you select the appropriate work samples to include in your application. It is the administrator's job to answer these types of inquiries and to assist artists in preparing their applications.
Other Written Materials
Artists also use their portfolio to apply for specific projects, funding programs, residencies, or other competitive opportunities. In these circumstances, you may be asked to submit a project description, statement, proposal, or cover letter. These written materials should be focused and relate to the requirements of the particular opportunity. Be passionate and sincere in the presentation of your work, and always conclude with thanking the panel, juror, and/or organization for their time and consideration.
As a starting point, request previous recipients’ proposals from the organization to which you are applying. Oftentimes a description or the actual proposal are posted on organizations’ Websites or included in previous years’ press release information. Don’t be afraid to ask for examples. The big benefit in applying to lots of various opportunities is that you will get better and more efficient at preparing your statements and proposals.
General questions to address in these types of written materials include:
- Why are you the ideal candidate?
- What will you bring to the program or project?
- What technical qualifications, abilities, or personal assets can you contribute?
- How will you benefit from the opportunity?
- How will the opportunity advance your career as an artist?
- What will you do with the money? How will funding be used?
As I stated at the beginning of this essay, your portfolio is often the first opportunity you have to impress and influence those in charge of making the decisions and choices that affect you and your work, so remember that presentation matters. Spelling, obvious grammatical mistakes, and a sloppy presentation will make you appear unprofessional.
Be sure to proofread your entire portfolio carefully. You may find it beneficial to have a friend or colleague read over your written materials and provide suggestions or input. Be sure to label all the contents of your portfolio. If you are mailing out your portfolio, send it in a suitable container that will protect your materials in transit. If you expect your portfolio returned to you, include a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you state in your cover or query letter that you will follow-up the distribution of your portfolio with an in-person visit, telephone, or email, make certain you do so. Also, update the materials in your portfolio regularly. There will come a time when you will need to edit out old or irrelevant information. Your portfolio should evolve along with your development as an artist.
Many artists today are supplementing their physical portfolio with a digital version either on the Web or presented on CD-ROM or DVD. Consult with other artists in your field concerning new conventions and ways to represent yourself. Keep an eye out for portfolios you feel are successful or include interesting components and materials. I find it helpful to keep a collection of these items for my own reference. Also, make note of what you don't like. With more and more artists graduating from undergraduate and graduate programs each year, artists must take responsibility for the development of their career by preparing a professional portfolio that stands out among those of their peers.
Adams, Max. The Screenwriter's Survival Guide: Or, Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War. New York: Warner Books, 2001. Topics include pitching, the etiquette of “getting read,” and managing your relationship with an agent. Adams also provides lists of screenwriters’ directories and organizations, a generic release form, format examples for cover pages and query letters, and other useful resources.
Alterman, Glenn. Promoting your Acting Career. New York: Allworth Press, 1998. A compact but comprehensive guide to making it on stage and screen.
Frumkes, Roy and Rocco Simonelli. Shoot Me: Independent Filmmaking from Creative Concept to Rousing Release. New York: Allworth Press, 2002. Shoot Me is an irreverent, enticingly human look at the challenges of making one’s own movie, as well as a bold response to the DV-driven hype of fast-and-easy success.
Grant, Daniel. The Business of Being an Artist. Third edition. New York: Allworth Press, 2000. Packed with real-life anecdotes from successful artists, The Business of Being an Artist provides thoughtful and timely advice on how to develop a career and overcome the pressures that arise when art becomes business.
Lang, Cay. Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998. One of the best books on how to begin developing a career.
Lazzari, Margaret R. The Practical Handbook for the Emerging Artist. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001.
Primarily designed to help visual art students make the transition from art school to their own practice, this book is also an excellent resource for practicing artists.
Lyon, Elizabeth. The Sell Your Novel Toolkit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking in. New York: Perigee, 2002. Elizabeth Lyon offers novelists the wisdom of her experience as an author, book editor, writing instructor, and marketing consultant. Step-by-step, she details what editors want, what questions to ask them, and how to develop a marketing strategy.
Smith, Constance. Art Marketing 101: A Handbook for the Fine Artist. Cincinnati: F & W Publications, 2000. This book contains information about résumé writing, portfolio preparation, marketing, legal concerns, contracts, and other important business topics for artists. While this book is intended for visual artists, most of the information is relevant to artists in all disciplines.
The Website of the American Music Center has a special resource page that lists publications and programs focused on professional development for composers.
The website of the College Art Association has a great section on career development that includes recommended conventions for the artist résumé as well as the curriculum vitae. The College Art Association is a membership organization comprised of individuals who by vocation or avocation are concerned about and/or committed to the practice of art, teaching, and research of and about the visual arts and humanities.
Allworth press lists over 75 titles targeted to artists working in all artistic disciplines. Most titles focus on career building skills and business or technical topics.
Susan Myers is a visual artist and metalsmith. Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, including at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY; Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY; Craft Alliance, in St. Louis, MO; and The Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, PA, among others. Myers has taught 3D foundations and metalsmithing at Syracuse University and metalsmithing at the State University of New York at Oswego. Myers received her M.F.A. from Syracuse University.
She is actively involved in the Society of North American Goldsmiths, a national arts organization, co-coordinating emerging-artist portfolio reviews for its annual conference. She has written several reviews of art and contemporary craft for Metalsmith magazine. Currently, she develops programs and information services for artists as the program director at Artist Trust, a Washington State not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to support and encourage individual artists working in all disciplines.
Article appears courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts, www.nyfa.org