Thoughts on...


by Holly Chang

Rejection is a hard pill to swallow. I like to tell people I get my feelings hurt “professionally.” Because when it comes to being an artist, sometimes it feels like rejection is hiding around every corner.

I started to track my rejections last year and it really put things into perspective. I had never tracked what I was applying to before and to be honest it felt bleak.

In 2022, I applied to 77 opportunities which included exhibitions, grants, artist residencies, jobs, prizes, and curatorial opportunities — you name it, I applied. And of those 77 applications, I only received 11 of those opportunities. That means I have a 14% success rate and had 66 rejections. That’s more than one rejection per week.

Now, I want to preface this by saying that I am a bit unusual and apply to more applications than most people. I think that has a lot to do with the nature of my work which is freelance. Sometimes I found myself with more time during the month because I was between contracts so I would be applying to 15 plus things. Other months, I would struggle to put in one application or even finish. So, I don’t think that I am the greatest role model for the sheer bulk of applications I am putting out there.

I believe because of how much I get told “no”, I’ve learned a lot and want to share my thoughts and insight here. Of course, this is solely from my own experiences and perspectives so maybe this will be useful to you or not at all.

I would say right from the top that applying yourself and putting yourself out there is never a waste of time. Rejection can feel aimless, but I want to share examples from my life to illuminate things you may have not considered before.

In 2019, I started to curate exhibitions and work with other artists, and this is when the Middlebrook Prize came into my consciousness. The prize is given to one Canadian curator under the age of 30 to curate an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Guelph and this opportunity really appealed to me.

So, I decided to apply for the first time in 2020. With that application, though, I was met with a rejection email. I thought to myself: “It’s my first time applying, of course I wouldn’t get it on the first try.” So, I tried again in 2021. Again, another rejection. 2022 rolled around and I tried again. Rejected. At this point, I was feeling disgruntled.

The application process is long - it takes time. I’m talking letter of intent, exhibition proposal, outreach programming, budget, writing samples, proposed layout, possible artists, and support materials. After the first year, the application became a bit easier because I had all these materials already prepared. But I was still spending a lot of time tweaking the exhibition every year.

In 2023, I applied again for the fourth time, and I was amazed to find out that I had received the prize. I had tried for so long and I had finally done it. After being rejected every year for 4 years, I got it.

Upon the acceptance of this award, I reflected on all those years I had tried and failed. The process of applying taught me so much. Every time I would put in a new application, I would resubmit with a new understanding of the process. My new submission was better because of my growth as an artist over the course of the year. I would try to not let the rejection paralyze my growth/artistry, accept it as part of the process and learn from it as I moved on.

I have changed so much over 4 years, and I felt the timing of this award was much more aligned with my career and understanding of curation. This was something that I really wanted so I was prepared to apply every year until I turned 30 which is the cut-off.

In my reflection, I realized that the secret of all of this was asking for help. After the first two rejections, I looked at who was receiving this award and what they were doing, and I decided to reach out to one of the previous winners. And that winner provided me with knowledge, perspective, and an approach I had never considered beforehand. Asking for help really changed my trajectory and I think that was a huge contributing factor in my success.

Another takeaway from this experience is that opportunities usually come back around. There is no harm in applying again next year. You take all your experiences and knowledge the subsequent months and take another stab at it. And if it’s something you really want, you keep trying until you get it. But this is easier said than done.

Speaking candidly, rejection is something that can be so embarrassing to talk about or even admit. The way society is shaped has led us to believe that when we're rejected, it's associated with failure. That something we have done is wrong or at fault. I don’t think that this is the case at all for rejection.

Rejection as an artist/arts worker is so fundamentally part of our process. It is woven into the fabric of what we do every single day. Sometimes the difference between rejection and acceptance is marginal and the jury will be splitting hairs.

I’ve heard so many stories of juries struggling to pick between one person and another. This is another example of how rejection is not a reflection of your skill, talent, or artistic merit. Sometimes there is only one space, one opportunity, and it might truly be innocuous. You, like I at times, were simply not the person they chose that year.

The process of rejection is tedious, and sometimes I feel like I am in a constant state of rejection. It’s become like water off a duck’s back. I think, from all these years of trying and failing, I have thicker skin, but I still have really big feelings and the onslaught of rejection can get to me. I am always reminding myself that what is meant for me is for me — and that rejection is almost never personal.

Though, it’s hard to wrap your head around the “it’s not personal” thing because what we do and what we make is so intimate; it comes from us, it is something that we produce from our hearts and minds. I like to remind myself that the work I create is for me, and that if it gets rejected, then that work was just not meant for that opportunity at that time, and I can keep proposing/trying until someone bites.

All in all, rejection is hard, I cannot deny that. But for me, my love of the arts is stronger, and rejection has never stopped me from what I want, which is to be an artist/curator and to work/collaborate with others. If you haven’t had your feelings hurt too bad, I would urge you to keep trying and getting your name out there. Rejection is just another opportunity to grow as an artist.


1. Applying to opportunities is never a waste of time – it can always be turned into a learning experience and something to grow from.

2. Try not to let the rejection paralyze your growth – it should be accepted as part of the artistic process.

3. Look at who is receiving these opportunities – did this residency pick 8 painters to be in the cohort but you are a photographer? Looking on social media or websites for arts organizations when they announce who received the opportunity might illuminate something to you about your rejection and possibly how you could tweak your application next time.

4. Ask for help when you need it! Most of us are in the same boat, it never hurts to ask peers and friends for help with applications because ultimately, we are all in the same boat.

5. Opportunities come back around – a “no” this year might be a yes next year or the year following.

6. Rejection is not a reflection of your skill, talent, or artistic merit – your favorite artists also get told no. Just because something is rejected does not mean it wasn’t good or even amazing.

7. What is meant for me is for me – sometimes things get rejected and other opportunities come up instead. Something bigger could be waiting for you.

Rejection is almost never personal – it is hard to not take things personally, but a rejection is not a criticism of who you are as a person.

9. Keep proposing it until someone bites – keep adapting your idea and passing it to different opportunities and eventually something will happen.

10. Rejection is just another opportunity to grow as an artist – rejection is part of the process and something to embrace.

Animated gifs by Winona Julian