What If I Never Get Into Grad School?

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Dear BURNAWAY,
I finally applied to grad school this year—as in, applied to eight different schools—to get my MFA in sculpture, and yesterday I got the last notice in the mail. It’s official: I got rejected from every school. I’m feeling really down right now, low down. I feel like I’ll never be able to break into the art world, like I’m simply not good enough. What now?
Rejected in Little Rock

Dear Rejected,
I am pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the very prestigious Estes Institute of Rolling with the Punches. After reviewing your impressive application, our panel of 100 great minds unanimously chose you out of thousands of highly qualified applicants. You are an excellent candidate and we are honored to have you join our team. Welcome to the beginning of your existence as a strong, capable, and intelligent person.
Ah, feels good, doesn’t it? Reading all those glorious words strung together like that. I know, I’ve received countless rejection letters for writing proposals or short stories I’ve sent out to dozens of publications; sometimes all I want is to read something that tells me I’ve been chosen … for anything. Oh, to be chosen! To be lifted out of this damned obscurity! We all want it. And the more you apply for things, the more you ache for it. But you have to take rejection on the chin. It’s the price of any modicum of success, and the sooner you learn to shrug it off, the better you’ll be.
In fact, allow me to tell you a little story. A true story.
Back in the mid-1950s, two young New Orleans artists named Ted Jones and John Scott, around 15 and 16 years old at the time, decided to visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art. When they approached the museum, they were turned away. At that time, black people weren’t allowed into museums or galleries in the South. They pleaded, but were ultimately denied entrance.
Though the boys were deeply angered and hurt, they kept making art and seeking out what images they could. They both went on to study art at Louisiana’s Xavier University. After that, Jones became a successful, widely collected artist and esteemed art professor at Tennessee State University and Fisk University (where I met him). Scott became a renowned sculptor and won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1992.

John T. Scott in front of his gate at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
John T. Scott in front of his gate at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

So it was pretty funny to them when, in 1994, Scott received a major commission to design the gates of the New Orleans Museum of Art—which he did, and they kick complete ass. He designed the most beautiful abstract metal forms, called the Spirit Gates, and you can see them there today. He never told the museum about his boyhood visit, but those gates, his gates, are there now as a silent testament to the notion that no one can keep you out of a world in which you know you belong.
What Scott did was kept working despite it all. And that’s what you’ll do. And maybe you won’t get an MFA, but that doesn’t mean you won’t become a great, impactful artist. You’ll just have to find your own way there.
Furthermore, grad school is not a golden ticket to anything anymore. It can help, and it does have a certain value in society, but it’s no sure bet. The only golden ticket, my dear, is you. You don’t need a professor or institution to anoint you as an artist; you have to anoint yourself. So you didn’t get into those lame schools? So what! Take it upon yourself to show them all what a sorry mistake they made. Keep making the best work you can, stay at the tippy-top of your game, and do not let the gatekeepers keep you out.
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected] 

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.