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A few months ago I ran into an art colleague in the magazine section of Barnes and Noble. I was sneaking a furtive peek in the newest New American Paintings, checking for familiar faces and names, and getting a crash course in ‘cool painting right now.’ This experience was slightly painful for me, as my work had just gotten rejected from its most recent annual competition.

My colleague pointed to the publication in my hands and said he’d been in it a few years back. Then, casually, he mentioned that “pretty much everyone” he knew had been in it at least once. “It seems almost difficult to get rejected from it,” he declared. I dumbly nodded, wondering, what planet does this guy live on? Obviously, the New American Paintings planet, an exclusive land I have yet to visit.

I don’t apply every year, but I have definitely applied more than once. Artists tend to be more narcissistic than most, so any series of rejections will incite minor feelings of jealousy and resentment, as well as grudging respect. Whenever I’m at the magazine rack of B&N, I feel compelled to take a look. New American Paintings is not the most challenging art publication, but it always delivers a decent cross section of work, presented simply and elegantly. Besides its good looks, I know a number of painters who cite the publication as the reason their careers jumped up a notch, or how they got gallery representation. I would be full of shit if I claimed I didn’t want my work seen in that context.

While it’s easier to scoff and sneer, or wallow in shame, especially after paying a fifty dollar application fee and receiving a rejection for the zillionth year in a row, I decided to take a deeper look into the publication and the competition, to try and figure out what exactly is going on – and, ultimately, whether it’s worth it for me to continue to apply. I reached out to artists who have been accepted, rejected, and also to Steven Zevitas, the president and publisher, to gain a larger picture of the New American Paintings phenomena, and to venture far beyond the feelings a rejection letter can stir.

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According to Zevitas, also a Boston gallerist, he began the publication twenty years ago under the roof of a larger publishing company, The Open Studios Press. He took the project over in 1999, intended as a way to help emerging artists gain exposure in the pre-internet world. “In the early days, it was very difficult to attract applicants,” he admitted. “The first few issues had about 150, but, slowly, NAP has taken on a life of its own. Our basic system has stayed the same, though, it’s just grown over the years.” Zevitas estimates that the publication receives between 4000 and 5000 applicants annually, a number that has remained constant in the last few years.

As with all juried competitions, rejection is part of the package. Each book accepts just forty artists, so the acceptance rate, at four to five percent, is low. The publication publishes six times a year, carving up the country into five geographic areas, with one additional book exclusively for current MFA candidates. Let’s be honest: if there were room for all the applicants, this competition wouldn’t be worth applying to. Artists choose to apply because inclusion means something, and seasoned artists must strategize, when it comes to paying application fees.

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Why such a steep application fee? “Compared to other competitions, fifty bucks is actually middle of the road,” claims Zevitas. They upped the prices about three years ago, out of financial necessity, he says. “Overall, the financial burden is still on us to maintain a subscription base, or we don’t have a product. If we are making a good product for artists, there is going to be tremendous overhead for the juror, staff, publication, and the time involved in the competition process.”

Unlike most art publications, New American Paintings is not financed by advertising dollars. “Competition is a revenue stream,” Zevitas admits. “But the publication has to sustain itself by attracting subscribers. The MBA business model side of me says I am a horrible publisher because we are not filling it with ads, but, honestly – the project is very much a labor of love. I assure you – none of us will be retiring to Bali Hai anytime soon.” Besides himself, New American Paintings and its parent company, The Open Studios Press, maintains a fulltime staff of three, and relies on part-time consultants for the rest.

From its inception, New American Paintings has strategically attracted high caliber artists by employing nationally known museum curators as jurors. With so many applicants, the jurying for each book is an intensive experience and Zevitas assured me that it is done completely ‘blind’ – the jurors see only images, without educational background or exhibition history. “We admit the competitions are highly subjective,” says Zevitas. “We don’t claim that those included are the forty best artists of the region, but that each book is a unique snapshot created by an expert, that is, someone who looks at a lot of paintings.”

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Despite the expertise and personal taste of each juror, the magazine strives for a broad cross-section of work, so jurors are encouraged to choose a range of works from different visual categories. There are always more than a few figurative portraits, landscapes, and still lives, along with abstract and mixed media works. According to Zevitas, a balanced approach sells better on the newsstand and brings in more subscribers. In recent books, the NAP staff chooses four additional selections from those the juror dismissed, presented in the back few pages, to help to balance out each crop.

“We don’t want a one-note book,” he says. “Painting is already a niche subject, but our goal is that anyone with a cursory interest in contemporary art should be able to pick it up, to find something that appeals.” Zevitas noted that it is rare for the cover image to be abstract for this reason as well.

So what about all those rejected painters out there?

“We take the applications and process very seriously,” says Zevitas. “The fact that people use it, and apply to it regularly, shows that it is working. We know that major gallerists and collectors read it and that artists want this type of exposure.”

Amongst the ranks of the discarded, especially the repeat rebuffs, who will remain unnamed, comments ranged from “it feels like a scam” and “it’s way too expensive” to criticisms that the publication shows “middle of the road work.” However, after seeking out a handful of artists who have participated over the years, there were very few negative comments about the experience, although not all ‘chosen’ artists cite exhibitions or gallery representation outside of Baltimore from the NAP exposure. Participators comments were so universally positive it was difficult to find a reason, other than the application fee, not to apply.

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René Treviño, a NAP artist from the 2009 Issue, noted that he was able to enter without paying the application fee because his commercial gallery submitted his work. “It is a beautiful publication, the work looks great… you can send friends and family to the actual bookstore to buy a copy. I got a couple of offers to exhibit, but nothing seriously panned out, perhaps because I was already affiliated with a gallery. I have had friends have had exhibition opportunities come out of it [NAP] for sure.”

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Michel Modell was included in the NAP in 2011 south edition. “It was a positive experience and frankly it does more for me on my CV then most other things. I did research my juror and tried to edit my entries to suit what I thought the juror would like.” On the ways it affected her career, she says, “It did create opportunities for me but overall it was hard to tell what brought what to the table because I was sending out 30+ applications a month.”

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Laura Judkis was featured in The South Issue 100 in 2012. “Mostly I think it gave me more credibility with people I already knew in the Baltimore art community,” she says. “It is a very official-looking line on my resume, and I got some nice emails from strangers. I sold a small piece, too.”

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Magnolia Laurie’s work was included in NAP #75 from 2008. “It was nice to have some exposure,” she says. “But, I don’t think it had much effect on my career. I’ve never been told that was why I was being contacted or that it was where someone had found my work. Mostly there were some congratulations from friends and fellow artists here in Baltimore and many emails from NAP offering to sell me copies of the issue.”

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Lillian Bayley Hoover, whose work was featured on the cover in 2007, says she has applied five or six times to NAP and been accepted twice, also in 2011. After participating, she says, “I did get some interest after the publications and one piece sold.” Although her strategy for application is to submit her most recent work, Hoover doesn’t think of the $50 as an entry fee. “I usually pay for the subscription, because I like to see the work in each issue,” she says. “Then the entry is rolled in. In that sense, yes, I would recommend it. If one is just looking at entry fees versus rewards, maybe not.” For those who want to own the publication, the company offers a subscription plus application for $99. A normal subscription is $89, so a subscribing artist pays $10 for their application.

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Alexander Roulette‘s work was featured on the cover of issue 81. “The New American Paintings feature gave my career a jump start just as I was finishing up my undergrad degree,” he says. “I was bombarded with e-mails for the month the magazine was on the shelves, a few galleries contacted me which led to group shows and eventually representation. The exposure also led to additional features in various publications and websites, beginning a momentous chain reaction that hasn’t slowed down. I’m finishing grad school in a few months and I recently learned that I’m going to be featured in the upcoming MFA annual. I’m excited to see what will happen the second time around.”

Treviño notes, “I would totally do it again and I plan to in the future. It is nationally seen and distributed. I always think the more you put yourself out there the better, and this at least is a quality publication. Also, once the print editions are sold out, PDF versions are available. So it has a good shelf life.”

According to Laurie, “I only applied that once and was happy to get in, but I never felt inclined to apply again. That may be foolish on my part, as there are a lot of times when you don’t really know how much of an impact something is having. It is a pricey application fee and it just seemed wiser to put that towards something else. On the other hand, I have had people contact me and note that they found my work on the Baker Award site, or the WPA Artfiles. My own website and art blogs have probably had the most impact on my work being seen. I think its just the reality that they can be searched and referenced online, they are far easier to stumble upon.”

On the whole, these sentiments were reinforced by the conversation with Zevitas, who came off as humble, respectful of both artists and the market, and even a bit sentimental about the publication.

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 Cover Image by Baltimorean Lillian Bayley Hoover

 “The coolest thing about this whole project has been watching my ‘little baby’ grow up over the years,” says Zevitas. “We hear from younger artists coming out of MFA programs, that one of their top goals is to get into NAP. It’s a branding, voodoo kind of thing that I could not have predicted. Our goal is always to increase the brand and to get the publication out there.”

In the future, New American Paintings is planning a new website that will continue their mission – “finding new ways to connect creators and consumers of fine art” – and combine their current website, blog, and jurying system into an online community. There are no plans to scrap the print publication (it’s available as a digital subscription through Zinio at the same price as print) but Zevitas sees an expanded web presence as the best way for NAP artists to garner international attention.

Although it is not a perfect publication, for those lucky enough to be included, it appears that New American Paintings is an effective tool for artists to gain public attention, opportunities, and grow their careers. For those who choose to apply, my best suggestion is to research the juror, scrutinize the type of work the publication chooses, and strategize accordingly. Any juried show is always a gamble, no matter what the circumstances, but it usually pays to have a curator or critic see your work, whether you are chosen or not.

New American Paintings tends to favor bright colors, bold, flat shapes of color, with about half the works figurative, often photo-realistic, and the other half abstract. If your work doesn’t neatly fit into one of these categories, and, especially, if you make work that “looks better in person,” it may make more sense to save the fifty bucks and apply to more affordable, local and regional competitions.

* First cover image by MICA graduate Alexander Roulette