Help Desk

Help Desk: Recommendations for References

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I am often torn when applying for jobs, residencies, and grants when it comes to the references section. Is it better to list the names of people you do not know very well but carry more name recognition, or to list the names of lesser-known people you know well and would give you a very good reference? I often don’t ask people with “name recognition” (that I might know as acquaintances) because I worry they will think I am using them. How much weight does who you know carry in an application? What is the etiquette of asking people to serve as references?

Gerda Scheepers. Taras Bookies, 2009; Installation View at Sprüth Magers Berlin.

Gerda Scheepers. Taras Bookies, 2009; mixed media; installation view at Sprüth Magers Berlin.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who,” the old adage goes. To be honest, I fall victim to this manner of thinking as often as anyone else, even when I’m the one being asked to supply the recommendation. A few months ago, when a colleague asked me to serve as a reference, my initial response was, “Wouldn’t you rather have someone with more clout?” I assumed that she must have far more important people in her corner, and that in the squishy place that we call the “art world”—where social capital outstrips nearly every other cultural marker of success—a tepid reference from a Big Name would count for more than an enthusiastic endorsement from little old me.

As it turns out, I was wrong. I did a lot of research to answer your question, and nearly everyone said  that they’d rather have a strong recommendation from an informed source. My colleague had been right to ask me rather than someone with more name recognition, because she and I went to school together and have conducted studio visits since then, so I’m very familiar with her process and her work ethic. Our long association means that I can speak directly to her growth as an artist, and I can attest to her commitment.

Don’t get tripped up, as I did, by thinking that name recognition is always going to be more meaningful than firsthand knowledge and genuine interest. The Alliance of Artists Communities says, “While some major awards are interested in the who’s-who references, residency programs are interested in your seriousness as an artist, your dedication to a creative practice, and your ability to live in a close-knit community of others. If the program asks for letters of recommendation, ask your references to speak to these points, rather than simply what a wonderful artist […] you are.” Simply put, your recommender should be able to discuss your work performance and speak cogently about your talents and abilities. It’s best if they have a clear understanding of your work and can tell the story of who you are as an artist. Someone who has spent time with you can also talk about your personality and character (your so-called soft skills), which is often important for residency and job applications. Ask for references from the people who can provide an insider’s perspective.

As far as etiquette goes, the normal rules of making a request apply: Try to ask early when possible, make it easy on your recommenders by suppling as much information as you can, and thank them profusely when they say yes. Be sure to tell your references what you are applying for, and why. Along with your request, you should send details about your application and your letter of intent or project proposal, even if it’s not finalized. In my experience, most recommenders will ask you to write a letter that they can edit and submit, but if the application doesn’t require a letter (some only require a phone number for a verbal reference), be prepared to provide your recommender with an outline of the specific experience and skills that qualify you for the residency, grant, or job. Under no circumstances should you exaggerate your accomplishments (and for Pete’s sake, never lie), but don’t be bashful, either—this is your time to shine. Application reviewers really want to be convinced, so false modesty generally isn’t a winning strategy. (If you are a woman drafting your own letter, or you are a recommender writing a letter for a woman, please read this first). Is writing not your thing? That’s okay, there are tons of recommendation-letter examples online that will help you get started.

In looking for samples, I came across this piece of advice: “A person who has worked closely with you or known you for a significant period of time will have more to say about you and will be able to offer specific examples to back up opinions. Someone who doesn’t know you very well, on the other hand, may struggle to come up with supporting details. The result might be a vague reference that doesn’t do anything to make you stand out as a candidate.” Reading this, I recalled how once, while attending a conference, I received a phone call from a granting institution asking me why I thought a colleague should receive a $25,000 award. (I knew this call was coming, but didn’t know exactly when.) I ducked into a hallway, and though I didn’t have my notes with me, I had known the artist in question for over a decade, so I was easily able to talk about her work ethic, her place in the regional community, and her continuing promise as an artist. As I described her personal and professional advancements, I started to get a bit worked up. I remember saying, “[This artist] is on track to become a respected public elder in the arts community. You should give her this award, she’s earned it.” The reviewer responded, “Thank you, that’s just what I needed to hear.” Would a big-name curator with a passing acquaintance to her work have been able to make the same passionate argument for her value? Probably not. She got the award—now go get yours. Good luck!

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