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?
“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.