7.27.2009

Marketing Mondays: Enough With the Reference Letters

Fine, but leave me out of it
(Image from the Indianhead Federated Library System, Eay Claire, Wisconsin)

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I just received my third request this month to write a letter of reference. One was for a very talented young artist, another was for a colleague who has a full-time teaching position (and thus more salaried time off via sabbaticals and vacations than I will ever have), and the third was from someone who likes my blog and thinks I'd write "a kick-ass reference letter," never mind that I don’t know this person from Eve.
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With the exception of the young artist, my response was a polite No.

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Am I being a curmudgeon? A bitter artist? A horrible human being? I don’t think so. As a working artist I have very little free time in my day. Those of you who know me understand just how true this is. When I do sit down to write, it’s to work on my blog, which is my gift to the art community. Individual letters of reference or recommendation require time that I simply do not have. I feel so strongly about this subject that I no longer apply for grants requiring these letters (if I apply for a grant at all) because I don't want to add to someone else's time-and-labor load.

Let me be clear: My issue is not with the artists who ask for letters to be written on their behalf; they are simply jumping through the requisite hoops. I want to see the hoops eliminated. This can only happen at the institutional level, because as generous as funding institutions may be to a small number of lucky individuals, they are placing a huge burden on a large part of the art community. So . . .


Dear Grant-funding Institution,

Enough with the reference letters already. Aren't an application, j-pegs, slides, resume, statement, personal narrative, project proposal, budget, and financial records sufficient to help you select a handful of artists from the hundreds, possibly thousands, who will apply to your institution for a grant/scholarship/fellowship/residency each year?

Yes, the artists are expected to put in many hours to create a submission package, I get that, but why require them to drag others into their (typically fruitless) quest? Each application for your largesse requires three to four letters of reference. Let's calculate the time spent on those letters, shall we?
. Each applicant: 4 letters
. Estimated number of applicants: 500 (less for smaller institutions, more for larger)
. That's 2000 letters
. Each letter takes at least an hour to write
. That's 2000 hours
. In other words, that's 50 weeks of unpaid work—a year's job—for each round of applications to your institution alone

Now let's multiply those figures by the hundreds of institutions that are being applied to annually, each with those requisite letters. Let's say for the sake of argument that there are 500 grants to which artists apply each year. If 500 artists apply to each of those grants, we're talking 100,000 letters and thus 100,000 hours of labor to write them. Of course no one person doing is all that writing, but the combined hours add up to 50 years' of unpaid work--a lifetime of work.
Each year.

Who's writing these letters? Teaching faculty, arts administrators, artists, dealers and curators, mostly.
. Many professors are now adjunct, so they’re writing these letters on their own time, not during office hours. These people are typically juggling multiple part-time jobs to pay studio rent and health insurance; they need to be doing work that will pay those bills
. Arts administrators are already up to their eyeballs writing grant proposals for the funds that keep their institutions afloat
. Most artists are themselves working outside the studio 20-40 hours a week; any time they take to write a letter of reference cuts into their studio time
. The average dealer works 10 hours a day five days a week, and then spends her "time off" delivering work to clients and making studio visits

. Maybe institution-affiliated curators can take the time to write letters, but independent curators--i.e.people without a regular income--are very likely seeking grant funds for their own projects

I think the appropriate path for you is clear: Abolish the requirement of reference letters.
Judge each applicant on her or his own merits, as some grant-funding institutions already do (bless them!). Grants provide essential support to needy and/or talented artists, but not at the expense of others whose needs and talents are being endlessly tapped to help you make your selections.

Respectfully,
Joanne Mattera

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Readers, have you been asked to write reference letters? How have you responded? Have you asked for reference letters? Has it bothered you to do so? Does anyone feel as strongly as I do? Have I gone too far? Feel free to respond anonymously if you're still in grant-application mode, or if you're uncomfortable with the topic but have something to say..
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49 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah! I think you have said/written (very well I might add) what a great many of us think.

When I read submission guidelines, I gringe when I come across 'include 3 reference letters.'

Donna Dodson said...

I have asked for letters and I have written them and they are a chore to ask for and a chore and a half to give. Not sure what it adds to the application packet/selection process since it's kind of a formulaic process. It would probably be time better spent selecting applicants based on merit first then interviewing a small round of finalists and at that point, with today's modern methods, request for 3 phone or email references that the selecting institution follows up on. In terms of public art, I can see the value of a reference before granting $100k-$1million in addition to seeing the completed work.

Joanne Mattera said...

Donna says: "I can see the value of a reference before granting $100k-$1million in addition to seeing the completed work."

Right, but most grants are in the four and five figures.

lee said...

I agree with you Joanne. My husband is an admin/edu at a certain time every year, the requests start coming in. It's difficult for him. It's always on his own time. He hardly ever says no. He has a hard time remembering who everyone is and if that's the case, he says no.
As for me, if I come across those requests, I cringe so badly that I back off. Call me cowardly, I'll answer.

Oriane Stender said...

Joanne, I second that emotion. I hate asking for letters so much that it often stops me from applying for things. If they must ask for references, the best thing, as the arts writers grants from Creative Capital did, is to ask for the contact info for your reference people IN CASE they want to contact them for more info on the applicant. It is much easier to ask people to just give their phone number and email address than to ask them to write a letter. And presumably, the institution only contacts those references once the applicant passes a few rounds of elimination.

I agree that it's one thing to make the applicant jump through hoops, but spreading the hoop-jumping more widely is just not ok. I would like to think that a certain point one reaches a hoop-free zone. Probably aint gonna happen, but hey - some people believe that things will be better in the afterlife or heaven - I'm just trying to ascend to the hoop-free zone.

Oriane Stender said...

At the gates could be the inscription, "Abandon hoops, all who enter here."

ps my word verification was "rants." Nuff said.

Donna Dodson said...

Re: jumping through hoops and the value of references? On that note, I'd love to know the value since most references are positive- is it a political value- to see who the applicant knows? Don't you usually have to be invited to apply in order to win? Just wondering out loud...

Philip Koch said...

Yes the reference letter tradition is a thorny problem. The chair of the Painting Dept. at the art school where I teach gets a blizzard of requests (almost all of which he honors) and it takes him a pile of personal time.

It is sad as the applicants are stuck having to ask for letters that in most cases will never be read.

How to change the tradition is anybody's guess. For self preservation though, I recommend we all learn the art of writing really quickly. My wife who runs a program in a hospital is an absolute master at this. I have learned from her how to blast through such tasks while still producing an effective letter. Still, I couldn't agree more with Joanne's position.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Considering how long it has taken them to go from slides to jpegs, I would not place too much hope on this changing.

Joanne Mattera said...

Stephanie,

The slides-to-jpegs issue is a mechanical one. I'm sure that grant-funding institutions had five or more carousel projectors set up to be able to show a set of five images by one artist, followed by a second set of five images. The cost of a good digital projector is well over $1000, which means laying out $5000+ that could go to arts funding. I'm guessing that's why the change took so long. (Also, digital projection does artists no good, frankly. The image quality is abysmal: flat, muddy, even on the best projectors. I like to think that was a consideration, too.)

On the other hand, the abolition of letters could take place in a snap.

Nevertheless, I appreciate your sarcasm. A nice little jolt of it bracing any time of day.

Eva said...

Wow, you said it all for me. Just recently I did not apply to a couple of things because the letters bit came up. I can only ask so many people so many times to do that. In fact lately, I just won't do it. If it were for a job - meaning regular income - I would. But not for a grant for 4 thousand bucks.

And I don't like writing them anymore either. My friends have asked me from time to time. I wondered if they were even that vaulable. A lot of it seems to be about who-you-know, not what you do. And the people who write these letters, they are just like the rest of us - fortunes wax and wane, things change and some people, gee, don't like other particular people....

You're right - enough already!!

Steve said...

Out in the business world we use to ask for references, call the references, and I often felt surprised, no “SHOCKED”, by what they had to say. A reference letter really serves no purpose, and the only way some people may give you insight is with a direct phone call, and an interesting line of questioning. In the arts, however, I don’t see any purpose for such an inquiry. All of the other material should give you sufficient insight into the career of the person who is applying for an exhibit, grant or residency. You are not checking out the person to determine whether they are compatible with you, your team, and working in your business for 5-10 years. Waste of time and waste of paper!

Jennifer Sánchez said...

the reference letter has stopped me from applying to lots of things too. and like Eva, you can only ask so many people so many times. but when i have in the past, i write the letter and let the person tweak and enhance as they see fit; that helps to take the burden off. i see no reason why as a person being asked for a reference that you can't request that from the person asking - it's only fair. i wish all grants/funding/residencies etc would go the route of the bronx museum of art AIM program application - ALL ONLINE BABY!!! ...and no references. i agree that the work w/the help of a descent artist statement should suffice.

nic said...

I am so glad you had this post. I absolutely loathe letters of recommendation. It should be enough to ask a lot of the artist who is applying - let alone to apply and have to involve three separate people into something as involved as writing a good recommendation letter. I understand the "hoop" of having to find someone who will actually write benevolently of your work - but seems like a lot to bring in so many people into your own pursuit - which many committees tack onto so many things that as an artist you would apply for. Shows, grants, schooling, residencies.....

i just wish it was enough to do something completely on my own when applying for these things. it has kept me from applying to things so as not to drag so many other people into my own personal pursuits.

Donna Dodson said...

It seems like a Letter of Reference acts as a filter more than as a validation to an artist's credentials in that it filters out the applicants into those who are willing to get them and those who aren't although I'm still pretty sure all letters of reference are positive, whether they be written by the artist themselves or by another person altogether.

Joanne Mattera said...

Donna says: "It seems like a Letter of Reference acts as a filter more than as a validation to an artist's credentials."

As we see from these responses, it certainly does act as a filter. The institution is then wasting the time and energy of three or four other people--per applicant. That's unconscionable!

Kristine said...

I have asked for letters to be written and I always feel awful about it. I know I am asking someone for valuable time to do this task. I, like you, have stopped sending and this is the reason.
Thanks for this post. You hit the nail of the head.

Sean said...

Well articulated as always, Joanne. Seems like the start of a campaign against this sort of thing. In the meantime, what do you think about charging a reasonable fee for a letter? Or what about having the requester pen the letter which you then sign? Would it be effective to maintain a generic letter template and just fill in the blanks - the "Madlibs" approach?

Joanne Mattera said...

Sean,

I think many artists write their own letters, which the official letter writer then edits and/or puts into her own words. Still, it takes time.

I don't know about charging a fee--I certainly would not feel comfortable doing that. Relatedly, there are people who actually prepare the grant application and narrative materials for the applying artist. I don't know what their fee would be.

Bottom line: the search for "free" money is anything but free for those who are pressed into service to write letters, though in the case of grant-writers-for-a-fee it can be a nice little business. And, of course, for the lucky ones who have figured out the right combination of image, information and reference, it's a nice little windfall.

diana green said...

Last year I was denied admission to a PhD program, in fairness, a particularly difficult program to enter.
However, they couldn't tell me I didn't get in.
My application was considered incomplete because one of my recommendation letters never arrived.
Because my application was incomplete, policy did not allow them to communicate with me.
So it wasn't until I contacted them after waiting two months past the deadline that I found out- unofficially- that I wasn't admitted.
I'm sure there's a purpose for reference/recommendation letters. At its best, it helps the vetting process. But as you correctly point out, the procedure seldom functions at its best.
I don't favor wholesale elimination of the practice, but I do agree that it's high time its utility, especially in the arts and humanities, was reassessed.

Chris Ashley said...

Dang, I was just going to ask you... let's see, who else do I know? 8-)

Lynette@lynettehaggard.com said...

Hmmmm lemme see. Would I ever submit an unfavorable letter of reference? What is the point, really? I suspect that the majority of these letters never get read, just filed.

I agree that if the funding is substantial (over 100K) that references would be helpful, but otherwise are a formality and waste of time.

GO JOANNE!

Joanne Mattera said...

Diana,
Your story is just terrible. I'm so sorry this happened to you! So not only does the process put a dreadful burden and responsibility on the reference writer, the ramifications to the applicant can be devastating.

Lynette,
You have inspired me. When I have some time I will contact a few grant-funding institutions to ask why indeed those letters are required. One of the great things about having a blog is that I can revisit a topic any time, providing a link to the original post. So, to be continued . . .

Meanwhile, folks, please continue to leave your comments. If there are any grant funders reading this blog, please tell us your side of things.

Rebecca Harp said...

I was recently contacted about creating and offering a course at my alma mater. Instead of asking for reference letters, they asked for the emails of the referrers and had a little chat this way. Perhaps this is a slightly better way to do it as an email response can be approached in a less formal and time-involved way than a formal letter. Or is it just the same?

Sharon Butler said...

Hi Joanne,

As the Coordinator of the Digital Art & Design Program at Eastern Connecticut State University I recently conducted a search for adjunct faculty.I feel the same way as the rest of you about the reference letter issue, so I asked for email and phone contact info instead of letters. I prefer talking by phone, which is the least time consuming, but sometimes I make initial contact via email. One of my hires recently fell through, so I'm still looking for someone to teach a basic digital skills course (Photoshop and Dreamweaver) for the Fall semester. Please pass the info along if you know someone who might be interested. Send letter of interest, resume, link to website, and contact info (email and phone) for three references to twocoatsofpaint@gmail.com. Thanks!

Best,
Sharon

jami said...

I wonder how many people send in a bad letter of recommendation, you would think organizations would realize this. If a recommendation is really necessary, it should only be used for the finalist and then I agree with Steve a direct call is the only thing that makes sense. I cringe at the thought of bothering colleagues and am happy to oblige, when they ask me to write the letter for them to sign.

Joanne Mattera said...

Sharon and Rebecca bring up a different issue: the academic reference. I think that's a bit different, as there are typically fewer people applying for a particular position, and the references will only be tapped for the finalists. So rather than hundreds of letters being written at the outset, just a few will be written as the candidates are whittled to a manageable few. Am I correct in this assumption?

That said, I applaud you, Sharon Butler, for the way you set things up for your job search. The phone call and e-mail format remove the stiffness of the genre. The phone call, especially, allows you to ask the questions you wish to have answered, as opposed to the letter writer's having to divine what exactly is the right thing to say.

Readers, do we have any candidates for the job? (Just don't ask me for a letter . . .)

Hylla said...

Years ago, many private schools in Manhattan announced that they would not accept any letters of recommendation for applicants. The letters they got were statements that the child's family was well enough connected or rich enough to donate tons of money to the institution. Those were bribes that were not even thinly veiled. Schools got sick of it.
I suspect the people who were asked to write those letters every year for the many children of friends hoping to enter the best kindergartens also served on schools' directorial boards and they got tired of being asked, so the process changed.
My little revolt in the 80s was to let my daughter write her own letter to the schools, stating what a long list of important people would say if they knew her. She was brutally honest about herself and the schools that actually read the letters wrote her back their appreciation. They made their judgements on the right criteria.
For adults, contacting previous employers should suffice. Do they care more how you will perform or who you know?

Eva said...

The idea of a filter is interesting and sad because it is true: it does keep very qualified people out. It does it in this way - when you first start out, you are all gung ho and getting letters and applying for things. As the years go on, you are applying less and less because the system is so exhausting and sometimes pointless. But this collides with a time when your work has grown and you've matured as an artist.

Anonymous said...

You are correct,Eva. But look who the gung-ho young artists are asking for reference letters. The tired, hard-working, mature artists who are still struggling to earn a living.

donna said...

Many thanks, Joanne. Wow, if you could get some change on this issue that would be amazing. Many good comments on the issue so far, which I agree with.

Being an adjunct professor myself, I occasionally get asked to write letters for students, whether for admission to a four year program (I teach in a community college) or for financial aid. It does take up my time and I only agree to do it if the student is outstanding enough that I can write an honest recommendation.

When I have to get one for myself, I always cringe, and have a few people who are close enough to me and my work that I know can write a meaningful letter- but there are only so many friends like that- and I kind of have to think, well, I have to save that person for [fill in the blank of harder to get in residency, etc.] And then you wonder how much it really matters anyway, and is it just a huge waste of time. Supplying references makes so much more sense- isn't this the way it works in the real world?

Anonymous said...

I have always questioned the significance of reference letters. I am even more skeptical now after being turned away from 2 grad programs despite being told directlry from the graduate of admissions that my references were the best they received that particular year.

Too bad that my references weren't actually my art!

I of course thought my work was strong enough, but apparently the selection committee chose to work with other artists, that's fair enough...but even my glowing references seemed to be completely in vain.

I'm just sorry that I wasted my friends and my professors time.

Next year I hope my work actually says what it should, because apparently references don't matter.

Casey

Ian Thal said...

I'm a playwright, so I have to submit my plays to competitions, theatres, and workshops. In most cases, it is basically understood that the play (in terms of the writing and the subject manner) will speak for itself and will be the main (though not the only factor) involved whether the institution decides to enter a working relationship with the playwright.

Well, one day I was investigating a workshop for playwrights that involved a two-week residency, but they wouldn't even look at my play without a letter of reference!

S.A. said...

Bravo, Joanne, for this post -- this is a thorn in the side of everyone involved -- everyone hates asking, being asked, writing, reading. Your calculation about time wasted is very convincing and I think quite accurate. It is an outdated bureaucratic convention that sucks the vitality out of the arts funding process. I do think that the reference letter is slowly fading in favor of email/phone contacts, but not quickly enough. It seems it is still regarded as a necessary legitimacy, when actually it is a colossal distraction.

Anonymous said...

Having applied successfully for several grants, programs, foundations, and residencies over the years, I have always found the letter of reference an interesting point of debate. I understand it. It does qualify the applicant partially. (Meaning, it gives a specific point of view on the work or the person applying, but may not address any issue completely.) But each institution has different qualifications (academic, theoretical, experimental...), which they normally don't divulge completely to the applicant. That means you may fit or not, and you will never know (because these institutions have boards that change each year). The applicant must know what they are doing. You have to have a very disciplined approach. Know what you want to achieve (your proposal), who they (the institution) are (as best you can!), and what your potential references will say. It is very true that the letter of reference is a "qualifier." A letter from an important curator from a major museum cares considerable gravity(just as a letter from an important critic might). A letter from your dealer (except for a very select few) is meaningless. Most writers of these letters have a prefabricated quality. Only those letters from the very qualified are important. If you don't know these people, you probably won't be receiving that Guggenheim, Creative Capital, or whatever. Joanne's point several weeks ago about getting to know (appropriately) and networking with these important figures in the arts is the best way to begin. In the meantime, it is the work that is important and what drives your personal qualifications. I, for one, will continue to apply, but ONLY after a lot of very, very hard work pushing my work forward in the studio.

Bradley Hankey said...

Joanne,

I have not applied for several grants and residencies because of the requirement of reference letters. However, I will say, when one does get a well-written and thoughtful reference letter, it really is a compliment and it can help you or someone else see your work in a way that you may not be able to articulate. The reference letters I have gotten remain in a folder in my files, and are revisited from time to time.

That said, when the grant or residency is more about your work, or the work you are going to produce, who can speak better of than than yourself? I do think that in most cases, letters of reference are not essential.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Bradley

Ethan said...

I agree with Sharon that institutions asking for a reference name contact info (instead of a reference letter) is perhaps the best solution. Not only does that save a lot of wasted effort, but in the few cases where the institution does actually follow up for a reference they are more likely to get candid information (people are less likely to be negative in writing, I believe).

Marco said...

Joanne,
Your post and assorted responses summarizes my frustrations with letters of reference. As an adjunct art teacher, I am entirely OK with doing my best in advocating for my accomplished/deserving students in their applications. However, I feel my time writing and processing letters of recommendation could be used more productively. (Given the crazy number of qualified applicants to MFA programs, I wonder if my letter has much pull...if anyone even looks at it.) I think that a letter request or pointed questions/discussions makes more sense if the application is in the "finalist stage".
Don't get me started in my asking for references!! I didn't much like doing it as a youngster and at this point will not ask.

Dmitriy said...

No more reference letters! How about phone call interviews?

Anonymous said...

The worst part is when a reference, who put a lot of time into writing a beautiful letter on your behalf, asks you how it went and you have to tell them that you were not accepted.

The phrase "pouring salt into the wound" comes to mind, except that now it's not only your wound, it's the writer's, too.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anon,

I would hope that as the reference requester, you would let your letter writers know the result of your quest shortly after you get word yourself. Something like, "Despite your generous letter and my reams of paperwork, the Whatever Grant has remained outside my reach. Thank you again for having taken the time to write so beautifully on my behalf." Or something like that.

Not to get all Dear Abby on you, but that specific relationship between you and the letter writer doesn't end until s/he knows the outcome from you. And if you're successful in your quest and it's a nice chunk of change,lunch or a glass of wine to toast your success is a lovely gesture.

Karine said...

Joanne,

I agree completely. I recently applied for graduate school at three different institutions, who all required reference letters from college professors. Not only did I hate having to bother them for their time, but also, I questioned the reasoning behind this request. I have been out of college for nearly 15 years. I am NOT the same artist/student/person I was 15 years ago. It seems archaic.

Kirsty Hall said...

Fantastic post, Joanne!

I don't often bother with funding because I loathe filling in forms so my art practice is deliberately set up to survive without public funding. But just yesterday I saw a grant that I'm qualified for & I thought it might be worth applying. My heart absolutely sank when I reached the 'two letters of recommendation' bit. I'm still trying to think who I can impose on in this way and if it's worth their time and mine.

Lynda said...

Joanne, Thanks for bringing up this subject. I agree with you 100%. The work should stand on it's own. This is not a personality contest. It is not like a job in the workforce, where personality, hobbies and side interests are an important part of that culture. I too am an artist who does not have time to write many reference letters and hate to ask other artists to use their time for the same. Any time I have the opportunity to be in a decision making position where the need for references is considered, I will do my part to vote against a reference requirement. Lynda Ray

Laura said...

Hi Joanne,

I am glad you brought this topic up, because, at the risk of putting you on the spot, I get several requests a year from artists who tell me that you suggested they contact me for a reference letter. They use your name like it's a magic key and it puts me in a very awkward position. What do you suppose is up with that? I presume that you are simply trying to give these artists ideas and encouragement, but the advice gets desperately misconstrued. Either that, or you've got it out for me big time!

I agree that immediate change is quite possible, especially if artists themselves play an active role. One of the big obstacles in criticizing grants is that it often comes from those who are not getting them, and is too easily dismissed as sour grapes. If we each contacted the organizations and foundations that HAVE funded our work, I believe the message would hit the target. What's to resist? Dropping those letters would save them a ton of administrative work.

all the best, Laura Moriarty

Joanne Mattera said...

Laura,
You're not putting me on the spot. The fact is that I have never suggested to anyone that they contact you for a reference letter. Given how I feel about being asked to write the damn things, I’d never try to push the request onto someone else. If you wish to tell me privately who these requesters are, I can let you know if I’ve even had a conversation with them, and if that’s the case, what it might have been about. We could have resolved it then. I’m glad we are in agreement about dropping the reference letters entirely, however.

Anonymous said...

I agree that reference letters for grants and non-academic awards should be eliminated. Your reasoning on that is right. Also, the elimination of references would help make the whole selection process more democratic, less affected by the names and positions of the writers.

But in academic situations I do think references are helpful and it's important for those now in senior academic posts to help place their best students, to help them get a career toehold. Also, the reference tradition in academia is so thoroughly established that refusing to write for a highly qualified candidate can ruin his or her chances and result in lesser qualified people being chosen.

Anonymous said...

I hate asking for reference letters now, mainly because all of my references ask me to write the letter for them. There are only so many ways to talk about yourself while trying to sound like another person!

Lisa Wheeler said...

Here! Here!