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.
With the exception of the young artist, my response was a polite No.
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 . . .
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.
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..