To Whom It May Concern: Abolish Recommendation Letters! 



Letters of advice are a ache for everybody concerned (edit by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

“Most artists will get actually nice letters of advice. So, we weren’t actually filtering anyone out as a result of any individual was going to get a foul letter of reference. It was actually solely a barrier to an artist who didn’t have the fitting connections.” This level made by Christine Kuan, president and govt director of the humanities grantmaker Creative Capital, in my cellphone dialog along with her about the usage of references, says all of it.

Kuan eliminated the reference requirement and decreased the variety of first-round software questions from 40 to 6 throughout her first 12 months at Inventive Capital.

What led me to that dialog with Kuan and different leaders of arts organizations which have eliminated or considerably altered requests for references was a peak of frustration after reviewing the applying guidelines for the Guggenheim Fellowship. As a way to apply for the Guggenheim you have to submit 4 references: not 4 folks they may contact within the second or third spherical if wanted, however 4 folks they will certainly contact within the first spherical, requesting written evaluations.

Conversations about advice/reference letter bias inside higher education and hiring have been round for many years now, and at the least one historian revealed {that a} handful of Ivy League universities started utilizing letters of reference within the early 1900s with the express intention of limiting Black, Jewish, and Catholic candidates. But, they persist in so many arenas.

Whereas it could be straightforward to single out the Guggenheim Fellowship because the worst offender (they didn’t reply to a number of requests for an interview), the truth is that they aren’t the one ones, nor are references the one or most evident type of gatekeeping within the arts. Nomination-only awards just like the MacArthur Fellowship require that an artist’s profession path and social networks prolong to the nominators, whose identities are usually not shared publicly. And numerous “alternatives” require artists to pay charges merely to use. However right here I wish to focus particularly on the usage of references.

It was a observe on the MacDowell Fellowship web site that hinted to me that change may lastly be approaching this particular problem. The MacDowell is among the oldest and most prestigious artist residency applications in the US, they usually have lengthy required letters of reference for all candidates (together with a present software price of $30). However final 12 months, per their software guidelines, I realized they’ve “suspended the reference letter requirement as a part of the applying course of because of direct suggestions from artists who’ve stated reference letters pose a barrier to making use of. Not all artists have entry to referrers, and this lack of entry disproportionately impacts girls and BIPOC artists.”

In a cellphone dialog with Courtney Bethel, admissions director for MacDowell, she supplied this because the framing query behind the change: “What’s the worth added in one thing that creates a barrier?” Moreover, Bethel famous that the letters being submitted weren’t addressing the questions they wished answered. “Letters of suggestions so usually are touting the whole lot that’s fantastic in regards to the artist. What we’re occupied with is, do they play effectively with others?” she requested.

Bethel defined to me that now, as an alternative of requiring letters, candidates should acknowledge a Neighborhood Settlement within the software itself, and people chosen are requested to take part in pre-arrival conversations laying out the tradition of MacDowell.

One other group that just lately modified its coverage is Queer|Art|Mentorship, a nationwide mentorship program pairing established LGBTQ+ artists with these earlier of their careers (full disclosure: I wrote an electronic mail to Queer|Artwork in 2014 asking them to take away the letter of reference requirement). Equally to MacDowell, the group’s intention was for advice letters to supply info to the mentors that will assist them perceive if they might construct a detailed skilled relationship with the mentee (the established artists choose their very own mentees from the pool of candidates). However now, the group as an alternative asks for the contact info of two references, and, in accordance with Río Sofia, Queer|Artwork’s interim co-director, these references are solely contacted if a mentor wants further info to decide on between two to 3 ultimate candidates.

In my dialog with Sofia, who can also be a practising artist, she touched on one other layer of the problem surrounding the effort and time concerned in offering references: “Making use of to issues takes up as a lot work as really making the artwork. Making an attempt to create probably the most equitable option to ask for references is type of a Band-Support on the truth that the applying mannequin itself is an entry drawback.”

It’s not possible to take a look at the query of fairness in purposes with out hitting on this level, whether or not or not it’s about references (both as letters or as names of those who is likely to be contacted), nominations, charges, or navigating the actual bureaucratic and technological realities of asking artists to legibly articulate their practices and identities within the methods purposes demand. That stated, eradicating an outmoded and bias-saturated barrier like references is a simple step any group may begin with on the longer path to a extra equitable arts ecosystem.


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