“Most artists will get really great letters of recommendation. So, we weren’t really filtering anybody out because somebody was going to get a bad letter of reference. It was really only a barrier to an artist who didn’t have the right connections.” This point made by Christine Kuan, president and executive director of the arts grantmaker Creative Capital, in my phone conversation with her about the use of references, says it all.
Kuan removed the reference requirement and reduced the number of first-round application questions from 40 to six during her first year at Creative Capital.
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What led me to that conversation with Kuan and other leaders of arts organizations that have removed or significantly altered requests for references was a peak of frustration after reviewing the application guidelines for the Guggenheim Fellowship. In order to apply for the Guggenheim you must submit four references: not four people they might contact in the second or third round if needed, but four people they will definitely contact in the first round, requesting written evaluations.
Conversations about recommendation/reference letter bias within higher education and hiring have been around for decades now, and at least one historian revealed that a handful of Ivy League universities began using letters of reference in the early 1900s with the explicit intention of limiting Black, Jewish, and Catholic applicants. Yet, they persist in so many arenas.
While it would be easy to single out the Guggenheim Fellowship as the worst offender (they did not reply to multiple requests for an interview), the reality is they aren’t the only ones, nor are references the only or most glaring form of gatekeeping in the arts. Nomination-only awards like the MacArthur Fellowship require that an artist’s career path and social networks extend to the nominators, whose identities are generally not shared publicly. And countless “opportunities” require artists to pay fees simply to apply. But here I want to focus specifically on the use of references.
It was a note on the MacDowell Fellowship website that hinted to me that change might finally be coming on this specific issue. The MacDowell is one of the oldest and most prestigious artist residency programs in the United States, and they have long required letters of reference for all applicants (along with a current application fee of $30). But last year, per their application guidelines, I learned they have “suspended the reference letter requirement as part of the application process as a result of direct feedback from artists who have said reference letters pose a barrier to applying. Not all artists have access to referrers, and this lack of access disproportionately affects women and BIPOC artists.”
In a phone conversation with Courtney Bethel, admissions director for MacDowell, she offered this as the framing question behind the change: “What is the value added in something that creates a barrier?” Additionally, Bethel noted that the letters being submitted weren’t addressing the questions they wanted answered. “Letters of recommendations so often are touting everything that’s wonderful about the artist. What we’re interested in is, do they play well with others?” she asked.
Bethel explained to me that now, instead of requiring letters, applicants must acknowledge a Community Agreement in the application itself, and those chosen are asked to participate in pre-arrival conversations laying out the culture of MacDowell.
Another organization that recently changed its policy is Queer|Art|Mentorship, a national mentorship program pairing established LGBTQ+ artists with those earlier in their careers (full disclosure: I wrote an email to Queer|Art in 2014 asking them to remove the letter of reference requirement). Similarly to MacDowell, the organization’s intention was for recommendation letters to provide information to the mentors that would help them understand if they could build a close professional relationship with the mentee (the established artists select their own mentees from the pool of applicants). But now, the organization instead asks for the contact information of two references, and, according to Río Sofia, Queer|Art’s interim co-director, these references are only contacted if a mentor needs additional information to choose between two to three final candidates.
In my conversation with Sofia, who is also a practicing artist, she touched on another layer of the challenge surrounding the time and effort involved in providing references: “Applying to things takes up as much work as actually making the art. Trying to create the most equitable way to ask for references is sort of a Band-Aid on the fact that the application model itself is an access problem.”
It’s impossible to look at the question of equity in applications without hitting on this point, whether it be about references (either as letters or as names of those that might be contacted), nominations, fees, or navigating the particular bureaucratic and technological realities of asking artists to legibly articulate their practices and identities in the ways applications demand. That said, removing an outmoded and bias-saturated barrier like references is an easy step any organization could start with on the longer path to a more equitable arts ecosystem.