I want to digress a bit from Social Practice and go into a more general topic, or topics—letters of recommendation, and open calls.
I’m often asked to write letters of recommendation for students or past students for everything from small awards to PhD programs and I have grown to question their value. In fact several years ago we removed letters of recommendation from the set of requirements that we ask for in the application for the PSU MFA in Art and Social Practice program. Instead we just request a list of references and their contact information. The reason for this is multifaceted, in most cases from my experience of being on MFA selection committees the letters of recommendation are never read for many of the applicants who have been filtered out in a first round of evaluation based more on their work samples and their own statements, which are generally seen as more significant than letters of recommendation and college transcripts etc. As a result my sense is that there are a lot of people out there (like myself) having to write a lot of these letters that are not actually considered. What we do in our MFA program is once we have settled on a set of reasonable finalists we reach out through email to some of the references that have been listed to ask about particular questions that they might be able to give insights into. From my experience these short, targeted email exchanges are more helpful than generalized letters of recommendation, which are usually positive or they wouldn’t be writing them in the first place. So by eliminating the requirement for letters of recommendation we cut down on the workload for people asked to write the letters, and create a system that is more effective at determining the qualifications of the applicants.
A little side note on the recommendation system is that I also think it might be interesting in both the case of letters of recommendation (since regardless of my little critique they aren’t going away anytime soon) and references is to broaden out who we think of as qualified to provide those services. Instead of relying largely on academics and occasionally arts professionals like curators and public arts administrators, what if we also included a wider set of people who have come in contact with the person being recommended? They might have some useful thoughts in regards to their abilities that otherwise might not be considered. Obviously you would want to avoid people with extreme biases (although it’s not like teachers and curators who have worked closely with artists don’t have personal biases) like parents and friends, but maybe a neighbor or co-worker or fellow student would round things out a bit and make for a more complete perspective on the applicant. Something to think about or perhaps encourage (maybe we will suggest that in the Art and Social Practice MFA application).
The other related, systemically embedded, (but I think should be rethought) process, are open calls for artists. These happen in a myriad of ways for everything from group shows, to awards, public art, residencies, and of course graduate programs. In some cases they may be unavoidable, but can at least be mitigated in various ways. There are a variety of issues I have with the open call procedure. The big issue is that in each instance it creates a lot more losers than winners. Along the way to achieving that unfortunate situation the process of filling out the applications takes up huge amounts of time, energy, and money that could be going towards the actual work that the artists want to be doing as part of their practice. And even though open calls are thought to be “democratic” they are often times very exclusive to the people who are in the know and have the time, energy etc to put towards the application process.
So what should be done about this terrible situation? First of all for people who are currently administrating open calls or who are considering the creation of one stop and think if your objective is really best fulfilled by that particular approach? It might not be, and your program could be better served through using a thoughtfully designed curatorial selection or some other process that eliminates applications.
Again the things that should be avoided are creating extra, unpaid work for artists who already are often suffering from a lack of time and funds, producing more losers than winners (the experience of rejection weighs heavy on sensitive artist people and can create a feeling of defeat that might end up causing them to give up, so not only do they not get the thing they were applying for they are also made to feel like their work is not good and maybe shouldn’t be pursued), and inadvertently limiting the pool of people who are being considered for whatever is being offered.
If the open call is still going to be employed, the extra work and creation of more losers than winners issues can be addressed to some extent by simplifying the application process so that it is much easier to apply (requiring a lot less work and investment), or alternately by making it more complicated in a way that filters out applicants that are unlikely to be successful in the first place. Though we have eliminated reference letters in the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA application we have added the requirement of making three short videos that help us to determine if an applicant would be a good fit with the program, but that also discourages applications from people who are not willing to fulfill somewhat strange unorthodox requests, cutting down on the total number of applications, but increasing the percent that might be desirable for the program.
Additionally, open calls can be structured so that everyone who “applies” can be included in some way (possibly online) and then individuals (or collaborations) can be curated from that set for specific other functions. Years ago I co-created, with Miranda July and Yuri Ono, an online web based participatory project called Learning To Love You More which offered assignments that Miranda and I came up with and the opportunity for anyone to add their results which we called reports. Everyone who followed the instructions and submitted was included on the website, but then from that set (which eventually reached about 8000 participants) we selected certain people who got small grants and or were included in exhibitions that happened at museums and art centers around the world. Of course it was better to get funds or have your work shown in an institution, but those things were not the main point of LTLYM and so for the people who didn’t receive those extras it was unlikely that they felt like they were losers or had put in work that didn’t have a purpose in relationship to the broader project.
In regards to the problem of many open calls not actually being inclusive there are a couple of things that can be done to improve that condition. One approach, which also helps with the workload and loser dynamics, is to use a nomination system, which additionally attempts to spread out the potential for finding people that might normally be left out. I was once asked to be a nominator for a large financial award and exhibition at a museum in NYC. The administrators created a thoughtful selection system–they asked ten artists in different parts of the country (many of which were not art hubs) to each nominate five artists from their region who they thought would benefit from the award. From that set of fifty artists a selection committee picked five artists to receive the award. It still left forty-five people feeling like they had not been given awards (which was bad, but if the award had not been nomination based and were based on an open call instead there could have been hundreds or thousands of people in that position). The artists who were not selected were still all listed (in the catalog, online, and at the exhibition) which was a partial benefit because it was treated as an honor and not as a loss. But the more important feature was that it allowed for a much more diverse set of artists to be placed under consideration. One of the people who I nominated was untrained and had previously had very little experience with the art world, but was still given an award based on the strength of his work.
In general I think it is important for people in positions of power in relationship to the arts community to be thoughtful about what they may be structurally asking artists to do and how that might be impacting them systemically. Status quo approaches are not always the best ones, but they get replicated again and again even when they might be causing more harm than good. Being creative about the structure of a selection process is just as important as being creative when making artworks (it could even be thought of as an artwork under certain conditions).
One other slightly connected side note (that probably should be in a separate writing, but I likely won’t get around to it, so am just going to stick it in here) related to open calls is the way that they often exclude collaboration. Many awards etc are set up specifically to only consider individual artists and that structurally discourages collaboration through offering fewer resources to artists who collaborate, by institutionally devaluing co-authored work, and through causing friction in interpersonal dynamics when one collaborating artist gets an award and another doesn’t while using work that was produced together. I have personally addressed the collaboration exclusion situation with administrators in the case of at least three major grants and awards locally and nationally. Though I was met with resistance in each case, over time two of the organizations have made changes to their policies that are more open to collaboration, my hope is that eventually that will no longer be an issue going forward and that collaboration will be given the support and respect that it deserves.