Yesterday, Yvonne Morrish CSPWC/SCPA of Kelowna, B.C., Canada, wrote, “Just how important are those letters behind your name? Some artists flaunt them and some ignore them. I’ve had mine for ten years now and when I attach them for juried shows and other occasions, I wonder if it makes any difference at all to jurors or galleries. Most people don’t know what the letters mean. I would love some input.”
Thanks, Yvonne. I’m told that in some jurisdictions credentials are important, but I’m not sure where those jurisdictions are. Further, I’ve never heard of someone coming into an art gallery and saying “Do you have anything by an RA?” And while this may happen, especially in academic circles, credentials are mostly sought by people who are already credentialed. I myself am an accredited SFCA (Signature member of the Federation of Canadian Artists). I don’t use the letters because it sounds very much like the “Sock-it-to-me Federation of Chartered Accountants.” While I’ve been offered a few other letters from time to time, I’ve somehow managed to avoid the honours.
As a frequent juror, I can assure you that letters cut no ice with me. Art is greater than letters.
In my case, the FCA credential happened long ago when one afternoon a fellow artist and FCA member, Mark Simmonds, drove out to see me. After a few drinks he told me that the outfit wanted me in. Looking through my rye, I accepted, but I have always thought less of the organization for such shoddy acceptance standards. To the credit of the FCA, an excellent organization for educational programs and camaraderie, they have since tightened their entrance and if I were to apply now I’d have to jump through the hoops.
I like the idea that art is a level playing field where simple merit is noticed, applauded and encouraged. I like it that new painters, young and old, non-political and out-in-the-boonies in particular, can have their work seen and evaluated without prejudice. I like it that young people can study, work on their own, and become professional. Further, I don’t care for most forms of ballyhoo. Credentials, I figure, are a form of hypocrisy at the soft-headed end of ballyhoo. Ideally, artists should be known for what they do, and not their letters.
Robert Genn SFCA
PS: “Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.” (Leo Tolstoy)
Esoterica: In Medicine, Dentistry, and many other professions, letters mean something. Opening your mouth to an MDS (Master of Dental Surgery) gives confidence that the doc might be able to do something about your teeth. But can you imagine Jackson Pollock needing a doctorate in dripology before being allowed to drip? No, no, no. The older I get the more I give credence to talent, even though talent is mostly a function of sweat. Suffice to say that in some circles talent may exist in inverse relation to the number of letters after a name.
The value of recognition
by Ron Sanders, North Port, FL, USA
Having obtained a couple of sets of letters in recent years, I was asked by a gallery that signed me recently if I thought they mattered. My response was that I thought a public so often hoodwinked by clever marketing were given some sense of confidence in an artist who had earned letters by having the quality of his work judged worthy by his peers. This, of course, only works if the organization offering the letters bases their offer on competitive performance. The letters I have could only be earned by being accepted into a certain number of juried national/international shows. And so, by consistently getting accepted, I was proving that the quality of my work met or exceeded a certain standard when compared to other art entered. And that judgment was being made by fellow artists, gallery owners, or others knowledgeable about art. Hopefully, this can help confirm the feelings of a potential buyer and put them more at ease about spending their hard earned money.
And, given art buyers’ pleasure in talking about the artists that they collect, it also gives them some talking points when bragging about their latest purchase.
Of course, the other bonus to the artist is that potential and existing students are often impressed when the teacher gets these and other spots of national recognition.
The distraction of letters
by Brenda Swenson, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Many artists chase after “Signature” membership and status their entire career. They sign their paintings with a long litany of letters (AWS, DS, NWS, NWWS…). I find it distracting. Do they think their name isn’t good enough? I have worked hard to develop a reputation as an artist and instructor. My name alone on my painting is good enough. You might ask if I have a signature membership in a society… yes I do! I am a “Signature” member in the Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS), San Diego Watercolor (SDWS), and Watercolor West (WW).
When I look at a list of initials it reminds me of people who have to wear designer clothes with brand names printed on the front (Nike, Apple…). I don’t wear clothes with names on the front either. When someone looks at my artwork I want them to see the work not the initials. I am proud of my signature memberships but I think they belong on my resume, framed and hung in my studio but not my paintings.
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Valuable arts degree
by Gary Eddington, Baltimore, MD, USA
In 1967, at freshman orientation, our speaker said that we were about to pursue one of the most expensive and worthless degrees available. He also said, “Look around the room of 360 people: there are as many as 3 people here who will make art for the rest of their lives. All the rest of you will sell shoes or something other than art.” The explanation was that judging work, to show or purchase, is done based solely on the work individually and not by degree. It is up to each of us to decide at what point we do not need to study in school any further.
I love competing without ever seeing or knowing the competition. We really only compete with ourselves. I do however know that without art college I would have had such a pedestrian knowledge of art that I would never have realized true satisfaction from my work. In searching for jobs, I was told that I was overqualified so many times that a BFA is too much education when applying for work as a sign painter. They all have prejudice, thinking they will need to retrain this know-it-all — always looking to point out that I don’t know the way things are really done in the business. I know the value of the degree is difficult to measure but looking back in my life it was the most valuable experience of my life. It influences my thinking and decisions daily.
Also, having the degree shows that you are committed and will finish things; some employers will give you a shot at anything you think you might be able to do. Personally, I do get a shot at work for my alma mater partly because of my degree but still compete fairly with all the other companies in the business.
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Importance isn’t important
by Kim Lee Kho, ON, Canada
Was there ever anything more meaningless than credentials in the practice of studio art? I understand that people who are insecure may feel some validation if they get letters. I also understand that the parents of young artists may feel more comfortable because of the skilled specialist status they believe they impart.
More important is to join an association because of the benefits it provides for education, community and exhibitions. Take a degree because of the knowledge base you’ll gain from instructors you hopefully respect and admire. But beware of pressure to conform! That’s the problem with credentials; they mean you conform to someone’s standard, which is fine if you do so authentically not fine if you have to contort yourself and compromise your artistic integrity to do so.
Finally, credentials can make people feel more important more qualified even. “Importance” isn’t important. Authenticity and serious effort to grow and improve are. Playful exploration is. I make myself qualified by learning and trying and thinking what I need to at any given point in time.
Credentials make things easier for administrators who are either not qualified to judge an artist’s work or cannot/will not take the time to study it adequately to make decisions on the basis of it.
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Ego trip wore thin
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, ON, Canada
I have relinquished both CSPWC and SCA. Back in the mid-eighties I needed to feel I had reached a recognizable level of excellence, never having gone beyond high school. I felt an inherent sense of responsibility to justify the talent that I knew was mine. I was blessed with some genes from Samuel John Ireland (1856 – 1915), my paternal grandfather, who was brought to Canada to be Principal of the Hamilton Art School. He had a spectacular career in England, then in Canada. In 1886 my grandfather taught J.E.H.MacDonald, then a lad of 14, newly out from Scotland. In my case, after a few years of societal memberships, and disenchanted with internal politics and power struggles, I had better ways to direct the annual membership fees. For me the ego trip soon wore thin.
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The independent artist
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
Letters behind your name mean something in fields like law and medicine, where a person has to have a large body of certifiable knowledge. Artists work in a different world, where exploration, intuition, improvisation, and emotion are important. I certainly wouldn’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who is trying to figure it out as he goes along; conversely, I’m bored silly by paintings that are done according to all the rules. Let those who need the letters use them. As for me, I’ll continue to work at the edge of my range of knowledge and figure it out as I go along.
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More benefits of credentials
by Ruth Rodgers, Lakeside, ON, Canada
I, too, dislike ballyhoo and trumped-up credentials, as well as elitism. That being said, many organizations (include a national one of which I am the current president) do indeed have “hoops” that artists must jump through, or, more accurately, earn their way through, to get those coveted letters after their names and because of this do not deserve the elitist or cronyist criticism.
In our case, artists must be juried into three national exhibitions (juried by different jurors, all of whom are internationally recognized artists within our media) to receive signature status, and be accepted into five shows plus win at least one award to achieve the “masters” level signature status. From my perspective, and given that our shows typically attract about three to four times the number of entries as are accepted, this process ensures that only those with genuine talent achieve these credentials. The requirement to be juried in by many different jurors ensures that no favoritism or traditional expectations are at work — our signature status artists run the entire gamut of subject matter and approach. What they share is talent, mastery of the medium, and excellence of expression.
So is this something worth doing? This system provides a structure for legitimate peer feedback, especially for artists who are not actively selling their work (and thus not getting the brutal feedback of sales figures), and gives them a way to gauge their progress. It is motivating for emerging artists to gain this recognition from recognized artists, and they learn a great deal in the process.
Once achieved, signature status may or may not help with sales, but it is certainly something that can generate opportunities to teach, and/or opportunities for marketing your work through articles in art magazines etc. If the process legitimately includes recognition of artistic excellence by qualified judges, then I see no harm and much good in such signature systems. I’d trust a signature status from a recognized artists’ organization over many a BFA or MFA!
So, unusually, I disagree with you this time, Robert!
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Proud to be honoured
by Brian Seed, Gatineau, QC, Canada
While I do agree with you that letters after an artist’s name mean very little in evaluating a painting, they do mean a lot to the artist and the associations that those letters represent.
The fellowships or signature status given by societies such as the CSPWC are not easily attained. These groups exist to promote art and are led by volunteers willing to give back some of their valuable time to continue a tradition which has long existed for watercolor artists.
One of these groups is the Societe Canadienne de l’Aquarelle, founded by one of Quebec’s talented artists, Jean-Paul Ladouceur. Each year they put together a show consisting of about 110 artists. Starting in Montreal, the show tours five Quebec cities for six months. I am a signature member of the SCA and am proud to use the letters after my name. On occasion, I’m asked to explain what they mean and I do so with enthusiasm. Personally, it represents being honoured by my peers and not something that is meant to sell a painting.
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We all ask, ‘Is my art any good?’
by Kristine Fretheim, Maple Grove, MN, USA
In the USA many of the organizations bestowing “letters” to artists do so only if the artist has paid his/her membership dues continually for a certain number of years, in conjunction with entering and winning awards in their shows. Many artists pay their membership dues to organizations all over the country both to support the arts, and to ensure they remain eligible to receive those letters. Seems like a viable method for organizations to keep their coffers full, even though it plays on artists’ egos, and the never-ending question we ask ourselves, “Am I — is my art any good?” Many artists feel those “letters” answer the question and you’ll see them splayed out in the signature on the painting as though to say, “See! I am and this painting really is good!” What most viewers miss is that the letters mostly signify steadfast perseverance in dues paying and community involvement. Being more independent-minded, I find it a little creepy that anyone would want to sign a painting with anything more than their name. To me adding letters to the signature degrades the artwork and steals the artistic voice of the piece, by trying to focus attention on the supposed skill of the artist. That’s what a resume is for, and even that is a meaningless piece of fluff next to a painting that is loved.
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Whispy Clouds Embrace the Mountain
oil painting 24 x 48 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Don Charbonneau of Wawa, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Yesterday, after four hours of concentrated brush work, I noticed a drop of water fall on the canvas I was working on. Wondering what the source was I realized it was a drop of sweat coming from my head (now part of the work). My credential, I guess!”
And also >John Churchill of the UK, who wrote, “Sounds like Groucho Marx saying, ‘I wouldn’t belong to a club that would have me for a member.’ ”
Enjoy the past comments below for Those important letters…