Those important letters

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, 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  

oil painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Ron Sanders

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  

“San Lorenzo Church”
by Brenda Swenson

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. There is 1 comment for The distraction of letters by Brenda Swenson
From: Jackie Knott — Sep 21, 2012

Exactly. Letters on the resume, on your website CV, but never on the painting. It’s akin to name dropping … the practice is distracting and doesn’t contribute one brush stroke to the quality of the painting.

  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. There are 2 comments for Valuable arts degree by Gary Eddington
From: Paul deMarrais — Sep 21, 2012

Great post. My BFA hasn’t been much of a boost for my art career, but the experience in college taught me to think and express myself clearly, to write a nice clear paragraph and to have social and political skills. These skills are all critical in any career endeavor.

From: Michael McDevitt — Sep 21, 2012

Where you earn your degree matters. Even who your mentors were matters. Liberal arts degrees can round out an individual, but a network established in a reputable school lasts throughout a career.

  Importance isn’t important by Kim Lee Kho, ON, Canada  

“Arounded 6”
acrylic painting
by Kim Lee Kho

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. There are 2 comments for Importance isn’t important by Kim Lee Kho
From: tatjana — Sep 21, 2012

Good letter and painting.

From: Liz Reday, RCA — Sep 21, 2012

Nice painting! I bet not one artist knows that the letters stand for Royal College of Art (London), so I never use them.

  Ego trip wore thin by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, ON, Canada  

original painting
by Grace Cowling

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. There are 2 comments for Ego trip wore thin by Grace Cowling
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Sep 21, 2012

Several of the comments by different posts were so relevant. This one really struck home with me … the paying of those fees yearly just to maintain what you “earned.” I pay enough fees to organizations and to competitions and I am gradually reducing these. Why just keep paying when you are no longer participating in these organizations … just to keep a few letters? I do believe for many it is an ego trip.

From: Anonymous — Sep 21, 2012

I always felt that I should pay membership to support organizations that are good for the community. Not just to ones from which I gain something.

  The independent artist by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA  

pastel painting
by Skip Rohde

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.   There are 2 comments for The independent artist by Skip Rohde
From: Betty Newcomer — Sep 21, 2012

Skip, You are doing great on the edge of your range!! Love your work and I am self taught, but do very well. Sometimes others influence our creativity. Stay with it! Sincerely.

From: ML Blackledge — Sep 23, 2012

Skip, Your last sentence really sums up the quest of the artist. I like your entire post, but that sentence is mighty.

  More benefits of credentials by Ruth Rodgers, Lakeside, ON, Canada  

original painting
by Ruth Rodgers

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! There are 3 comments for More benefits of credentials by Ruth Rodgers
From: Paul deMarrais — Sep 21, 2012

I’m with you, Robert. Art buyers don’t give a darn about the initials. Workshop teachers are rewarded with students if they are great teachers….with or without initials. I’ve saved hundreds of hours and dollars avoiding the initial game. These groups are mainly about artist egos.

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Sep 21, 2012

Ruth has some valid points … but I really do agree with Robert … and especially Paul. I have saved many a dollar also and I don’t think it has hurt my sales or ability to teach. I do have signature status in my pastel organization … but it was not what I was chasing. I just participated in my Southeastern Pastel Society shows because I believe in my organization … member and international shows and was accepted and won awards. I do not use initials after my signature.

From: Michael McDevitt — Sep 21, 2012

Ruth’s work looks terrific. The implication that her organization’s intitials trump an MFA? That is a bit presumptuous, but it is true that many MFA programs follow BFA programs that are less about mastery of technique and more about world view. It seems a little apples vs. tangerines to compare academic credentials with the myriad art societies’ accolades.

  Proud to be honoured by Brian Seed, Gatineau, QC, Canada  

“Just Charlie”
watercolour painting
by Brian Seed

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. There are 3 comments for Proud to be honoured by Brian Seed
From: Doug Mays — Sep 20, 2012

Good on ya Brian and you should be proud of your credentials. Also, I love your ‘Just Charlie’, because I know this Charlie, you really captured him.

From: Peter Eedy — Sep 21, 2012

Lovely work there Brian – reminds me of the adage that less is often more!

From: Sheila Davis — Sep 21, 2012

Ditto what Doug said, great portrait of our friend Charlie! and while credentials do not guarantee good art they do indicate that the artist is professional, serious and in it for the long haul ( it takes a lot more than good painting to be a good artist)and it takes more than a great painting to make a sale..sometimes those intials will tip the scale to an undecided collector. But to each is own…it is a personal choice. and yes…credentials and date should NEVER to put on the actual artwork…I even sign inconspicuously.

  We all ask, ‘Is my art any good?’ by Kristine Fretheim, Maple Grove, MN, USA  

“Every Sentient being”
watercolour painting
by Kristine Fretheim

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. There are 5 comments for We all ask, ‘Is my art any good?’ by Kristine Fretheim
From: Brenda W. — Sep 21, 2012

Right on! This is an amazing piece … I love the lighting! Wonderful, expressive, no ‘letters’ needed …

From: Betty Newcomer — Sep 21, 2012

Kristine, you sure do NOT need to ask!! Beauriful work!! Love the lights and darks, so many artists forget!

From: Michael McDevitt — Sep 21, 2012

I have seen your work here and on your website: superior! That said, I think the inensity of the light areas on the chair do not add to the portrait and I hope the type is a photoshop add-on and not on the original painting. It may be there for sentimental reasons, but…

From: Judy Gosz — Sep 24, 2012

Beautiful, beautiful . . .I feel her warmth and kindness. . .love the lighting . . .not an easy one to paint, but I’ll bet it’s her favorite chair in the sun!

From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill — Sep 29, 2012

Kristine, ‘Every Sentient Being’ is beautiful and touching. Your sense of light and ability to portray your subject’s personality so deftly reveals your high level skills.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Those important letters

From: Marvin Humphrey — Sep 17, 2012

The work should speak for itself, plain and simple. I used to be a man of letters for 31 years; I’m a retired Postman.

From: John Ferrie — Sep 17, 2012

Dear Robert, Ok, once again, trying to keep my eyes rolled into the FORWARD position. I am a huge fan of hundreds of artists. Most, I have followed for decades. Some might be dead and many are very much alive and still painting. While I am interested in what they are communicating as an artist, I often look back at their previous works. It is always interesting to watch their journey, see their colours and brush strokes evolve as their images unravel on canvas. I am always asking “what is this artist communicating to me?” I do this with good art, bad art, art of the absurd, art of children and especially, my own. I have honed my skills as a critic and while I rarely comment on a piece while I am looking at it, I have become very good at finding strengths in all works. Occasionally. Ill look at an artists CV, just to see where their education might have come, some of their training and their list of exhibitions. BUT NOT ONCE have I EVER looked at something so absurd as these self appointed snooty-van-snoot credentialed letters behind an artists name. While having the last name FERRIE has helped me build a brand of my own, NOTHING could be more arrogant or insipid than an artist lettering themselves after their name. I love looking at art, and being an artist has come to define me. But I would rather read parking meters than useless and pointless letters after an artists name. That is just me, John Ferrie

From: Chris Everest — Sep 18, 2012

Ah Dripology ! Now that is my sport

From: TH — Sep 18, 2012

In the early 90’s, when I was trying to find my way in the art world, the late Terence Cuneo gave a talk at the opening of one of the British art society shows – he said that letters after names are relatively unimportant compared to the work itself, and that to keep on learning and improving should be our greatest goal rather than persuing a series of letters after our names. I recall feeling a great sense of relief at hearing that, and gladly followed his advice. I’ve done fine without using the letters, and still seek to ever improve the work I do.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Sep 18, 2012

In response to John Ferrie (and as a general note), the post-name letters to which he refers are not there as a result of an “artist lettering themselves after their name”; rather, similar to a university credentialling a graduate, they signify membership in, and are bestowed by, an organization, and refer to (usually) a standard of quality established by that organization, mostly juried by existing members of that organization. The art world has neither the clout not the credibility that a school of dentistry has, to limit and award certification in their field. However, one would hope that dentists who practise their craft have achieved the minimum standard that the letters DDS after their name, would signify. An art education doesn’t always provide that. Art is a more democratic endeavour, practised by anyone with the money to buy a paintbrush and a stack of canvases. So what defines excellence, in the field of art? Generally, it seems to be defined by excellence in the marketplace: the number and quality of the galleries where one’s work may be found; the number of museum shows one has had, the number of erudite monographs that have been written about someone. Fair enough. But two factors should be noted. Given the fact that schools no longer provide a good grounding in art education (assessing, and rewarding, quality and a minimum standard of competence and technical know-how, has been replaced by the championing of self-expression), good art education has fallen by the wayside. The general public has become much less discerning about quality in art – and most of “the general public” doesn’t care about art anyway: for most people, art has lost its relevance. As well, success in the current climate is often driven by marketing: it is in an aspiring artist’s best interest to make waves, rather than to provide a meaningful commentary. And, it is in a commercial gallery’s best interest to “create” successful artists, to promote someone who will attract public attention. And thus we have formaldehyde pickled pigs taking up museum space, and the work of the artist who thought up this scheme hyped, so that his “brand” becomes synonymous with success. At least the “lettered artists” have been juried by their peers! They neither bought, nor marketed their way into the lettered universe. By the way, I subscribe to the notion that I don’t want to be part of any organization that would have me.

From: Marie Bergman — Sep 18, 2012

I am glad that this ws brought up, because just a few weeks ago I was no longer welcomed in a group for this very reason. No credentials. It really brought down and could not understand why after being accepted into the group. I confronted the person and The person simply put our standards have become to the point that self-taught artist don’t understand composition,value etc. Well , I have moved on but none the less it did bring me down. I never painted for several weeks.

From: Gavin Logan — Sep 18, 2012

Even doctor’s and dentist’s letters are not a guarantee of competency.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Sep 18, 2012

I teach a College evening class in painting and oddly enough I have 4 teachers with BAs 3 in general arts and one with an Art major. So why are they there? To learn what the University couldn’t teach them about the steps to create and finish a painting so they can teach their High School student. Apparently a higher education gives you head knowledge without practical experience, hmmm. Here I have been wanting the holy grail BA and the only real value it would have is to give me the job I am training the Teachers to do.

From: John Ferrie — Sep 18, 2012

In response to Brigette Nowak dressing me down and explaining these letters in point by point format. I am not an idiot Brigette, I went to art school and I am familiar with what these letters mean. They were also quite well explained in Roberts letter, if you happened to have read that. What I was saying, is I refuse to sit up and take notice of someone who self appoints themselves by using these numbers because they happen to have studied and have a post graduate education. And where you get off comparing an artist to a dentist is beyond me. Of course I want my dentist to be credited. And while I do frequent museums, I like seeing animals in formaldehyde. At least let me make up my own mind when I see these pieces that stir up such controversy. I like artists who push the corners of the envelope. When I think of an artist like Mapplethorpe who’s exhibitions only 20 years ago, were cancelled and he single handedly brought into question the whole funding of the arts, his work now can be seen in gallery museum shops on everything from address books to coasters. What becomes the absurd can be easily woven into our society. What I refuse to buy into is this notion that we should sit up and take notice of someones half-assed work just because they are credited. I also stop and look at street and graffiti art, but I guess that doesn’t matter as much.

From: Patsy — Sep 18, 2012

” …self-taught artist don’t understand composition,value etc.” Marie, my sympathies. You are well rid of that lot. In effect you were told that anyone who has the intelligence to effectively apply what they read or observe, has learned nothing unless some other person with letters after his name has shown them. This is such a load of nonsense. I recently saw an exhibition of work by an “artist” who had two art degrees, and, heaven help those kids, had actually taught art to high school students. I have rarely seen such unskilled, ugly work. The artist couldn’t draw, had no sense of perspective or composition, the colours were either garish or dull in the extreme; the work was utterly ghastly. There is art that is not to one’s taste, and there is art that is simply badly done – this was the latter. So the two art degrees meant nothing.

From: Betty Jane Covington — Sep 18, 2012

Signing ones name to ones painting is important..I also date every painting as well

From: Cissy Gray — Sep 18, 2012

I have often thought it would be fun to just put DFA after my name (Damn Fine Artist), mind you, just to for fun!

From: Alex Nodopaka — Sep 18, 2012

Undoubtedly at some stage of academic research and biography writing the abbreviations are of importance from a documentary point of view. But in my humble opinion what most artists don’t do but ought to is to write out in their own handwriting… not typing, is a brief description of the location and other quirky detail about their painting. This applies also to non-descript expressionist smatterings. Such markings have more personal historical & personal value than any XYZ#@/>CSPWC/SCPA/

From: Linda Roth — Sep 18, 2012

I agree. Credential letters after your name are meaningless. It is the art that speaks for itself, the artist’s name is noted second, any initials after that mean nothing to me other than smacking of pomp and ceremony.

From: Lisa Chakrabarti — Sep 18, 2012

I’m going to come clean: those letters that might appear after my name? I made them up. Lisa Chakrabarti, ASI. It means: “Artist Seeking Income”.

From: Sandy Bonney — Sep 18, 2012
From: Judy Sims — Sep 18, 2012

The closer I am, the less it matters. Two years ago it was a big goal, having my (FCA) points in hand, I am happy to sit on them a bit and decide what next.

From: Bob Ragland — Sep 18, 2012

The best letters after my name are – NSA. Non Starving Artist. Bob Ragland NSA

From: Bridget Haugen — Sep 18, 2012

Thank you, Robert. I appreciate that you don’t flaunt a degree in B.S. Your refreshing spirit gives me hope and belief.

From: Andrea Pottyondy — Sep 18, 2012

I agree with Robert Genn, talent and hard work should always trump any letters…but it is certainly great being part of something bigger, collaborating and bringing artists from across Canada together under one banner!

From: Steve Grigor — Sep 18, 2012

I have never seen a degree jump off a wall and have the skills to do any job.

From: Mitch — Sep 18, 2012

I’ve sat on a lot of juries. We ignore “those letters” – they’re for amature clubs, and the art produced by these “signature members of the xxx club” is usually very amature stuff anyway. Once the lucky few start getting up, they drop that nonsense.

From: Mel Malinowski — Sep 18, 2012

The only letters that really matter are S.O.L.D.

From: Yvonne Morrish CSPWC — Sep 18, 2012

After reading comments so far today, I must say I am surprised at all the negativity…. Im glad I contacted Robert about this and now I am feeling a lot different than I did ten years ago when I received this award and at the time I was so thrilled as I had worked hard to get the recognition I thought I deserved. I was juried by senior artists who I knew were excellent watercolour painters and I also received in the mail a certificate signed by the then Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson. I have it framed in my studio. I started painting late in life and with or without the initials, I consider myself a very good artist and love it. Thanks for your comments. Yvonne Morrish ( Ill leave out the initials for now)…

From: Kris Parins — Sep 18, 2012

There seems to be some confusion here between degrees in higher education and the signature status earned by meeting the requirements of a specific art society. I’d like to address the art society letters. You said: “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.” This is exactly what the art societies’ competitions promote. It is not a matter of who you know, how long you have been painting, whether you have a MFA Degree or are self-taught, or whether you have “branded” your career. Each painting entered stands on its own and is judged (usually by a nationally respected artist or three) on its merits. Often only 10% of the entered pieces make it into an annual exhibit, and an artist must be accepted into 3 exhibits to earn signature status. The letters may not mean anything to the general public, but earning them is no easy matter. Whether to use them is up to each artist.

From: Jaime Volio — Sep 18, 2012

Incompetent painters need letters and can get them. Competent painters don’t need letters but are given them.

From: Anon — Sep 18, 2012

Use of credential letters is our inheritance from the days gone by when social position was an important part of success. What other way can a person communicate their social status then attaching letters of credentials to their name? It made perfect sense then. In transition to the new age we see a mix of old and new values. In this latest society, one doesn’t need social status to achieve success. One doesn’t even need to be “one”. We can have a person under several aliases doing different things in the virtual world. Some of us live in the past and some are already in the future. Who is to say what is right and what is wrong?

From: Helen Burton, Cleveland, Tennessee — Sep 18, 2012

I am a watercolorist and have earned “letters” as a Signature Member of three organizations. These letters are not given lightly. They signify excellence for the artist that receives them through a lengthy process of being juried into a number of competitive exhibitions. It took me six years to earn the designation TnWS (Tennessee Watercolor Society) and another six years to earn GWS (Georgia Watercolor Society). The highest honor I have received is being selected by three jurors for the 91st National Watercolor Society International Exhibition in October 2011. There were more than 1,000 entries from all over the world, and just 100 paintings were chosen. I was invited to submit three more paintings of equal quality and related subject in order to receive Signature Membership in NWS. The same three jurors made the decision, and I was accepted. It was an affirmation of my skill as an artist to be so recognized at the induction ceremony in California. There is nothing hypocritical about adding those letters to my signature on my paintings. Through my diligence in pursuing my artistic career with constant work to hone my skills and compete with hundreds of artists, I earned the right to display them if I so choose. I believe that you will hear from many artists who will express a similar opinion.

From: Herman Strong — Sep 18, 2012

I feel I would like to offer credentials in Dripology. Any takers?

From: Kate Jackson — Sep 18, 2012

One of my cleverest and dearest friends, Greg Tamblyn, a self-proclaimed Laughologist writes, records and performs silly, spiritual and scintillating songs. One of my favorites is “N.C.W.” (No Credentials Whatsoever) I thought putting that after my name would be sooooo coooool! Thanks for answering this question for all of us. Merced, California

From: Brian Care — Sep 19, 2012

Alphabet Soup I am prompted to write to you to congratulate you on your no bullshit response to the letter about letters. I really like that part of you that seems to be able to cut so clearly through the pretentious, superfluous, superficial and inconsequential aspects of life as they relate to the making of art. I had a similar experience as you when invited by an official of what I thought was a very prestigious as well as one of the oldest artists’ organizations in our country to just skip the first few steps of the acceptance procedure and move directly to submitting replicas of my work and then get ready to write out the check for membership. My first response was that I was not worthy of such membership and that my experience and talent did not merit such a designation after my name to go along with the BA I never used anyway. I always thought BA should be BD for Basic Degree. Anyway, I went to an association show of work to check out my future fellow members’ work and was shocked to see some work that made me feel that my efforts were not so bad after all. I am sure the person who approached me fully intended to do me a favor and I was initially both flattered and intimidated. The question did come to mind: Was I involved in a membership drive or was a friend just trying to do me a favor? Then I began to think about what would motivate me to want to even be a member. After seeing the show I couldn’t really come up with any good reason why I should pay an annual membership to an association that seemed too easy to join and which had some members whose work I considered even inferior to mine. And that would allow me and expect me to add three letters after my signature. I already agonized over how to insert my relatively short name on my work without making it too conspicuous. I never accepted the invitation. I never paid the membership. I never have to worry about squeezing in some extra letters after my name. And I never have to explain what they mean. I am sure that these organizations serve some purpose for their members…..according to theory, one of our basic needs is to belong. I am glad to hear that you do not consider such membership to have any bearing on the validity of an artist’s work. No BS after your name!

From: Brigitte Nowak — Sep 19, 2012

I’ve been following the discussion on letters, and thought I would pass on info on Burton (the dog) who has achieved more letters than anyone I know! He was the sire of my first litter of Bearded Collie puppies. Burton, MBIS, MBISS, MNBISS CAN.AM.CH. POTTERDALE DOUBLE IMAGE HC, CAN.AM. ROMX, ROMIX, ROMA, ROMO

From: Norman Ridenour, Prague — Sep 19, 2012

I live in a society which is credential obsessed. One is only a painter or a sculptor if one is an, ‘Academic Painter or Sculptor’, one cannot be a designer if they are not a degree bearing architect. Part of it is Central European German influence, part is small country syndrome where everyone knows everyone and the title is a means to avoid making personal judgements and part is cultural insecurity. I NEVER list my titles but not being an academic artist limits me. Being a Mechanical Engineer has opened teaching options.

From: Graham Flatt — Sep 19, 2012

I must agree with you in principle regarding the acquisition of letters of accreditation addendum to our name (however well earned or well fought we feel they may be). These accreditations are of little or no use to anyone but the artist themselves with the exception of an small but deeply disturbed following of collectors. I once upon a time found myself trading and travelling amongst buyers and collectors who would only purchase those works that were “adorned” with the initials “CAA” ( Cowboy Artists of America). These individuals were convinced seemingly that only those works that were sanctioned by this association were worthy of collecting. I recall reading an article published about an artist by the name of Neil Boyle. He had amassed quite a string of credentials not the least of which were the MOPA (Master Oil Painter of America) amongst many others. Still despite all his acclaim he chose to sign his name with the initials NWBSA which stood for “Big Shot West Coast Artist”. I howled with laughter upon reading this passage in a magazine in a newsstand. I had become quite fond of not wearing shoes during my painting experiences and had become known as the “Barefoot painter”. So in homage to the late Neil Boyle I have adopted the initials “BFCA” and inserted them behind my name. The initials stand for “Barefoot Canadian Artist” and have secured my persona in the realm of memorable artists. This self designated accreditation has generated substantial conversation and even resulted in the odd confrontation amongst gallery owners and collectors who go so far as to suggest that I am fraudulently presenting myself as someone who has achieved recognition without earning it. Make no mistake, I have earned those letters and so much more. Whomever purchases a work of art based on the perceived value of those letters behind someones name, shame on you. For you have devalued that artist’s effort to put forth something of meaning and instead of recognizing it as such have diminished it by purchasing it with the presumable sole purpose of it being of investment quality. Shame on you!!! Shame!!

From: Siobhan Dempsey — Sep 19, 2012
From: Cliff Higdon — Sep 19, 2012

I had, at one time in the distant past, six letters and a number before my name ABNSTR1, which meant I was third in rank above the slime on the bottom of the ocean, the slime being Ordinary Seaman under six months. I wonder if that six letters and a number would have given the impression that I had attended an institution of higher learning or maybe I had a higher calling than that of a Naval Grunt who used to puke up his guts whenever he went to sea, if they had been after my name. Makes you wonder.

From: Heinz — Sep 19, 2012

Very valuable comments, thank you everyone.

From: Mike Barr — Sep 20, 2012
From: Maxine Wolodko — Sep 20, 2012
From: June — Sep 20, 2012

I’ll add a comment to the few responses stating that signature letters from art associations are hard to earn, it takes years, jury is done by masters etc.etc. That’s all true, but there is another side to it as well. I have been a signature member in a national art organization which has such hoops and everything mentioned sounds very familiar. Yes there are hoops, and yes, some of the jurors are good artists, and yes it takes years to earn letters. But I have also seen signature members forming alliances over years of involvement, promoting personal tastes and doing anything possible to gain paying students. It is true that some good art occasionally pops up and the whole thing provides a learning experience to beginners…but the amount of shady stuff sometimes adds bad taste to the value of camaraderie. So as anything, you have to make your own decision what works for you best. When I see those art association letters after an artists name, that tells me that this person is a part of the art association game – on a good side or on a bad side, there is no way to know. It’s safe to say that the newer the member, the more pure he/she is. The more years in the game, more doubts about their purpose.

From: Frank — Sep 20, 2012

Those letters are very important if you are hunting for adult students. More letters you have, more sweet old ladies will line up…

From: hanna — Sep 20, 2012

Ah please…Mike Barr…you enjoy your fake royalty appearance but you also say “Of course, in these days of dying excellence Fellowship is much easier to attain”…I am rollong my eyes…

From: Mike Barr — Sep 20, 2012

Hanna – for the record, I attained my Fellowship in these days when it is easier to do so ;-) cheers MIke

From: Katie Hoffman — Sep 20, 2012

I suspect signing a painting with extra letters lends the opposite of credence. When I look through my art history books or gaze at paintings in museums, there are no curious extra letters. Except maybe Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.

From: rena — Sep 21, 2012
From: Frank Nicholas — Sep 21, 2012

Well, you probably won’t like this response, but I’ve always been impressed and a bit intimidated by those letters. I have no letters but the Jr. after my name. I’ve always work and competed with credentialed people. As its worked out, I’ve won most of the time. I always look at the work. I listen to what they say after I see the work and see if it goes together. Sometimes it does. Many times the patter is better than the work. I seem to learn from the work most of the time. I’d like to have the letters, but have never considered them more important than the work. I like my Jr.! That means something to me.

From: Johanna Gullick — Sep 21, 2012

I thought for a long time that artists with letters were really special. Of course some with letters are exceptional artists. How important these letters are depends on which art circle one moves around in. When I moved around the college campus to get my MFA degree, the type of art that promotes some of these honorary letters would have not even been discusses. I have a MFA but would not even think of putting it on my artwork. That degree was hard fought for too, from the start when one has to ‘jury’ into a graduate art program to the years of study that it takes to earn the degree. As artists we all work hard and in the end, it is the quality of our work, how good and consistent we are at promotion, and sometimes ‘luck’ at being at the right place at the right time that propels us into the spot light. As for the letters, I’m not so concerned about them any more.

From: Suzanne Barrett — Sep 21, 2012
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 21, 2012

A.B., M.A.,ATR, ATR-BC…and a $1.75 plus tax will get me a cup of coffee.

From: Judith Silver — Sep 21, 2012

I’ve noticed that many times the artwork of the officers of the society running the juried show have their work accepted more often than not. Sometimes their work is a notch above but sometimes it is not. They almost always use the letters designating their achievement. In another note, a friend who had submitted a work was informed that her piece had been juried in to a show but that she would have to pay several years membership to be eligible for those letters. Two previous pieces of hers had been selected years before but she had since let her membership expire. She paid an appreciable amount of money for the honor of those letters. What does all of this mean – I have no idea.

From: Layne Larsen — Sep 21, 2012

At last count, I had paintings hanging in public and private collections and museums in 30+ countries, but don’t have a single “art” related initial to my name. My BEng, MEng, MBA, SSM, CD go on my resume, not on my paintings.

From: Connie J. Adams NWS. — Sep 21, 2012

Dear Robert, Thanks for your letters – i cherish them. I know for a fact in some cases that the letters behind a name do NOT influence jurors, each work is looked at for its own merit and that is how it should be. While i agree with you that those letters do not necessarily mean that the person is a good artist, I DO believe they help sort out efforts. Do you need to put those initials after your name? – NOPE! I didn’t for the longest time, because they clutter up the picture plane. I only do so now in Hawaii so I can separate myself in teaching from the hundreds of watercolor teachers here without much experience. However, i worked hard to be included in the National Watercolor Society. I had to jump through several hoops and i think my work was better for it. I started to question why I was doing the work I was doing, How can I show my unique view on things and how i can bring to my watercolors a fresh “take” on the medium and not just copy all the styles that are out there in the workshops. Watercolor is the amateur’s medium. And therefore, more often than not, it just reflects what workshop is in style at the time. It is rarely taught in art schools anymore except in illustration departments. So I am grateful for the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society that has strict standards for accepting members. They tend to cull out many of the incredibly skillful “copyists” . (of course, not always) However, do they really mean anything – Those letters? Maybe they mean no more than a college degree to someone who never ends up using that degree. However, employers STILL want to see that degree. Why? If nothing else, it means that you had the fortitude to stick with something for 4 years. i don’t know much about local art societies, but at the national level they may only stand for the perseverance that it took to be juried in. And that in itself DOES say something. After all, talent is only a small part of art making – It is perseverance that gets you somewhere, really.

From: Yvonne Morrish CSPWC — Sep 21, 2012

Thank you all for your comments and I have never signed my paintings with the letters, just my signature. The history behind the Society(CSPWC) that do the jurying and final agreement on the artists ability to be awarded the initials behind their name are very old and IM sure the jurying process has improved as time goes on. The Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour formed a national Watercolour Society in 1925 in Toronto Canada. Im very proud to be a member and I will still use the letters when I deem them appropriate for me to do so. Thanks again… and thank you Robert.

From: Liz Reday, RCA — Sep 21, 2012
From: Rick Rotante — Sep 21, 2012

Its never been about credentials- its always about the work.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 22, 2012

Liz – Here here. Well said.

From: Lisa — Sep 25, 2012

So funny those comments who say more or less – all those letters are worthless – except for the ones I have…funny human nature

From: Kelly Leichert — Oct 09, 2012

The last show I applied for had one hundred and ten applicants. It was a travelling show throughout the small museums (towns and small cities) in our province. Certainly many had BFA or MFA designations. In my city one gallery is run by someone with a doctorate and there is now one Doctor on the University Visual Arts faculty. Most arts administrators have an MFA. With all this it may be possible to sell commercially without designation – but showing may become impossible as it is a means to sort through a crowded arts world. Also, as unbiased as people try to be – if you went to school for 6-8 years, you would likely appreciate someone who took that effort and also have an affinity to the academic approach. Increasing work must be justified through writing which an extended education focuses on. With art being non-subjective, this is a way to classify work when limited funds and show opportunities are available.

From: Kelly Leichert — Oct 09, 2012

sorry – the art work is non objective. See I need more education!

From: Jonathan “Blade” Manning — Nov 06, 2012

Several years ago while working as a pipe-fitter I got into a debate with an engineer about whether or not his designs would fit up to the current application. I pointed out all the measurements and errors. I suggested he recalculate for gaskets, etc. I talked until blue in the face and he flat ignored me. I finally asked him why he was so obtuse. “What makes you think you are so right when all the evidence flies in your face?” He whipped out his business card and pointed to the letters at the end of his name. “You see where it says ‘PE’? That means I am a Professional Engineer! I have gone through years of education and training and been vetted by my peers. I *KNOW* I am right.” The piping obviously didn’t fit. I gathered him up and told him to bring his letters and his pipe-stretcher to see if he could fix it. I also received a handsome amount of overtime on the change order. Several months later, I was promoted to a position that required business cards. I ordered my first set with letters after my name as well: Jonathan Manning, D.M.A.D.T. In case you were wondering, that Doesn’t Mean A Damn Thing.

From: Kelly Leichert — Dec 13, 2012

Unfortunately, art cannot be reality tested like pipe fitting, architecture, etc.. So the one with the accreditation decides what is art.

From: Nin — Dec 18, 2012

These comments are describing the challenges to our integrity as artists. Also, I haven’t found a definition of “success” that fits art. I suspect it needs to be fluid.

     Featured Workshop: Diane Leifheit
Diane Leifheit workshops Held at White Pine Camp, Paul Smiths, NY, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Whispy Clouds Embrace the Mountain

oil painting, 24 x 48 inches by Georgina Hunt, BC, Canada

  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.’ ”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.