The Pursuit of Prestige
What Joining a Professional Artist Organization
by Louise Buyo Can Mean for Your Career
IMAGES COURTESY THE COLORED PENCIL SOCIETY OF AMERICA.
Colored Pencil Society of America members and guests during the reception of the 16th Annual International
Exhibition in Seattle.
reating art is largely a private process, which can be both exhilarating and
exhausting. As John F. Kennedy once said, “The life of the artist is, in relation
to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often amid deprivation, to
perfect his skill.”i A solitary vocation helps many artists keep their focus, develop a
strong work ethic and hone their abilities. Artists are human, however, and, as social
beings, often desire the company of their peers.
In previous centuries, there were guilds — co-fraternities of because the sheer number of people applying is greater than that
self-employed artisans. Painters and sculptors were able to rise of a local or regional group. Nevertheless, during the stormy
through the ranks of their trade — first as an apprentice, then as a periods of your career, nothing will bolster self-confidence like
journeyman, and finally, as a master — by obtaining the required pride of accomplishment.
level of skill. In exchange for demanding an exacting standard of
work from artists, guilds provided privileges to its members. Types of Membership
Today, professional artist organizations (also known as associa- Most professional art organizations offer a form of public
tions, societies, clubs, unions, etc.) serve as the modernized ver- membership to art professionals (art historians, curators, consult-
sions of guilds where artists can interact with each other. But some ants, architects, writers, etc.), patrons (collectors or donors) and
artists seek more than camaraderie or a common cause. For them, amateurs (hobbyists or enthusiasts). These are referred to vari-
the pursuit of prestige is a great lure. Many artists join professional ously as Associate, Affiliated or Contributing memberships, and
organizations to enhance their reputations. are not to be confused with the most prestigious forms of mem-
Admission to a national art association or society in bership that require peer review, such as Elected Members,
America is extremely competitive. Each has its own guidelines Signature Members, Artist Members or Fellows. It is membership
and rules for membership. Acceptance is difficult to gain by peer review that is discussed in this article.
www.artscuttlebutt.com Serving the Visual Artist for 22 Years 25
One of the few exceptions to this very general rule of thumb mission to empower women artists, promote contemporary art
is the designation of “Associate” to National Academicians (i.e. made by women and argue the case of women artists in American
members of the National Academy in New York). Only when a history.
“Full Member” dies is a replacement chosen from the Associate The Best of the Best. One of its oldest art societies, the
Members by election. National Academy of Design is arguably the country’s most presti-
gious artist organization. Members include Louise Bourgeois and
Types of Professional Artist Organizations Frank Gehry. The National Academy was established in 1825
Thirteen prestigious national artist organizations were surveyed with the dual purpose of becoming a school of art and holding
for this article (see below). By providing a network of support, annual exhibitions of contemporary art, which it has held contin-
these groups help artists further their careers through artistic growth uously since its inception for a total of 184 exhibitions to date.
and professional development: opportunities for awards, exhibitions
and education. Most organizations have a particular focus that falls Trial by Fire
in one of three categories: medium, aesthetic idea or gender. Although each organization has a different system of choosing
Medium. By far the largest types of professional artist organi- new members such as an annual call for artists, a national juried
zations, these groups were established to include only professional exhibition/competition, election by majority vote or invitation
artists interested in one medium. The idea of splitting artists into only — there is one constant in the pursuit of prestige: peer review.
specialties is a relatively recent phenomenon, so these groups also The application process is expensive, arduous and often dis-
make up the youngest contingent of the national organizations. appointing. A very small percentage of applicants may qualify for
Only two medium-based organizations surveyed here, the admission and an even smaller number of artists actually receive
American Watercolor Society and the National Sculpture membership into a national organization. For example, American
Society, were founded before the 20th century. Watercolor Society applicants must show at two annual AWS
Aesthetic Idea. A smaller number of professional art organi- exhibitions to simply qualify for candidacy, before having their
zations are sustained by the belief in a common aesthetic, which work judged by a jury of six. It is not surprising that the AWS
they seek to preserve and promote. The Salmagundi Art Club accepts an average of just 12 new members a year.
(established in 1871, it was the club of William Merrit Chase and Getting rejected can be a bitter pill to swallow for many
Louis Comfort Tiffany) and the Academic Artists Association artists. But for those who make it, the experience is invigorating.
(founded in 1949 and dedicated to representational works in all “It is a wonderful feeling knowing you have been reviewed and
media), in particular, hold conservative artistic principles. These accepted by a jury of your peers,” says Academic Artists
organizations seek members who share an interest in the academ- Association President Lynn Wrona. “For many, it is a springboard
ic tradition of landscape, portraiture and sculpture. toward gallery representation.” This is a reason to keep trying,
Gender. In the 19th century, art societies were very exclusive especially if you decide it’s something you really want.
affairs dominated by wealthy men. To protest the exclusion of
women in the arts, two national artist organizations, the National Advantages & Accolades
Association of Women Artists, and Pen and Brush, were created Distinction is its own reward. Nevertheless, there are other
at the turn of the century to further a specific agenda geared perks to joining a prestigious national society or association.
toward female artists. Today, both organizations continue their Recognition of excellence. While adding the initials of art
Short List of Prestigious Professional Art Organizations in the U.S.:
While there are certainly many more prestigious art organizations, these 13 are some of the most well-known,
longstanding organizations around:
Medium Aesthetic Idea
• American Watercolor Society • Academic Artists Association
• Colored Pencil Society of America • Salmagundi Art Club (www.Salmagundi.org)
• Glass Art Society (www.GlassArt.org) Gender
• National Oil and Acrylic Painter’s Society • Pen and Brush (www.PenAndBrush.org)
(www.NOAPS.org) • National Association of Women Artists
• National Sculpture Society (www.NAWAnet.org)
• National Watercolor Society The Best of the Best
(www.NationalWatercolorSociety.org) • National Academy (www.NationalAcademy.org)
• Pastel Society of America • National Arts Club (www.NationalArtsClub.org)
26 Art Calendar ı February 2009 www.artcalendar.com
associations to the end of artist signatures has largely gone out of
fashion, using professional designations on a resume or curriculum “It is a wonderful feeling
vitae is still a means of vetting an artist. Several art organizations,
such as the Pastel Society of America (PSA) and the National
knowing you have been
Sculpture Society (NSS), invite members to use initials after their reviewed and accepted by a
names. lite membership in a professional artist organization is
used as a barometer of ability for galleries and collectors.
jury of your peers. For many,
Networking. Networking is essential to furthering an artist’s it is a springboard toward
career professional artist organizations provide a great place to
start. Besides encouraging solidarity within a like-minded group, gallery representation.”
artist societies offer a ready support mechanism: an environment
where people discuss their careers and current trends. Due to the — Lynn Wrona,
Academic Artists Association President
different types and levels of membership now offered by associa-
tions, artist members can engage a broad range of art lovers.
Grace Pier, executive director of the National Sculpture shows your ability to compete at a very high level and can lead to
Society, says, “ oining (the National Sculpture Society) is a good invitations for other shows or to teach others what you know.”
way to network of other sculptors as well as collectors and patrons
... By sharing information, we’ve tried to provide a forum for A Place in History
sculptors.” pon acceptance into several professional artist organiza-
Education. Through yearly dues, many professional artist tions (for example, the National Association of Women Artists),
organizations are able to offer educational opportunities to mem- artist members are encouraged to donate a “diploma” piece (a
bers. Artists seeking advice from mentors who have cultivated juried work from the application process). These works join the
success in their careers can attend seminars. Associations with association’s permanent collection and become the core of some
local chapters often have classes for artists who are looking to of the most important collections of American art in the country.
learn a new technique or brush up older skills. Artist organiza- In addition to collecting art, most organizations maintain a library
tions can put you on the path to professionalism through self- and an archive accessible to members. Files are kept on each
improvement. member and filled with details of their lives and their careers.
Large organizations, such as the Colored Pencil Society of Newsletters, exhibition catalogues, texts and publications that
America (CPSA) and the Glass Art Society, hold weeklong con- contain the work of members are all preserved for posterity.
ferences each year. These events provide members a chance to
make connections as well as attend lectures. Why should you join?
Professional art organizations play an important role in the
Exhibition Opportunities, Competitions & Awards development of American art. They maintain a rigorous standard
Perhaps the greatest perk of joining a professional artist that benefits the arts community as a whole. They continue to
organization is the numerous exhibition opportunities. act as an arbiter of taste in established art circles, their annual
Throughout the years, many art associations acquired permanent exhibitions are national events, and their competitions promote
premises or became partners with museums, allowing them to the development of art and are a means of improving the quality
hold annual exhibitions similar in spirit to the historic Paris of artwork in the .S.
salons where artist members are invited to show their work to the The reasons for joining professional artist organizations are as
public. uite a few societies organize multiple shows a year. diverse as the groups themselves. For some artists, the challenge is
very organization on our short list holds an annual juried appealing. Competition has a way of revealing a person’s charac-
competition complete with a generous award and an exhibition ter and stamina. Other artists feel that creating art is a specialized
for the winner and finalists. Although the general public (i.e. occupation as deserving of respect as practicing law or being an
non-members) is invited to participate, members compete with- engineer. Some of the most distinguished and celebrated
out paying fees. Winning or placing in one of these annual shows American artists belonged to these groups. To be the member of a
can provide a stamp of approval to artists trying to lend credibility professional artist organization is to be in good company. AC
to promising or established careers.
For example, although highly competitive (the American A former art consultant and assistant office manager at Hoypoloi
Watercolor Society receives between 1, 00 and 2,000 entrants), Gallery in Orlando, Florida, Louise Buyo is the assistant editor of Art
winning a competition is a strong affirmation of talent. Calendar. She served as a curatorial assistant in the exhibitions depart-
“It does enhance your prestige to win at the exhibition of a ment at the Orlando Museum of Art and in the contemporary art
national organization,” says Melissa Miller Nece, Ways and department of the Harn Museum of Art. Louise can be reached at
Means Director of the Colored Pencil Society of America. “It LBuyo@ArtCalendar.com.
ennedy, ohn F. Public Papers of the President: 19 2, p. 904, The Arts in America
www.artscuttlebutt.com Serving the Visual Artist for 22 Years 27