Do Signature Letters Impress Art Collectors?

There are ways in which meeting a new collector is similar to applying for a job: An artist wants to show expertise and an agreeable personality; presumably, the artwork itself would reflect competence and achievement, but it is not uncommon to indicate that, like a job reference, others have regarded the artist's work highly as well. This is the reason that clippings of past reviews or feature articles are put out for visitors to an exhibition to peruse. It may not even matter whether or not the write-up is favorable, just that the artist's work has drawn the attention of a publication that saw some previous exhibit as important enough to publish a review, although as a practical matter most reviews in all but a tiny number of periodicals are quite positive.
Beyond reviews, artists may wonder what else a visitor wants to know, what might add to their prestige. Perhaps, having received an art degree (Bachelor's of Fine Arts, Masters of Fine Arts) from some noted art school or university art program might seem significant, although it is not clear how important this information is to prospective collectors (potential employers might be interested in whether someone graduated from college) and, besides, so many other artists have the same degrees. Having studied with a particularly renowned artist may have greater standing with collectors.
An artist's prestige may also be suggested through the use of "signature letters" at the end of the artist's name. A form of nonacademic credentialing, these letters that follow artists' names refer to the membership society to which they belong. The use of the signature letters after one's name is more likely to carry weight for artists who are members of recognized national, as opposed to regional or local, societies. The National Sculpture Society, for example, is a well-recognized association of artists from all over the United States who work in a variety of styles and materials, while the Cowboy Artists of America and the National Academy of Western Art--both of which offer signature letters to members--are more regional in focus and specific in content.
Both the American Watercolor Society and National Watercolor Society divide their members into two levels. The National Watercolor Society has both associates and signature members--the first group may join without jurying, the second requiring acceptance into the society's annual exhibition and then an additional jurying of three more paintings--while the American Watercolor Society has sustaining associates and active members. At the highest levels, members are permitted to include AWS or NWS after their names for professional purposes. The National Academy of Design also has two levels of membership, both of which include signature privileges: The first is an associate member (ANA), who is proposed by a current associate and approved in an election by at least 60 percent of the entire associate membership; the second is an academician (NA), who is chosen from the associates and elected by 60 percent of the academicians. Unlike the national watercolor societies, no jurying of individual works of art or acceptance into past or current annual exhibitions is part of the entry process.
Members of the major regional and national groups claim that signature initials confer stature upon an artist and may help advance one's career. "The National Watercolor Society is a very prestigious organization, and the jurying in is so strict that to be able to put NWS after one's name is really a feather in one's cap," Meg Huntington Cajero, a past president of the society, said. "The letters NWS matters to dealers who would be more inclined to represent an artist with them, knowing that the artist has been seen as having attained a very high level of skill and accomplishment, and dealers would point out the 'NWS' to potential collectors." Yet others claim that it is worthwhile for an artist to let others know how he is esteemed by others."
Signature letters have no specific value. To be a signature member of the Florida Watercolor Society, allowed to use the society's initials (FWS) after his or her name, for example, one must have been accepted into three of the society's juried exhibits. There are two other levels of membership to the Florida Watercolor Society that do not permit the use of signature letters: The first is associate membership, which can be anyone who is a Florida resident and pays the membership fee, and the second is participating membership, enabling one to vote for officers, policies, and venues for the society's annual juried exhibition, and these artists must have had one painting in a juried show. Other societies, on the other hand, allow anyone who pays the annual dues become a member and use the group's signature letters.
The degree to which signature letters appended to one's name aids an artist's career is not fully clear. Perhaps, if I were to write my name Daniel Grant, FWS, an onlooker might be intrigued enough to ask what the initials stand for, but the transition from curiosity to a sale would seem long. Lawrence diCarlo, director of the Fischbach Gallery in New York City, stated that signature letters don't mean anything to his collectors or to himself, and Frank Bernarducci, director of Tatistcheff and Company, another New York art gallery that represents artists who work in watercolor, claimed that all the signature letters may do for artists is "help keep their egos under control, perhaps." Painter Will Barnet, who is a national academician as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Century Club but does not use any of these signature letters after his name, said that the letters "have more of a human value than they are a benefit to one's career. It means something to me personally that other artists have accepted my work, but it doesn't matter to people who buy my work."