The Guggenheim How-To


Some time back I promised a bit of guide on my own experience applying for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and have gotten quite a few emails about it. So here are some of my own experiences. I’ll start by saying that even though I received a grant, met the wonderful and kind folks at the Foundation and talked to many about the process, I still have no secret insight as to why my work was chosen other than they must have simply liked the photographs and applications. In other words there doesn’t seem to be a formula.

In spring of 2008 I began by simply asking some good friends and mentors if I was at a point in my career and work to even apply. I, like many, have great respect for much of the work done while on this historic grant and wanted to make sure if I was going to apply I was ready. A lot of people seem to see the Gug. as a kind of artistic lottery. What it really provides is the opportunity to contribute something to the medium and larger culture. You have to truly believe what you’re applying for is something that potentially can.

One insight I did pick up talking with people after the fact is that the Guggenheim seems to be designed to seek out the advice of former recipients. The process can be a bit elusive and vague so having access to people ‘in the know’ will be necessary.

Whomever writes for you in greatly important and should be people you know well. You’re asking a lot and they should be people who very well know you’re good to return the favor. A friend advised, ‘choose people who will write about you like you’re the best thing since sliced bread’. You’ll be asking 4 people to write letters for you.

I ended up asking a museum director, a curator, a former recipient and a writer from NY. I didn’t ask all Chicago people and really lucked out that the people I asked were able to write as they knew me and my work so well.¬†Additionally what you write is very important and avoid the ‘career narrative’ section being too much like a CV; key word, narrative.

Check your edit of pictures with friends and respected colleagues. I almost made a few blunders and luckily my good friends talked me out of it. Think about print size as the people who look through your work actually have to handle it.

While the application was a lot of work, taking the time out to write and give perspective on my work was very helpful for me nonetheless. I was fully expecting to have to apply again. Once the materials were sent off I did my best to forget about it and get back to work.

This is only my experience and I’m sure there are exceptions to any of these. Specific questions? Leave comments.


  1. Posted August 17, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    very generous of you to share your experience and thoughts with us on the process, brian. such generosity is a character note i’ve observed in you from the first.

  2. Posted August 23, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Great insights. Thanks Brian. Maybe next year I will try to brave the process.

  3. Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    congrats on the grant brian! in my opinion, your work truly deserves it. but having the thoughfulness and care for others by sharing your insights into the process goes way beyond the call of duty! a selfless act, well done.

  4. Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Many thanks Brian. So much good work being made out there and any info on applying for the Gug. is potentially for the better of photography.
    Hopefully will see all your names added to ‘the list’.

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