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The academy that is ‘not for families’

The American Academy of Rome exists to help young US artists get their first step on the world ladder. It will do everything it can for them – provided they have no children. Young parents need not apply. 

The distinction seems discriminatory in these enlightened times. it’s not so much an open-door policy as a door half-shut. You might like to support Susanna Ashton’s petition below.

Elizabeth Rivlin and I have drafted a letter to the American Academy of Rome objecting to the exclusionary language they use in their guidelines for applicants. If you’re an academic and would like to lend your name and title as a signatory to this letter, we would love your support. Please contact one of us know by email or private message. We’re not doing a huge petition project; rather, we’re just hoping to get enough signatures to get this some notice when it arrives on their desk (and the desk of the NEH officers who help fund their grants). Their language infuriated us and we thought we could make a difference by calling them out.
Let us know if we could add your name. Thanks, Susanna

Dear Officers of the American Academy of Rome,

We write to call your attention to the very unfortunate tone and phrasing of your most recent announcement and call for applications. The poor phrasing of the announcement conveys quite powerfully the message that artists and scholars with children are not welcome to apply.

Parents who juggle careers and families, particularly those at the pinnacle of international achievement that would make them viable candidates for the fellowships, are already well aware of the challenges faced by meeting the needs of family while simultaneously producing meaningful work. To state that “the Academy is not designed for families with children, and those considering going to Rome should be forewarned. They will have to pay rent, subsidize the stipend, figure out schools, baby-sitting, and all other family needs independently, and most significantly, realize that the amount of work they can get done is historically less than for those without these responsibilities” is to send a message to potential applicants that is misguided at best and, frankly, condescending and hostile at worst.

We appreciate that the Rome Prize is designed for “emerging artists and scholars in the early or middle stages of their careers.” But it is shortsighted indeed not to recognize that for many people, this stage of career coincides with the child-bearing and child-raising years. To ignore this fact or to suggest tacitly that artists and scholars are less committed to their work and careers than their childless counterparts is profoundly retrogressive and even risks sounding discriminatory.

We expect a more inclusive and progressive tone, commensurate with the American Academy of Rome’s stated commitment to “Intellectual and artistic freedom, interdisciplinary exchange, and innovation.” Where the announcement implies that ideal recipients of the prize are those who most closely match the founders’ vision of “single men under 30,” we would like to see a call that instead embraces the opening of academia beyond the Romantic ideal of the ascetic male scholar laboring away from a family. Indeed, artists and scholars who have succeeded so brilliantly in their careers so as to be viable applicants, while also maintaining families, have already demonstrated a productivity that is profoundly indicative of a potential for spectacular careers and creating great things. Moreover, we find it ironic that the American Academy of Rome should strike such an admonitory chord in the context of Rome, a culture famous for its appreciation of children and loving embrace of family structure.

We propose that you consider reshaping your call to make it more consonant with the strategies other institutions and organizations use to embrace rather than discourage the widest range of stellar applicants. We suggest removing the phrasing that seems patently exclusionary to many women and all parents and instead emphasizing the Academy’s commitment to accommodating a broad, diverse applicant pool and to providing guidance and resources for families who contemplate relocating to Rome for the duration of the prize.

Susanna Ashton & Elizabeth Rivlin

See the part about “May I bring my family” on their FAQ page.

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  1. I’ve collaborated with many of the ‘fellows’ and their work in Rome. Children have been there. Also, Americans and Canadians living in Rome are always helpful in helping the families settle in to schools, etc. With the building next door, I don’t understand the problem. Ann

  2. I agree with Ms. Ashton’s and Ms. Rivlin’s letter 100%, and will be happy to support them, and pass along the letter.

    I want to point out, though, that women in the US are still facing this kind of discrimination in most if not all careers–only it’s never admitted.

  3. Forgot to mention: I’ve never heard anyone ask a man how he manages to combine a career and a family.

    • Indeed that’s unfair. Men usually get less compassion than women when it comes to the hard work they do while they miss being with their loved ones.

  4. 2nd paragraph… “Those with children under 18 live in partially subsidized apartments nearby.”
    Have you maybe got the wrong end of the stick ?

    Para on housing…. “Rome Prize winners accompanied by a spouse/companion will be given a double room and meals for the companion will be offered at a subsidized rate. Those accompanied by children are housed in subsidized apartments on the Academy’s grounds. Meals for children will also be offered at a subsidized rate.”

    So they already offer more to those with families and or children than to those without.

    And they warn that kids take up a lot of time. That is true. If you have them, you will know. If not, take it from me.

    But I do agree this is a case of shocking and blatant discrimination:
    “Is the fellowship open to all?
    No, applicants for Rome Prize fellowships must be United States citizens at the time of application….” (with certain exceptions).

    This phrasing powerfully seems to imply that Non-Americans are not welcome to apply. Even those at the pinnacle of their careers. This is a terribly unfortunate choice of words, and must be a great source of frustration for those who are at the stage of life in which they are Non-American. I feel a petition coming on.

    • Since women still bear the brunt of child-rearing, the statement contains a form of inherent bias that is genuinely harmful. Daddy may go off without the kids, but for mommy it is often more difficult. The academy may have some limited facilities for children but that does not change the nature of the statement. One advantage of treating women equally is that it is giving us a more humane understanding of family needs.

      • That remaining “bias” you are mentioning here of women “bearing the brunt of child-rearing” comes from mother nature. Or was it “father” nature? Women are the ones who are pregnant, give birth and breast feed. That’s tough. Meanwhile men go out and find food. (directly or in modern times indirectly) What’s wrong with that?

        Besides that, above article makes no distinction between men and women as you do. (of course you do, it’s your pet peeve) Instead it mentions that if one wants to bring children along, one has to organize for it oneself. So what? What is the outrage for?

  5. Is the prize available for late bloomers- e.g., someone with an emerging career in their 70′s?

  6. You have our support.

  7. This year there are a combined total of 20 children in residence at the American Academy in Rome, to a total of 30 Rome Prize Fellows. From what I’ve heard, the Academy bends over backwards to accommodate families, and with a ratio of 20:30, there is obviously no discrimination against applicants with children. On the other hand, there are very real difficulties for fellows with children to deal with, which single fellows don’t have to. It seems to me that the Academy is just trying to insure that people be realistic.

    • We have just received this response from the academy director:
      Rome, Italy

      Dear Drs. Ashton and Rivlin:

      I write as Director of the American Academy in Rome, first and foremost, to thank you for pointing out that the language of our “Frequently Asked Question” could easily have been subject to misinterpretation, to such an extent that it could be read to reflect the opposite of our intentions. If you check our website, here, you will see that it has been changed.

      Unlike a number of other arts and humanities institutes, artists’ colonies, and other fellowship-granting organizations that focus on facilitating the independent work of their community members, the American Academy in Rome welcomes fellows with families. With our FAQ we want to be as transparent as possible, to make sure that Rome Prize Fellows who do come with families are not surprised, when they arrive, by unanticipated costs and responsibilities. We see doing so as being welcoming in a responsible way. We hope that our new version gets the message across clearly and respectfully.

      I should mention that this year’s Rome Prize Fellows have brought twenty children into our community. They, and the other members of the Fellows’ families, have brightened up our year; and our Fellows, all of them, have formed a tight-knit group and are already doing wonderful work across a wide spectrum of the fine arts and humanities. Far from being unwelcoming, we have worked hard to integrate this record number of families; along the way, we realized we needed to be clearer about what and how we communicate to all fellowship applicants. So the last thing we wanted to imply with our FAQ was that families and children are not welcome. Again, it was, and is, only a question of making those families’ experience as comfortable as possible within the financial parameters available to us at this point in our history. So thanks, again, for allowing us to clarify our message.

      Yours sincerely,

      Chris Celenza

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