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Posted on Mar 27, 2024

Should You Join the Society of Illustrators?

This article was written in consultation with award-winning, professional illustrators Richard Ljoenes, Jon Kvassay, Stewart Williams, Jerry Todd, Jeff Brown, Karen Greenberg, and Mary Ann Smith.

The Society of Illustrators is a non-profit organization started in 1901 to “promote the art of illustration through education and exhibitions.” It is a forum for artists and aficionados to gather, discuss, and celebrate the art-form, and — perhaps most importantly — showcase and exhibit their own work. But should you become a member? And if so, what benefits would you get? 

In this article, we’ve taken a look at what the Society of Illustrators offers both members and non-members. We’ve also consulted some of our top illustration professionals at Reedsy to get their perspective on who the membership is for, and whether they think it’s worth it. 

Let’s start by looking at their membership tiers.

Memberships that fit your career stage

The Society of Illustrators offers a few different membership options for illustrators in different stages of their careers. Here’s a breakdown of the main features and eligibility criteria for their most popular membership categories:

Membership 

Cost

Open to

Example of benefits

Student

$35 sign-up fee

Students currently enrolled in an undergraduate program

  • Free admission to the Museum;

  • Free online gallery access (normally $15 per gallery);

  • Discounts on lectures, events, and the Illustrators Annual Book; 

  • Use of the society library.

Illustrator-S

$75 sign-up fee + $250 annual dues

Professional illustrators aged 36 or below with published works in their portfolio

  • Everything in Student;

  • Discount on competition fees and the Illustrators Annual book;

  • Eligibility to participate in Members Open Exhibit;

  • Invitations to exclusive Members-Only events; 

  • Free admission and discounts to over 924 arts organizations participating in the North American Reciprocal Museum Association; 

  • Access to the Digital Membership platform

Illustrator

$75 sign-up fee + $500 annual dues

Professional illustrators aged 37 or above with published works in their portfolio

Digital

$60

Anyone

  • Access to the Digital Membership platform which includes lectures, panels, workshops, galleries, and more.

Note that this table does not include all memberships or member benefits. To check the entire list, refer to the membership page.

Now, of course, the question is whether these benefits are worth the price tag.

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World-class illustration and comics collections

As the name suggests, the Society of Illustrators is a haven for anyone who loves illustration, who wants to admire excellent and price-winning examples of the craft, or who simply wants to be in the company of fellow artists and admirers. Located in a beautiful building on the Upper East Side in NYC, the society celebrates art in all of its forms: from commissioned work for publishing to individual multi-page projects, to surface illustrations for commercial products and marketing material.

A picture of the Society of Illustrators building in NYC. A beige building with an American flag, a flag with the Society logo, and a red awning over the entry-way.
A New York Institution dating back to 1901. (Image: Society of Illustrators)

On-site museum and collections

The society hosts one of the most comprehensive collections of illustrated art in their world at their headquarters. Their permanent collection comprises over 2,500 pieces by some of the biggest names in illustration and the comic and cartoon genre. The collection is thoroughly cataloged and was made even more extensive when the society acquired the assets of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in 2012. 

Visitors can schedule their visit ahead of time or drop in spontaneously to browse both their many exhibitions — ranging from their scholarship student exhibition, to rotating themed exhibits.

Illustrious awards and scholarships

Besides their museum and collections, what the society is perhaps most famous for is hosting some pretty prestigious illustration awards, in addition to offering many more award and scholarship opportunities. For most awards, submissions are open to illustrators worldwide and, with the exception of the Members Open, you don’t have to be a member to enter.

Here are some of their most well-known awards:

Illustrators Annual

The Society of Illustrators’ annual exhibition is a premier showcase for industry professionals. It features over 400 pieces of outstanding work ranging from artists from all over the world. 

Every year, the winning pieces are selected by a rotating jury consisting of renowned illustrators, art directors, and designers and displayed at the Museum of American Illustration at the society.

To tie it all together and cement the gravitas that winning this award conveys, each year the exhibit is opened with a gala night where the winners are celebrated. All accepted entries are also reproduced together with commentary from the artist in the Illustrators Annual Book — a shelf staple for Richard Ljoenes, former Senior Art Director at HarperCollins — which you can buy through various retailers or browse on their website.

A collage with illustrations featured in the Illustrators Annual 65.
Illustrators Annual 65 (Image: Society of Illustrators)

It’s safe to say that this award is a great opportunity for illustrators to display their work in front of a truly global audience of fellow illustrators and other industry professionals — though not necessarily prospective clients. 

The Original Art

A bit more specific than the Illustrators Annual, the purpose of the annual Original Art exhibit is to highlight the crème de la crème of children’s books published in the US. The award has been running since 1980 and has since its inception become a juried event which holds great esteem in the publishing world. The committee is made up of children’s book artists, art directors, editors, and publishers and the winner is selected from hundreds of submitted pieces. The two top pieces are awarded gold and silver medals while newcomers in the field are additionally eligible for the Dilys Evans Founders Award, meant to highlight promising emerging artists. 

MoCCA Art Festival

As NYC’s largest independent cartoon and comics festival, the MoCCA Art Festival is a 2-day festival that attracts over 9,000 attendees every year. Some 500 artists display their work, speak about their careers, and host panels. During the festival, the best pieces are selected for Awards of Excellence.

A collage of pieces awarded the Award of Excellence at the 2023 MoCCA festival.
2023 Mocca Arts Festival Awards of Excellence winners. (Image: Society of Illustrators).

Student Scholarship Award

The fourth and arguably most famous award that the society hosts is aimed towards students and burgeoning artists and comes in the form of a scholarship. Every year, professors can submit the work of their most promising students for consideration. A jury selects outstanding pieces based on technique, concept, and skill of medium used.

This is a generous award available to young artists hoping to kick-start their careers, and each year the winning pieces are displayed in an exhibition, helping them get their name out there.

Reedsy illustrator Jon Kvassay was selected for the student award himself, and said that it gave him a boost of confidence as a young artist: “It was great to get acknowledgement from people I didn’t know personally. It was how I knew I was on the right track as a student finding my voice. For a group of professionals to verify that your work is worthy of praise really helped me push forward and stick with a style.” However, it didn’t necessarily lead to any job opportunities (more on this later).

A collage of the student scholarship winners in 2023.
Student Scholarship 2023 (Image: Society of Illustrators)

If you want to take a look at what type of work has been awarded with scholarships in the past, here’s the complete gallery of the 2023 winners.

The society confers several other awards and scholarships in addition to the four we’ve just mentioned, so do check out their awards and call for entries if this is something you’re looking for. Note that in most cases you do not have to be a member to apply for these. 

Another major factor to consider before joining a vocational society such as this is what it can do for your career. 

Credibility but not necessarily job opportunities

In terms of employability, the society offers no opportunities for marketing or promoting your work beyond being featured in their galleries and Annual Book. Nor do they provide career guidance for their members or a job board where you can find new projects like other societies often do. Though their stamp of approval can help you gain credibility as an illustrator, Jon Kvassay is doubtful of the impact awards can have beyond this: “I don’t think I’ve ever received an email saying that they saw my work in any award or design annuals … I actually stopped submitting to awards. They cost a good amount of money and don’t seem to have a direct impact on being hired.” 

Simply put, winning prizes is unlikely to put your work directly in front of prospective clients. As Reedsy illustrator Stewart Williams puts it: “Personally, I've never been one to see the value in these organizations which seem to impress other illustrators or designers rather than clientele, who could seem to care less about awards or affiliations … My experience and word of mouth counts more than awards, at least in publishing.”

If you’re looking for concrete work opportunities and have the portfolio to back you up, consider signing up to Reedsy and showcase your profile in front of authors.

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Jerry Todd, another Reedsy illustrator who has both won and judged previous Society of Illustrators awards, has a slightly different perspective: “I think the importance of the society is that it gives illustrators a chance to be seen by a wider range of creative professionals.” This can, in the long-run, increase your opportunities and get you more commissions, partly because it also gives you a sense of gravitas, he argues.

So, while winning society awards may not lead to direct work opportunities, it can be a great way to boost your portfolio and freelancer profile as an illustrator. It may not be the sole reason that a client hires you as they are unlikely to follow these awards, but it might tip the scales in your favor.

Of course, you don’t have to be a member of the Society of Illustrators to enjoy the benefits of winning awards, which is perhaps why Stewart Williams and fellow illustrators Jeff Brown, Karen Greenberg, and Mary Ann Smith do not consider the membership worth it. Jeff Brown says he would consider membership only if there were advantages like finding interesting clients and awards. 

Benefits available to non-members

One major factor to consider before you become a member of the Society of Illustrators is that most of the resources and benefits that they offer are available to non-members as well, albeit without the discounts. This includes most events and networking opportunities such as Sketch Night and online workshops (though there are a handful of events that are exclusive to members). 

The digital membership is less cost-prohibitive, but the benefits are limited and you could arguably access illustration events, galleries, and lectures of a similar nature elsewhere for free  — or together with another, more affordable society membership, such as that offered by SCBWI

So, unless you’re sure that you will be using their resources and visiting their hallowed halls on a regular basis, we recommend paying the full price for a few events as a non-member to see if you find them beneficial before you commit to paying the rather steep membership fees.

The exception to this is perhaps the student membership which, if you have $35 to spare and plan on attending more than a couple of events and lectures or use any of the above mentioned resources, might be a good deal for you! 

Of course, we should mention that membership fees contribute to the many scholarships and awards that the society hands out to students and professional artists, so if you’re looking for a cause to support, this is one option. 

Which leads us to the final verdict. Should you join the society or not?

Verdict: Test first, commit later

The Society of Illustrators is a place where artists and fans of the art-form can come together to unapologetically nerd out about everything illustration. With their unique collection and extensive exhibitions as well as awards and scholarship opportunities, they act as a great source of inspiration and are an important institution in the world of illustration.

However, as we’ve seen in this article, many of the benefits of the society are not exclusive to members. Anyone can join most of their in-person and online events, enjoy a stroll in their museum, or browse through their collections on their website either for free or by paying a one-time fee. So, unless you are already planning to attend all of their events, visit the majority of their partner museums, or want access to their exclusive resources (which are not that many), it is hard to justify the somewhat cost-preventative membership fee. Especially if you do not reside in NYC. 

Keep the society on your radar, enter their competitions, browse their collections for inspiration, and enjoy one-off events now and then, but save your money unless you’re truly and fully ready to commit.


For more tips on vocational societies for creatives, check out our articles on Freelancers UnionIAPWE, ACES, CIEP, and the EFA.  For information about how to create a great freelancer profile, get more freelance clients, or notifications about free webinars, follow us on LinkedIn

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