I Reviewed Art Grants for 3 Days + Here’s What I Learned

Hey!

I just spent three days in a conference room in Sacramento reviewing grants for the California Arts Council. I spent this time with 4 other arts professionals working in different fields. I stayed in a weird hotel and had a modest per diem for eating meals by myself, after which I would take long, aimless walks around the state capitol and think about stuff. I learned a lot during this process, so I’m sharing a few takeaways for artists and would-be grant-writers.

  • Our group was responsible for reading a little under 50 applications. Each application has an assigned “main reader” who steers the conversation of each proposal. This person has the floor to set the tone for the discussion of a project. I wouldn’t use a term like “make or break” here, but something less dramatic and slightly less tangible happens.
  • I noticed three big themes popping up within the applications we read. I’m simplifying here, but they were: (1) collaborative instrument making, (2) art parades, (3) support for transgender creatives.
  • Jargon is the worst. Don’t say something like “our collaborative process has innovative impact around groundbreaking community discourse” unless you take time to unpack what that really means. Terminology does not make you seem fancy, at least not to the people willing to take three days off from work because they really care about which projects get funded by the state.
  • Don’t assume people are familiar with the same discourses as you. I found myself explaining terms like “cisgender” and “social practice” to really smart arts professionals who have mastered their practice in areas I know nothing about. I really loved the applications where the writer said something like “I’m inspired by (writer/theorist/artist)’s work with blah blah, but here’s how I’m doing something a little different.”
  • Working with communities is really beautiful and important. Here’s some important stuff though — don’t just say the word “community” and assume readers know what you’re talking about. Are they the people who live in a specific place? People of a certain age, an identity? The people following a particular school of thought? Be very clear about this.
  • If you are a creative person who wants to work with a community that you are not immediately part of, that’s cool! But here’s the thing though: don’t assume you can (or should) reach them without help from a partner. There’s nothing worse than a well-intentioned (usually white) artist thinking they’re going to give a really beautiful gift by embarking in a thematically intense project with a historically disenfranchised community. Often, there are significant, nuanced traumas, tropes and cultural modes that an outsider isn’t going to be capable of being sensitive to. That shouldn’t be a disincentive to doing community-focused projects, but it means you need to work closely with an entity who is good at the things you’re not, and who has information and access to the things that you don’t. You will probably still make mistakes, but it’s easier to graciously own them this way.
  • Don’t gather source material from a community and then overwrite the role/histories/experience of your collaborators and call it “your” project exclusively, because that sucks. It’s hard to avoid sometimes, but don’t do it. You are not Andy Warhol and the concept of the Factory is no longer cool or interesting.
  • READ THE CALL FOR PROPOSALS. READ IT. ALL THE WAY THROUGH.
  • A reviewer will scrutinize your budget. If you outline matching grants, they will do the math. They will notice duplicate line items. Don’t half-ass this part.
  • If you’re confused about something, or even curious about taking your application one direction or another, reach out to the granting organization. They, and your readers, really want you to succeed. There were so many projects we were rooting for because they were working with some really beautiful ideas and communities with very high need. But more often than not, organizations (usually smaller ones with less support infrastructure) just didn’t know how to do the applications correctly, and they subsequently got dinged in the process.
  • Measurable evaluation is as valuable as gold. I know the valuable outcomes of art projects can often feel intangible and abstract and that’s part of why we love art so much, but numbers make it so much easier to point to a project and say “this is really doing some good.” Possible metrics and tools for tracking include: number of people participating in/or experiencing a thing, number of people talking about or sharing a thing, evaluative surveys (before and/or after a thing), sign-ups on your email newsletter, a problem getting solved, the development of technical or abstract skills, the production of x units, sharing of project documentation— there’s a lot possible, and I know it’s really, really hard to do.
  • Most importantly, I re-learned the value of having another pair of eyes on an application. In any kind of writing or design, it can be so easy to get stuck in your own head and make logic leaps, or use specific terminology that compromise the legibility of your idea. I still get embarrassed asking people to look at drafts, but all the best things I have done have been good because I had someone tell me that I wasn’t making sense.

It’s unrealistic to expect any one person to be good at two things. But I see it happen all the time. How can a person make good art and be good at writing? It makes me angry. Or happy for you. Whatever. What’s important to know is that I wrote this for you, the brilliant and tender creatives in my life. I am so proud to advocate for you, to share with you whatever I know, and to see you thrive in a professional landscape that has been historically broken and skewed. Good job, nerds.

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