Monday, September 13, 2010

kahlil almustafa: The Other Side of the Table: Sitting on a Grant Panel

As many artists know, those weeks between submitting your grant application and receiving that letter in the mail with the funder's return address, are full of anticipation. I know the phases of the waiting game well: estimating the approximate time of arrival, letting yourself forget all about it, lingering longer than usual just in case you run into the mail carrier. I have those low-budget-sitcom-college-acceptance superstitions: thin envelope will have a one-page rejection, while a thicker envelope will include some additional forms to fill out along with your award letter.

In the past two years, I have received five grants - that’s an extra$10,000. Whoa! Recently, I received one of those rejections, though not in one of those “thin envelopes.” After being turned down I was left with the question artists inevitably end up asking: What’s wrong with me? I realize I should have been asking is: What was wrong with my grant application?

Recently, I had the opportunity to be one of seven judges sitting on a grant panel. I was sitting on the other side of the table. The grant panel was a $2,500 grant for performing artists given out by a local arts council. Here are some insights I discovered while participating in the adjudication process.

1) Control the Lens

It is imperative that you control the lens through which the grant panel will view you. On this grant panel, there was an applicant who introduced himself as a dancer. In his artist statement, he wrote passionately about a performance combining poetry with traditional dances from his two heritages. Shortly after viewing his work sample, the two dancers on the grant panel began to comment: “Oh, his dancing is not as strong as the other applicants.” “Yes, I must agree, put him in the ‘NO’ pile.”

As a performance poet who has attended countless one-person shows, I did not see mediocre dancing, I saw a performer incorporating elements of dance into his performance. I tried to advocate on his behalf, “Wait, I think we should take a closer look.” After re-reading his project vision, I attempted to translate to the group. “As a performance poet, I see a brave artist who is attempting to use the traditional dances of his two ancestral lines in one performance. It is his attempt to bring two communities together and therefore have his whole self exist in one space.” My passionate plea only received a dismissive response “Fusion dance is nothing new, and this is a poor attempt at it.”

This artist had practically doomed himself, simply by checking the wrong box. He may identify as a dancer in his heart. He may wake up every morning and feel as if his body was put on earth for the sole purpose of dancing, but for this particular application, he would have had a much greater chance if he had allowed the grant panel to view him through the lens of a performance artist. When he checked the “dance” box, he gave permission to people from the dance world to speak as experts. So, no matter how much I advocated, I was the performance poet, speaking as an outsider.

The point here is that the grant application is not necessarily your opportunity to define yourself as an artist. It is your chance to convince of group of people to give you money to fulfill your dreams. Consider how this specific grant panel (or foundation) will view your work and check the right box. Control the lens.

2) Show Momentum

The more money you get, the more money people want to give you. This often seems counterintuitive, wrong even, but as Billy Holiday sings, “God bless the child who got his (or her or non-gendered their) own.” People want to get on while the ship is already moving. I understand Money attracts Money. I know the “Laws Of Attraction.” I saw The Secret.

This realization came to me a month after receiving an ERPA Grant from The Field. It was at an open dialogue given in partnership with a granting organization and a local arts council. Upon meeting the Assistant Director, I told her about my project recently receiving funding. She was vaguely familiar with the ERPA Program. Her immediate response was, “Why aren’t you getting money from us?” We set up a meeting which has led to continuous support from this organization.

There is nothing a granting organization loves more than to feel as if they are funding a project just as it is gaining momentum. At the grant panel, the whole room gets excited, as each person takes turns pointing out evidence toward a qualified applicant: “Well, she already has funding from another grant and has raised $500 in donations from family and friends.” “And look, last year she did a sold-out run in this 150-seat theater.” “Wow, her work sample looks good.” “Her promotion strategy looks good.” “Budget’s all good.” - - “Put her in the YES pile.”
The first time this happened I was amazed. We had not even looked at the Artist Statement or the Project Vision. If we got to the point later when we were deciding between her and another grantee we might, but for now, she was not only in the “Yes” pile, but in the “Definite Yes” pile, all because of evidence of support for her project. You want to get things moving. Show people how you are already a movement and they will be ready to get on board.

Depending on the specific criteria of the funder, the grant application is not the time to demonstrate your ability to ‘think big,’ it is your opportunity to reaffirm your project vision by showing who you are and how you intend to engage with potential audiences. If you need help, send your application to several people beforehand and have them send you back any questions which may come up. Or, my favorite, invite some people over whom you respect and have them by your mock grant panel. (Make sure to set aside some time in the schedule for dessert served with a praise session to boost your ego back up.)


Roman said...

Thank you for this short summary. I really connected to some of the things you wrote about, in particular the "money attracts money". I am also a Field Sponsored Artist and we are building our grants calendar to start writing.

Your post has given me more motivation to push on. Thank you.

Claudia Alick said...

I recently sat on a grant anal as well. Great lessons. Here's a few more!

3. Articulate your vision clearly. Some folks have a great track record but if they don't clearly state their vision and why it's special and awesome and exactly how the money will help them achieve that vision, no grant panel will feel comfortable funding them.

4. Make sure you’re not the only one making the case passionately. When you have someone writing a support statement for you make sure they understand and believe in the vision as much as you do. Nothing kills an application quicker than a lukewarm advocate.

5. Be a cool artists at all times. Who's on grant panels? Your colleagues. No one's going to bring in second hand information into the process but they will bring in first hand information. Who knows if the artist you’re working alongside today will be sitting on a panel determining your fate tomorrow? So be a cool artist at all times. Don’t flake, or undermine, or be negative. Be consistent, be capable, be cool.

MAPP International said...

Awesome Kahlil! It's an eye opening experience, isn't it?
I have a couple to add too:
6. Think hard about who your audience is and be realistic and specific in describing them. And in a related note...
7. Think about marketing. It is great to do an amazing project, but if no one knows it's happening what kind of impact can it have? If you've already considered your audience it should be easy to come up with an appropriate way to reach them.

Melissa said...

This is all so incredibly helpful! I'm grateful to Kahlil's post and all of the follow-up comments.

I have made it my mission to truly enjoy every grant application I write and to use it as an opportunity to strengthen my vision as an artist. These tips and insights will definitely be put to use over the next few months! Thanks for the help.