19 September 2009

How Not to Write an Arts Grant Application

Whether it's your first application, or you're a seasoned veteran, arts grant writing can be daunting. In some cases, it can turn into an unbelievable, yet necessary, chore.

(Origami Money / $10 Shirt from Wee Sandy's Etsy Shop)

I've been around the grant writing block, hitting up arts councils, government programs and foundations for my individual art practice, as well as for various creative non-profits and charities, in a little over 15 years. Having sat on several arts council juries, what I've seen on the receiving end makes it glaringly apparent as to what makes a very strong application. Let me share with you what doesn't.


1. Don't Meet Your Granting Officer
Believe it or not, whether as an artist or creative non-profit, one of the best things you can and should do is meet with your granting officer. Many first-time applicants (to a program or a funding body) do not go over their applications with the officer in charge of the program. That's a shame. Setting up a quick, one-on-one meeting with your granting officer, well ahead of deadline, has many advantages. It is the perfect opportunity to:
  • see if your project is properly suited to the program
  • go over areas of the application you may not understand
  • get feedback before reapplying if a past application was unsuccessful
  • get a heads up on new programs suited to a future project
  • familiarize your granting officer with what you do
If your funding body is out of town, setting up a phone meeting will also suffice.

2. Don't Write a Concise or Relevant Project Description
It never ceases to amaze me, as a jury member, the number of applicants who don't get to the point. Depending on the program, what applicants need to realize is that jury members have to read, on average, anywhere from 50 to over 100 applications. The most concise, relevant, and to-the-point project descriptions, as they relate to the program, are the ones that stand out. Do not go on ceaselessly about things that have no direct bearing to your project. Stick to the point. Write and rewrite. Read what you have to a colleague or friend to gain feedback. Do they understand what your project is about? Can they visualize it? Your description should not lead to more questions. It should be clear enough that others get it right away and, more importantly, are intrigued and excited by it. So stop rambling. Please. Which brings me to the next point....

3. Don't Check Your Application for Spelling and Grammar Errors
Do you know what this tells me as a jury member? That you are careless and may not be a serious or professional applicant. It may also lead me to wonder if this is a reflection of how you'll execute the project for which you are applying for monetary support. Stop with the spell check and open up a dictionary.

4. Don't Answer the Questions in Your Application Appropriately
What exactly do I mean by this? Well, let's say you are asked, "What is the collaborative nature of your art project?" Speak to that question specifically. This is not the time to bring up past projects or anything else that may be unrelated.

Write clearly and feel free to elaborate a little on terms or ideas that are specific to your work or field. Although a jury is comprised of your peers (e.g., visual artists) they may not all be specialists with indepth knowledge in your area of expertise (e.g., etching).

Which brings me to tone: Do not, under any circumstances, write your application in an overly casual way. Do not respond to questions defensively. And please, do not use slang. We are a jury, not your bredren on the street. Although you are an artist, keep in mind that you are applying to a well-oiled agency for money. Present yourself, through your application, as a professional. You wouldn't write a job, school or loan application using overly informal language, so don't use it on a grant application in any measure. It just won't work for you.

And please, please, please, do not ever in your life on this earth or elsewhere write "see attached" on your application just so a jury is left to read pages of your bio and achievements in lieu of answering questions directly. Don't get me wrong. Attaching your answers, numbered on a separate page, is not a problem. Hoping a jury will comb through your career highlights to seek out answers to questions you have left unanswered is a huge problem. Think these answers will be apparent in your supplementary material? Think again.

5. Don't Provide a CV or Supplementary Materials as Outlined
Give everything that is requested, and nothing more. Do not include reviews if that hasn't been requested or more support letters than required. You're giving us too much to read. Remember, juries are reading 50 to 100 applications. If they want pdfs, don't give them MSWord files. If they want jpgs, don't send tiffs. If they want to see work within the past three years, don't send them anything from the 20th century. And, your *CV should emphasize your creative career, starting from the present. Lay it out in a clean, organized fashion, and don't get too fancy with the fonts (I recommend sticking to Arial, 11 pt., bolded subheadings, everything flushed left).

*For more detailed information on writing CVs, please visit Edward Winkleman's blog.
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