I’m a professional artist who has applied for well over twenty grants in my career. I’ve been rejected every single time except once, and I think that one time I was guaranteed to get the grant based on the criteria. Some say that’s a pretty good success rate hovering between 5 percent and 10 percent, and it may very well be if one considers the absolute number of applicants versus the number of available grants. It’s pretty depressing, too. That’s especially true when one considers this a reasonable commentary on the state of how artists are supported financially in this country, which is to say, they are barely supported at all.
I felt lucky, then, when I was asked by the Maine Arts Commission to be a grant reviewer in 2023 for their annual Artist Project Grant. This is a grant that I had unsuccessfully applied for a few times before. I decided to participate with the intent to learn how to write better grants. I also went into it thinking that I’d take an artist’s perspective into the process. I had participated in the grant review sessions as an artist before, and I was always disappointed that the reviewer just didn’t understand what I was saying. Often, that criticism was harsh.
Initially, I felt that past reviewers of my grants just simply didn’t understand what I was proposing. All of them, from what I remember, were arts administrators and not artists. I thought to myself that I was going to show everyone how an artist views an art project grant. We think differently, we communicate differently, and therefore we need to be viewed differently. I was going to bring that approach into my reviews, and then I got into the process itself and realized just how wrong I was. The gap is massive between what an artist and a reviewer think is important, and I’m both. I was so stunned at how consciously aware I was of how different the perspective is that I felt I needed to write this article.
My goal is to help grant applicants understand the perspective of a grant reviewer. A few things to consider when reading this is that while not all is lost, it is very difficult to compete for grants. Experience matters, but so does creativity and those two don’t always align.
The grant I reviewed was for about $2,500, so pretty small when you consider the overall costs of being an artist. In my section, there were three reviewers who reviewed the same grants. I believe there were over one hundred grants applying for in the low hundreds-of-thousands of dollars spread across several other grant types. Doing the math, not everyone gets funded. The list below focuses mostly on what to say and what not to say, but there are some concepts to grasp before that, so first things first:
– The Deck is Stacked: There are so few grant opportunities for artists that the range of career experience of those who are applying for grants ranges from no experience at all to university professors with thirty-year exhibit history. I reviewed about sixteen grants; about half were somewhere in the middle, but, yes, people who had no CV were competing for the same grant as people who were ultra-educated. Always consider that you’re competing with someone much better than you. Suddenly, I realized who I was competing against all those years my project was rejected.
– Who Writes Good Grants? Good grants are written by people who are taught how to write good grants. This is another article in and of itself, but basically this means that the “haves” are much better suited to write good grants than the “have nots.” Without a doubt, the best grants were written by professional artists who had significant CVs and were either exhibiting in major galleries and/or were professors at major educational institutions.
This is a problem with grants that may be unsolvable, but it is a problem nonetheless. If your project feels insufficient, then it probably is. That doesn’t mean your project is bad. It just means someone else’s is probably already better before you even begin.
– There’s an Algorithm and a Process for Deciding Who Gets What and How Much: The algorithm is part of the process, so not everything falls on what the reviewer thinks about the application. In my case, the reviewers did not know what the algorithm was, and that’s not only intentional but probably for the best.
Basically, reviewers score the applicant’s answers (in my case it was 1–7, with one being poor and seven being awesome), and then all the scores are compiled and ranked against each other. After that, the amount of money available is somewhat divided by the grant applicants.
The Maine Arts Commission tries really hard to only grant those at something like 80 percent of the applicant’s ask or higher, because anything lower than that would be useless for the project. The higher the score, the higher the funding and the chance to actually get said funding.
– When Thinking of Your Story Structure, Be Linear: Use a timeline to help explain things. Providing a map of when things have happened and will happen means the reviewer doesn’t have to guess. For example: “I developed this idea three years ago, I worked on various techniques for two years, and the past year I’ve been perfecting it. Now, I’m seeking funding to achieve this, and my goal is to have such and such a result next year.”
– Don’t Narrate: Say what you need in order to achieve your goals and what you plan to do, and say less about what you used to do and why. Using the timeline approach is a good way to not narrate a story. The backstory is only important if it fits into the timeline of the project. This is less important if you can…
– Draw a Personal Connection: This helps if you are going to narrate. Several of the best grants were very intellectual and had little personal connection to the artist. They were written by academics with strong conceptual approaches to art Having said that, of the strongest non-professional artist applications, the best had a personal connection to the art. This can be about sexual orientation or addiction or unexpected success, etc. But even then…
– When Writing, Be Clear About Your Objectives: Explain how you’ve arrived at this point in the project and what can be expected going forward. Most grants have a word or character limit. Don’t tell the reviewer about stuff that’s on the fringe or not important. Be direct using clear language. State clearly what you need, what you plan to do with said resources, and what you hope the result will be. That last sentence is probably the most important take-away from this article.
– Don’t be Afraid of Inexperience: I know, I’ve already said that you’re competing with people with a lot of experience, but that’s only with regards to the writing of the grant itself. They have more experience so they write better grants. But that doesn’t mean they have the best projects. Some of the coolest things I read were from those who weren’t university professors.
Many grants are set up precisely to help artists expand their experience and knowledge base. If that’s what you’re applying for, go ahead and say it. Grant reviewers want to see artists taking the next step in their careers. It’s not always about funding groundbreaking art. Sometimes it’s about career growth.
– Be Consistent with Your Work Examples: Work shown in the image examples should be reflective of what you’re going to be doing with the grant. If the grant is for new work, show the direct link between the past work and the new work, and explain why this is an expansion or extension.
Yes, this means you need to have practiced the new work a little bit first if that’s the case. If you’re a painter and trying sculpture for the first time, then the reviewer doesn’t need to see a bronzed sculpture to be convinced of your new direction. But the reviewer does need to see some sculpture and doesn’t want to see paintings if you’re not applying for paintings.
– Don’t Say You Plan to Show “Somewhere”: Be specific about your exhibit target if you have one. If you don’t have a commitment from said target, show the timeline of when you expect to know and provide an alternative plan. The alternative doesn’t have to be as good as the first option, but should still be specific.
If you don’t have an exhibit target, don’t apply with the objective of showing the work—some good grants were seeking to fund exhibit costs while others were seeking to fund art making costs. This isn’t to say your project isn’t good enough for a grant, but professionals already have this piece in place and it looks much better. You’re competing, remember that.
– Audience: One of the most difficult things to discuss is your audience. Artists are good at making art, not studying marketing demographics, and if you don’t have a strong career, then you might not actually know who likes seeing your art beyond your family and friends. In fact, I know successful artists who sell at galleries a lot and the galleries never tell the artist where the pieces get sold to or to whom.
The good thing is that the audience doesn’t have to be a statistical demographic (i.e., “my audience is younger, underprivileged kids from rural counties,” etc.). You can build your audience into your story. In fact, the best grants I read did exactly that. The “audience question” was answered simply as a result of the manifestation of the project itself. It was conceptual, not statistical or demographic.
For example, if you live across from the town dump then maybe your art is inspired by the smell of the dump. Therefore, your art is maybe likely to appeal to those concerned with local environmental, political, or even zoning issues. That doesn’t mean your audience is limited statistically to the town you live in. Instead, it’s more about the people who could possibly relate to your experience. “My art appeals to those who have suffered from living next to a dump.”
If your art doesn’t have this personal connection, then think about why you create art. I create art from the perspective of understanding the interpretation gap between what is communicated versus what is understood. It’s pretty intellectual stuff that is uninteresting to most people, and I have no idea who buys my art demographically. Therefore, my audience is “people who are challenged by their understanding of how information is processed”—or something like that. I don’t even try to explain the demographic because it’s impossible.
– Budget – Estimating: It’s okay to estimate. In fact, everything is kind of an estimate unless you have a specific quote in hand. But be specific about what you expect to use the grant money for. Showing that you’ve done some work, even if not 100 percent accurate, is better than showing no work has been done. Saying you need ten tubes of paint at $5 per tube is okay even if you only use eight tubes at $4 per tube. It simply shows that you’ve done some research. Reviewers want to know what you are using the money for.
– Budget – Artist Time: Value your time. Give the reviewer a fair dollar per hour amount that you think pays for your time. Most grants want to fund artist time, and if they don’t then they’ll tell you that. Even if you are estimating your total hours, give the reviewer something so he or she isn’t guessing. Also, this is a good way to link your timeline to your budget. The more things connect in an application, the stronger it feels.
– Budget – Other Sources: If you state that you are getting funding from other sources, state what those other sources are. This is true even if the other source is you yourself. Less guessing means the reviewer thinks you’ve done your homework. Not every grant has to be fully funded by the grant itself. Unless stated, it’s okay to have other sources. Also, other sources can create conflicts of interest. Don’t let the reviewer think that is possible.
If you have a budget for $10,000 and the grant is for $2,500, show how you’re going to spend that $2,500 and also how you’re going to spend the other $7,500 and where that remaining $7,500 is going to come from. Reviewers want to know what their grant is paying for, but they’re also not dumb in thinking that their grant is the only money going into the project. Showing everything makes it more realistic.
Side note: some grants don’t want to know about the larger project and other funding. If that’s the case, then your application needs to be super narrow to just what you’re asking for, and your grant needs to be narrowly written to match.
– Budget and Timeline: Some projects require multiple funding sources over a period of time. If this is the case, then apply for grants one stage at a time. In other words, if you’re on a year-long project that needs multiple parts to fall into place, and those parts could happen all at once or even at different times, then state that your use of the funds is appropriate to the timeline.
For example: “I am applying for funds in Stage 1 for the month of June. These funds will help me to build my audience, which is how I will acquire funding for Stage 2 in November.” Don’t apply for funding in Stage 3 if Stage 3 can’t happen if Stage 2 isn’t successful. Secure funding for the first two stages first, and then go for Stage 3 funding once you’re ready. Reviewers don’t want to give money to something that may never get off the ground.
– Get Multiple People to Review Before Submitting: Just because you think you’ve written your application clearly, that doesn’t mean you have. Getting someone else’s feedback will show you where your holes are. Yes, major rewrites sometimes happen. That’s not a bad thing if it’s what gets you the grant.
In summary, be clear about what you are trying to do, don’t leave the reviewers guessing, be linear, be specific, and leave out the storytelling unless that’s your goal. Not every grant is the same, so adjust this according to the grant’s rules and expectations.
Always remember that what you’re saying may not be what the reviewer is interpreting. It’s competitive. Don’t be discouraged, but also understand there’s a lack of financial support for artists in general and you need to be at your best to get a grant. Hopefully this helps you to be your best, and I sincerely hope you get every grant you apply for going forward.
About the Author: Greg Mason Burns is a member of the Board of Directors of the UMVA, and is a self-taught artist who began his career while living in Chile and later Brazil. His work is based on Reception Theory and how information is communicated and interpreted. He works in a variety of media and has exhibited in Brazil, Portugal, Scotland, and the United States. You can see more of his work on his website at: gregmasonburns.com.
Image at top: Greg Burns, Bates Mill Textile Designs, photography on archival paper.