How to Apply for Art and Artist Grants,
Residencies, Funding, Aid and
Other Opportunities for Assistance
Generating income from your art in the form of either cash or cash equivalents is always challenging, especially for artists with unconventional ideas or for those who create art that may not be commercially viable. The good news is that the art world is one place where anyone who shows talent and promise, marketable or otherwise, can get help in a variety of ways including cash grants, residencies, employment or internships, allowances, free or low-cost studio space, art supplies, exhibition spaces, and so on. Receiving these types of assistance is not easy; application processes can be rigorous and competition is often intense. So in the interest of giving you a bit of an edge in situations where you're contending for funding, here's a brief tutorial on how to realize your dreams.
To begin with, be clear and focused about your intentions and goals, not only in terms of where you want to go with your art, but how you propose to get there and what you want to accomplish. Defining your mission and having a plan for how you want your artistic life, career, and objectives to play out enables you to clearly communicate what it will take to materialize your vision. Organizations offering grants, funding, or residencies prefer artists with a sense of purpose and direction (see the list of resources for locating opportunities at the end of the article).
Being able to quantify your needs enables you to focus more precisely on which opportunities to pursue and which to avoid. You'll be better able to target organizations, nonprofits, and foundations whose missions match with your art and proposed projects rather than those that may sound good but don't really serve your purposes. For example, if you need time to realize your goals, you might apply for a residency. If you need cash for living expenses, an unrestricted grant may be the best way to go. Perhaps you require studio space, or maybe travel is involved.
Assuming you've got your agenda together and have identified potential opportunities, the most important part of any request for assistance is the application process. For starters, read the instructions carefully and thoroughly. Not only is it critical to understand and complete all forms according to instructions, but also to know how that application will be evaluated once the person, persons, or review panel it has it in their hands. Whenever possible, in addition to reading instructions before you begin, also speak with someone at the organization and ask a few basic questions about their decision-making process.
For example, find out how they'll be looking at your art. Will your images be projected onto a large screen, viewed on a computer, studied one-by-one, or will they be seen in groups. Knowing information like this lets you test-view your images in advance to make sure they look their best. In general, the more application guidelines you can learn about ahead of time, the better you'll be able to customize your presentation. Not every application and review process is the same, and being able to adapt your approach to the organization offering the assistance always gives you an advantage over competing applicants.
Getting back to the images of your art for a moment, make sure you can fill an application's slide or image requirement with strong professional looking work. If for example an application asks to see eight paintings, and even though you have more than eight, you feel only four are worth showing, hold off on applying until you have eight that you think make the grade. In fact, before applying for anything at all, you should have at least one cohesive completed body of work (preferably more) that you can clearly reference, describe, and tie in to whatever form of assistance you're looking for. This work should demonstrate your skills and abilities, show that you're capable of producing multiple works based on a similar theme or idea, and generally show the direction you're headed in with your work. Simply put, a completed body of work demonstrates that you're capable of acting on an idea and accomplishing a task in a comprehensive way.
Good visual documentation, written descriptions, and other relevant details concerning all significant works of your art are equally important to have on hand. Video is good, for example, if there's an active or moving element to your art. Generally, you should be able to present any or all additional materials that best represent and clarify the nature of your work. Again, every application requires different information about your art and the more you've taken the time to prepare in advance, the better.
You can sometimes apply for a grant or other form of assistance based only on an idea. In fact, certain organizations prefer funding innovative concepts for producing art that does not yet exist rather than supporting art that already does, but at the same time, they still require that your proposal be either based on or supported by the merits of previous work. In general, an organization financing an idea has to have trust in the artist based on some sort of established track record of accomplishments, which in addition to completed work, may include a resume, list of past shows or exhibitions, awards or grants, and so on-- assuming they're relevant to whatever you are applied for.
As for filling out the application itself, spelling, neatness, good grammar, following word count requirements, and thoroughness are extremely important because they show how seriously you're taking the opportunity. In most cases, you're likely one of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of applicants and that at the very least, you want to look professional. Reviewers are typically inundated with applications and use the smallest mistakes to eliminate potential candidates from contention. You're being evaluated in terms of whether someone wants to invest in you and your talents-- in your career and your future-- according to whether they think these investments will pay off. Nobody invests in artists who submit careless or sloppy applications.
We all know that art is a visual medium so make sure your photographs look professional. If you're shooting your paintings against a concrete surface, for example, don't include the concrete. Avoid glare or reflection from flash bulbs or daylight, nuance your lighting to eliminate uneven dark or light areas, and make sure everything's in focus, colors are accurate, nothing's crooked, and so on. In short, your photographs should look as good as your finished art. You might also shoot your work in a gallery setting, not only for purposes of scaling it against an interior space, but more importantly, because art just plain looks better in a gallery. You see, sometimes reviewers look at your art first without even reading the application, and in some cases that decides whether the application ever gets read at all or who advances to the second round of consideration. So stack the odds in your favor and make sure your art (as well as everything else) looks its absolute best.
To repeat, always remember to adapt your application to the requirements of the organization, nonprofit or foundation. All application processes are different; never assume otherwise. If they want eight copies, submit eight copies. If they want no name on your statement, have no name on your statement. Minor details are so basic but so important; the little things are often what trip artists up. So double-check and proofread everything before you send it on, and be sure to include whatever additional materials they ask for. Better yet, have friends or acquaintances review your application as well, not only in terms of grammar and mechanics, but also to see whether your answers make sense and whether you successfully get your main points across.
* You should generally have some sort of track record or exhibition history before applying for grants or assistance. If you're just starting out, hold off on the application process for now. Instead, get involved in the local community, help out at an arts organization, nonprofit or gallery, and get some experience showing your art, even if only with your friends. You'll eventually meet people sympathetic to your art or projects, build a fan base, and become more knowledgeable about what opportunities make sense and are within your reach.
* Get active on social media. Plenty of artists find out about plenty of opportunities of all kinds from other artists, by following their favorite organizations, and by joining relevant art and artist groups. You can also show how active you are and how your art is evolving in real time.
* Apply for as many opportunities as you're eligible for every year. Don't get discouraged. Be aware that the people or panels who review applications change, and what gets turned down one year may well be accepted the next. Plus the more you applications you submit, the better you get at applying.
* If you've never applied for anything like this before, attend grant-writing seminars and workshops. Read other artists' proposals, preferably winning ones, to see what good applications look like. Ask artists you know who have gotten assistance whether they would be willing offer pointers or let you read some of their past applications.
* Be clear and concise in all your answers. Avoid difficult, dense, or arcane convoluted artspeak. The quicker and cleaner you get your points across, the greater your chances for success. Reviewers do not like getting bogged down in jargon.
* Don't include information about every piece of art you've ever made or are currently working on. If you're involved in multiple projects, narrow your focus to the one or two most relevant to the application, and keep the look uniform. Think of this process as branding yourself or establishing your identity, as becoming the artist who all the reviewers recognize as "the fantasy landscape painter," for example.
* Make sure whatever you're applying for is a fit with what you already do, and that you have a good well-thought-out justification for applying. For instance, if you're a painter, then it's probably not a good idea to apply for an architecture grant-- even though your work might be influenced by architecture.
* Thoroughly research your project in advance and know what's required to complete it. Reviewers can tell when you don't know what you're talking about-- especially with respect to details like how much will things cost, how you'll account for your time, or what you'll need in terms of supplies, equipment, or studio space. In other words, be able to say, "Here is exactly what I need to make this happen."
* References are important-- particularly ones you can rely on, particularly people who have some sort of profile in the art community and who are solidly behind you and your work. Make sure you talk to whomever you list as references before you list them though to be sure they genuinely support you.
A few don'ts:
* "I need money" or "I need studio space" or "I want to go somewhere exotic" are not good reasons to apply for assistance.
* Don't write a few sentences or a paragraph when the application gives you two pages or a maximum of 800 words for your answer. Skimping on information makes you look lazy or like you don't really care.
* Avoid writing about or showing random work examples that don't relate to your project or proposal.
* Avoid vague descriptions of what you need to accomplish your goals. For example, "I need $10,000 because that's how much I think this will cost" is not adequate.
* Do not submit template applications. Reviewers can tell when you're sending out the same answers or packet of information over and over again. Always customize to the specifics of the organization and the requirements of what you're applying for.
* Don't list people as references unless they know you're listing them.
* Don't add superfluous materials that are outside the parameters of the instructions. Include only what they ask for. Reviewers are overwhelmed enough already without having to sift through irrelevancies.
Resources for locating and applying for grants and other forms of assistance:
Thanks to Amber Hawk Swanson, Officer at NYFA Source in New York City, and to Courtney Fink, former Executive Director of Southern Exposure in San Francisco for their generous assistance with this article.
(art by David Bayus)
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