Like the nutritious breakfasts that we learned about when we were kids, grants are only a part of “this complete breakfast.” Like the Captain Crunch that I so loved as a kid, (with Crunch Berries!) grants are a rare treat for most artists. This is for a good reason. If you spend all your time writing very competitive arts grants that have a fairly low acceptance rate, you wouldn’t be doing any of the important work: making your work. So, you should think of grants as just another source of funding with different upsides and downsides, and only spend a certain portion of your time on them.
But don’t leave them out entirely. The detailed financial information, artist statement, proposal, and work sample, that are standard parts of most grant applications can raise a significant barrier to even applying for this funding, but the benefits of actually winning a grant make the effort worthwhile. Most artists I talk to about this subject mention at least a few grants they would like to apply to, but just don’t want to make time for them. This is a mistake that I would encourage every artist to avoid. If you can find a grant for which is a good fit for what you do, (I know the first part this sentence is a serious can of worms. Look for another post about that!) here are some good reasons to actually take the time to apply.
1. When else will respected artists in your field give their undivided attention to your work?
Yes, your chances of winning are slim, but the committees that grantmakers form to select winners are usually made up of established artists in your field, and it is always a good thing for them to be aware of your work. Some applications, especially to contests, stipulate that the applicants identity be kept secret, but in other applications a composer’s CV and statement are an important part of the application from the first round. Most importantly, the committee will devote their full attention to your work, even if only for a few minutes, and this can be an important opportunity that you may not have access to otherwise. Finally, the committee’s comments on your work are usually recorded and are available to applicants in some cases, and this can be very valuable as well.
2. Your work says something about you, and you should be able to say something about it.
A grant application forces you to make a case for your work. There are lots of other artists out there who are probably equally qualified to win, but you want the committee to choose you. Making that statement takes some thought and preparation, but also and most importantly, courage. You access that courage every day that you create new work, but you need most of all when it leaves your studio. Picking the very best examples of your work and then writing a compelling proposal gives you an opportunity to step back from your work and understand why you do what you do and how, and forces you to describe those reasons to others. I have always gained valuable perspective from this process, even from the many grants that I didn’t win, and so can you.
3. Art doesn’t always fit into neat timelines, but money does.
Grants can help to delineate your work and your fundraising into manageable, discrete projects. If your life has ever felt like an unending jumble without a focus, then writing a grant might help you to organize your work into more manageable tasks. Even if the body of work that you are trying to support is ongoing, a grant has a beginning, middle and end, and thinking about this as you plan your time can be helpful. A great example of this kind of planning is the trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith’s massive work called Ten Freedom Summers, a piece of music that celebrates the civil rights movement. Smith is making great music with this project of course, but he is also setting a great example as an organizer. His work on this project will stretch over many years and many recordings, and has already included several grants and other fundraising campaigns. (http://www.usaprojects.org/project/ten_freedom_summers) His example shows how breaking the project into smaller parts, each funded by particular grants and other sources, can help give focus to what would otherwise be unmanageable amount of work.
4. You’ve spent a lot of time making your cap, why not put a feather in it?
If you do win the grant, it adds some serious credibility to your resume and burnishes your reputation. This can open doors and help you do things you hadn’t thought were possible. If you are serious about your work, then you should get serious about applying to grants that support the kind of work that you do. Plan ahead, mark your calendar, and put the time in to make your application great, and your efforts will yield results even if you don’t win. But if you do win, you will have access to resources that allow you to raise your art-making to a new level.
As I am a professional grant writer, this essay is obviously meant as an endorsement for my consulting practice. But, it is also meant to offer advice to young artists, or to an artist that has always wished for better professional opportunities, but doesn’t quite know what to do. Just because success in grant seeking isn’t assured doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Good luck, and get in touch if you would like some professional help.