The Massachusetts Cultural Council 2015 Artist Fellowships guidelines are now available. Here are some tips for grant seekers.
In the MCC Artist Fellowship Program, we instruct our panelists to make their grants decisions based on two criteria*: 1. Artistic quality, and 2. Creative ability.
Given that all decisions are based solely on artistic excellence, you might conclude that the best advice might be, as Neil Gaiman put it in a commencement address at the University of the Arts, “Make good art.”
And Mr. Gaiman has a point. Do make good art. But we thought we’d share some ideas on optimizing your application, which really means avoiding choices that might distract panelists from how well you’ve adhered to Neil Gaiman’s advice.
(We’re not even going to mention that you should carefully read – and follow – the guidelines, and that you should familiarize yourself with the guidelines and instructions ahead of time, so you’re not rushing on the evening of the deadline. You know all that already.)
Which work samples should I submit?
Since the work sample(s) you submit are the only evidence the panelists will have to understand you as an artist, what you decide to include is an important choice. That said, don’t overthink it. Rather than trying to guess the judges’ tastes, just send your strongest work. Truly. Individual panelists have stylistic preferences, but you can expect arts professionals working at a high level to be able to recognize excellence in a style not their own.
How do you know what’s your “strongest” work? If you have any question, enlist the opinion of a trusted peer, whose objective distance from the work could be helpful.
We ask for recent work (past four years), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be your brand-spankin’-newest. You might be most excited about your newest work, but is it your strongest? (And maybe it is! Here’s where the opinion of a trusted peer might be useful.) What if you want to send the same work you sent the last time you applied – work that didn’t win you a fellowship? If you still consider it your strongest, send it again. The panelists change every cycle, and plenty of times, we’ve seen work that was passed over one cycle be successful the next.
One question we often get is whether it’s better to send a group of excerpts from different work (to show range) or a longer section of just one. In visual arts, the equivalent might be five images from different series vs. five from the same series.
Illustrating your range as an artist can be helpful, but in your hierarchy of considerations, “showing range” should come second to “giving the panelists a great artistic experience.” Ideally, your sample will compel the panelists as it would any audience, while conveying your unique voice as an artist.
Start strong. The beginning of your sample – first image, first pages, first few minutes – makes an impression that impacts the entire experience. Also, if you’re sending an excerpt of a longer work, send a meaty part. If the portion you send is all set-up, the panelists might say, “Well, it’s good craft, but how do I know this artist can effectively develop this?” If you’re sending a group of images, keep in mind we project all five at once. Successful applicants tend to excel at demonstrating a cohesive vision – with room for variety.
Most categories specify the required media (i.e. images, video, audio, text) in which to submit work. But in certain categories, such as Sculpture/Installation/New Genres, you have a choice between media (in that case, images or video). Which one is “better?”
It all depends on your work, the quality of your documentation, and the story you’re trying to tell with your work sample(s). If the imagery is the key aspect of the work, and showing it in video wouldn’t add anything to the experience (and in fact, may take away in quality), go with images. On the other hand, your work may have interactive, dynamic, or conceptual elements that are best conveyed through moving image storytelling, in which case, go with video. (And yet! If the camerawork or picture quality or some technical aspect of your video infringes on your ability to tell that story, images with explanatory text may be the better choice after all. As always, it’s a balance between several considerations.)
(Further research: the Creative Capital blog has some great tips on choosing your work sample. While some of the advice is tailored for that organization’s grant application, much of it could apply to any artist grant.)
Preparing Your Work
Please note that for visual arts disciplines (Crafts, Drawing & Printmaking, Painting, Photography, and Sculpture/Installation/New Genres), we’ve switched to the CallforEntry (CaFE) application system this year, so image and media specifications have changed. Read our tips on preparing/uploading images to the CaFE application system and/or our tips on preparing/uploading video for Sculpture/Installation/New Genres.
If you need to adjust the size of your images but don’t have software, there are online services you can use. For tips on photographing your art, check out Saatchi Online’s easy-to-follow tutorial video.
In disciplines that ask for pages: readability is your friend. Avoid diminishing margins and fonts just to fit more in. More is not better.
In disciplines that include CD or DVD submissions, tracks/chapter marks are highly encouraged.
If your work is time-based, think hard about how to best convey to the panel in a compressed time period what your intended audience experience is. A past Sculpture/Installation/New Genres Fellow who did this really well was Brian Knep.
This clip makes great use of video to convey the experience of an interactive installation, Healing Pool. For one thing, it’s shot with an artist’s eye. And by showing numerous variations in the way its audience interacts with the work, the video successfully captures the depth and richness of experiencing Healing Pool.
(Further research: read ArtSake’s post on documenting your work.)
Work Sample Description
In all categories, applicants have the opportunity to include a brief work sample description to give, if necessary, context to the submitted sample(s). We believe the Work Sample Descriptions can be useful. But sometimes panelists complain that descriptions are distracting when they read like self-promotional marketing copy, or when they spell out themes or emotional responses that should be implicit in the art experience.
Well then what is the MCC looking for with this Work Sample Description? We just want the panelists to understand your work sample; invite us into the world of the work, as one panelist put it. Put yourself in the panelists’ shoes: sitting in a meeting room, reading a sample or experiencing your work projected or played. Things that would be obvious in a book or a gallery or a performance venue may not be obvious in that context. Any time panelists spend wondering how they’re “supposed” to be experiencing your work is time they’re not discussing its good qualities. Even details that seem self-evident to you – for instance, whether your work is a full piece or an excerpt from something longer – may not be clear to someone approaching your work without context.
Beyond that? Be brief, including only enough information to allow reviewers to understand the piece. And if your work needs no explanation, don’t feel you need to fill in the box. No description is fine, if none is needed!
The X factor
There’s always a touch of mystery to what makes a particular work click with a particular audience. It’s a given that the level of artistic quality should be high, but what makes a juror (or any audience) love love LOVE it? To some extent, it’s an X factor, out of your control. So we’d suggest you control what you can, avoid distracting application choices, and continue to do your great work.
And email us or add a comment below if you have a question not covered here.
Image and media: Holly Lynton (Photography Fellow ’13), FAIREST, CUMMINGTON FAIR, MA (2010), photographic c-print, 30×40 in; video of HEALING POOL by Brian Knep (Sculpture/Installation/New Genres Fellow ’11); installation view of SPIRALING WATER by Georgie Friedman (Sculpture/Installation/New Genres Fellow ’13).
* Except in the case of Traditional Arts, which has additional criteria.