Mass Cultural Council is proud to support individual artists with Artist Fellowships. The fellowships are monetary grants we award to Massachusetts artists based on the excellence of their creative work. We conduct an anonymous review for every Artist Fellowships discipline except Traditional Arts. That means artists submit samples of their work, and we invite panelists and readers to review those samples. Because the review is anonymous, reviewers’ decisions are based solely on the strength of the artists’ creative work.
But what exactly do we mean when we say “anonymous review?”
First, we ask that applicants remove their names from their work samples. With documents (say, literature or plays or musical scores), this means removing the byline. With works on video, it means removing identifying credits. All of our disciplines include an optional Work Sample Description, and we ask that names be left out of that description, too. We also ask that other details that might help a reviewer figure out whose work it is – for example, “I recently had a solo installation at ABCD Gallery” – be excluded from the description.
Will we disqualify a work that still has a name in it? Probably not – we don’t disqualify applications unless we absolutely have to. But we reserve the right to remove the name ourselves.
Now, we might make exceptions to the “no names” rule in cases where removing a name would significantly damage the content of the work. Examples might be a signature on a painting, or a reference to the writer’s name within an autobiographical work of nonfiction. Here, removing the name could create an awkward empty space in the work of art. A similar situation occurs when a Choreography applicant is also a performer in the video of the work they choreographed. The applicant couldn’t remove themselves without doing harm to the video.
Perhaps the best way to summarize this is to say we expect a “reasonable effort.” Applicants should take all reasonable steps to remove names and identifying details from their work samples. To put it another way, they should strive to keep within the spirit of the anonymous review process.
This brings us to the second point, which is that along with requiring applicants to keep their work anonymous, we also require the panelists to review that work anonymously. What’s the difference? Well, continuing with the example of the choreographer performing their own work: let’s say one of the Choreography panelists recognizes that artist from the video. Assuming there’s no conflict of interest (more on that in a moment), we require that the panelist refrain from introducing the artist’s name into the review discussion with the other panelists. Also, the panelist isn’t allowed to bring up any personal details about that artist (“They’re at an important point in their career!”) or discuss other work beyond what the artist submitted. The panelists can only discuss the work, and only that work submitted for the Artist Fellowship application.
The panelists’ scoring criteria is “artistic quality and creative ability” based on the work submitted. Criteria that might call to mind personal details – for example, career accomplishments, financial need – aren’t introduced and aren’t part of the panelists’ deliberations.
Earlier, I brought up conflict of interest. You can read our full Conflict of Interest policy in the “Legal & Other Requirements” section on the Application Process page. For Artist Fellowships, we would ask a panelist to recuse themselves from voting and discussing an application if that panelist:
A. Recognizes an applicant and…
B. Has a contractual, family, or adversarial relationship with that applicant.
Furthermore, if a panelist recognizes an applicant and we decide that the situation might present the appearance of a conflict (even if it’s unclear whether it constitutes an actual conflict), we would ask the panelist to recuse themselves.
Okay, so we’ve explained how we keep the review anonymous. But why? Why do we conduct the review anonymously?
Simply put, we believe it’s the fairest way to support artists.
Sometimes, after we’ve announced a new round of awards, we hear some variation on this question: “Why weren’t there any awardees from Such and Such Town?”
Mass Cultural Council’s funding and support, across all programs, reaches every community in the Commonwealth. The Artist Fellowships Program is Mass Cultural Council’s only program that focuses exclusively on artistic excellence. Ultimately, we feel that concentrating on artistic excellence and keeping the review anonymous is the surest tool we have to make certain that every Massachusetts artist is reviewed fairly. Applicants are reviewed on the strength or their work and cannot be discriminated against based on where they live or what their ethnicity or background or experience level or any number of other factors.
It’s an honor and a privilege to support Massachusetts artists. It is also our responsibility to make that support as fair and equitable as we can. We know that over time, the awards do and will continue to reach diverse artists throughout Massachusetts, because we know there are excellent artists, worthy of support, in every community of the Commonwealth.
Image: Anne Lilly (Sculpture/Installation/New Genres Fellow ’19), image from the public art project TEMPLE OF MNEMON (2018).