You, too, can craft grant applications that soar.
This article is adapted from a presentation at the TransCultural Exchange Conference in Boston, November 4, 2022. It covers the fundamentals of applying for grants as an artist or culture bearer.
Why apply for grants? It’s an important question, because even in the best of circumstances, grant applications take time and energy away from your creative practice.
There are benefits to applying for grants. First (obviously), you might receive funding. Beyond that, applying for grants forces you to organize your plans (timeline, budget, etc). It can help you get better at telling your own story. And it could lead to unexpected benefits – like a grant reviewer encountering your work and wanting to publish, exhibit, or otherwise advance it.
But before applying, ask yourself:
1. Am I at a good place to devote time and energy to a grant application?
2. Is this particular grant opportunity WORTH that time and energy?
WHERE TO FIND GRANTS
Your time is valuable. It’s helpful to search for grants using sites that are 1. Curated by a source you trust; or 2. Searchable by keyword so you can locate the best ones for you.
Some Lists/Directories to Visit
ArtSake’s Artist Opportunities Mass Cultural Council’s weekly, curated roundup of opportunities for artists and culture bearers in all disciplines
Creative Capital’s Tips and Tools organizations like Creative Capital often share other opportunities along with their own grants
NYFA Source searchable database of national grant opportunities
Art Deadlines List upcoming deadlines for opportunities in the arts
Some grants might take a little more research. Information on private foundations, for example, can be hard to find. Candid (formerly called the Foundation Center) offers subscriptions to its Foundation Directory Online. One tip: if you have a Boston Public Library card, the Boston Public Library offers access to Candid’s directory of grants to individuals.
Philanthropy Massachusetts offers a range of resources to grantseekers – and like the Library – offers access to the Foundation Directory as well as other research tools.
Visit the websites of artists you admire. What grants have THEY received? You may find new leads. But also, you’ll find funders that support work you admire – and may therefore be more likely to support yours.
Add Them to Your Calendar
When you’ve found grant opportunities that look promising, add a reminder to your online or paper calendar so you’ll remember to apply by the deadline.
BASICS OF GRANT APPLICATIONS
Most (but not all) grant applications will include some mixture of the following:
1. Narrative: an invitation for you to tell the story of why your work meets the grant’s goals
2. Work Samples: a sampling of your creative work
3. More about yourself: an artist statement or resume/CV or both, meant to show your track record as an artist or culture bearer
Beyond that, some grants may also ask for:
1. Project budget
2. Recommendation letter(s)
3. Fiscal sponsor (This is an existing 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides its tax-exemption and associated benefits to another entity, namely you. Find a list of Massachusetts-based fiscal sponsors. Fractured Atlas also provides this service.)
Depending on the type of grant it is, the emphasis you place on each of the above-mentioned parts will shift.
TYPES OF GRANTS
Most grants fall into one of three categories:
A funder has a specific purpose for their funding, and you need to tell the story of why your project is a perfect fit. Two examples are our Local Cultural Council (LCC) program (grants to cultural projects that benefit the local community) and our new Festivals & Projects grant program.
If you’re applying to a project grant, the key component will likely be the narrative. Pay special attention to the goals of the grant and the specific questions in the application. Make sure your narrative speaks directly to both. Other aspects, such as the work samples or budget, may be supporting players. They should speak to and bolster the narrative.
An award, fellowship, contest, or residency based mostly on your creative promise or expression. An example is the Artadia Awards – unrestricted awards in recognition of creative work.
Here, the work samples are likely to be the most important aspect of your application. Even if a narrative is requested, you’ll want to prioritize strong, compelling work samples.
Grants to either offset emergency circumstances or make use of a unique opportunity. These might include some of the above-mentioned parts like narrative, work samples, artist statements, etc. But they might also be more about meeting eligibility requirements. Some grants of this type, such as The Artist Relief grants, are decided by lottery rather than by competition or evaluation.
WHEN THEY TELL YOU WHAT THEY WANT, BELIEVE THEM
The key to any of the above-mentioned grant opportunities is to give the funder exactly what they’re asking for. Most will tell you the goals of their grant in the first paragraph of their guidelines. Once you know those goals, focus your attention on the parts of your story/your work that meet those goals.
Artists and culture bearers have stories, and it’s only natural to want to share that story. But when applying for grants, only share that part of your story that speak to the funder’s goals.
For example, if the grant you’re applying for is an award judged primarily on the strength of work samples, will it serve you well to copy and paste your narrative proposal from your last application, a project grant? If the grant is an emergency grant, decided by lottery, is it a good use of your time to labor over a compelling narrative, when all you really need to do is meet the basic eligibility requirements?
Let’s say the goals of the grant you’re applying for don’t directly match your work samples and past work. For example, let’s say the grant is about supporting environmental themes through art, but that hasn’t been the main focus of your recent series. That’s okay. You just need to tell the story of why that type of work, and this grant, are the clear next step in your trajectory. Use your recent work/work samples as examples why.
Some grant applications are moving past the sole focus on the written word. Some may allow video or audio submissions of your narrative. But whether written or spoken, focus on clarity and brevity.
If the grant requests an artist statement, you may want to read our tips on writing one.
When selecting your work samples, you might find it useful to read our tips on applying for an Artist Fellowship (that program is on pause for the 2023 grant cycle, but much of the advice applies to other grant programs as well).
How grantees are selected will depend on the grant. Some will be decided by staff at the funder’s organization. Some will use independent review panels.
But in a way, it doesn’t matter. Most of the information you need to craft the most effective application will be found in learning what type of grant it is and what the funder’s goals are.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO CONTACT GRANT STAFF
They want to help you. Truly. Helping you be successful is their job.
Okay, you’ve applied, and now you’re opening the announcement email. Was your application successful?
If yes, party time. Can the opportunity be leveraged into future opportunities?
If not, onward. It’s never a bad idea to ask the organization for feedback. But the most important thing to remember is: grants are only important in as much as they support your work. Your work, and its creative impact, is what matters.
Image: detail of THE GREAT COMET OF 1881, from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings (1882), The Public Domain Review.