The Massachusetts Cultural Council 2012 Artist Fellowships Program guidelines are now available. Here’s some advice on navigating the fellowships application process.
In the Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship Program, we instruct our panelists to make their grants decisions based on two criteria*: 1. Artistic quality, and 2. Creative ability.
“But wait!” exclaims an imagined ArtSake reader. “If all decisions are based on artistic excellence, what advice could you possibly give other than ‘make great art?'”
And here, our conjured, exclamatory reader has a point. Do make great art. But we thought we’d share some ideas on optimizing your application, which really means avoiding choices that might distract panelists from the excellence in your work.
(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 that already. So. No reason to even bring it up.)
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 strategizing about what style or genre you imagine will click with what you assume to be 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. And besides, the work that does well in panels, that emerges from the group, is the work that excites a juror, that makes a strong enough connection that he or she will advocate for it when the panel’s final recommendations are made.
Spend your best hours and your best energy on the work itself rather than on estimating what an imagined juror might like.
How do you know what’s your “strongest” work? If you have any question, enlist the opinion of a trusted peer. They are not you, after all (not that you’re not awesome), and that non-you-ness can offer some helpful distance and objectivity.
We ask for recent work (past four years), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be your newer-than-new, “Have I revised it? Heck, I’ve hardly spell-checked it!”-type work. “Be aware of how highly competitive it is,” said one panelist. “What separates the strong applications is revision.”
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. (This is particularly key in categories requiring printed pages or CDs/DVDs, where one work or one excerpt could easily constitute your entire work sample allotment. 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.
Preparing Your Work
In disciplines that include jpg images, MAKE SURE to optimize your images by setting the longest dimension (length or width) at 768 pixels. The lesser the dimensions are from 768 pixels, the worse the projection quality. If the pixel dimensions are too small, your image will look pixelated when projected. Applicants often ask us what the optimal dpi would be; dpi affects print quality but not projection quality, so 72 dpi is fine. Again, it’s the pixel dimensions you want to focus on.
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 interactive, conceptual, or performance-based, think hard about how to best convey to the panel in a compressed time period what your intended art experience is. A past Choreography applicant who did this really well was Alisia Waller (Choreography Fellow ’08).
Pared down, lo-fi, but set in an environment that perfectly suits the choreography, this clip makes specific use of video as a way of conveying dance. That’s not to say recordings of live, on-stage performances won’t work, too (they can and do) but the point is, the artist selected and documented her work in a way that well-suited the panelists’ experience of it.
Another great video sample by Nick Rodrigues with Automotive Armor, which does a terrific job portraying the experience of the piece, while also editing the video in a way that’s consistent with the work’s humor.
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 Mass Cultural Council looking for with this Work Sample Description? you might ask. 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: Christy Georg, CIRCUMNAVIGATING (2007), wood, steel, and cotton, 16x3x11 ft; video of Alisia Waller’s GENDER ANGER.
* Except in the case of Traditional Arts, which has additional criteria.
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