(This letter was originally solicited by a local funder in the process of rolling out a new grant program. We were asked to comment on their application form. While the specifics of their program may be unique, the issues and impediments are common.)
Suggestions to a funder (on the occasion of the inaugural round of a new arts funding program)
We applaud your development of a new funding program that aims to truly support the diverse arts of our city. We offer the following comments, as you request, in order to help troubleshoot issues that are arising as the program is rolled out for the first time.
Frames of reference. The following thoughts specifically relate to how the recent new ABC Arts Fund guidelines may have been read by folk and traditional arts applicants. Drawn from our experience with workshops and technical assistance for this particular program (as well as 16 years of technical assistance with grassroots agencies), they are intended to help panelists consider how to make fair judgements. They may be helpful in raising questions about what not to expect. . .
On particular questions:
"Artistic mission." Folk and traditional artists rarely answer questions about "artistic mission" or "artistic statement" in an art-school "me-driven" individualistic way. They often dont tend to come from a tradition that encourages them to say what their individual creative vision is, but one which teaches them how to be responsible to carrying on and embodying a tradition to their utmost abilities. Their artistic mission answers tend to be about community need, place in a community, or significance issues. As well, they tend not to have the habit of, or be accustomed to, answering abstract "mission" questions, rather expecting to be judged by what they do, and known by their actions as artists in the community.
"Regular organization activities:" Activities of community-based folk arts agencies (and artists) may reflect the ritual and occupational calendar of community life: festivals (rather than staged seasons) and other events in which a whole community can gather. Often these are the only occasions in a year when people have a safe space, and are able to enjoy culturally-appropriate and satisfying art. Most of these events occur on a shoestring, and without access to outside funds, making them look and sound different from well-endowed events; few are described in conventional market-driven performance terms. Also many of the main arts-supporting agencies in grassroots communities have a holistic approach to culture and offer legal, health, etc, services, treating all aspects of the communitys needs, with arts integral to that well-being and not a commodity, external to it. All of these features of folk arts/community-based agencies regular activities should be seen as assets, rather than as deficits.
"Project or program:" Given that the aims of the ABC Arts Fund are to enhance and expand programming, and do not require a particular format, traditional artists and grassroots agencies may ask for what they most need or want to do. This is a good thing, but requires that panelists be open to all possibilities and pay close attention to what, in the view of applicants, can truly enhance or expand artistic programming perhaps for the long run rather than the short run. It is our experience that many folk and traditional artists, who have taken on responsibility for cultural maintenance and artistic preservation, may ask for what, in their view, the community most needs. The need for costumes and instruments, addressing succession issues (who will be the next generation of artists, musicians, tradition-bearers), training (especially when artists are working without being connected to masters or students), and other infrastructure needs are extremely pressing. (All the more because folk arts tend, historically, to receive only 2% of arts dollars nationally. There have been scarce funds to address these needs).
Within these modest dollars, there is a 30-some year history of certain kinds of folk arts funding: for apprenticeships, fieldwork and folk arts surveys, and fellowships. Some applicants may be aware of these kinds of programs, and seeing them as useful, familiar and acceptable to funders, may propose them as project types.
On answering the questions and writing the application: Panel processes always require that readers try to distinguish between good writing and good applications, and address themselves to the fact that the least-resourced applicants may find written applications problematic and daunting. Participants in our technical assistance workshops often are amazing and significant artists, eloquent verbally, but fluent in languages other than English, and at a serious disadvantage in writing. Most have no access to computers or typewriters. There is also the question of grantsmanship, and its effect. Most folks attending our workshops saw multiple ways to answer questions on the ABC application, but rarely understood how one answer or another might help them score higher on the evaluation criteria. (Placing the criteria closer to the questions might help, or making clear that certain questions will be used to address certain criteria). In our mock panel workshop, it was eye-opening to folks to see how applications were graded. Few have experience thinking about ways in which details, concrete examples, or evidences can help them build their cases: these, in our view, are often writing habits, examples of grantsmanship savvy, and not always indications of good projects.
"Artistic excellence:" Because there is no question asking artists to explain culturally diverse folk arts (differences between classical Cambodian court dance and the village-derived folk dances, for example, or the different histories and skills related to African drumming traditions), or what counts as artistic excellence in their tradition, panelists will have little to help them make artistic excellence decisions when confronted with culturally-specific applications. Letters of recommendation or explanation may exist for some, but were not required: absence of such letters shouldnt be held against someone. Internal evidences (frequent performances at major community events, long-term commitment to an art form) may be helpful.
As well, it is important to remember that artistic diversity can (and should) exist within a community: There are almost always multiple threads or schools within certain traditions within a community, as for example, master Cambodian folk dancers from different traditions or regions, keeping alive different approaches to dance, as well as artists who teach varied forms of (for example) dance: folk, or court, or stage, or popular. All may be excellent in different ways. Just as there may be many schools, say, of contemporarymodern dance, signaling artistic vitality, ferment or possibility in a community, the existence of multiple and differentiated community-based dance traditions is worth encouraging. I mention this because there is a tendency for outsiders, working without detailed knowledge of a community, to ask for, or to fund a single ethnic dance artist, where folk and traditional arts are concerned something that is rarely done where such arts as painting, drama, chamber music or ballet are concerned.
Proving community impact and/or involvement/ ability to carry out project: Folk and traditional artists and grassroots agencies at our workshops people with incredible years of experience and the sole providers in their community tended not to mention who they were or what they did, let alone its impact. Weve noticed that traditional artists (and folks in many different communities) are disinclined to do anything that seems to be blowing their own horn. In peoples drafts of their applications, we noted that they rarely included any kind of concrete or specific evidences of their stature or experiences as artists, in their own communities. As well, there is a tendency for traditional artists to measure themselves against the past masters of their art forms, or by mainstream standards, and to find it highly inappropriate to make claims for themselves. (In the future, letters of recommendation from others might be encouraged).
Potential disparity in kind, quality and quantity of evidences. Because slides/video are optional, different applications may have widely differing evidences to present. How to judge fairly in this case will be an issue. One suggestion may be to go through applications once without any optional supplementary materials and rank them on that basis, then go through a second time, perhaps giving supplemental materials a different kind of weight. (In the future, it might be important to require samples of artistic work). One impediment for folks was the statement that supplementary materials would not be returned. They are costly investments and it is a hardship to lose them: SASE are conventional solutions here.
Investing in multiple communities and artistic traditions: Treat all artistic missions as equally valid, without privileging certain kinds of talk, or certain historical and cultural approaches. Dont consider that certain kinds of arts, projects, past activities, or kinds of significance and impact are better than others. Use questions and answers as a way to get a sense of the context or fit between a community or artist and project fit. Dont apply a hidden hierarchy of values regarding what is most desirable in a program, but evaluate the microsystem into which the project fits.
Strategy questions. Allowing multiple applications, and making more money (proportionately) available in the suburbs may mean that some artists and agencies, those most skilled in thinking strategically, will go where there is money and opportunity, rather than where there is need, interest or commitment. If the aim of this grant program is to help sustain, enhance and expand community-based arts, then other ways of allocating funds may make more sense.
Originally written July 2001, edited March 2003