Monday, June 22, 2009

Thick Skin or Not: Send in that Application

For some of the more seasoned readers out there, this post may seem bleeding obvious, but for other I believe it's important to share this, so bear with me if you think this seems a no-brainer.

I don't envy what it must feel like to be a nominee and yet not hear your name called during the Academy Awards. To have to sit there and smile demurely and clap your hands just long enough to look like a good loser but not so long you begin to look psychotic must take enormous self-restraint. Just once, I'd love to see the camera turn to someone not receiving the award just as they mouth to their date "Really? She got it? How the f**k!?" Worst still must be to go to that evening's after parties and see the winner reaping their congratulations, not to mention then schlepping back to the set the next day to keep working on another project.

I know that a similar sentiment is common among visual artists who apply for grants or residencies. The anticipation, the lingering doubts about just how good your application was...and how that can morph into doubts about how good your work is...and then the energy you must muster to force yourself to reapply the following time should a rejection come me, I know, they all suck. I know also because dealers vicariously go through the grant or residency anxiety with their artists, but even more directly dealers go through a similar emotional roller coaster when applying to the bigger art fairs. Waiting to hear back is agonizing, and the rejection letters (and they always suck, no matter how flowery or seemingly encouraging they are) makes your heart sink into your gut. I hate it. And, like I said, it makes it very hard to thicken your skin enough to subject your pride to all that again the following year.

But I had a conversation with someone in the position to help artists get significant financial assistance recently, the truly saintly President of Creative Capital, Ruby Lerner, that made me rethink how to look at the rewards of the application process, regardless of whether you receive the grant this time or not. In case you don't know them already, Creative Capital states in their mission that they are a
[N]ational nonprofit organization that supports artists pursuing adventurous and imaginative work in the performing and visual arts, film/video, innovative literature, and emerging fields. We get behind projects of great scope and ambition that may initially have challenges attracting funding from other sources. We are committed to working in long-term partnership with the artists we support, making a multi-year financial commitment and providing advisory services and professional development assistance along with financial support. Since our founding, Creative Capital has committed more than $14 million in funding and services to 324 projects representing 411 artists. We have reached an additional 2,200 artists in communities across the country through our trademark Professional Development Program.
Their grant program is open to all (i.e., you don't need to be nominated), so what Ruby told me will not apply to all grant programs, obviously, but what she said that hugely changed my opinion about the value of applying was that regardless of whether you win or not, your artwork is being reviewed by the kinds of people you might have to wait years to get to see it through all other means. Indeed, this is true of most grant or residency programs. The selection committees are generally people with significant pull in the art world, and here they are, looking at your work. That, in and of itself, should make the work to put the application together worth it.

More than that, though, sometimes, totally independent of the application process, one of those powerful people will want to do something with you outside this particular grant program. Ruby told me of one applicant whom a selection committee member recently said he didn't care whether this artist received the grant or not, but he so loved their proposal that he offered them an opportunity to realize their work in another state because the project was so perfect for their institution. In other words, the rewards of applying to such programs may not be limited to whether or not you receive what you applied for this one time.

I'll admit it, I have an almost crippling aversion to rejection. But what Ruby said really resonated with me. Rather than seeing the only prize worth having beating out the rest of competition and taking home the award, each such opportunity also represents the chance to connect with someone who could eventually do even more to help you. Someone who wouldn't have known about what you do had you let a few rejections jade your opinion of the value of applying.

Labels: grants, tough love


Blogger Ethan said...

Having been on both sides of the grant application process, I always soothe my ego with the knowledge that these awards do not go to the best proposal/artist.

Not to say that the artists winning the opportunity are not deserving--it's just that at a certain point the jury will have a pile of applications, any of which would be equally deserving, and they just have to make a choice. Based on the the jury and their pet loves & peeves (or their interpretation of the awarding instituation's criteria), it could easily go one way or the other.

6/22/2009 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but when our gallery rejects an artist for an open call group show, we don't remember them. We do remember the ones we accept and often extend other opportunities to them.
The best way to be recognized and sought after is to already have a reputation and be OFFERED opportunities. We do seek out artists whose work we admire and offer them opportunities, even if they have not applied to us for anything. Our gallery seeks out quality and that seems to be uncommon and, unfortunately, there are only a few limited places for the overwhelming number of applicants received. An artist needs to be wonderful and lucky.

6/22/2009 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you sound creepy and obnoxious- anonymous 11:24

6/22/2009 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


clearly I did a terrible job of writing this post, as both these comments are evidence that my point was not understood.

The specific point I meant to make was that the people on a selection committee for a grant or residency are usually people it would otherwise take you years to pay attention to your work. They are often unaffiliated with the grant or residency in any other way than the selection committee and have their own institutions, and thereby their own opportunities to offer artists. By applying to such offerings (entirely independent of whether they're awarded to the "best" artists or proposals), you get your work in front of those decision makers.

The notion that the anonymous gallery here (really, as a gallerist, why wouldn't you sign your name?) doesn't recall the artists they reject is also besides the point. It's not to be expected that all grant or residency committee members will remember the work of artists they don't like, but rather that one or two might be impressed with work submitted that doesn't win the prize (because of the variety of opinions sought in awarding such prizes) and decide to reach out to the artist on their own.

6/22/2009 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger lookinaroundbob said...

Anon sounds like he is describing a field that he wouldn't want to be part of.

6/22/2009 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I don't think you failed to make your point, Ed. It is well taken.

I have to say, though, that as generous an institution as Creative Capital is, and as much as I have applied for their grants for the simple discipline of doing so, I take grave issue with the fact that they make their first round of cuts for visual arts applications without looking at any visuals. I know for a fact that they are not amenable to altering this state of affairs; they claim that they want to support articulate, concept-driven artists, and that's certainly their prerogative.

But as a painter, I have been noticing lately that 1) it takes at least a couple of decades for painters to fully mature and produce great work, and 2) that any concepts which may drive the act of painting have almost nothing to do with the quality of the work itself. I am very much in favor of painting which communicates some sort of concept, be it ever so esoteric, layered and poetic, but the fact is that you have NO IDEA whether a painter is succeeding in communicating until you LOOK AT THE WORK. Preferably in person.

It deeply disturbs me that a major and influential organization such as Creative Capital does not acknowledge this, and actively selects against committed painters by virtue of their process.

6/22/2009 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Oh, and one more small thing, Ed--I think the phrase 'having beaten out the rest of the competition' is psychologically counterproductive. As much as other artists may technically be my 'competition,' they're also my colleagues and my inspiration. In an ideal world I don't even want to think in terms of 'beating' them; I'd prefer to think of 'connecting, communicating, commiserating, sharing, supporting and jousting with them in a friendly way.'

Very sappy of me, I know.

6/22/2009 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Thanks for this post. As a young artist trying to get my career started it is often frustrating to keep motivated to return to the application process after rejections. As much as what you have said here is advice I have heard before, it is always helpful to hear it again.

6/22/2009 02:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this Ed. Your point was taken, but I think a few of us are looking for a larger discussion about this issue.

I certainly understand and agree with where Pretty Lady is coming from, but feel another observation needs to be made.

This other observation is about the issue of repeat funding - the same few artists are being funded for the same (or similar) work, by the same or multiple organizations, time and time again.

Granted these institutions have their own prerogative, but why fund someone that has already received funding for said project? Yes, there are instances when someone may need additional funding, but those are usually few and far between. Surely another artist and his or her project could benefit from funding, but they are being passed over for whatever reason just to give the funding to someone who may not really need it.

Should the repeatedly funded artists be ashamed that they are getting grants and residencies consistently? Absolutely not. If the institutions are giving they should keep taking.

But some institutions should try harder to expand their scope, look deeper than the application if the work has potential, and fund those that don't have page after page of awards and residencies on their C.V. In fact I would almost go so far as to say they should withhold funding instead of to giving it to the same person several times within a few years.

It would be different if there wasn't any other good work out there, but there is and now is when it needs to be supported.

6/22/2009 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't disagree that institutions that seem to keep funding the same artists should find ways to spread the love around more, but I think it's fair to point out that in some instance a nice chunk of change to one artist can do much, much more to help realize an ambitious project than spreading that money out among several artists would ever do. So it comes back to the vision/mission of the grants institution.

6/22/2009 02:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All is gonna take you is: spend 2 of hours preparing your application and write your statement, and depens on where you live mailing cost. You never know, you might be the right envelop whoever in committe will open, at the right moment and right place. Instead of sitting and waiting for opportunities to come to you, chase them. There might be other options to stand out, but sending an application wouldnt hurt your carreer.


6/22/2009 03:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You did a good job of explaining the process. Thank you.

My big problem with most application processes is that the institutions want reference letters. In the past I have had to ask hard-working people to say nice things on my behalf. Every letter takes someone at least an hour of their time (I know, as I have also been asked to write these letters). It's one thing for artists to subject themselves to this usually futile exercise, but to have to drag others into it seems grossly unfair.

Then there's the "mix" of names for the reference. Do you ask a curator? A dealer? Another artist? An academic colleague? Is it OK to have all women? All men? Just how important are those reference names anyway?

And speaking of academia, the deck seems stacked against the lone studio artist when so many full-time professors, with health benefits and sabbaticals--and plenty of professional colleagues to tap for references--are applying, and getting, those grants.

I'd rather take on a freelance project with a guaranteed payment than to spend an almost equal amount of time in a crapshoot. Am I jaded? Or just tired?

Gotta sign myself Anonymous on this one.

6/22/2009 03:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish it weren't so, but Anon 11:24 is the only one telling the whole truth here.

I want Edward to be right. But I've sat through enough of these panels to know that:

1. The people sitting on the panel are *definitely* important.

2. They are also busy and they know they're important, and they feel like they have seen everything already, and are usually not there to learn or see anything new. They want to get in and get out.

3. Your work will not even be seriously looked at unless your name has been mentioned by a panelist. It's overwhelmingly about your name, not your work.

4. The only exception to this is if your work is so incredibly different than what's expected that it makes people actually stop as the slides go next-next-next. But be warned: the chances that your work is like this are very slim. And even your work is that different, that's usually not a selling point.

5. I have ever seen panelists talk about work that they keep seeing over and over again. It's usually disparaging.

My experience tells me that the open call is often an actively damaging context. It's often (not always) gently rigged. Important People are seeing your art, but in the worst possible light and under the worst possible circumstances, when they are bored and tired and thinking about all the things they'd rather be doing. In this context, if you manage to make yourself known, you tend to get known as a loser, a terminal supplicant.

From a marketing perspective, the chance that someone is going to notice your work in this context and think to use it somewhere else is... well...

...I don't think the chance that this might happen is not worth putting your work into a context that's definitely not conducive to looking at new work.

6/22/2009 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I wish it weren't so, but Anon 11:24 is the only one telling the whole truth here.

You have no idea how sincerely I wish someone with such an opinion had the conviction to sign their name to it. Maybe then we could begin a real debate on such matters that might just lead to significant change. Until that time, the faintheartedness that anonymous comments imply make the rest of what you argue too easy to simply dismiss.

Seriously, I really try to engage anonymous dissent here, knowing that artists might have any host of reasons to disagree with my point of view without signing their names to it, but when it comes to something as fundamental as the sort of funding that may mean a real opportunity to realize a dream, I simply can't understand such precautions...who on earth do you think will believe your actual work has worth if an opinion on something as mundane as funding must go unsigned?

Paraphrasing the now immortal words of Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton (talking then about the media): "In conclusion, I invite [artists who feel this way] to grow a pair....and if you can't, I will lend you mine."

6/22/2009 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Ethan said...

To combat the feelings such as Anon@3:38 has, I keep statistics on how many opportunities I apply to versus how many I achieve.

I do this to motivate myself (I know for every x number of applications, something is likely to come of it). It's also nice to see the ratio improving over time.

Incidentally, except for the occasional residency application, I never, ever apply for anything that requires an application fee.

It's great to receive unsolicited opportunities as Anon@11:24 suggests. But saying that's the best way to be recognized is like saying the best way to become rich is to have a ton of money.

6/22/2009 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

re-read that and see anon is possibly not an artist [making the anonymity all that more confusing and my challenge less relevant (alas)].

The point of this thread is NOT that every time you apply to a program something magical will happen. You might still want to hand pick those programs you apply to based on who is on their selection committee (i.e., curator X is on the grant committee for grant B. I've sent curator X several cold call packages and never received a reply [probably because curator X has an assistant who opens her mail and tosses out cold call submissions, but who doesn't have curator X's vision which you believe is uniquely matched with yours] but this time curator X will see my work and I've spent the time thinking about exactly how to prepare my proposal to maximize the precious few moments she'll have to review it).

In short, it's an opportunity you weren't going to get easily through other means AND possibly a prize to boot. Take advantage of it.

6/22/2009 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks Ed - this is pretty much what I needed to read right about now, (after a rough week consisting of three grant/residency rejections). It's quite helpful to get a different perspective on this subject.

6/22/2009 08:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's way too easy for you to suggest that I grow a pair. I didn't sign my name for obvious and legitimate reasons. The way it works sucks and it's important to talk about it, but I certainly will not jeopardize my own career by being honest here about what I have experienced. Do you want to make easy pokes at my anonymous status or do you want to address what I am actually saying?

I want it to work the way you say it does, but it doesn't. It's just not about the work. There are good reasons why it becomes about who instead of what. It's easier than trusting your judgment after a few hours of looking at slides. It's safer than taking a risk on an unknown. It's faster than actually considering hundreds of cold applications. Bringing names makes you look like an insider, like you have prepared, like you bring something to the table. Doing favors is what keeps important people important.

In this context, nobody's work looks good unless it's got the imprimatur on it. If you get that SmackMellon residency or that summer at Socrates and you didn't find out who is on the panel beforehand, it was a total fluke, you are doing it the hard way.

No offense to Ethan, but what kind of win-percentage is he putting a happy face on? Because now that I have sat on these panels, I don't bother to apply to anything with an open call unless I can find out who is on the panel and make sure my name gets mentioned, and so I get about 80% of the things I apply for. In part, this is because of the name, and in part it's because I apply for fewer things and write better proposals.

I am a busy person, like Ethan I am sure, and those are meaningful results. Anything much less effective than that is getting lost in ego-tripping and romantic ideas about failure that aren't true and that actively hurt you as an artist. You don't need to fail over and over and over again to succeed. That's not true. Everybody fails sometimes. But I don't know anyone who actually has a career that buys into any of this stuff about having to fail all the time.

The people I know who succeed protect their egos, make an effort not to fail most of the time, drop anything that smells like bogus makework and have a talent for relentlessly building on small successes. They are always on the inside because they keep finding the inside. They are never desperate, always realistic.

They never get sucked into the trap of the open call. They never assume that their work is so special that it should open doors for them. They go find a key instead. They go out and meet people.

6/22/2009 09:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Margaret PG said...

I apply for grants, and get some. It does take a lot of time and energy, and is more often then not disappointing. But I guess I consider it part of my job, just something I need to keep doing. I am not sure that I agree that the point is to get your work seen -- I doubt anyone who didn't award me a grant will remember my work (and probably some who have made grants won't remember me either). For me, part of the value of the process is getting my sh*t together -- pulling images together, gathering thoughts, writing clearly and briefly, making sure I can talk about what I'm doing and what I want to do next. And, once in a rare while, something pans out.

6/22/2009 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Ed, I'm going to say here and now that as far as my experience goes, I agree with Anonymous 3:38. I have come to the conclusion that the inherent qualities of a work of art are scarcely ever the primary consideration when it is looked at by a panelist, a curator or a dealer, and that most of the time these people look to dismiss rather than to appreciate unless they have a personal reason to do otherwise. Anything can be contextualized out of significance.

This observation is only buttressed by anon 2:25's point about repeat grant funding (same anon? different?); everyone knows that your odds of receiving a grant improve dramatically if you have already received one. People don't want to rely on their own eyes and their own opinions when assessing art; they want to pick a preordained winner.

I don't think this detracts from your original point at all. Of course it's important to get your work in front of powerful people, particularly if you know that your work resonates with their taste.

But I also must admit that it's possible I'm only signing my name to comments such as the above because I've already despaired of having the sort of 'career' that's seen as 'successful' in 'art world' terms. Now I'm only aspiring to integrity.

6/22/2009 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's way too easy for you to suggest that I grow a pair. I didn't sign my name for obvious and legitimate reasons. The way it works sucks and it's important to talk about it, but I certainly will not jeopardize my own career by being honest here about what I have experienced. Do you want to make easy pokes at my anonymous status or do you want to address what I am actually saying?

I really don't mean to pick on you, Anonymous, but you're actually illustrating my point here.

First and foremost, despite your insistence that it doesn't work the way I say it does, I know from anecdotal and personal experience that it can. That's not a guarantee, but when thousands of artists in the US each year receive grants and residencies, clearly it's not as bleak as you paint the picture.

Secondly, let me replay back to you what your complaint sounds like to me:

"The system isn't about the work [no qualifications there...just a blanket statement]. Therefore the system isn't legitimate. However, I have legitimate reasons for not saying that publicly."

Why? Because you still wish to profit from this "illegitimate" system? Aren't you then perpetuating its illegitimacy through your anonymity? Are not you, with your asserted insider perspective, obligated to expose this sham? And not only expose it, but abstain from participating in it?

I'm sorry to harp on like this, but from where I sit, these programs are indeed flawed, but to be perfect they'd have to exist in a perfect world, and well....

But I've seen too many artists who had the conviction to keep applying eventually secure the grant or residency that gave their career a huge boost upward to simply let the pooh-poohing you're doing here go unchallenged.

It takes courage to reapply after a rejection. My point is that even if you receive a rejection, you've accomplished something by getting your work in front of the decision makers. Your point seems to be that even that isn't worth the effort. We disagree.

6/23/2009 08:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although you "disagree," you are all still saying: apply only after you've done research and decided it's worth it. Even anon applies sometimes. Where you are disagreeing is _when_ it's worth it. I'm somewhere in the middle: anon, sometimes the way to get your "name known" is to keep applying. Most creative capital grant winners, for example, have applied a handful of times in a row before they've finally gotten the gold. They in fact recommend to apply several times. Edward: most of the time, I can tell you in advance at least 3 people who are going to get a creative capital grant or rhizome grant, or even - I know you've been on this panel - at least one artist who will get the LES Print Shop publishing thinger in any given year (for example). Truth is, when there are 10 grants or spots to give, only 1 or 2 are "really" up for grabs for those "outside" the inner circles, and it smarts a bit - not because of rejection (that, most of us can handle), but because of how much time these things take, and how little time we have in contemporary culture. At a point, it's _not_ worth it. Not when we can be making art, or spending time with family, or making a few bucks to pay rent on some odd job. I know you both agree with this, but are just taking a stand on what makes it worth it. And it got muddled from the main point of Ed's post along the way. I, for one, used to apply to several grants, fellowships and residencies per month. Now it's maybe one every other month, and usually it's the "smaller" ones that will not change my career, but will give me money and maybe - oddly - increase my chances of the "bigger" ones later down the road. I can say with confidence that my stuff is good, and I do receive occasional moneys or space, etc, but I'm yet to get that career-changing grant or fellowship...
(Note: I am signing anon as I prefer not to have the world know how often i get rejected, but I tried really hard to stay on topic and not hide behind that fact. No personal attacks or sweeping statements...)

6/23/2009 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Although you "disagree," you are all still saying: apply only after you've done research and decided it's worth it.

Don't apply for everything certainly, but do consider whether or not it is worth it (even if you think you can guess who will win it) to have your work reviewed by the people on the committee...yes. There are two possible positive outcomes (maybe this will be your year and maybe someone on the committee in a decision making position will take a liking to your work).

Also, how did you know I was on the LES Printshop panel? Did you know before or after the decision was made? I'm asking so that other artists might learn how to do such research.

6/23/2009 08:48:00 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

No offense to Ethan, but what kind of win-percentage is he putting a happy face on?

Right now I'm at 1:2.9 (meaning out of the 37 applications I've made in the last couple of years, 11 of them resulted in getting the grant or whatever). It's no 80%, but I'm pretty pleased with it. At this point I don't think it's realistic to get my acceptance rate much better--what I'm looking to see improve is the number of opportunities that seek me out.

6/23/2009 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

Oops... that should be 1:3.36 (or 29%). That'll teach me for doing simple math before having my coffee this morning!

The ratio has been around 1:3 for a while... When I first starting applying to grants, etc., my guess is that it was more like 1:10.

6/23/2009 09:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 8:24 again. I'm on board with your first paragraph, Edward. And will add a nod to personal time constraints factoring in at various points in one's life/career in that "worth it" category.

Re: the panel. It's been long enough that I can't remember when or how I found out you were on the panel, but I do know it was on the LES PS web site at some point. When applying to such things, I try to do research on the panel in advance - who is on it, what they do, what they like - via the web, and will select my work and how I speak about it based on that to some extent. Even if I don't know who is on such a panel before I apply (which may effect whether or not I do), I often look it up afterwards, when it might be easier to find, and make a mental note that one person or another has seen my work. Usually, I don't know what to do with this information (they may not have found it memorable in this context; they may not have liked it; or even if they did, the rest of the panel's opinion that it was not one of the best in the running - since it did not get the gig - may have swayed them permanently). But sometimes, it can help. For example, when next you and I meet, I might tell or remind you of my work I sent to the LES (without actually mentioning the LES, of course). One of three things will likely happen: 1. you will have a vague memory of seeing it somewhere, which works in my favor. 2. You will remember liking it, again my favor. 3. you will remember not liking it, or that the panel panned it, and i will hopefully be able to gauge this and either move on, or convince you otherwise....
I know it sounds careerist, but for me it's more a combination of good art practice, dialogue, and strategizing in order to continue both of those with and around people I respect, and with similar goals. It's slow, but good art, food and careers should take time and care to make.

6/23/2009 10:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Alyson B. Stanfield said...

Hate to get in the middle of such a lively debate, but I'd like to echo what Margaret PG said earlier. I believe one of the primary benefits (if not THE primary benefit) for going through these processes is to get your sh*t together. I don't have the experience of applying for individual artist grants, but when I used to work at smaller museums in the Midwest, the grant application process always helped us get clear on what we wanted to do with an exhibition. It helped us set our budget, programs, publicity, etc. I've worked with a few artists on their grants and I see this does the same for them. Getting clear on what you want and how you're going to use it is a benefit and motivator. Go for it!

6/23/2009 01:22:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

Sorry Edward, I'd love to be on your side on this one. But I am an idealist to the core, and sitting through a couple of these panels almost permanently jaded me. It definitely made me rethink my strategy.

I am not exactly making art right now--I'm doing other things. But I stopped applying to most things ages ago, and focused more on what I was invited to or had an in with, and this strategy does work. It's not like having a lot of money so that you can be recognized for being rich.

It's much better to start from a place of abundance and focus on expanding what you already have. Applying to open calls indiscriminately can destroy that sense of abundance and make it all about what other people think of you. Then you feel bad about yourself and the spiral starts going downward.... not okay.

6/23/2009 04:03:00 PM  

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