Generating income from art in the form of either cash or cash equivalents is always challenging, especially for artists who have unconventional ideas or create art that may not be commercially viable.
The good news is that the art world is one place where anyone who shows talent and promise — marketable or otherwise — can get help in a variety of ways: grants, residencies, employment or internships, allowances, free or low-cost studio space, art supplies, exhibition space and so on. Receiving this assistance is not easy; application processes can be rigorous, and competition is often intense. Give yourself an edge by submitting the strongest application possible.
• “I need money” or “I need studio space” are not good reasons to apply for assistance.
• Don’t write one paragraph when the application provides two pages. Skimping on information makes you look lazy.
• Avoid discussing or showing random work samples that don’t relate to your project or proposal.
• Avoid vague descriptions of what you need to accomplish your goals. For example, “I need $10,000 because that’s how much I think this will cost” is not adequate.
• Do not submit template applications. Reviewers can tell when you’re sending out the same answers or packet of information over and over again. Always customize to the specifics of the organization.
• Don’t list people as references unless they know you’re listing them.
• Don’t add superfluous materials that are outside the parameters of the instructions. Include only what you’re asked to include. Reviewers are overwhelmed enough already without having to sift through irrelevancies.
Determine the Scope of Your Need
To begin, articulate your intentions and goals for yourself, not only in terms of where you want to go with your art, but how you propose to get there. In other words, what are you trying to accomplish? Having a plan for your artistic life, career and objectives enables you to clarify exactly what’s required to materialize that vision.
If you need time to work, you might apply for a residency. If you need cash for living expenses while you’re making art, an unrestricted grant may be the best way to go. Perhaps you require studio space, or maybe travel is involved in your project. Quantifying your needs enables you to focus more precisely on which opportunities to pursue and which to avoid (those that may sound good but don’t really serve your purposes), and helps you target organizations, nonprofits or foundations whose missions match with your art and intentions. (See the list of resources for locating opportunities in the sidebar).
Only apply for opportunities that are appropriate for your work and goals. For instance, if you’re a painter, then it’s probably not a good idea to apply for an architecture grant — even though your work might be influenced by architecture.
Thoroughly research your project in advance and know what’s required to complete it. Reviewers can tell when you don’t know what you’re talking about — especially with respect to details like how much will things cost, how you’ll account for your time, or what you’ll need in terms of supplies, equipment, or studio space. In other words, be able to say, “Here is exactly what I need to make this happen.”
Customize Each Application
Assuming you’ve got your agenda in order and have identified potential opportunities, the most important aspect of any request for assistance is the application process.
Not every application and review process is identical, so read the application instructions thoroughly. It is critical to understand the requirements and complete all forms according to their exact directions. If they want eight copies, submit eight copies. If they want no name on your statement, have no name on your statement. Minor details are basic, but important; these little things are often what trip artists up. Being able to customize your approach to each specific situation is always advantageous to a favorable outcome.
It is also essential to understand how that application will be assessed once the juror, committee or panel who will review it. Whenever possible — before filling out the application — speak with someone at the organization and ask a few basic questions about their decision-making process. For example, how will your art will be viewed? Will your images be projected onto a large screen or viewed on a computer? Will each image be studied one-by-one, or will images be seen in groups? The more procedural specifics you’re aware of in advance, the better you can maximize the effectiveness of your presentation.
• New York Foundation for the Arts (www.nyfa.org)
• Creative Capital (www.creative-capital.org)
• Alliance of Artists Communities (www.artistcommunities.org)
• Res Artist Network (www.resartis.org)
• Foundation Center (www.foundationcenter.org)
Spelling, neatness, good grammar and thoroughness all count and all demonstrate the seriousness with which you’re taking the opportunity. Double-check and proofread everything before you send it on, and be sure to include whatever additional materials they ask for. Better yet, have friends or acquaintances review your application as well, not only in terms of mechanics, but also to see whether your answers make sense and whether you successfully get your main points across. Be aware that you’re likely one of hundreds or even thousands of applicants and that, at the very least, you want to appear professional. Reviewers are typically inundated with applications and often eliminate potential candidates from contention because of the smallest mistakes. You are being assessed on whether or not someone wants to invest in you and your talents — in your career and your future — according to how well they think these investments will pay off. Nobody invests in carelessness.
Select Artwork Carefully
Art is a visual medium, so make sure you can fill an application’s image requirement with strong, professional-looking images representing an artist who takes their career seriously. Reviewers look at your art first without even reading the application, and in some cases that decides whether the application ever gets read at all or who advances to the second round of consideration. Stack the odds in your favor and make sure your art looks its best.
• Apply for as many opportunities as you’re eligible for every year. Don’t get discouraged. Be aware that the people or panels who review applications change, and what gets turned down one year may well be accepted the next. The more you apply for, the better you get at applying.
• If you’ve never applied for anything before, attend grant-writing workshops. Read other artists’ proposals, preferably winning ones, to see what good applications look like. Ask artists you know who have gotten assistance whether you can see their applications or offer pointers on how best to proceed.
• Be clear and concise in all your answers. Avoid density — arcane, convoluted art speak. The quicker and cleaner you get your points across, the greater your chances for success. Reviewers don’t like getting bogged down in jargon.
• References are important, particularly ones you can rely on — people who have some sort of profile in the art community and who are solidly behind you and your work. Make sure you talk to whomever you list as references before you list them though to be sure they genuinely support you.
Don’t include information about every piece of art you’ve ever produced or are currently working on. If you’re involved in multiple projects, narrow your focus to the one or two most relevant to the application, and keep the look uniform. Think of this process as branding yourself, as becoming the artist who all the reviewers identify as “the figurative painter,” for example.
Good visual documentation, well-written descriptions and other relevant details concerning all significant works of your art are equally important to have on hand. Video is also good if there’s a participatory aspect or kinetic element to your art. Generally, you should have whatever ancillary materials best represent and clarify the nature of your work. Again, every application requires different information about your art. The more you’ve taken the time to prepare in advance, the better.
Have a Proven Track Record
Before applying for grants or assistance, you should have some sort of track record or exhibition history. Sometimes, you can apply for a grant or other form of assistance based only on an idea. In fact, certain organizations prefer supporting innovative concepts to art that already exists. However, in all cases, the organization will require that whatever you propose to do be based on, or supported by, the merits of previous work. In addition to completed work, an artist’s reputation is informed by his or her resume, curriculum vitae (list of shows or exhibitions), previous awards or grants, and so on — assuming they’re relevant to whatever is being applied for.
If you’re just starting out, hold off on the application process for now. Get involved in your local community, help out at an arts organization or gallery, and get some experience showing art, even if only with your friends. You’ll eventually meet people sympathetic to your art or projects, build a fan base, and become more knowledgeable about what opportunities make sense and are within your reach.
Alan Bamberger is an art consultant, advisor, fine art appraiser, author and the site principal of artbusiness.com. He has written about the art business since 1983, including the nationally syndicated column “Art Talk” (1985 to 2001) and the “Turning Pro” column for Coagula Art Journal. He has also written numerous articles for publications like American Artist, Antiques and Fine Art and Art Ltd. magazine, and three books, including The Art of Buying Art, published by Gordon’s Art Reference in 2002 (revised and enlarged in 2007). To learn more, visit his website, www.artbusiness.com.