Loving the Lottery: Arts Funding for the Unfunded
During the funding application process you are doing something similar to what you do as an artist: Sending your gifts out into the world with little hope of recognition or remuneration. But you are not sending forth your art; instead you are launching a very elaborate lottery ticket into the world.
A self-destruct feature would have been nice, yet unlike those voice mails “archived for 30 days” (never to be retrieved, we’re going to be honest here), my grant application videos (all umpteen million takes) stood in a row across my phone, one thumbnail after another.
There should be a photo of those thumbnails right above this sentence, but I’m embarrassed. I don’t want you to see the sequence of images (yes, still stuck on my phone) of me peering into the camera with a ghost-white play button plastered over my begging face.
Instead here’s a photostrip of my dog Henry. Much like other focused and successful artists I know, Henry’s art entails being blissfully unaware of most of the world and begging only when he really needs to.
Can I describe what I didn’t want to show you? One of the new facets of arts funding applications is the “Introductory Video” (a.k.a. the “Video Statement” or “Virtual Pitch”) where you bid everyone a not-too-jaunty hello and then convince strangers on an arts panel that you are a genius, but still a nice person, not too threatening, not too arrogant. You hit Stop after your first try, just in time: There, you think, that should be the one!
Delete that file and try again, take two: A nice genius who is making art? Nope, not quite.
Attempt number three captures a nice, attractive genius who is making compelling art, but you left it in Pause or Still Photo Mode or you still don’t know what happened. Damn it anyhow.
Ah, the final take! A nice, attractive genius who doesn’t come off as a genius or too attractive at all AND instead makes compelling art and, after all that, would be an amazing collaborator, colleague, and friend. That better do it. If it doesn’t, what will?
None of my videos turned out well. After visiting the foundation’s website (which I am too kind to name), the ugly and unremarkably visaged need not have applied. Only the beautiful write symphonies while fixating on “transplanar strategies” and “extensible, multi-nodal resources.”
Instead, I’m left with a souvenir of what we artists do: Spend extensive time and money creating lottery tickets for arts funding organizations. To my shame, I did (for the first and last time) what I swore I would never do with my art: Abase myself for money, chasing the almighty dollar by presenting my work, myself, my life, as something it ain’t.
The Five Models of Arts Funding
I have experienced five models of arts funding for individual, non-corporate artists:
– Rely on paying audiences and other ancillary income (royalties, licensing, “merch”) to keep the art and artists afloat.
– Pay for everything yourself (even minimally, such as online), profits be damned. Being wealthy helps (I’m not, sorry; I’m missing an added “is” as in Giada De Laurentiis.”
– Find yourself on the receiving end of a “we love you award” from a foundation which bestows money while refusing to accept applications. One variant: You are invited (in my case, “solicited”) to apply and paid generously for your time and effort.
– Gather a coalition of donors and patrons who contribute to the cause via Kickstarter or by writing letters and taking people to lunch.*
– And lastly, apply to an arts funding organization for money by filling out an application and making a video better than mine.
Let’s get any axe grinding out of the way with full disclosure: I have never applied for nor received a grant from Meet The Composer or New Music USA or the American Music Center—all fine organizations, but I’m not sure what I make (found soundscapes, Activist Sound, interstitial work rooted in silence, and orchestra intermissions) fits with their respective mission(s).
Yet I have been blessed (and I use that verb sincerely as an atheist) with more than my fair share of artist fellowships, as well as funding for my projects and performances. And I’m lucky that many labels have released and advocated for my work. I treasure the occasional funded artist residency too, though if the artist is paying room and board to make art in seclusion for seven days, that’s a discounted resort, not an artist residency. (Let’s save that screed for another time.)
Playing the Lottery
The application is where we fib, lie, dream, and rhapsodize. We distill endless hours of creative investigation, failure, and triumph into punchy paragraphs. We suture in the buzzwords hinted at (or suggested by) the application, including “[insert adjective] community engagement,” “[insert weird noun] innovation,” “social latticework with sustainable [insert another weird noun with an adverb]” and so on.
You try to encapsulate yourself, wisely or at least without too much nonsense; if you have not read Nayland Blake’s “Some quick notes on Artist’s Statements” please do so now. And (usually at the last minute) you try to cram a life’s work into less than ten minutes (cued and labeled, please) of uploadable work samples and hope someone cares.
During this application process you are doing something similar to what you do as an artist: Sending your gifts out into the world with little hope of recognition or remuneration. For most of us, the sending is enough. To quote Nayland Blake again, “If you get to experience being in the midst of the moment of creation, of exceeding what you thought was possible for yourself, you’ve already won.”
But you are not sending forth your art; instead you are launching a very elaborate lottery ticket into the world. There is a way to make that a win for you too, no matter what anyone says.
“Give them the fucking money!”
Here’s what I learned from serving on panels for arts organizations, almost more than I can count. There is never enough time to review all of the applications. The lack of time and overwhelming number of pages (e.g. 10 per app) all but guarantees that the process is akin to a lottery.
Promises, promises: I was a good panelist and diligently read every application before we convened. Then, I tallied the time, averaging ten minutes for each one of 200 applications, excluding bathroom breaks. Do the math and weep for me. While I did my darndest to treat every artist’s application like my own, not everyone does. And to think I can absorb a lifetime’s work in ten minutes—really?
At the panel, all it takes is one naysayer. At one contentious panel, a fellow panelist moaned, “She pointed a microphone into a tube, where’s the art in that?”
“Plenty, if you listen. Didn’t you just say you ranked her work high on the list?” Yes, I was irritated and I’m a Seattle native. We never get irritated, except after earthquakes.
“But where’s the WORK?” came the reply, rolling like thunder.
Exasperated and drained of diplomacy (hey, it was Day Three of deliberations) I fumed, “We have just heard the work, a good four minutes of it. We all liked it. If you mean labor, that’s another issue.”
I wish I had hammered my point home with “We’re rewarding art, not sweat!” Alas, by then the panel had Balkanized as many panels do. My two choices got funded, panelist X got their two choices funded, and so on.
But the best lesson came during my first panel. Another artist/panelist, furious at the interminable amount of time spent debating now-forgotten fine points of something or other, screamed, “Let’s give them the money! Give them the fucking money! They made art, they will make art again, give them the fucking money!”
Next week: Winning the Lottery
* I have to reserve a special word for Mark Radonich, who contributed to one of my projects back in 2004; he described it as modest, but without that “modest” amount my work since then would be very different. Thank you, Mark.