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Want to Win Grants? 20 Tips for Artists and Fine Art Photographers
Who wouldn’t want to receive a grant to do their art or make photographs? Applying for one is an art in itself, however, and can be time consuming, anxiety provoking, frustrating and full of rejection. But if you keep at it, it works.
It starts with writing a great proposal, selecting strong work and completing the application on time. Become a sleuth too: learn as much as possible about the arts grant to glean what they might be looking for.
Put it all together, and it’s possible for fine art photographers, artists, writers, filmmakers, composers, musicians, choreographers, and dancers to win grants consistently and live off your art.
What I’ve Received
In about the last 18 months, I’ve won three grants and two artist residencies.
It started with a $2,500 photography grant; then one for $5,000–a check just arrived in the mail one day, which I didn’t open for a week because I thought it was a rejection letter; and finally one that paid my rent for six months (!) on my New York City apartment. I’ve also been accepted to Yaddo four times (in the last ten years), and attended three other artist’s residencies with an additional one coming up and wait listed for another.
Here are some of my experiences for writing a successful art or photography grant application.
1. Start at the Beginning–Feelings
How do you feel about applying for a grant as an artist/photographer?
A photographer friend, when applying for her first fine art photography grant, approached it with abject fear.
Am I worthy of applying?
Is the work good enough?
What right do I have asking for money?
Typical questions, and something I certainly felt during the first few dozen or so grant applications (and still feel from time to time). But after a while, like a building a muscle, those fears faded. And let them fade as quickly because there is work to do, as you will see below.
How do you feel about applying for a grant as an artist/photographer? This might seem like an odd place to start, but I consider it the real first step. Are you confident, full of fear, afraid you’re not doing it right, unsure if this is the right time? Do this to get them out of your system so you can move on. Do you know you don’t deserve a grant at this time? Then don’t apply. If you feel like you don’t deserve it, because of fear, well, that’s just part of the game. And apply. Recognize it so you can move on, because the next steps need all your attention.
2. Read and Research Everything
Read the grant requirements. Carefully. Thoroughly.
Yes, some people don’t do this (or are afraid to). But you have to know what the grant organization is looking for in order to see if your work fits the basic requirements. For the first time, I applied for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, for example, because I felt I had a body of work that was documentary-leaning, which is their main focus.
3. Note Deadlines and Requirements
I look first at the deadline and the basic grant requirements. If they need letters of recommendation, such as the Guggenheim Foundation award does, I make a note and build in an extra month or more to complete the application. If the due date is months away, I set it side. I personally use a contact management system called Salesforce. It’s a bit overkill for my purposes but gives me reminders before the deadline (so I don’t waste time wondering if I am missing a due date or not).
4. Research Winners
Do a Google search on the grant and especially on previous artists or photographers who’ve won.
About two weeks before the grant is due, I very carefully re-read every word on the web site, looking for any key tidbits: are they stressing letters of recommendations over the project proposal, does the jury change yearly? I then do a Google search on the grant and especially on previous artists or photographers who’ve won. This is where the sleuthing comes in. I glance–not study–the winners and any other information to get a sense of what type of work might be successful. Note, however, that this can change each year depending on the jury.
5. Contact the Grant Office
Usually, I reach out to the grant office directly. This is an important step that many artists and photographers overlook or avoid. Just ask them directly: what do they think makes a good application? How competitive is it? How many artists and photographers apply? They are usually very friendly and offer a few key bits of information.
6. Select Work
Select work that is coherent in theme, mood or subject.
After reviewing the grant, you should now have an idea about what art or photographs to submit. The best approach is to select work that is coherent in theme, mood or subject (or all of the above). Now is not the time to do a “greatest hits” overview, but rather present a cohesive body of work.
7. Put Aside to Percolate
Put together a draft selection of images, and then think about them for a few days, coming back several times to review them. Is this the best work and does this seem to fit what they are looking for?
8. Order the Images
Ordering the artwork could be important. Go back to the web site for instructions and see if they mention the order in which art will be presented. If so, think about the narrative your work creates, and re-order if necessary.
9. Start the Proposal
After the work is selected, now its time to write the proposal. I usually prefer to have an idea of what work I am presenting before I start writing, although this can change; doing both simultaneously is fine as well.
10. Be Clear
Be clear, concise and jargon-free when writing. This can be hard, especially for the first time. How to crystallize a body of work in 500 words or less? It’s not easy but this step brings clarity.
11. Write Using Plain English
Imagine how you would describe your work to a stranger.
One suggestion is to start writing without editing yourself. While doing this, imagine how you would describe your work to a stranger on the street. Avoid long complicated phrases, “art-speak,” the mention of theories and how you made the work (unless it’s crucial for the jury to know). Instead, use plain English, simple language and describe the what is in the work.
12. Review and Tweak
Put this aside for few days, coming back to tweak it from time to time. Now go back to the selected images. After writing the draft proposal, should additional images be added, removed or reordered? Does the selection visually reflect the proposal? If not, review and re-edit several additional times until it feels right.
13. Artist Statement
You might already have an artist’s statement. If so, great; if not, start writing. Use the same approach above. This could be a whole other article in itself, but write with clarity, avoid jargon, and be descriptive.
14. Get Other Documents
A CV and/or bio is often required. A CV is a simple, straightforward listing of your education, shows, awards, publications, lectures and collections your work is included in. If you are starting out and have little experience, don’t worry; if you have many shows, make sure your CV is up-to-date. For the bio, keep it simple and factual: it is a narrative version of your CV.
A few days before the deadline, put everything together. Finalize both the images and the proposal, making additional minor changes–remember, this is a process.
16. Check Everything–Again
Go back once more to the grant web site to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Once everything looks good, complete the application (if there is one), carefully following the instructions.
17. Format Images
Size and format the images for uploading (or burn to CD, if necessary). Usually they should be set at 72 dpi and a certain pixel height and width. Sometimes the grant requires the files to be named a certain way, such as “John_Smith_01.jpg”. Sometimes the proposal needs to be formatted as a PDF. Be sure to check and follow requirements exactly.
18. Submit Early
Don’t wait til the last minute to upload.
Once everything is ready, upload (or in some cases, snail mail) the images, proposal, CV/Bio, artist’s statement and any other required documents. Avoid waiting until 11:59 pm or an hour before the grant is due because there could be computer problems, your internet could be down, or there might be last-minute technical issues. I try to submit the application the day before or at least six hours before the deadline. Take one last look checking for completeness or errors and hit the “submit” button.
19. Post Application Celebration
Congratulations! You are done, and submitted a grant application. Celebrate your accomplishment in some way, even if you just take an hour off, go to the movies or make an “artist date” by visiting a museum.
20. Keep Applying
It becomes a numbers game and keep applying.
Now its up to the jury. No need to worry, since you’ve done your part. Either you’ll get the grant or you won’t. It’s nothing personal, and try not to take it that way. Usually, it becomes a numbers game: apply to ten grants and win two; apply to five, win one. If you don’t win, get ready to try again next year. If you do win, great–and keep on applying.
Art Grant Consultation
If you have questions about grant applications, feel free to reach out. Also, I provide hands-on, personal art grant consultations, proposal writing, portfolio reviews and private photography tutorials.