Grant Writing For Artists – Advice and Musings

I went to Crack and all I got was this rad t-shirt and some great discussion. Also there is a baby in there.
I went to Crack and all I got was this rad t-shirt and some great discussion. Also there is a baby in there.

Last week I was at This Is Not Art presenting a session on grant-writing for artists for the Crack Theatre Festival. I promised a bunch of you (and myself) that I would share my notes here, and I’ve come good.

I’ll preface this the way I did at the session – arts funding is contentious at this point in time. Government funding pools are stretched and exposed to wild oscillation in management, while everyone everywhere is being pushed towards private funding and philanthropy. What is right or wrong? Who deserves funding and how much? For the purposes of this piece I’m not going there. We start on the premise that you are seeking funding for a project, politics aside.  That said, before Crack I sought comment from a couple of arts world figures on grant-writing and grants culture more generally, and I will present some of their thoughts for you to consider in relation to your practice. Read on.

While it is few people’s favourite thing (it is my favourite thing), grant application writing helps you identify your practice, figure out your goals, get your name out there and maybe, every once in a while, get some cash. Grants are not only to be found via state and federal arts funding bodies, but there are schemes and pockets of money everywhere, often in obscure places as distant from the arts as you can imagine. When reading the following advice remember it applies not only to government arts grants, but that the same skills and tactics apply to funding from non-arts departments and organisations as well as private funding initiatives. Grant writing involves a form of communication that all artists will require at various points in their practice, whether they are seeking funds or otherwise. Clear, direct and convincing communication is required for making proposals, seeking residencies, in marketing and promotion, networking, at family Christmas dinners, you know – everything.

I approached two significant players in the arts industry, whose work and ethos I admire, asking what advice they would give to artists on the topic. They responded generously. Firsty, Robyn Archer – deputy chair of the Australia Council (among a great many things):

First rule in grant-making – get someone else to do it for you (or with you) especially the first time. I don’t do many myself.

Second: make sure that all the work that goes into applying for a grant is really worth it. You have do the grant properly, and then you have to acquit properly afterwards. It all takes time and focus. Grants offer fantastic support for artists, but sometimes artists think that grants just take too much time, and it might be better to go and find a private funder (someone wealthy who loves your work), or to crowd-fund. But in every case, no matter who you go to for support, you have to make a passionate but sound claim that your work is worth supporting. It has to be more than just the project itself. You need to be able to express why your work and your process is valuable, and more valuable than others in what is always a highly competitive process. There’s no substitute for a good idea – and that’s what supporters need most – they need to excited by the idea, and then they need some evidence that the support will really yield results.

Third: If you go the grant option, make sure you answer everything they have said they want to hear – really be careful. Make sure you can do really accurate budgets. Not all grant-givers are impressed when you say ‘ artists is doing the work for free’ – sometimes this really gets up their noses – they don’t want artists to work for nothing. Put in a fee for yourself. If others are going to support through donating their time, make sure you quantify in dollar terms, the value of that work. Doing an accurate budget, that asks for exactly what you need, is proof that you’ve got your head together and  know the parameters of the project you are undertaking. Generally, grant-givers want to support great work, but they also need to know that you are using the money wisely. Be sensible as well as wild and passionate. Just be aware of how many others, also excited and passionate about their ideas, are bidding for the same pot.

Fourth: maybe take some advice from film-makers. Their pitches are made in an even more competitive market, and you might get some good clues from them.

Most of us are pretty far from being able to have people to do our grants for us, as per point one, although I do hope to be Robyn Archer one day. That fourth point is certainly true. The first time I dealt with a film funding pitch I found it almost obscene in its directness, and ultimately very refreshing. Something about the film-funding landscape draws out a very different approach. Well worth a look.

Secondly, Scott Rankin – writer, director and creative director of Big hART. Scott blew this quite open and started to get big picture, but I think this is valuable as all artists inevitably have to confront the very personal question of how they will fund their work and what they are comfortable with:

•   If you think of arts grants as the first point of call for an arts project – you’re an idiot

•   No one “deserves” a grant

•   Stop complaining – get smarter, look elsewhere

•   If you don’t get the grant – do the project anyway

•   Hopes and dreams and visions are flexible

•   Be persistent. Have resilience. Play the long view.

•   Understand “box office” is only one of your audiences.

•   Don’t assume you should be funded – assume you shouldn’t and prove it.

•   Don’t believe your own dogma and rhetoric. Rehearse your funding pitch.

•    Know the land – know who controls the levers and needs what you are hoping to fund.

…Perhaps also an exercise in direct communication in itself. Things then got even more advanced – and I think the following points are fascinating to think about:

•   There is more money in the world right now than the whole of history combined

•   Baby boomers are about to hand over a tsunami of wealth – the biggest transfer of wealth in history

•   It is a global economy – seek funding globally

•    2030 – Asia will be the world’s biggest regional market

•   Half the world’s population are on our door step

•   Per head we are the richest nation on earth

There is a lot to digest there.

Now my own recommendations. The basis? I write and edit grants on an almost weekly basis, both for my personal practice and my work in various roles within the industry. I  have sat on peer assessment panels on a number of occasions for Arts ACT and also NAVA.  Last month I received my latest two rejections for applications I’d prepared. But in the past I’ve had my share of wins. None of this is any form of qualification but does give me a sense for some common pitfalls as well as some useful tips. So, according to me:

The Ten Most Common Mistakes

  1. Not actually saying what you are planning to do, in actual plain words. This happens more than you would think. I have read grant apps where you finish none the wiser as to what the artist even does.
  1. Pointing out detracting factors ‘while I don’t…’, ‘although I have yet to…’ A LOT of people do this, talking themselves down. Don’t. Better to omit than to play down.
  1. Disregarding the requirements, particularly in regard to support material. This can jeopardise your whole application.
  1. Answering questions that haven’t been asked. Be wary of going into autopilot, especially as you do more and more grant writing – you can fall into the trap of writing what you think they want to hear.
  1. Similarly, Not answering questions that have. It can help to write out a funder’s question in your own words before attempting to answer, to help understand what exactly is being asked.
  1. Leaving it to the last minute, or even last days. This is simply not enough time. With more experience and honed resources you get quicker, but try and avoid this scenario wherever possible.
  1. Not writing the application in a word doc first, risking losing all text input into online forms. The online forms are usually crap and slow and prone to collapse.
  1. Aiming too low, including asking for insufficient funds. This doesn’t make you seem thrifty but just clueless.
  1. Aiming too high, including asking for unrealistic funds. Again this demonstrates lack of understanding or smacks of inexperience. Relatedly, don’t try to do too many things at once. Many projects benefit from being rolled out in phases. A huge, unwieldy application and budget can be streamlined by instead applying for an initial phase, such as research or creative development.
  1. Taking rejection as a cease and desist.

The Ten Keys to Best-Chance Success

  1. Longer-term preparation: apply or volunteer to sit on a peer assessment board. These roles are often remunerated, so it’s pretty much a win/win. And,
  1. Read other people’s applications
  1. Speak to a representative from the funder, starting before you have written anything but have an idea in mind. Ideally speak to them twice, or more! It’s their job to provide guidance. If your application is unsuccessful it is essential that you call for feedback.
  1. Start the application as early as you can – even just scrawling some notes is a start.
  1. Select support letter writers early – aim to get one more letter than you need so if one doesn’t come through in time you’ll have a backup.
  1. Embellish emphasis but never facts.
  1. Ensure your online representation matches your claims. Assessors will look online to find out more about you and get an understanding of your place in the wider field. If nothing useful or relevant comes up when you Google your name, you need to address this.
  1. Have an art-world friend read your application. Then,
  1. Have a non-art world friend read your application (public servant friends are useful for this) – brief them to tell you if there are words or terminology they don’t understand. This is an alarm and signal to simplify your language. Especially in the case of grant apps that are not industry-specific.
  1. Leave 24 hours of panic time for technical difficulties and a final idiot check.

Grant Toolbox

Essentials to assemble and keep on hand:

  • Letters of support / confirmation of participation. High profile is good, as long as those people genuinely know you and your work. Key supporters may be comfortable with you writing the letter yourself, and then just getting them to sign off. Sometimes these can be adapted for future use, so file them.
  • High quality documentation images, video or other recordings of your work. Invest when you can!
  • Reviews or other media articles about your work.
  • Previous grant applications – keep for future use / adaptation.
  • Project budgets and quotes – keep for future reference.
  • Up-to-date CVs, yours and any key participants
  • Bio and Artist statement

Writing about your practice

At one point or another, whether you apply for grants or not, you are probably going to have to write about your artistic practice and/or a work you’ve made.

Some people have problems writing anything at all, while others suffer from describing their work in a manner that is dense and impenetrable, and manages to say very little in a great many words.

Writing a single sentence about your work or practice is a great tactic to help put a difficult or complex idea into words for the purposes of an application. One sentence becomes the framework and foundation around which you can build everything else. In addition these ultra-short / distilled descriptions will come in use as a way of initiating discussion with someone about your work and for using on social media and websites.

This is easier than it sounds and a fantastic way to avoid all the art-speak wankery that says so much without saying anything at all.

Even though they may know what they want to say many people feel hugely uncomfortable saying it about themselves and their own work, not wanting to appear egotistical or to viewed as frauds. One trick to try is writing about your artwork in the third person. Rather than terrifying yourself by saying ‘I’ and ‘my’ try using your name and ‘she/he/they’. You can change it back once you’re done if you like – whatever seems right. Better yet, talk a writer-type friend through your work and get them to write one for you, or at the very least vet your attitude.

For a statement to use for a grant application or similar, you will most likely need to shape components to suit the following:

Who are you / who is your team? – contexutalise your practice and idea.

What will you do? – what will the end result be, what tangible outcome?

Where and how will you do it? – materials, methods, timelines

Why will you / or why is it important that you do it? – concept, relevance, revolution. All the good stuff.


That’s about all I’ve got for now. Please feel free to comment here or to get in touch via email if you have anything to add, or maybe have a specific question that I haven’t addressed.

For further reading, how’s this: my friend and collaborator David Finnigan has shared a selection of grant applications over on his site, along with some of his thoughts on the subject. A good place to see how some of the above works out in the real world.

And finally, an important and on topic video.

Thanks heaps to Crack for prompting me to put this together, and congrats on a great 2015 festival. Let’s do it again sometime.


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