The very first thing I did when I struck out on my own this fall was to apply for a grant to the MN State Arts Board. Applying for a grant probably is one of the more nerve-wracking things you can do as an artist, and not only because you are putting yourself out there for pretty intense critical review, but instead of communicating about your art in the way you know best (by doing it), you are having to communicate through answering essay questions and budgets and photographs. It’s like stepping back and looking at your work from the other side – describing it in ways that someone else can understand the significance and motivation for what you are trying to do. It’s also about trying to remember to describe all of the things I know about what I do to someone who is not familiar with my field or practice. Will they understand what I mean when I say I will be digitally printing on fabric or do I need to explain that more? Will they trust me that I can get from Step A to Step B or do I need to tell them how I will get there? If I only have 500 words to answer this question, what will I choose to emphasize because I can never go into as much detail as I want to. Will they understand what I am trying to do?
I have a somewhat unique experience, I expect, because I have also sat on the other side of this process, having served on a number of panels reviewing grant applications very similar to this and having been on the administrative end of processing grant applications and working with applicants. I have been the panelist who has read and re-read trying to find the answer to the question that I have. I have scoured the resume looking for the experience and Googled definitions of dance terms to make sure I am understanding what I am reading about. I know how hard it is to review them, just as well as I know how hard it is to write them. I think this helps me be a better writer for sure.
My application was a fairly straightforward one for this grant. Some money to help support making new work and showing it in an exhibition. It had a community component of mini workshops, which would allow the public to make fabric designs along with me. It included some equipment (dress forms) for a professional display of my work. I talked about an exhibition theme of ice, because the work would have been on display in January and February and how this would connect with the audience I was hoping to attract. I worked on it really hard for a couple of evenings and had several helpers who read things over for me and made suggestions. The process is all online with a series of forms to fill out and files to upload. It easily took me more than 15 hours to write it and upload everything.
I applied in August; we got the results in January. We were invited to come and listen to the panel review our applications in person (Minnesota has an open meetings law which lets you do this.) I debated about going to listen. I had something else scheduled that day, which I could have moved and I chose instead to go the “chicken” route and not go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to them tear apart my application. This was the first time I had applied after all and really the first time I had put my work out there in front of strangers and said “Tell me what you think!”
I got the email in early January with the news that my application had not been funded. I was disappointed and a little relieved. A couple of friends who I much admire did have applications that were funded. I am happy for them. The email from the Arts Board said “Email us and we will send your scores and comments and the audio recording of your panel review.” I thought about that for a while. I was an arts administrator for many years and I know how valuable the feedback can be from panels & jurors. And I totally didn’t follow my own advice. I had a moment of wavering confidence and decided I would just be done and I didn’t want to hear the recording or know the scores. When I submitted the application, I was still employed at my former art center gig and I hadn’t even had a minute to think about what my next artistic step was going to be. Or if I was really even going to do it. I knew that showed in my application and they would see I was all over the place. I knew they wouldn’t be able to see how being at my former job wasn’t just one opportunity after another for me. Chalk it up to experience and move on.
So today I got a note with the official “Sorry we didn’t fund you” letter. And it totally changed my mind. The program manager for the program I applied to took the time to write a personal note on my form letter. And she said (in a nutshell), “Your application was really great especially since it was your first one. Email me for your scores – you were so close. Way to go! Apply again next year and I would be happy to read it over for you and give you some feedback.” Wow. Really? So I emailed her.
Don’t be a wimp! It ends up that I only missed getting funding for my project by about 1/2 a point. That’s right. I was super amazingly close. And I would have had no idea.
I listened to the audio recording too because I was suddenly feeling a little more confident. They were super complimentary of my work. They had thoughtful comments about my project plan. I inspired them with my description of the community project hands-on. (Yes!) They had a difference of understanding about what is cutting edge in the field of digitally printed fabric – they weren’t wrong in any way, I just need to tell my story a little better. They liked the ice theme and how it seemed really relevant. In fact, I wish they had talked a little more, because I don’t actually have many concrete suggestions for ways that I could improve that application. It is great to hear the affirmatives, but I would have loved a “I wish she would have explained more about….” kind of comment too.
Every panel is different and the group next year might have totally different things that they love or hate, but knowing that I connected with this panel is a pretty great feeling. One thing I miss about my old job is the opportunity to be a mentor. I used to write those personal notes, because it seemed like the right thing to do. I was right. That also feels good.
Think of this as an “artist behind the scenes” post. My brother in law and I talked this morning about how alike our jobs were in some ways. He is a sales guy and his success entirely depends on what he is doing to make it happen. Art is the same way. Every day you have to get up and make it happen.