I was recently awarded a 2017-2018 Individual Artist Commission Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission. On top of a couple of other recent wins AND losses and with finances a little more uncertain this year, it feels exceptionally good, and timely, to have this support.
That said, it’s always important to retain perspective on the nature of these odds, and how inconsistent they can be. Lately, I’ve had a nice string of wins, but I never expect it to stay that way. It’s not for lack of confidence. Being confident is one thing; feeling entitled is another.
I recently ran into a friend who was up for a different opportunity that I’d also applied for. Even though neither of us got it, I’d made it further down the process than him, and had been a finalist for the opp. He opined that he “knew it was going to go to a woman” (which it had, although the finalists were evenly split, gender-wise.) In my irritation with his perspective, I asserted to him that the job went to the person that was the best candidate, end of story. (Personally, I thought that I was the strongest applicant, but I wasn’t the right fit for what the committee ultimately decided that they needed. Missing out didn’t diminish my sense of self, and didn’t lead to me blaming an imaginary quota system as it did for my friend.)
Competitive opportunities are not about awarding some universally-agreed-upon notion of “quality”. There’s no such thing. They’re really about whether your agenda and experience as an artist meshes well with the agenda of the committee considering your materials. Contending with regular rejections for awards, gigs and other opportunities can be daunting, but it’s 100% the reality of being a professional artist. As someone who not only applies for grants but often sits on grant committees and juries for these things, I’ve accumulated some perspective on the matter.
First: be real about the terms of the applications you intend to submit for. Do your homework and assess whether your experience or proposal seems like a truly good potential match for the opportunity: like any budding relationship, attraction and compatibility have to be mutual to work out successfully in the long run.
In my time on these committees, I’ve observed that while the decision-making process is reasonably fair, it’s never purely objective. Jurors are often bleary-eyed after reviewing piles and piles of artist proposals, and often become justifiably impatient with meandering applications that waste their time. One juror may have preference for a certain style/concept that is a mismatch with an applicant’s proposal. Another juror might forget protocol: I’ve personally intervened when I’ve seen committee members start bending rules to offer personal extra information about a candidate, or when they’ve veered away from the established rubric/criteria for assessment. Jurying can be tiring; people forget themselves.
On the other side, I’ve seen artists sabotage their own applications by willfully ignoring the guidelines, exceeding word-count limits, making poor choices about portfolio samples, or flat-out lying about their eligibility/history. I’ve also listened to artists express frustration about not getting awards when they had limited experience with applications and had only applied to a couple of things, ever. Worst of all, I’ve watched artists simply give up after a rejection or two.
Understanding that an application is a separate craft that needs to be honed like any other skill—with practice, repetition, trial and error—is crucial. It gets better and easier the more you apply. If there is an option to take an application or grant-writing workshop, do so. Have a trusted/experienced friend review your application honestly and critically. Give yourself time to muddle through your proposal ideas: it might not come together until the last minute, but drafts and scribbles well in advance will make the difference in the final push. If you need recommendation letters, ask at least a month in advance, and provide your recommender with a skeleton list of salient points they should address in their letter. Make sure to profusely thank anyone who helps you.
Healthy perspective is important. As a reality check, even artists who are highly experienced grant-writers, with strong portfolios and experience, receive maybe 15% of the opportunities that they apply for. 5-10% is common. It can help to look at one rejection as simply one necessary step on the path to improving your percentages. Knowing the odds can be helpful: are you competing against 20 people, or 200? These odds are why it’s all the more important to keep applying for a variety of competitive opportunities.
Feeling disappointment is real, but getting disheartened is kind of pointless. I’ve been both accepted and rejected for applications many times. You win some, you lose some. Learn what you can from the process. Over time, I learned what kinds of opportunities I tend to do well on, and which ones might not favor my work. I figured out my shortcomings and my strengths in applications, and what works best. But I’ve also learned that after a point it’s out of my control, and in the hands of a jury that may or may not like what I do. And that’s OK.
External validations and competitions are part of a system that has only as much power over your sense of self as you allow. If it’s a system that doesn’t work for you, come up with one that does. If it’s a system you need, then learn how to flex your practice and your application abilities to respond to its realities. Know that your creativity and your art practice are always a separate thing of joy, and that you can and will keep making and sharing things, regardless.