Friday, June 9, 2023

Near and Now: Grant Land

I am writing this article in-between completing a grant application for a provincial arts funding program. As soon as that’s done, I will lay out the template for completing an application for federal arts funding for the same project. If neither of those applications are successful, the viability of the project is in jeopardy so afterwards, I’ll be drafting up a case-for-support document to send to local stakeholders who might be interested in supporting it. Did I mention there’s also going to be a Kickstarter in the coming months?

And, oh yes, then I’ve actually got to work on the project itself.

How, you might ask, does creative work on a project get bumped to the back of the line of priorities? Welcome to grant land.

It’s a magical place where writing about your art, while finding new and inventive ways to justify your career path and creative pursuit, is a whole other job. If you know an artist or arts administrator, then you know someone who visits grant land on a regular basis. If you ARE an artist or arts administrator, then you’re either in grant land right now or planning a return stay very soon.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this article isn’t a knock on granting programs. As much as artists like to complain about the ceaseless need to write application after application, we really are extraordinarily lucky to have such programs in the first place.

Creating art doesn’t happen overnight, and all art; from the play you saw at Aquarius to the exhibition at the AGH got their start as a seed of an idea in the mind of a lone creator. It took a lot of time, a lot more effort, and the support of countless others along the way to make that seed grow into the finished form you saw last night.

But, more often than not, artists must put as much, if not more, work into grant applications than they do in the art for which the grant will be applied. It requires just as much creativity and invention as the work itself.

A clear declaration of intent. A succinct summary of the project’s size and scope. A justification that you can deliver on the stated goals of the project. Your assessment of the project’s value and where it fits in the current framework of arts and culture. And, of course, a fully costed budget. Plus, the question of how you’ll proceed if you do not receive full funding? And all of it written to meet a strict deadline. A deadline that more and more artists are working to meet so that they can see their work funded.

Grant land can be a punishing place for artists.

If you’re a writer then perhaps you have things a bit easier. Your work involves the crafting of words, and being succinct comes from doing second and third drafts. But if you’re a dancer, musician or visual artist, perhaps the words don’t come easy. No matter your craft, maybe the sentences on your project’s viability are too long and your efforts to talk up past achievements hit you in dark places of embarrassment or shame. Those same places that aren’t there when you put a brush to canvas, move across the stage or set a track down in the studio.

How do you communicate that properly to the jury of your peers assessing your application along with hundreds of others? Perhaps it’s better not to try. Just focus on the creative work, right? Work that comes out of the time you carve for yourself away from your service or admin job.

Not that grant land is easier for administrators.

For one thing, the stakes are much higher. A failure to secure proper funding doesn’t mean a project is delayed from completion. It means an extra employee doesn’t get hired, an innovative new program loses funding and more operations fall on an already overworked staff. Furthermore, applications for new funding must contend with reports on previous funding, reports where the same questions about project viability and scope must be backed up with evidence of success and statistics about audience engagement.

Grant land is the second and third job that many, many artists and arts administrators hold down but never tell you about. Part of this, I suspect, is because it’s feast or famine in grant land.

For indie artists, they may have a year where they secure a major project funding or a series of small grants through an intermediary organization or residency. Organizations might ensure operating funds for several years sustained by consistent reporting and strong cases-for-support.

But when granting bodies get hit by budget cuts, or must eliminate whole programs at the behest of the government, then the pie gets smaller. Strong applications that might’ve been approved in a previous year get declined. The artist is dissuaded and shelves the project  while the organization hustles for private support while event planning a last minute fundraiser. In both cases, the courage, confidence, energy and time that arts and culture workers need to take risks and make the work to enrich the community takes a hit.

So, the next time you see a new play or visit the symphony, and see the tell-tale logo for a granting body alongside the creator’s appreciation for support, know that a lot more work went into bringing this piece of art to fruition than meets your eye. You’re seeing the fruits of the artist’s hard work not just from their studio or rehearsal hall… but from grant land, as well.

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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