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Article: Behind the Curtain: Grant Panels

Owen David, Program Coordinator

If you’ve ever submitted a grant application you must have wondered: who sits on the selection committee, and how do they decide who gets the money? The answer is nuanced, as it varies from grant to grant and between organizations, and it is important for you to do some research and read the grant guidelines and any supplemental materials (FAQs, example applications, etc.) before applying. While there are some big differences in eligibility and selection criteria across the different grant programs at Artist Trust, our selection process generally follows a pattern.

ASSEMBLING THE PANEL
While you are working on your application, Artist Trust is busy assembling a committee of 3 to 5 knowledgeable panelists who will review your online submission. These individuals are working artists or cultural workers (curators, instructors, administrators, etc.) who have achieved a measure of professional recognition and are regarded as having expertise in their field. To ensure a fair decision making process, Artist Trust is careful to build panels that include panelists from outside of King County and from underrepresented communities. We give them the grant guidelines and selection criteria as well as our organizational Equity Statement before asking them to review, depending on the grant, a set of applications that represents either just the submissions for one discipline (ex. Literary Arts, Media, Performing Arts, or Visual Arts) or all submissions regardless of discipline.

For example, while the Artist Trust GAP is open to artists working in any discipline, the disciplinary category that an applicant chooses determines which panel reviews their submission. For example, a painter submitting their GAP application in the Visual Arts category might be reviewed by a gallerist, a sculptor, and a photographer, while a playwright submitting their GAP application in the Performing Arts category might be reviewed by a choreographer, a musician, and a dramaturg. In contrast, all applications to the Arts Innovator Award are reviewed by the same five-person panel where there is one person representing each of the four disciplinary categories plus one interdisciplinary artist. In this scenario an experimental poet might be reviewed by a fiction writer, a filmmaker, a composer, a muralist, and an interdisciplinary artist. While working on your application, it’s important to remember that your audience will consist of knowledgeable professionals but might not include anyone working in your specific medium.

Artist Trust facilitates the selection process by helping panelists with questions surrounding eligibility and selection criteria, but all decision making power belongs the panelists. No Artist Trust staff ever votes on applications.

ROUND ONE
After the deadline closes, the panel is given access to all of the online submissions and a simple voting system of Yes, No, or Maybe on advancing an application to the second round. Panelists are required to keep their identities and decisions confidential, and at this point they do not know who the other panelists are. As they vote, we ask them to give constructive comments that we might use to give feedback to grant applicants later. We tell them to vote Yes whenever they feel that they cannot evaluate the work (because it is outside of their medium or field of expertise) and want to discuss it live with the other panelists.

With regard to conflicts of interest, we ask panelists to abstain from voting on applications from anyone they are related to or have business dealings with. Because they are themselves artists or cultural workers, panelists are often familiar or friendly with some of the artists in the applicant pool. We ask them to abstain from voting if this relationship is intimate, otherwise we ask them whether they can be objective in evaluating an application before tallying a vote. In all cases, we ask panelists to declare any potential conflicts to their fellow panelists in the second round. Panelists are asked to abstain from voting on an application if their fellow panelists decide that a conflict prevents them from judging objectively.

ROUND TWO
Following the first round of online scoring, panelists gather at the Artist Trust office for a day (or more) of intensive discussion and decision-making. Yes, Maybe, and No votes are converted to scores of 1, 0, and -1 to rank all submissions by numerical value and establish a threshold for round two. Applications below the threshold are not brought forward for further discussion. The cutoff value varies depending on the size of each pool, but generally the top 20-30% of applications advance to the second round. The only exceptions are Passion Votes, which each panelist can cast for one application that might not have scored very highly but warrants closer deliberation.

At this point, the process becomes an organic dialogue between panelists, with panelists candidly discussing why they voted Yes, No, or Maybe on the applicants within the “Maybe” threshold. Sometimes a Yes vote is resounding but sometimes it means just “good enough,” and sometimes No or Maybe votes are persuaded into Yes votes based on the impassioned advocacy of one panelist. Sometimes panelists respond to a strong work sample but take issue with other parts of the application (and vice versa), and often an observation or some background knowledge that one panelist shares is enough for the others to see the materials in a different light. Issues of aesthetic bias and cultural literacy come up, as do issues of historical and ongoing disparities in access to resources, services, and opportunities for artists to present their work.

In this process, Artist Trust serves as a facilitator for the conversation. In this role we push panelists to adhere to the guidelines and selection criteria while asking them to be mindful of an equitable distribution of funding across all demographics of Washington State artists. Dialogue winnows the applicant pool down as panelists go through all applications above the scoring threshold, eventually coming around to frontrunners. At this point applications get compared to each other as panelists ask: Which ones most strongly meet the criteria? Which ones would be most impacted by the funding? What work is most important for this panel to support right now?

Panelists are tasked with making tough decisions among indisputably qualified and exceptionally talented artists well before the pool gets to the final recipient(s) and alternate(s). It’s important to remember that being declined for an award is not necessarily a substantive statement on the merits of your work or on the strength of your application. At the end of the day panelists never have enough funding to give every qualified applicant an award, and maybe this year just wasn’t the year for your application.

Artist Trust announces the final recipient(s) and releases the names of panelists after its Board of Directors approving the selection and disbursement of funds. Artists are encouraged to approach Artist Trust and the panelists for feedback on their application and comments on the selection process.

ADDITIONAL NOTES
The selection process might differ from the above depending on the grant. For instance, the Arts Innovator Award funded by The Chihuly Foundation includes interviews, while the Conductive Garboil Grant administered in partnership with 4Culture includes studio visits for finalists. As another example, while most Artist Trust grants are open to the general public, the James W. Ray Awards, funded by the Raynier Foundation and administered in partnership with the Frye Arts Museum, involves a nomination process in which we solicit nominations from distinguished artists or cultural workers and only nominees are eligible to apply. Again, it is important do some research and read the guidelines and any supplemental materials (FAQs, example applications, etc.) before applying to a grant.

Reach out if you have any questions about the selection process for any Artist Trust grant! We offer a host of services and resources to help you, and love talking to artists.

Find information on our website, or reach out to:

Owen David, Program Coordinator: Grants to Artists
owen@artisttrust.org | 206/467-8734 x14

and

Katy Hannigan, Artist Liaison
katy@artisttrust.org | 206/467-8734 x25