A Letter to a Fellow Artist, from a recent Artist Trust grant panelist

Photo by Vanessa Briones

Marilyn Montúfar is a Seattle-based fine art photographer, educator, and activist with ten years of research, production, teaching, and exhibition experience locally, nationally, and internationally. Here, she talks about her experience as a panelist for the 2021 Artist Trust Arts Innovator Award (AIA).  


To my fellow artists and innovators,

Upon submitting an application for a competitive award many artists have asked ourselves- what happens during the panel meetings and what was discussed about my application?

As an artist who was a finalist for the Betty Bowen Award, Neddy at Cornish Award, and nominated for the 2021 United States Artists Fellowship, I understand the experience of being an applicant (who wants/needs the award and poured blood, sweat, and tears into my application) and the panelist who has reviewed hundreds of applications to select a winner for an award, residency or exhibition. Neither is easy and both are laborious roles that require a high level of attention, passion, and dedication.

In the case of the 2021 Artist Trust Arts Innovator Award, in order to create an informed decision about the winners from a diverse perspective, the panel consisted of backgrounds with expertise in distinct creative mediums, lived experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, race, and gender.

As a panel, we became one unified group, leaning into each other to learn from one another and discuss mediums within our expertise as well as creative practices that resonated with us, but perhaps did not embody this experience. For example, Keetje Kuipers was a professional writer in our panel and in discussing narrative and the visual arts, our panel came to a common understanding about the work of Tessa Hulls from various perspectives, visually and through the written word. Additionally, diversity within the panel allowed us to be vulnerable with one another and understand how to make an informed decision that was equitable about the applicants and their practice based on merit and talent, rather than their historical access (or lack of access) to formal training in the arts. Without the cultural context of a diverse lens within our panel, it may not have been as clear to decipher the nuances of culture, historical, and language references that Priscilla Dobler Dzul or Alicia Mullikin express in their work about Indigenous and Latinx cultures throughout Mexico. Similar to the manner in which Romson Bustillo and Troy Osaki’s artwork is informed by their Filipino heritage and the risk-taking that Bustillo stepped into with ease when presenting his final interview in various languages inclusive of Bisaya, Catalan, English, Spanish, and Tagalog.

Artwork by Romson Bustillo, 2021 Arts Innovator Award recipient

Artwork by Tessa Hulls, 2021 Arts Innovator Award recipient

The panel was in consensus of the finalists and in retrospect, although not initially discussed during our meetings, it is clear that the AIA award winners, Bustillo and Hulls, both work in ways that are inspired outside of academia and “off-the-grid” artmaking which informs their innovative practice. Rather than framing the award through an academic stance to justify the work through academic achievements, the panel viewed all applicants with equity and took note of the ways in which the artist challenged their artistic medium to create work that is raw, beautiful, true, and innovative. Statements that the panel came back to as a guide to review applications included– “ Innovation is in how an artist pushes their own boundaries into the unfamiliar” and “Innovation is the way an artist transforms over a period of time.” Similarly to Hulls traveling on a bicycle alone throughout the United States (5,000 miles from Southern California to Maine), Bustillo has traveled extensively throughout Spain, Mexico, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Central America to work with and learn from different communities and integrate various mediums, inclusive of performance to his practice. Both are generous artists with communities (Tessa Hulls donated $12,000 of her AIA award to innovative organizations) and work with a non-traditional approach to art, meaning that the larger world is their catalyst for artmaking. The artists take risks and learn from communities on their journey to create art about lived experiences, that which cannot be learned in a textbook, but by living these experiences.

Although the panel was not always in complete agreement, we were a support system for each other and gently reminded ourselves how the artist’s work is innovative regardless of barriers artists may have faced in their practice. I believe that music has always been the universal language, as it’s accessible to everyone and in selecting a winner for AIA free of institutional oppression in the arts, we are one step closer to dismantling a system that has been off-limits to talented individuals who historically have not had equal access to a formal education in the arts. In viewing the applicants with an equitable intention, purely based on talent and innovation, we begin to open doors to all creative applicants for their true potential. Similarly to how the music industry opened the door for Washington’s Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (a high school drop-out), who then innovated Rock n’ Roll, in honoring creative individuals in a similar way (based on talent, not access), we stop risking becoming yet another institutional barrier for creatives who with opportunities can decades later uplift many communities and continue innovating the arts! Moreover, by celebrating innovation, rather than focusing on artist’s historical access to formal training, we end risking missing out on granting a platform for the next innovative artist who may otherwise pass us by.

For the 2021 AIA award, our panel agreed, “Innovation is exploring and giving up control.” Keep exploring on your path and when you hit that point on the road when you may feel down about not landing that one opportunity, remember that arts organizations and panelists are there behind the scenes rooting for you and want to see you succeed! However, the amount of talented applicants does outnumber the amount of awards. The truth is that we’ll never know how truly close we came to winning that award. I know of many artists who applied to the same opportunity multiple times before finally landing it! Including myself. As a creative community we must keep moving forward to share our vision. And to answer the question –what happens during the panel meetings and what was discussed about my application? Organizations such as Artist Trust offer feedback for your application once you request feedback. As my mother always says when I have felt defeated – the only way to surely not win the award is to not take the first step and apply. If you explore innovation in your practice, I encourage all new and returning applicants for the Artist Innovator Award to keep going – apply and apply again!


Marilyn Montúfar‘s work amplifies stories about underrepresented communities through the arts – youth, migrants, women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ communities.  

She received a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts, New York. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Strange Paradise Gallery (2021), Portland, Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas Gerónimo Baqueiro Fóster, Mérida, Mexico (2019), Gallery 4Culture, Seattle (2018), among others, and has been included in numerous group exhibitions since 2006. In fall 2020, her photograph Ronnie and Cleveland (2006), inaugurated the Frye Art Museum’s Boren Banner Series at a monumental scale in the form of a 16 x 20 ft. vinyl banner.  

Montúfar was a finalist for the 2020 Betty Bowen Award and Neddy at Cornish Award. She has been an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont, and Primal Studio, Mexico City, where she created the photography youth project Beyond Borders –a visual collaboration and international exchange program between Mexico and the United States. The project was featured at FotoMéxico Festival and the Tamayo Art Museum’s Education Center in Mexico City in 2019. Montúfar resides in Seattle, WA. 

Thank you:
Thank you to the 2021 Arts Innovator AwardPanelVania C. BynumJaleesa Johnston,  
Keetje Kuipers,  and  Carl Richardson for your grace and dedication in working together. The 2021 Arts Innovator Award Winners Romson Bustillo and Tessa Hulls. As well as the Finalist Cohort Priscilla Dobler,  Nike Imoru,  Alicia Mullikan, Troy Osaki,  Maja Petricand Gilda Sheppard for sharing your stories. Thank you to all the AIA applicants for sharing your vision. Huge thank you to Artist Trust for uplifting artists.