How to Talk About Your Art in a Grant Application
As an artist, it’s hard to know how to talk about your work, especially when you are applying for grants. It’s challenging to distill your vision into a limited number of words or pages. How do you summarize work that’s creative, challenging, and close to your heart? And how do you do it in such a way that will be compelling to a funder?
At Fractured Atlas, we work with artists to help you apply for grants in a variety of ways. Our fiscal sponsorship program allows artists and arts organizations to apply for a wider breadth of grants and our Programs team is available to assist our members by phone or email as you navigate application processes.
We know that the world of fundraising and grants can be confusing. If you never know what funders are looking for, it can feel sending applications into an abyss. As part of our mission of supporting artists, we share information to help you feel more empowered as you apply for funding, and less like you’re approaching an abyss of email attachments, personal statements, and deadlines.
Avoid Overly Academic, Theoretical Descriptions of Your Art
Artists, especially if you have been formally trained in MFA or BFA programs, or just feel like you have to compete with people who do have that institutional training, can lean towards an ethereal, academic, theory-inflected way of talking about work. For example, “X is a multimedia artist working at the intersection of art and technology” or “Y’s work explores the liminal space between Self and Other.”
Academic or abstract phrasing might be true ways of describing your work, and how you relate to it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to describe your work to potential funders. When you think about describing your art in a grant application, you have to think about your audience and your goal.
It’s easy to think that in order to make your art seem serious and therefore appealing to funders, you have to make it seem complicated or heavily intellectual. This instinct can be compounded if you spend time looking at the way that successful, big-name artists tend to talk about their work. You might feel compelled to talk about your work the way that they talk about theirs because we tend to try to mimic patterns of success that are most easily visible.
While Fractured Atlas does encourage all artists to think deeply about why you make the work that you do, where it fits into a larger cultural landscape, and what messages you’re trying to convey, it’s important to balance out that impulse with a different communications strategy in your grant applications.
Funders are actually looking for more concrete descriptions of your work.
Start with the simplest description possible, for example, “an evening-length dance performance”, “a large-scale multimedia installation”, or “a theatrical production.” Then lead the reader to the more conceptual portions of the work. This allows people to better understand your work and connect to the higher concepts.
Pro Tips: Avoid superlatives when you talk about your work. When you apply for a grant, it's implied that you think your work is very good or very important, possible the best or most important. When you use words like "best" "most" in grant applications, you end up weakening the application instead of strengthening it. And for other words to avoid, check out Nonprofit AF's posts about jargon that should be retired.
What Funders Need to Know About Your Art
When you are applying for a grant, a funder needs to know the very basics of your work. In a grant application, make sure you are answering the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” questions about your work.
What exactly are you hoping to create? Are you producing a play? Creating a sculpture? Performing a one-woman show and then moderating a workshop? Be specific and explicit about what exactly you are creating when applying for funding.
Who is the intended audience for your work? Will you be reading your poems for a youth summer program or at a gallery opening? Do you hope to take your documentary on a cross-country road trip, submit it to film festivals, or screen it in your community?
What do you hope that your work accomplishes? How do you hope it affects your audience? What do you want them to leave with? Will they understand a social issue more deeply? Will they know how a lathe works?
Even though it can feel uncomfortable or corporate, it can be helpful to put numbers to your project. How many performances, paintings, workshops, etc. are you hoping to create? How big of an audience are you looking to impact? Art is always nebulous, but it can be clarifying for grant committees to see some numbers attached to your proposal.
Why Funders Need You To Include Specifics in a Grant Application
Funders need specific, concrete information about the projects and the artists they are potentially funding for a few reasons.
Funders like nonprofits, corporate philanthropies, museums, and government programs are beholden to others. Funders need to demonstrate to their board of directors, their communities, their constituencies that the money they are granting out is going to support their overarching mission.
For example, if a nonprofit’s mission is to highlight Indigenous textile work, they will need to quickly assess whether an individual artist’s grant proposal fits within those bounds and furthers that specific mission.
If you can write clearly about who you are, what you are producing, and who the intended audience for your work is, institutions are better equipped to judge whether your work falls within their purview.
Another reason that artists should explain their art as clearly and plainly as possible in grant applications is that the people reading those applications might not be well-versed in the arts themselves. Artists applying to grants sometimes frame their grant applications as though they are writing from one artist to another. That’s not always the case!
Funders who support the arts are likely believers in the power of art and art lovers, but they likely aren’t as mired in art world jargon as you are. The people reading grant applications might be administrative workers, community members or businesspeople who serve on nonprofit boards.
Write a More Effective Grant Application
In order to explain your art more effectively in a grant application, you’ll need to address the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your work. It’s principles of good writing any time, but especially communicating with potential funders.
Sometimes, though, it’s challenging to know whether you’ve actually answered those basic questions in a compelling and concise way. To ensure that you are covering your bases and communicating in a way that a non-artist will understand, you can try a few tricks to help.
Explain your project out loud before you start writing. That way, you’ll have a more natural, conversational flow once you start writing. You might even want to record yourself speaking or practice in front of a friend who isn’t as embedded in the art world as you are.
Once you have a strong draft of your application, read it out loud or share it with a non-artist friend. Does it make sense to them? Can they answer those who, what, when, where, why, and how questions about your project? Having an outside opinion during the drafting process can give you new insight about what a stranger might see when encountering your application.
As you draft a grant application, write it for a reader who likes art, who is curious and smart, but perhaps not an expert in the field (let alone your particular medium). Funders want to support art, they want to know about your work. And in all likelihood, they want to know about the broader implications of your work and the social issues or creative issues that it is addressing. But they also need to be told that information in a clear and non-technical or academic way.
Set Yourself Up for Success with Grants
Grants for artists are competitive and time-consuming. It can be hard to know where to even find grants! That’s why Fractured Atlas shares monthly roundups of upcoming grant deadlines, in addition to other best practices for navigating the world of grants and fundraising like Fundraising for Artists: The Ultimate Guide.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.