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When Applying for Visual Art Grants, Bigger Isn’t Always Better

While competitive visual art grants at the national and international levels are enticing, artists who focus their grant application efforts only on the biggest prizes may be missing out on reachable opportunities in their home state.

For example, in 2017 I researched the state-level visual art grants available in Wyoming. I wrote an application for a Professional Development Grant and received the maximum grant award. The $750 grant may not have been immediately life-changing or garnered any media attention, but it allowed me to complete an important purchase– equipment for a home video studio.

Here, we share tips for applying to smaller visual art grants at the state and local levels. While it’s always good practice for artists to shoot for the stars in terms of giving larger, name-recognition visual art grants a try, artists at every career level would be wise to seek out opportunities that are limited to the smaller ponds of their state, city, or town.

apply for grants
Earning smaller visual arts grants can help you earn bigger ones in the future.

Do the Research Before You Apply for Grants

As a new resident to Wyoming, I did not qualify for all of the available state grants. A creative writing specific grant, for example, was limited to people who had lived in Wyoming for 20 months prior to applying, and at least one year after receiving the award. After reading through the grant application instructions and reviewing information from past recipients of the grant, I believed that the Professional Development Grant was the best option for me. Artists applying for visual art grants should consider doing the same in an effort to narrow down the probability that you’ll be selected, and make a determination regarding whether it’s worth your time.

I typically apply for grants with multiple projects in mind and then narrow down what will be the best fit based on all of the available information on the website. On the Wyoming Arts Council website, I noticed that many past grant recipients had been awarded the maximum amount in order to fund equipment purchases, and buying items to create an at-home video studio had been on my wishlist for over a year. I framed my video studio project as one that would not only allow me to connect my writing with a broader audience by creating readings of my work, but one that would also allow me to move my writing coaching business into the video production world. I argued it was an important strategy for supporting myself in a video and visual-content heavy world.

visual art grants
Apply for grants with multiple projects in mind, then narrow it down to the best fit based on the specifications.

When artists apply for grants, conducting research on the grant’s prior recipients is an often overlooked important step. If you can develop a good sense of the types of projects grantors have awarded in the past, you’ll be able to tailor your grant application for a better chance of snagging the award.

It’s also important to note that, in most cases, artists who apply for grants are going to be expected to furnish a grant report that details how the grant was apportioned and its specific outcomes. After my project’s completion in June, I had 90 days to write and submit a final grant report, which had to include evidence of my project. Since I had used the grant for equipment purchasing, many elements of the grant report did not apply to me, such as public presentation details and what locations I had used. Using the same approach as when I wrote the grant, I completed as much as possible and emailed all of my questions to the same grant contact. The contact was happy to walk me through how to respond to the sections that did not apply to me and confirmed my interpretation of what I could use as evidence of my project. The evidence I included to demonstrate my video studio equipment ended up being private Youtube links, as I was not ready to share my video work with the public, and a blog post on my author website.  

By analyzing every available state grant and approaching the Professional Development Grant with flexibility and strategy, I was successful in acquiring much-needed equipment for my art and my income goals. Below are some tips and suggestions to keep in mind as you search for individual visual art grants based on your residence.

professional artist
applying for grants can be complicated, especially for your first time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Some Tips When Applying for Professional Artist Grants

Don’t be intimidated by grant language.

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Write an Artist Bio to Get Noticed

Sometimes, the language used in grant guidelines and application portals can be dense and confusing. When you apply for grants, plan to read any instructions multiple times and do your best to write out your own “translation” of what the department or organization wants from the grant’s applicants. Don’t be afraid to look up a quick definition, and if you are ever uncertain about your interpretation, you can always reach out to the grant contact (usually listed on the website or in the instructions themselves). It is better to be certain about what is expected of you when you apply for grants than to make a mistake and send in an application that disqualifies or rules you out.

If you’re reading this, you are probably a professional artist.

Most, if not all, city and state visual art grants will be limited to professional artists. Who counts as a professional artist, and what accomplishments “count” as evidence may vary state by state. To use the City of Chicago’s Individual Artist Program grant guidelines on who qualifies as a professional artist as an example, “It should be noted that the word ‘professional’ refers to the nature of the artist’s commitment to [their] art form as [their] primary vocation, rather than the amount of financial remuneration earned from the creative endeavor.” To translate this grant-speak, if you are actively working towards being able to support yourself through your art, and this is your ultimate goal, you are a professional artist regardless of what your annual salary is or what your work is selling for.

Frame yourself and your work seriously.

There are an infinite number of ways for art to exist and have an impact on a community. As you consider how to write about yourself as a professional artist, don’t let imposter syndrome get in your way. State and local visual art grants are often geared towards those who haven’t quite made it, are “emerging,” or genuinely require access to materials or space to create the next big thing. Let the committee and judges do the “ruling out,” not you.

Look for clues in past grant recipients.

State and local visual art grants are often required to post information about grants distributed in previous years. This might mean names, towns, counties, amount received, and even brief project descriptions written by the professional artist awarded the grant. While I cannot promise this information will always be easy to look through (The state of Wyoming’s information downloads as an Excel spreadsheet) this data can be invaluable as you apply for grants. For example, you might look to see how many recipients received the maximum grant amount. If the answer is not that many, or none, this may help you decide how much to ask for in your own application. Past grant information can also help you analyze the mediums and scopes of professional artist projects typically funded.

visual art grants
Art can exist in any form. Don’t let anxiety keep you from framing your work professionally.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. (Really!)

Whether you are working on the application, trying to navigate a difficult online portal, or feeling utterly confused about your grant report, sometimes the best course of action is to email or call the grant coordinator or listed contact and get more information. My advice is to get as far as you can in the process by yourself so that you can contact the coordinator with all of your questions, rather than one at a time.

When you apply for grants, you should read through the entire application first rather than firing off an email when the first page has you stumped. If awarded a grant, you may have technical or clarifying questions about the required grant report or post-project write-up. Again, I recommend working on as much of the grant report as you can in order to collect all of your questions into one email. Unless you are sending multiple emails every day, the contact person for the grant is likely far too busy to be keeping track of how many questions you end up having over a multiple-month period. Part of their job is to help you, just as part of your job as a professional artist and grant recipient will be to make their program and city or state look successful through the completion of your project.

Remember, individual visual art grants may be listed with other non-profit support or group grants, so read any titles or descriptions carefully to determine whether you qualify. Some states may place literary grants for creative writers or other media arts, such as film, in separate categories or with other host commissions. When in doubt, reach out to the host department or commission with any questions about guidelines and who may apply. If you are a professional artist in a position where a smaller amount of money could make a big difference to your work, think about applying to a state or local grant this year!

Some Visual Arts Grants Opportunities to Get You Started

Here are some examples of individual visual art grants opportunities from several states and cities:

  •      The state of Oregon offers an Individual Artist Fellowship Program with up to $3,000 in awards. The 2019 category is Performing Arts (choreography, dance, music composition, music performance, theater, performance art, storytelling, and puppetry).
  •      The state of Minnesota offers a Folk and Traditional Arts grant program of $5,000-$75,000 with a 25% match required.
  •      The state of Maryland offers an Individual Artist Award of $1,000, $3,000, and $6,000 with a rotation of 18 artistic medium categories. The 2019 categories are Creative Non-Fiction & Fiction writing, Media/Digital/Electronic Arts, Theater: Solo Performance, Painting, and Works on Paper.
  •      In Chicago, Illinois the Individual Artists Program has grants of up to $5,000 for projects that fall into one of the six categories: Chicago Project, Touring Projects, Mobile and City-Wide Projects, Works in Progress, Social Practice, and Professional Advancement and Creative Research.
  •      In Brooklyn, New York, the Brooklyn Arts Fund is open to individual artist projects with grants from $2,000-$5,000.

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About the author

Jackie Sizemore

Jackie Sizemore is the founder of Point of View Consulting, specializing in educational and writing coaching for college, graduate, and other high-stakes applications. As a creative and professional writer, her consulting is driven by her extensive knowledge of narrative and her deep understanding of admissions and selection committees.

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