Tips & Tools for Artists: What Are Award Panelists Looking For?

VIDEO: More application tips from Ruby Lerner
Here at Creative Capital, our staff and consultants from across the country are preparing to enter the panel stage of our award application process for the visual artists and filmmakers who submitted Letters of Inquiry in February. (Yes, it really does take us nearly a year to select our Awardees!) As they convene, what will our panelists be looking for in an application? What are some common mistakes they see? Keep reading to get the answers from four former panelists: Erin Cosgrove, Los Angeles-based artist and 2008 Film/Video Awardee; Annie Han, Seattle-based artist, 2005 Visual Arts Awardee and Creative Capital Board Member; David Filipi, Curator & Director of Film/Video at Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH; and Irene Hofmann, Phillips Director and Chief Curator at SITE Santa Fe.
Maura Guyote: What qualities are you looking for when you read an application for the first time? What kinds of writing or ideas jump out at you while you’re reviewing an application?
Irene Hofmann: Clarity and directness stand out in applications. A concise summary of your project described up front sets up the entire application with strength. Think of it as your “elevator pitch” right in the first lines of your application. Use those first sentences to grab your reader.
Erin Cosgrove: What makes Creative Capital so dynamic is that it is a funding organization that falls outside of the market place. When I was on the film and video panel I looked for works that were exceptional in content, ambition and execution and/or that needed Creative Capital because the work seemed to fall out of the regular tropes of the festivals, galleries and other media outlets. Some of the projects that had the most support on our panel were ones that not only had a strong and singular vision, but also where the artist was one who hadn’t received a lot of support in the past. I realize this is vague, but as there are so many ways to be ambitious, creative and singular, it’s hard to pinpoint anything specific.
Annie Han: I looked for clarity of ideas and thoroughness and depth of their thinking about accomplishing their projects. Unique perspectives that may even be something really familiar to everyone but the project gives a different form, view or experience.
David Filipi: I tend to respond to projects that are original and ambitious, yet realistic. I have to be able to picture or understand what the artist has in mind for the finished work; the more of a leap I have to make in my own imagination the less I will respond positively to the application. A clear vision gives me confidence that the artist knows what he or she is doing, that they will complete the project and that they are committed to his or her work.
Maura: Are there a few common mistakes you see in proposal writing or work samples submitted as part of an application? Any tips you could offer applicants to correct these?
Irene: Avoid quoting others and let us hear your voice and vision. Also, work samples should bolster your application and give reviewers a sense of your work and make that case that you can achieve the project you propose. It is better to have fewer, stronger images than adding ones that are difficult to read and that are less related to your proposal.
Erin: Projects that were basically already completed were downgraded. Projects that already had a lot of funding already were also downgraded. Projects that seemed to embrace the status quo, be it through relying on namedropping or through its content, were downgraded. And if we were excited enough about a project we ignored those downgrades. I think the most important thing to consider in writing an application is to be ambitious in your vision. A request for money to discreetly do what you always do isn’t very persuasive. Also, there were times when we would see proposals by artists whose body of work we support, but the particular project being pitched was not ambitious or somehow fit too squarely into the status quo and so we passed on that specific proposal. Overall I would rather see an ambitious mess than a polished bore any day.
Annie: Some applications are too general and assume that the reader will fill out the nuanced information. Describe succinctly, clearly and passionately, just as if you are talking to a person. It makes it more engaging and gives the reviewers a chance for a spirited discussion about your work.
David: Artists often rely too heavily on generalities like social media or websites when discussing how work will be shared, how audiences will be built, etc. Always be as specific as possible. If you are going to work with collaborators, spell out how work will be shared. If you do intend to have a website as a part of the project, be clear how it is an essential component to the project. I think an artist needs quite a track record before a panel gives him or her the benefit of the doubt over missing or incomplete information. Take the application seriously. Nothing pisses a panelist off more than the feeling that the artist just mailed in his or her application.
Maura: Only about a quarter of the projects that make it to each discipline’s panel receive Creative Capital Awards. Did you keep track of any of those artists whose work was not chosen for an award after the panel, or even connect with them in some way?
Irene: Absolutely! I have followed a number of artists who I got to know from a panel; one such connection even led to a show at my museum.
Erin: As an artist and not a curator or someone in an art institution, I have less of a chance to keep track of those artists. But when a name comes up again, I do take a special interest.
Annie: Yes, I gave some feedback to an applicant, particularly how his work compared with others and what jurors felt it was lacking.
David: I definitely do. I make notes of projects that sound interesting to me and have reached out to people that didn’t receive an award for one reason or another. Probably the best part of being on the panel is learning about new artists and all of the projects that are out there.
Maura: (to Erin and Annie) As Creative Capital Awardees, you were on the other side of the panel process not too long ago. What can you tell us about your experience in the application process?
Erin: I applied to Creative Capital three times. From being a panelist I can tell you there were many projects everyone was excited about and there were others where the panelists were divided. Sometimes we were able to change each others minds through persuasion and argument. I mention this as an encouragement to applicants. Being passed over doesn’t mean you didn’t have support, and one group of panelists can be completely different from the next. So keep applying. It gets easier each time, and you never know what the next group of panelists might bring.
Annie: I was a little lost in the process since it was the only application I had worked on that had three stages at the time. I understood Creative Capital’s need to eliminate many applicants during the first stage, and knowing that, I tried to be a little more clear and detailed about how/why I wanted to do the project and why the project was a brave next step for me.

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