How to Apply for Art Residencies and Grants
Written by Francesca Bellini-Joseph, originally published in January 2021, last updated October 2023
Our 2020 research unveiled a strong interest among artists in improving their oral and written communication skills, particularly in the context of applying for art residencies, grants, and various open calls.
International art residencies such as Delfina Foundation and Gasworks in London, Residency Unlimited in New York, as well as Flora and NC-arte in Bogotá, collaborated with us to share our survey within their artist networks, enabling us to reach a diverse group of artists in terms of backgrounds, nationalities, and ages.
Our primary focus was gathering responses from artists and creative practitioners who consider institutions, museums, and residency programmes instrumental in developing their careers, as they often find themselves navigating the delicate balance between institutional recognition and financial stability.
The fear of "selling out" and becoming part of the “commercial artists” cluster often underpins their complex relationship with both curatorial acknowledgement and the art market. Over time, this fear can erode one's sense of empowerment, affecting one's identity as an artist and personal well-being.
With these considerations in mind, we conducted a survey that reached nearly 200 artists worldwide. Our goal was to gain deeper insights into their career-related challenges and identify professional skills and topics they believed could enhance their careers if they acquired or mastered them.
Among our numerous findings, we discovered that 85% of the respondents expressed a strong interest in learning how to write more effective residency, grant, and funding applications. This enthusiasm is entirely understandable, as art residencies serve as vital platforms for artists seeking institutional support and endorsement for their careers.
These non-profit programmes offer artists valuable time and space to reflect and develop their work in various contexts, all while exposing them to new audiences and fresh perspectives. Moreover, art residencies provide opportunities for networking with collectors, patrons, and influential figures in the art world, whose involvement can significantly impact an artist's career trajectory.
Many of the surveyed artists indicated a lack of confidence in their writing and communication skills. Their concern is well-founded. Tutors within ACT! have firsthand experience reviewing numerous applications. They consistently face the challenge of evaluating submissions that are often incomprehensible or burdened with irrelevant information. Many applications lack clarity and specificity, often employing convoluted language and unsubstantiated claims.
Our research has underscored the pressing need for artists to improve their communication skills, especially in the context of application writing. The development of these skills can pave the way for significant opportunities within the art world, equipping artists with the necessary tools for professional growth. In this article, we will delve into our research findings.
The genesis of the problem
The root of this problem can be found in art school. In traditional art schooling, it's a common practice to instil in art students the idea that "your work must speak for itself," a concept originating from Classical Antiquity, attributed to Cicero's "Res Ipsa Loquitur." Many artists continue to uphold this principle throughout their careers. Regrettably, artists often take this phrase too literally and overlook its more symbolic significance, also disregarding recent art history, where we can find multiple examples of artists engaging in writing manifestos and theoretical texts—from Malevich to Robert Smithson.
This singular notion that art must speak for itself is one of the primary reasons why many artists find it challenging to express themselves confidently and eloquently. They often shy away from social and professional environments where questions such as "What do you do?" or "What is your practice about?" are commonplace.
It's not age-related.
Surprisingly, we discovered that artists of all age groups face these challenges, as evidenced by our research. While there's a common assumption that senior artists naturally possess more confidence than their younger counterparts due to their age and experience, the reality is often different. Even seasoned artists can experience a sense of dissatisfaction with their career achievements, feeling that their career didn't unfold as expected. This sentiment can significantly impact their self-esteem over the years.
Furthermore, our research unveiled a significant interest among artists in improving their communication and networking skills, with 78% of respondents expressing this desire. When examining responses from younger artists aged 25 to 35, it becomes clear that the field of art education, namely art schools, has made limited progress in addressing these essential aspects.
Artist residencies are competitive.
In the realm of artist residencies, grant applications, and funding applications, it's essential to acknowledge that, regardless of aspirations for inclusivity within the art world, these processes are undeniably competitive. The first step toward a successful application is to understand and effectively communicate your strengths and potential, positioning yourself as the prospective winner. If the idea of 'winning' conflicts with your ethics, reconsider embarking on this often painstaking and emotional journey.
Many times, an application enters a fierce competition alongside a hundred or more others, all competing for the limited slots available at highly desirable residency programmes. As previously mentioned, the most sought-after non-profit art organisations accept only a tiny 1% of applicants each year. The competition among artists is intense, and this fact often remains overlooked.
Another crucial point to consider is that these non-profit art organisations typically enjoy very good reputations but operate with small teams. A review panel, sometimes comprising just one to three individuals, undertakes the task of evaluating artists' applications and making decisions based on the information provided by applicants. They manage this responsibility alongside their regular work and personal commitments.
So, the idea of a large panel of experts dedicating hours to scrutinise each application is somewhat romanticised. In reality, jurors often have only a few minutes to devote to each submission. In such a scenario, clear and specific writing has a better chance of being selected compared to vague or convoluted narratives.
While the quality of the art or project under consideration undoubtedly holds great significance, it alone may not secure an opportunity. Equally crucial is the artist's ability to effectively articulate their proposal and present their art practice in a clear and persuasive manner. Jurors tend to swiftly move on to the next application if they encounter challenges in understanding what the artist intends to convey.
How to write art residencies, grants and funding applications.
From conversations with numerous directors of artist residencies and art professionals who review applications as part of their roles, it becomes evident that only a small percentage of submissions truly stand out. In the case of the most sought-after residencies, securing a place in their programmes is a highly competitive feat, with only 1% of applicants succeeding. These professionals report that the problem of poor writing in applications is widespread and does not discriminate between regions or age groups.
Many blog posts will provide hints about what applicants need to consider when applying to an open call:
- Do research
- Feel confident
- Be concise
- Do not be disappointed if you don’t get it.
While these suggestions hold value, they may not offer substantial support to those struggling with application writing. Let's be clear: confidence alone won't be enough if an applicant fails to provide clear and relevant answers to the questions asked.
Instead, we would recommend first being honest with yourself about whether you are a strong candidate for a specific opportunity, and if you are, writing your application with the person who will be reading it in mind. Avoid the temptation to get 'creative' in your application writing; simply focus on providing clear and direct responses to the questions asked.
Furthermore, remember this: do not be disheartened if you don’t get it, and don't think this automatically means there's something wrong with you or your work per se. It does mean that your application didn't stand out as the winning choice for some reason, and reviewing your own words and asking for feedback can be a valuable exercise. The reality in the art world is that there are often too many applicants aspiring for just a handful of opportunities available.