Shelia Hill sitting opposite the camera and Clara sitting to the right. Both are in conversation with someone
Clara Giraud and Shelia Hill at Southbank Centre's 2016 Unlimited Festival. Photo by Rachel Cherry.

Funding advice for artists: Ambition vs Realism

So many funders are looking to support ambitious ideas – the next big thing, that extra stretch in your practice, that unique project which will stand out and make a visible and palpable impact. Last week, Unlimited’s Project Manager Clara Giraud shared her first set of top tips in a series of three blogs on crafting a successful arts funding application. This week she’s back with more, on demonstrating ambition while pitching a manageable project requires fine tuning.

Taking risks is at the heart of making exceptional artwork. Whether it’s about bringing together new collaborators, new ideas with a unique approach, testing the boundaries of art forms or subject matters, expanding to new audiences… All artistic processes have to embrace the unexpected; funding applications often have to convince a panel that the project is ambitious and is exciting, but they must also ensure that risks are managed for each step of the process.

Being both tight-fisted and generous

No matter how ambitious, creating art often comes down to practical nuts and bolts. Budget balancing is an art in itself, and it takes practice, so don’t agonise over it, seek advice from experienced peers! You must allow for enough money to deal with unexpected changes, yet often you have to be economical in your spending so as to make a competitive case.

For me, this process is about imagination and honesty: really project yourself into the future, imagine what could go wrong, what you will need, and don’t cut corners. Being too stingy will heighten the risk of things going wrong and many funders will not take the project seriously. If you can justify larger expenditure and generous fees, then do so – make sure the detail is there to explain how you came up with the figures, and demonstrate that they are realistic. This isn’t just about cash expenditure though, it’s also about time allocated, partners, equipment, materials… It’s an all-rounded approach to project planning.

What’s the framework?

Some funders have clear frameworks in which they require projects to fit – timescales, themes, contexts… Be honest with yourself about the needs of your project, and how it fits within the requirements of the funder. What’s most important is giving yourself the means to make the work as good as you imagine it can be; if there’s too much shape-shifting to do for the project to match the opportunity, perhaps it’s not the right one. On the other hand, don’t limit yourself to the frame provided by the opportunity: it’s not because that amount of money is offered that your project can’t cost more, you can almost always match-fund in order to ensure the means to deliver your ambition.

The secret is in the detail

Sometimes, you need to talk about specifics to show how well you’ve thought through your project and planned for it. Some aspects of the project management that can often get overlooked include access costs for collaborators and audiences, contingency for currency changes if working abroad, changes in touring plans and timescales, and involvement of mentors and advisors throughout the process. All elements involved in making your project happen should be mentioned in your budget, demonstrating that the artistic risks are met with the right resources to deliver your vision.


Remember that decision makers are human too, and they’re looking to support projects that ‘hold the road’, as we say in France, meaning they have a solid enough structure to be carried out. So, make sure the narrative of your application addresses their questions, and you’ll be in a strong place already!

Read “Nailing It – or what makes a strong funding application? Episode 1: Sharing a vision”

 Clara’s final instalment of “Nailing It – or what makes a strong funding application?” will be published next week.