Applying for any competitive opportunity is hard and, however small the form, takes time and energy. Just before the end of 2020, we asked Alistair Gentry, our outgoing trainee and member of the panel for our emerging artists award strand, to pick up on some common areas where many applications could be improved.
The emerging artists award round had 208 applications, of which just 23 made the shortlist. There were many brilliant ideas, excellent work, compelling projects in the mix that didn’t make it through in this highly competitive process. But what about at the other end of the spectrum? What were the six things that made some applications miss out – the most common areas where people could make improvements?
1. Supporting material is vital. Even more established artists can’t assume that anybody on the decision-making panel knows their work. Show examples of your best work that are relevant to the application. If your previous work isn’t documented very well, or at all, send a good quality sketch of what you’re planning, a mood board, a technical drawing, a short video or audio of you talking about your work as an artist – anything that helps somebody who doesn’t know you or your work to understand what you want to do and how you will do it. (And remember that text descriptions of images or videos are not only useful for some disabled people, they also give you even more opportunity to contextualise and explain your work.)
2. Curate your application. Don’t attach things or write things that aren’t relevant just to fill the space, and don’t send too much material, either. Mark out a section of a video or sound file (or even better, edit it down), extract a few pages from a script showing your best writing, pick the outstanding images from your portfolio, and so on. Assessors will have dozens – often hundreds – of applications to look at, so make sure you stand out with the best parts of your best work. Don’t expect anyone to go digging for them or assume that what’s obvious to you is obvious to everyone. If you aren’t sure what to include or not, find a peer and get someone else’s view. It’s often highly illuminating.
3. Be clear. A pitch for a commission or funding is a story that needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your work (and your mind!) can be abstract, experimental, or as non-linear as you like but your proposal to get your project funded still needs a clear narrative explaining exactly what you want to do, why you want to do it now, how you will go about making it happen, and what people will experience when they interact with your work. Try and avoid jargon or complex language that can alienate some panellists – state your idea, your process, and your aims clearly.
4. Do your research. Wherever you’re applying, look at what the funder already commissions or funds and pay attention to what they don’t. Conducting research and interviews, participation, engaging with particular communities, and non-product-orientated R&D are very important to many 21st century artists’ practices but some funders need to see how these processes can lead to something that is shareable and valuable beyond their own existence or your personal desire to carry them out. It’s not that the idea is wrong or shouldn’t be funded – it’s just that it might not be a good fit for a specific fund or award.
5. Do it early. It can be difficult to know any application is as good as it can be and push the button saying ‘submit,’ but don’t ever leave your application until the last day, hour, or minute before the deadline closes. Getting it submitted in a timely manner shows that you have the ability to deliver work according to plan and on time, which is one of the things you’re trying to prove with your whole application, shows that you understand and respect the time and capacity of the people you’re applying to and would be working with and means that you are not subjecting yourself to the unnecessary stress of knowing a deadline is imminent. Nobody does their best thinking when they are flustered and up against the clock. The places you apply to want the best applications as well! Timely applications mean they can advise and help you if you’re struggling or make a mistake- it’s very difficult if not impossible for any funder to help you to if you leave it too late.
6. Use any access support if you need it and it is on offer. More and more funders are budgeting for this to remove some of the barriers inherent in application processes. Unlimited spent over £8000 on access support for those applying at Expression of Interest stage. Check the guidance or ask the funder, find out what’s available and use it. Yes, you need to plan to do this, but that’s also why many funders have long timelines for application processes.
There were other things that didn’t quite make the top six – including making sure your project fits the timescale for the fund, naming partners and collaborators if you know them already (and being clear if you don’t), and double-checking you hit all the criteria needed.
And perhaps the last piece of advice is about understanding the nature of the opportunity and preparing for both a yes or a no. Rightly or wrongly, many opportunities are competitive. The advantage of this is that it stops a small number of artists being repeatedly used for the same opportunities and opens up opportunities to anyone who applies. The downside is that for everyone who gets any award or who makes it into any kind of shortlist, there are often many more who don’t. Most funders publicise the numbers of those who apply and those who get funded so you can get a sense of just how competitive a fund is. Unlimited made sure to let people know that in previous years only 25% of those applying made it to the shortlist. However, in 2020, the number of applications to Unlimited increased by 70% meaning only 16% of applications made it to the shortlist. That’s a massive number – 392 to be exact – who didn’t get through. Given the current context, when you apply to any opportunity, it’s worth thinking through how you might handle both a yes and a no.