Inside the Center's 2017 Project Application Process: A Conversation with the Program Directors

04 Oct 2016


Verdi’s La Traviata presented by Opera Philadelphia, 2016 Advancement grant recipient. Photo by Kelly & Massa, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage invests in ambitious, imaginative projects that showcase the region's cultural vitality and enhance public life. We know that great art begins with artists, and forward-thinking work across disciplines evolves from ongoing dialogue within the cultural community; and so the Center's grant-making process starts well before a letter of intent or application is submitted.

As the Center has opened the cycle for 2017 grants (letters of intent are due on November 16; >>learn more here), we sat down with Bill Adair, Director of Exhibitions & Public Interpretation, and Bill Bissell, Director of Performance, to discuss the importance of those ongoing conversations with the region's cultural practitioners, the role of "thinking partners," and how Center staff supports the Project grant applications process.

Let's start with the Center's application process. In 2016, the Center awarded 36 Project grants—11 to first-time grant recipients. What are some of the elements of our process that address expanding the pool of applicants and identifying urgent, ambitious, and substantive project ideas?

BILL BISSELL: First and foremost, the Center wants the peer review panels to fund projects that are the most compelling and that reach a variety of audiences. The emphasis is really on the underlying project idea, regardless of the artistic discipline, and past cycles have demonstrated a wide range of projects that include local, national, and international perspectives and artists. We believe that diversity of work contributes to a vital cultural life in our region.

One of the ways we encourage that range of project ideas, organizations, and artists is by engaging in conversations throughout the year, not just during the application cycle. We talk with constituents in the field in a variety of disciplines about not only what they're doing, but what else is going on here in the city, in our community, and also outside of the Philadelphia area—what they're seeing, what we're seeing, what we're reading.

BILL ADAIR: We also rely on our network of existing constituents—grantees and former grantees—to get the word out about the resources that are available through the Center, and that's another way we build upon our network every year. But everyone on the staff at the Center is always on the lookout for exceptional work, always on the lookout for interesting and talented people to talk to. We invite cultural practitioners in to the Center to participate in our capacity-building programs, and to have conversations—even if they're not necessarily ready for a Project grant discussion immediately. We might start by talking about where they are as an organization, or where they are as an individual artist, and offering them a kind of open dialogue on how we might work with them to foster future interactions with us, and to keep the discussions going throughout the year.

One of the Center's stated grant making goals is to "support substantive projects that grow out of mission, demonstrate urgency, programmatic ambition, and conceptual rigor for the applicant, and represent a thoughtful development of an existing line of work or a heretofore unexplored direction." How are applicants asked to articulate their project's urgency, ambition, and rigor?

BB: Applicants need to be prepared to make the argument about what the curatorial premise of a project is. What are the animating values that really mark out a particular territory of work? And how is that consciously understood on the part of the applicant as a measure of their work and practice? This year, we are emphasizing the need for each applicant—in both Performance and Exhibitions & Public Interpretation—to describe a project's "curatorial thesis." This thesis should speak to the artistic purpose of the work and its urgency, rather than offering a merely operational description of the project.

BA: We ask applicants to drill down on their core idea: What is it that you're really trying to get at with your project? Why is this project imperative for you, and why now? When we speak of "urgency," it doesn't necessarily have to be tied to an urgent contemporary issue, but it can be a personal or organizational urgency. Perhaps you've always worked collectively as a curator, and it's a critical time in your practice to explore working independently, for example.

The Center strongly encourages applicants to identify "thinking partners" as they develop their project teams. In fact, the 2017 Project grant guidelines require individual applicants to name a thinking partner in their proposals. How would you define the role of these partners?

BB: We encourage individuals and organizations to bring new thinkers into their processes to elicit a constructively critical viewpoint—to ask how artistic or cultural assumptions will be interrogated in order to advance the applicant's work. Working with someone who offers more than the expected responses can open up the way you approach and value your practice.

BA: Yes, a thinking partner should provide a perspective outside of your usual frame of reference and may be coming from an entirely different field of practice. He or she can act as a sounding board as you're developing your ideas and question your thinking about how the work is made, or what the audience might experience. We continually ask our constituents and our grantees to consider if there's another way—beyond their usual assumptions—to approach the work that actually might push things forward programmatically in an effective and useful way, and working with a thinking partner is one way this can happen. Center program staff can work with applicants to identify potential thinking partners who can serve this role, or applicants can suggest their own new interlocutors.

The Center encourages all potential grant applicants to meet with Center staff during the Letter of Intent and application process. Can you talk about that process and the Center staff's role?

BA: We have many touchpoints with our applicants: from their conceptualizing a project, to the creation of their application, to the fruition of their project, and even to its concluding analysis and evaluation. We interact with our constituents through every step of that process, and that allows us to be good stewards of our resources, and to help nurture the best possible match between the Center's criteria and what an organization or individual is trying to do. We ask tough but relevant questions, and we hope that our feedback and rigorous process enable the best possible work to be created and produced here in the region.

BB: It's very iterative. Our process is purposely engaged with asking questions, and the questions are searching for clarity—for us in understanding what the applicant is after, but also for the applicant to turn over their ideas and see them with fresh eyes. I think the process speaks to values the Center has for engaging with ideas in ways that extend the practice of our constituents. It characterizes us as a funder in the sense that we are dialogic. We want to foster dialogue and invention around the ideas and the issues of practice that each applicant comes to us with.

What should applicants know about the Center's approach and strategy as a multidisciplinary grantmaker?

BB: Our strategy starts with inviting applicants to come with an open mind about one or, we hope, multiple ideas they may have, so that we can look at them together and get to a place of dialogue about the ideas that are in play in their proposed projects. With the applicant, we want to look at how those ideas can be fully realized or optimized in a way that results in a distinctive approach to the work.

BA: I absolutely agree with Bill that it starts with the idea. It's all about a really interesting idea, and then it's about how you use that idea to thoughtfully, and in an informed way, take risks in your practice, and carry that approach all the way through to the completion of the project. So you're conceiving of the project as a thoughtful whole—thinking about the audiences for the project, how you're going to reach them, how attitudes might be enlarged, how you're going to make meaning through the project, and how you're going to evaluate its effectiveness—right from the start. Our Project grants allow an organization or an individual to do something they would not be able to do otherwise, and we ask them to follow through with due consideration on every aspect of that pursuit.

BB: We're aware of how much information we ask for in our applications, and it is rigorous. But we're available to help through that process and to break it down manageably. And also, the process and approach are calibrated to each project, to some degree, taking into account the content and scope of each project and the practice of the applicant.

The Center's Project and Discovery grants are adjudicated by a peer review panel. What do you look for when selecting cultural professionals to serve on a panel?

BB: Because we look at our Performance panels very much across disciplines, one of the things we look for are people who have a wide bandwidth in terms of being able to appreciate performance from a number of perspectives. It isn't about genre specificity; it's about being able to look knowledgeably at performance across the board and discern the quality and the level of ideas at work animating the project. The panels are also made to reflect the specifics of a particular pool of applicants—who is applying always factors into who's reviewing the applications.

BA: We look for knowledge of and experience with current practice, and an understanding of what it might mean for it to move forward. We ask for a great openness to new approaches and ideas, and a generosity of spirit that allows the panelists to be empathetic to and understanding of the missions and histories of the applicants they review.

View the Center's list of grants and grantees here.To learn more about applying for a Center grant, visit our Apply page and read "Applying for a 2017 Project Grant: What You Need to Know."