Inside the Center's Application Process: A Conversation With the Program Directors

13 Oct 2015


Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge Neighborhood Convening, June 29, 2015. 632 Jackson Street. Photo by Steve Weinik. Courtesy of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

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 2016 grants (letters of intent are due on November 18; >>learn more here), we sat down with Bill Bissell, Director of Performance, and Bill Adair, Director of Exhibitions & Public Interpretation, to discuss the importance of those ongoing conversations with the region's culture-makers, how Center staff support the Project grant applications process, and what makes an application successful.

Let's start with the Center's application process. What are some of the elements of our process that ensure we continually expand the pool of applicants and identify bold, forward-thinking, rigorous project ideas?

BILL BISSELL: First and foremost, we're interested in the best possible projects that reach a variety of audiences. The emphasis is really on the underlying project idea, regardless of the artistic discipline. And we're interested in 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 applications cycles. 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. That's certainly one way to spark ideas that keep our grantee pool expanding and evolving.

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.

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're in many ways a hands-on funder. 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 our criteria and what an organization or individual is trying to do. We ask tough but important 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. How is this project advancing the applicant's work, and how does it also contribute to the field or engage with ideas in a way that reveals its urgency and its importance?

BA: Through our conversations with applicants, we try to provide, in some ways, an objective look into their work product and process. We 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 in a really effective and useful way. Of course, that has to work for them and for their audiences.

BB: 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 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 changed, 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 is calibrated to each project, to some degree, taking into account the content and scope of each project and the practice of the applicant.

What are some key factors that make an application successful?

BB: I think applicants need to be prepared to make the argument about what the big ideas of a project are. 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?

BA: I think that most of our successful projects have a spirit of investigation and exploration about them, an openness to change, and a willingness to try something that hasn't been done before. And that is accompanied by a rigorous approach to planning, analysis, and reporting on what the results of the exploration are, and then an honest conception of how that's going to impact a grantee's practice.

BB: But that doesn't preclude that experimentation or investigation from using new methodologies with old, traditional forms, lineages, or practices.

BA: That's right. It doesn't mean privileging the avant-garde, or a certain kind of art or art making. It does mean privileging a willingness to be open to thinking about things in a new way, or thinking about things in a way that would be possibly more effective, or more productive, or reach new audiences, or something that you could learn from in a way that you haven't been able to do before.

BB: It's revealing the continuing relevance of whatever the work is, too. If it is a symphony, or a classical 18th-Century piece of music, it's about getting under a fresh way of experiencing that.

BA: Right, what does that mean in 2015-2016? What is the impact of an aspect of history, or a piece of art, or some kind of cultural product that was created from the past—and what are its implications for the present and the future?

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 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, an ability to sense where practice is now and where it's been, 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.

What perspectives do panelists coming from other parts of the country offer to the applications review process?

BB: It certainly brings a larger and more eclectic field of vision to the table, in terms of reference. It also holds up our projects to a national or international standard. At the same time, most of our panelists are, or have been, practitioners themselves, and so they understand the struggles and issues that cultural producers face—no matter where in the world their work is based.

BA: I would add that there are different sensibilities and different kinds of practice that go along with various geographic spaces, nationally and internationally. By having voices from the West Coast or the Midwest or the South in the mix, we get a perspective beyond the kind of aesthetic and conceptual biases this region, or even the Northeast or East Coast, might have. So we gain the different sensibilities and aesthetics that come from that diversity of geographic spaces.

What have you observed as meaningful impact for grantees receiving a Center grant?

BA: Some of the best impact I've seen is that an organization or an individual is less afraid of going forward with a new kind of practice, or working in a new way than they were before they started the project. They're more open, more nimble, and more fluid in how they work. That includes how they think about their audiences as well. That's built into our value system and built into our criteria, and our most successful projects, I think, result in at least some attitudinal shift on the part of our grantees.

BB: I think the Center's support can allow a grantee to take the lid off of their ideas of what's possible, and let that go in any direction it needs to go. That's certainly often where we start in our conversations with applicants who meet with us: let's not be constrained. At first, let's just think big. And big doesn't necessarily mean large scale; it means looking at how deep we can go in the ideation of these projects.

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 2016 Project Grant: What You Need to Know."