Making Big Ideas Happen: Project Grant Application Insights from the Program Directors

04 Oct 2017


Mel Chin, Two Me, 2017, Philadelphia City Hall. Presented as part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Monument Lab. Photo by Steve Weinik.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage invests in ambitious, distinctive projects that showcase the Philadelphia region’s cultural vitality and enhance public life. As the Center has opened the cycle for 2018 grants (letters of intent are due on November 15; >>learn more here), we asked Bill Adair, Director of Exhibitions & Public Interpretation, and Bill Bissell, Director of Performance, to share insights into the Center’s grant-making process and discuss key elements of the grant application, including new questions about community-based work.

Let’s start with the Center’s application process. In 2017, the Center awarded 39 Project grants—10 to first-time grant recipients. What are some of the elements of our process that address expanding the pool of applicants and identifying urgent and substantive project ideas?

BILL BISSELL: First and foremost, the Center charges its peer review panels to fund projects that are programmatically urgent and compelling in their creativity, and designed to be experienced by multiple audiences. There are no fixed rules for how to make a successful application; we can only point to the kind of ingredients that address the Center’s funding goals. The emphasis is really on the underlying project idea, regardless of the discipline, and past grant cycles have demonstrated a wide range of projects that include local, national, and international perspectives and collaborators. 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 a variety of disciplines about not only what they’re doing, but what else is going on here in Greater Philadelphia, in our community, and also outside of the 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. We are always on the lookout for exceptional work driven by ideas. We regularly invite cultural practitioners to the Center to participate in our capacity-building programs, and to have conversations with our constituents—even if they’re not necessarily ready for a Project grant discussion immediately. We often start by talking about where they are as an organization or as an individual practitioner, and offer 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 programmatic urgency, 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 what is at stake in a proposed project?

BB: This year, we are emphasizing the need for each applicant—in both Performance and Exhibitions & Public Interpretation—to outline the ideas animating their project and to highlight the purpose of the work and its programmatic 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; rather, it may derive from personal or organizational urgency that aligns with programmatic ambition. For example, perhaps you’ve always worked collectively as a curator, and it’s a critical time in your practice to explore working independently.

We continue to see a number of community-engaged projects from our constituents. These include artists embedding themselves in a community during a residency, or engaging specific communities in the design of an exhibition or performance work. This year’s guidelines include some new questions about community-based work. Can you explain the thinking behind these questions and how they relate to what we’ve observed in the field of social practice?

BA: In the last few years, we’ve seen more and more work that is community or socially engaged across all disciplines. As with any other cultural practice, some of these projects are more thoughtful and more effective than others. We now ask applicants questions about the process of relationship-building in advance of any project. For example, what evidence do you have that this community wants this project? We also want to know how the applicant has considered the ethical implications of the project, given that the well-being of the community and its residents is at stake. We’re concerned about the applicant’s ongoing commitment to this community beyond the bounds of the project at hand.

The Center strongly encourages applicants to identify “thinking partners” as they develop their project teams. In fact, the 2018 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 examined 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 in fresh ways.

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. A thinking partner can act as a sounding board, thinking about how the work is made and what the audience might experience. We continually ask our constituents and 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 beneficial way, and working with a thinking partner is one way this can happen. Center program staff are always happy to work with applicants to identify potential thinking partners who can serve this role, though, of course, applicants are welcome to suggest their own new interlocutors.

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 and how you use that idea to thoughtfully take risks in your practice. So you’re conceiving of the project as a thoughtful whole—thinking about the various audiences for the project, how you’re going to reach them, how perspectives 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 throughout that process and to break it down manageably. It’s also important to remember that 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 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.

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, although our panelists have deep areas of expertise. Rather, 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 is reviewing the applications.

BA: We look for knowledge of and experience with current practice, and an understanding of what it might mean for applicants to move forward. We ask for a great openness to new approaches and ideas, combined with both rigor and a generosity of spirit that allows the panelists to be empathetic to an understanding of the missions and histories of the applicants they review, while also upholding the Center’s criteria for funding.


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 “FAQs on Applying for a 2018 Project Grant: What You Need to Know.”