Making Ideas Happen: Program Directors on What Lies at the Heart of a Strong Center Grant Application

06 Jan 2020

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Bowerbird, Sound Machines: Kagel's Zwei Mann Orchester, 2018. Pictured: Ashley Tini. Photo by Bob Sweeney.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage invests in ambitious, distinctive projects that enhance public life and showcase the cultural vitality of the Philadelphia region. As the Center opens the 2020 grants cycle (>>learn more here), we asked Bill Bissell, director of Performance, and Bill Adair, director of Exhibitions & Public Interpretation, to share some insights into the Center’s grant-making process.

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

Bill Bissell: Our strategy starts with encouraging applicants to come to us with a range of project ideas. If multiple potential projects are on the table, we can step back, look at them together, and talk about the themes and deep explorations that suggest themselves.

We encourage ambition in all cases, and that can mean work of a certain scale and complexity. But projects don’t need to be large-scale to be appropriate for a grant from us. Small jewels are also welcome here. Any process and approach should be calibrated appropriately to the project.

Bill Adair: Yes, our strategy is to start with the underlying project idea and the point of view in relation to that thesis. The Center is interested in how you use that idea to go beyond business as usual to expand the possibilities for your practice and to think about exploring meaning through the project. We want you to engage the best possible artists and other creative collaborators. We want you to consider the various audiences for the work and how you’re going to reach them. How might audience perspectives be enlarged because of the work you are undertaking? How will you then evaluate the effectiveness of your process and your project outcomes?

Bissell: We’re well aware of how much information we ask for in our applications. Our grantmaking process is rigorous. But staff here are available to help you throughout the process. We want your application to be competitive. The panels that decide who is funded are made up of arts and culture professionals from outside of our region, and we want to help our applicants present their best case to them.

In past grant cycles, we’ve supported a wide range of projects that have included local, national, and international perspectives and collaborators. We believe that such diversity of work contributes to the vital cultural life in our region.

The Center asks all potential grant applicants first to call and later to meet with staff during the Letter of Intent and application process. Can you talk about that process?

Adair: We have many touchpoints with our applicants. We’re engaged from their conceptualizing of a project to the production of their application, then through the evolution and fruition of the project to the analysis and evaluation of how it went. At every step, we ask tough and probing questions. These questions help nurture strong matches between the Center’s criteria and goals and the goals of the applicant organizations and artists. We hope the rigor of our process will help you to produce your best work.

Bissell: Our process is iterative. We want to understand what you’re after, and we hope you will turn ideas over to see them with fresh eyes. We want to foster both dialogue around ideas and invention within practice. When we ask questions, we’re searching for clarity that we hope will translate to audiences.

One of the Center’s goals is to “support substantive projects that grow out of mission, demonstrate 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 what’s at stake in a proposed project?

Adair: Initially, we ask applicants to drill down and distill their core idea in 75 words. What is it you’re really trying to get at with your project? Why this project? Why now? Who are the major creative practitioners on your team? Why are these the right people for your project?

Bissell: When we meet with you, we ask questions like, “Why does this work matter? Who does this work matter to?” and “What distance is being traveled here, artistically or programmatically? How are you arriving someplace different from where you began?”

We encourage applicants to get clear about the ways that their proposed projects have conceptual rigor and how they’re approaching ideas creatively. Our goals at the Center include supporting collaborations with new partners and deepening meaningful engagement for audiences.

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WXPN, Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul, The Dixie Hummingbirds in concert, World Café Live, 2018. Photo by Ellen C. Miller.

What steps do Center staff members take to tease out substantive project ideas? What kinds of projects are competitive?

Bissell: There are no fixed rules for how to make a successful application. When applicants speak with us, we try to identify the kinds of ingredients that address the Center’s criteria and funding goals, while aligning with the applicant organization’s mission. The emphasis is really on the cogency of the underlying project idea, regardless of its discipline.

We might ask, “Why do you think this is the right format to explore the idea that’s driving this project?” Maybe a multidisciplinary approach would serve the idea—or maybe not. We welcome proposals that focus on a single discipline, too. We also want to understand why key creative collaborators have been chosen, as has been noted elsewhere too.

Adair: We’re always on the lookout for exceptional work driven by substantive ideas. We often start by talking about the programmatic goals that organizations are working toward in order to effectively realize their missions. These discussions can take place throughout the year, not just around an application deadline.

The Center strongly encourages applicants to identify “thinking partners” as they develop their project teams. How would you define the role of a thinking partner?

Bissell: We encourage organizations to bring new thinkers into their processes to ask questions at pivotal times. Ideally, these thinking partners help constituents to challenge assumptions and patterns.

Adair: A thinking partner should provide a perspective outside of your usual frame of reference. Sometimes we suggest that your thinking partner come from an entirely different field of practice. They can act as a sounding board, look at how the work is made, and anticipate what the audience might experience. Center program staff are always happy to help identify potential thinking partners, though applicants are welcome to suggest their own.

As we say again and again, we want our grants to help people move beyond their usual assumptions. Working with a thinking partner is one way shifts can happen. If you could invite anyone in the world to respond to your work at key moments, who would that be? Dare to make your thinking partner part of your dream team.

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Swarthmore College, Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary exhibition at Philadelphia City Hall, 2019. Photo by Ricky Yanas.

We see a lot of community-engaged projects in our application pool. Sometimes these projects involve artists embedding themselves in a community. In some cases, specific communities help to design an exhibition or performance work. The Center’s funding applications include questions about community-based work. Can you explain how these questions relate to what we’ve observed in the broader field of social practice?

Adair: Yes, across all disciplines, we see more and more work that is socially engaged. Some of these community-engaged projects are more effectively conceived and planned than others. To encourage due thoughtfulness, we ask our applicants how they plan to build relationships before the project even starts. For example, “What evidence do you have that this community is open to and interested in the project?” Sometimes they’re not!

We also want to know how the applicant has considered any ethical implications of the project. Being attentive to the well-being of the community and its residents is really important. We’re concerned about the applicant’s ongoing commitment to this community, beyond the bounds of the project.

You’ve mentioned that the Center’s grants are adjudicated by a panel of peers in the field. What do you look for when selecting panelists?

Bissell: Center staff members don’t choose the grantees. Instead, we look for experienced professionals from outside the region, to mitigate against conflicts of interest. We look for people working in a range of artistic and cultural practices who have a wide bandwidth. For the Performance panel, we choose professionals who are able to appreciate performance from a number of perspectives. We want them to have enough awareness of the field to be able to discern the quality and level of the ideas and artists animating the projects. To be sure that we have appropriate expertise on the panel, we also consider who is applying when we recruit our panelists. If a specialist in a particular area is needed, we find one.

Adair: Panelists come from a variety of relevant fields. We look for knowledge of and experience with current practice. We seek people who understand what it might mean for specific applicants to move forward. We need panelists to be empathetic and to understand the specific missions and histories of the applicants, while simultaneously holding them to a high standard of practice. We ask for an openness to new approaches and ideas, combined with critical rigor and generosity of spirit. And every year, we charge our panels to uphold the Center’s criteria for funding, which are published in our Guidelines.

See a full list of the Center’s grants and grantees here.

To learn more about applying for a 2020 Center grant, visit our Apply page and read Applying for a 2020 Pew Center Grant: What You Need to Know.