Wishlist: What should ACE do to make applying for Grants for the arts less scary

Claire Symonds, 5 October 2012

I started off this session with a confession; I work for the Arts Council. You may well have had my name pop up in your inbox asking for further information around your Grants for the arts application, or you might have met me at some funding seminar or other where I'm giving a presentation on Grants for the arts. You may even have had a conversation with me about why ACE didn't fund your project. (Sorry about that. No hard feelings.)

I talk to applicants, particularly emerging artists, a lot and I'm often told that applying for funding is scary, hard, difficult and intimidating. This isn't great news for us at ACE. We try to make applying for funding a fairly straightforward and transparent process but there's obviously some room for improvement here. With a restructure looming, we need to be thinking about how we support applicants in new ways, since there won't be enough of us to do it like we used to. Hence the question; what should ACE be doing to make it less scary?

Our conversation fell into three main areas. Firstly, we talked about human interaction. The artists I spoke to - Ashley, Collette, some lovely guys whose names I didn't catch who had to leave straight after the session and various bumblebees - agreed that making an application wasn't easy. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, like begging. Sometimes it feels like you're trying to justify why you're worth investing in. There are things that aren't explained well, like why you can't apply to be reimbursed for work

you've already done or why it takes so long. And, when you don't know if you'll be successful and you just want to make theatre, sometimes it just seems more hassle than it's worth. As one artist put it, it's like you need funding so that you can afford the time to apply for funding.

Still, everyone needs the money, particularly given that being an artist may well be the hardest game in town... so we talked about what might make it easier. Having someone to talk to during applying was agreed as a good thing. This might be through:

seminars helping emerging artists to learn how to talk about their process and development, and how to plan a project, with creative elements to help them link the bureaucracy with something important to them

mentoring programmes where more established artists or organisations support emerging artists through their first few applications

a chat with someone who can help you understand how your project fits in with ACE's priorities

more support once you've got funding, like feedback on your project

We agreed that with fewer staff at ACE, there needs to be other tools to help that don't involve human interaction. There were lots of suggestions for things that could go on the website;

a blueprint for a successful application - like an essay plan

examples of applications

case studies

visual aids for people who don't like reading through lots of text

examples of the kinds of mistakes people make

videos showing how the process works

We also talked about the process itself. The artists talked about how there needs to be a shift in the emphasis from justifying investment to celebrating potential. There were suggestions around possible changes to the process itself including:

quicker decision making period, particularly since emerging artists are often flying by the seat of their pants and taking advantage of sudden opportunities

easier application process

more transparency, with feedback being sent out with your rejection letter if you've not been successful

maybe a two-tier funding stream where emerging artists can apply for less money but get to do an easier application with a quicker decision, and then a more demanding process for people wanting more money

The discussion ended with a couple of key thoughts. Firstly, that you should just try to do it as best you can and live by the consequences (cheers, Ashley), and secondly that ACE need to realise emerging artists are developing their project management skills just as much as they're developing their practice.

I'll be thinking about this a lot over the next few weeks and I'll be sharing these comments with the rest of my team. If you want to get in on the conversation, leave me a comment below...


Arts Council, arts council, Funding, funding, Arts council, Grants for the arts, applying for funding

Comments: 2

Dan Mallaghan, 9 October 2012

I think this is really interesting.
I would certainly agree that an ongoing dialogue with applicants would make the process far easier to navigate. Though I appreciate that an Arts Council officer/advisor cannot ‘write’ a bid for an individual or company it can often be frustrating when the advice given for an area of the application cannot be discussed with specific reference to the actual project - perhaps this could relaxed a little.

Also, I think its so important that detailed feedback can be given with an unsuccessful application (and a successful one for that matter). Though this is a time consumming activity it is essential if applicants are to develop their skills writing applications, not to mention develop their relationship with the Arts Council and dispel that misguided idea of ‘us and them’.

On only one occassion, have I received detailed feedback from an application (and as I understand it - it was done as an exceptional case) and, unsurprisingly my next application was far more successful.

I would add to the points above that I still think there is a divide between the actual cost of a project and what the Arts Council consider a realistic cost (particularly for artists and companies who are new or emerging).

Though it states that the Arts Council want fully costed projects I have never yet had a successful bid that has not in some way had to subsidise itself (not to be confused with rasing matched funding). In the past when I have presented a fully

costed budget its tends to be met with a whistle and raised eyebrows.
It would be interesting to know if this comes from other companies or artists undercutting the value of their own work to better increase their chances of funding - either way it does seem to set the mentality that, first and foremost, you need to be ‘clever’ with the budget and shave the edges off, rather than present an accurate cost.

Claire Symonds, 9 October 2012

Hi Dan,

Thanks very much for this feedback.

You make a really interesting point about whether the challenge around costing up a project is exacerbated by the sector trying to ‘second-guess’ what ACE thinks is a reasonable cost. Whenever I'm giving advice, I stress that it's not helpful to undercut yourself, particularly as the assessment team can generally spot when a project isn't properly resourced. The best thing to do is put together a realistic budget and then explain how you arrived at your figures.

I'd also encourage everyone who makes an application to request a copy of their assessment report after the decision. The assessment report has the full assessment, along with regional comments on the application. It's the best way to see what the assessor thought of your application - super useful as a feedback tool if you've not been successful, particularly as the report will often highlight things that could have strengthened the application, but also useful if you were successful so that you can see what the assessor thought the strengths of the project were.

It's not a big deal to ask for at all - we send these out as a matter of course these days, though we didn't send them out too much before 2010 or so. Perhaps we need to publicise this more as part of the feedback service?

Thanks and keep the comments coming!